writing: May 2005 Archives

Fish in a Barrel

| | Comments (1)

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...


| | Comments (1)

Derek made the eminently reasonable suggestion that I give myself one or two "hiatus coupons," redeemable for those moments when I can't not blog. I've come close to redeeming them over the past week, but managed to restrain myself.

Anyhow, one of my aims in taking the hiatus was to put in some serious writing time (and I mean serious time for writing rather than time for serious writing. Heh.). Among my goals for this time was a draft of an essay that I'd like to send out to CCC sometime in the near future, and that draft is now complete-ish, awaiting feedback from eyes more critical than mine are at the moment. The piece is called "A Book of Stars: Slicing, Scaling, and Data Mining Our Discipline," and for the moment, I've posted a pdf version of it for anyone who'd like to feed me back on it.

I post it here mostly because it takes up issues, about the CCCC specifically, that I've raised in this space on occasion. It also partakes of a 2002 CCCC presentation I did on the way that we use the program as a map of the field (and mistakenly so, imho). There's some social software goodness in there as well, and a quick read of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink lined up with Kenneth Burke's famous reflection/selection/deflection. Coincidentally, that's the presentation I'll be giving at Penn State in a couple of months.

Okay, now I'm just babbling. I'd have to check, but I'm pretty sure that the coupon doesn't include that as one of the permissible activities.

Update: There are some parallels in my argument and the stuff that Clay Shirky's talking about in "Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags". It may be worth my time to make that parallel a little more explicit.

I'm sure that someone's already thought of this, but I'm feeling too dead lazy to google it, so instead, allow me to take credit for my new word: treyincidence. A treyincidence is basically a coincidence of three things instead of two. Although, really, "co" just means together, so technically you could have a coincidence of three things as easily as two. Anyways.

I was at Borders this weekend, the proud owner of a highly date-specific 30%-off coupon, and so I went over to the Psychology section to see if Steven Johnson's new book was out (it wasn't--May 5). I'm a sucker like that: instead of taking the 30% off of something that I would have bought anyway, I'll look around for something expensive, so that my coupon brings it down just to the place where I'll feel okay about buying it. I'm exactly the right person to give this coupon to, in other words.

Anyhow, I came across Daniel Pink's Whole New Mind, and was sorely tempted until I remembered that this is the kind of sucker I'm not: I do try to be realistic about buying hardcover books when I know that I'm only somewhat likely to read them before the softcover comes out at less than half the price.

Okay, that was a lie. I still do that sometimes.

I've seen Pink's book mentioned in spots lately, and he's also the guy who wrote the NYT article to which Jon Udell referred briefly in his piece on screencasting (although that didn't occur to me at the time). That was one incident.

The second was reading Alex's smart, smart post in reply to the screencasting discussion. In part, Alex suggests a writing curriculum that mixes composition, professional writing, creative writing, and new media. The result?

The result, ideally, of such a curriculum is a student who is a confident, practiced writer; who understands his/her creative process; who has developed a productive writing practice for him/herself; who has composed and performed work in multiple "creative writing" genres; who has internalized some sense of rhetorical and poetic theory (to really get into it would require further graduate study); who has experience writing in workplace genres and bringing a more creative, "right brain" attitude to them; and has a strong foundation in working with new media.

I'd planned on linking to this originally, but as I was frittering away my time yesterday, I came across my third incident/encounter with Mr. Pink, over at Kathy Sierra's site, in an entry where she contrasts the US and Japan in terms of their design (in)sensibilities. Her read on what Pink has to say?

Really, we're all designers -- at least with a lowercase "d". We're all trying to create solutions. But we should all--ALL OF US--be adding design to the list of "must learn" topics for this year.


We should all start thinking like designers.

The last time I taught our Professional Writing course here at Syracuse, I focused it around design, but it was a pretty modest course for all that. As I went back and re-read Alex's post, though, my ideas got wide. I'm thinking that, instead of trying to figure out how to negotiate a writing program amongst the traditional units in an English department, why not turn to design programs for our models?

That's the move that Stuart Moulthrop, Nancy Kaplan, and others made some time ago at the University of Baltimore, where the English dept falls under the umbrella of a School of Communications Design. And I think of the productive thinking that, for me, has been spurred by work like Kaufer and Butler's Rhetoric and the Arts of Design or Herbert Simon's Sciences of the Artificial. Honestly, what's to keep us from drawing on the curricula in graphic design, architecture, and/or art for a Bachelor of Design Arts in Writing? Or splitting the difference between an MBA and an MFA with an MDA?

I was going to end the post there, but that'd make it too easy for my first comment to be: "What's to keep us? Duh, Collin. You teach at a university, remember?" Yeah yeah. But I'm keeping the word treyincidence, and using it in a sentence daily. So there.



Powered by Movable Type 4.1

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the writing category from May 2005.

writing: March 2005 is the previous archive.

writing: June 2005 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.