Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When it isn't Douthat, it's Fish

Besides my favorite uninformed quasi-reporter Ross Douthat, the New York Times offers some space on its pages to Stanley Fish, a quasi-literary critic. Yesterday, he regaled us with one of his conservative outpourings on the nature of higher education.

His article "What Should Colleges Teach?" starts with a sentiment I actually share. Fish talks about how rare it is to see a college student (and I might add, even a professor) write a coherent sentence bereft of grammar errors and syntactic monstrosities. If only Fish could stop there! But no, he proceeds to analyze the reasons for this problem. In Fish's opinion, the main cause of this verbal impotence is that composition courses include discussions of ideological issues. Fish believes that "all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else."

The problem with this suggestion is that it is absolutely impracticable. I have had an opportunity to teach two such courses and in my experience, you need to a) suggest a topic that might interest the students enough for them to want to write a good piece about it; b) teach them how to create a convincing line of reasoning; c) show them the rhetorical means of supporting the argument; d) demonstrate how to put the product of their thinking in writing. Of course, we could teach our students the rules of writing by making them write only about the weather. However, you can't (or at least I can't) maintain their level of passion for this exciting topic until the end of the semester.

I strongly believe that the best writing is produced by people who are passionate about its content. When you are forced to write about a subject that bores you and that is irrelevant to your life, the writing will reflect your lack of interest. Bringing controversial topics into the classroom motivates the students to want to think, argue, and ultimately put their ideas down in writing.

Teaching students to write well is extremely important. If, however, they have no content to fill the beautiful form we will teach them to create, then we have failed as educators.


Anonymous said...

I agree to a large extent with Fish. The problem is that writing on ideological issues is ultimately pointless if students don't know how to express themselves first. From what I understand, his idea is about getting students to appreciate the process of writing itself, its grammar and rhetorical subtleties, and through this appreciation learn how to write and express themselves.

Language itself is the content and by getting students passionate about it, writing would improve. And once students know how to wield language correctly, only then would it make sense to introduce issues passionate to students.

Clarissa said...

"appreciate the process of writing itself"

-But you have to write about something, don't you? You still need a topic. What topics would you suggest for this purpose? That are non-ideological but still motivate the students?

NancyP said...

I disagree with anon and agree with C. I don't agree that it is necessary to make every student write about Hot Issue "A", but I do believe that students will pay more attention to the assignment if they have some interest in the topic of their essay. My freshman comp. professor assigned formats and functions, not topics, for the writing assignments. One of my freshman comp. essays was a summary of one of Darwin's more obscure monographs (on plant movement). I had been visiting the campus greenhouse, and had touched the "sensitive plant" to watch it fold. Tough luck on the comp. professor who may be reading essays on politics, plants, and PCs - but that's the job.

"In Real Life", people write in order to share impressions, to persuade, to amuse, to instruct, to play with the language itself, and to exert social dominance or submission. The worst lesson one can learn during freshman comp. is that writing is a tedious skill of limited application.

Clarissa said...

"Tough luck on the comp. professor who may be reading essays on politics, plants, and PCs - but that's the job. "

-Exactly! For the final essay, I always let them write about whatever makes them feel most passionate. Sometimes their topics are of very little interest to me initially, but the students' interest for these topics is infectious.