Fish in a Barrel

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Must be something in the water. It's bad enough that I have to listen to the lame defenses offered by the College Board for its new writing exam, which appears to evaluate little more than a student's ability to generate context-free verbiage. But today, for whatever reason, I was treated to a couple of additional essays that cloud any sort of dialogue that we might have about writing.

Exhibit A is Stanley Fish's offering in today's NYT, "Devoid of Content." Fish offers us his definitive answer to the crisis, oft-repeated and rarely proven, of the clear sentence. "Most" of the millions of students graduating from high school and college, Fish explains, are "utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence." Okay, that's a load of crap, but probably not worth the effort that would be required to falsify the claim.

This crisis is exacerbated, according to Fish, because

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow.

This is an astoundingly craptacular claim. Even if Fish were much more of a micromanager than he claimed to be in his various tenures at Chicago, Duke, and Hopkins, I doubt that he could speak with any veracity about (a) what "most composition courses" at his own institution did, or (b) the "theory" behind what they did. As an assistant professor in a writing program who spent 2 years chairing the committee that directly supervised the first-year writing curriculum, I would never presume to characterize "most" of the composition courses in my own department, much less those serving "millions" of students, at institutions far more diverse than those for which Fish has done the majority of his teaching. And the "theory" that Fish cites should sound familiar, because it is the idea against which the contemporary development of composition and rhetoric has emerged. Substitute "literature" for "big ideas" (or don't), and you have the "theory" of composition that "developed" in English departments (i.e., literature professors) for much of the 20th century, at least until composition and rhetoric began to define itself in opposition to literature. Are there such courses, where a focus on content supercedes the teaching of writing? Undoubtedly so. But it's easier to slop them all together and dismiss them (without any sort of evidence, of course), because this is an article meant to enlighten all of us poor souls who have actually studied, thought about, practiced, theorized, and care about the teaching of writing.

Fish's solution is formal: "over the semester the students come to understand a single proposition: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships."

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students.

I will admit that I would have loved to take this course, and I can imagine plenty of other students who might have the same reaction. It's an intriguing idea, and one that undoubtedly challenges and educates. And most of the rest of the article is engaged in explicating it, punctuated with subtle self-praise. Fish closes with an implied claim about what his course accomplishes:

{In a content-focused course,] They will certainly not be learning anything about how language works; and without a knowledge of how language works they will be unable either to spot the formal breakdown of someone else's language or to prevent the formal breakdown of their own.

The only model for a writing course with content that Fish seems capable of imagining is one where "once ideas or themes are allowed in, the focus is shifted from the forms that make the organization of content possible to this or that piece of content," but last time I checked, the "focus" is one of the things that we might label a pedagogical responsibility. Again, are there classes where content does become the focus? Of course there are. But it's colossally insulting to every one of us who teaches writing to imply that we're incapable of teaching form in the context of actual writing. And it's absurd to imagine that Fish's is the only way to learn about form.

I'll close my little hissy fit here by noting that I don't doubt that Fish's students leave his class fully capable of crafting logically coherent sentences. And I don't doubt that some of them, and perhaps all of them, are capable of combining those sentences into paragraphs and/or essays that effectively communicate ideas and target particular audiences. But I can tell you that they don't learn the latter in his class. Writing is necessarily the blending of form and content in a particular context. It is certainly possible to examine language in the absence of particular content or context; such an examination has little to do with the skills and abilities that a writing course should be encouraging, however.

Fish's own clear and coherent sentences serve, among other purposes, a couple of "straw" arguments and at least one false binary. Hey, they're good sentences, though.

Exhibit A wasn't supposed to take so long. Let me get some other work done, and Exhibit B will follow...


So most of this was way over my head (thus making my college degree seem more and more insignificant), but I have to ask a question... The summary thought I took from this was that Fish is stating that the content of a sentence is less important than the words/language used to convey that content?

I have a minor in English and in no writing class I ever took was the verbage I used more important than what I was saying. Isn't the point of writing to convey a point?

Again, I was trying to understand this, but you are way too smart Professor Brooke!

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on May 31, 2005 8:44 PM.

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