Monday, November 28, 2011

Fishing for Answers: Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time

About a week ago, I picked up Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time. A colleague mentioned it during a conversation at faculty orientation, and I was instantly intrigued. Fish argues that teachers who try to do anything but teach-- which he defines as providing new discipline-relevant material and demonstrating practical methods of analysis and evaluation-- are doing their students and academia in general a disservice. His argument also extends to administrators and universities in general. And he doesn't sugar coat it. He has a wry, sarcastic, and very direct style to his writing; some might even call it aggressive (he does).

As a teacher, I was interested in his distinction between "academicizing" and indoctrinating, especially after hearing a fellow classmate's heated objections to a teacher who was offering extra credit to students who chose to join Occupy Wall Street. To me, that was simply unacceptable. I also remembered the 2008 election and my teacher's obvious Obama support. It made me uncomfortable. I felt like I was the only person in all of academia who would even considering the arguments of the Republican candidate. Finally, I worry that my belief that writing is a social transaction and tool for social change gets in the way of teaching students how to write effectively (Fish  would probably say that it does... sometimes). For all these reasons and more, I had to read and would recommend this book to all faculty and administration.

Sometimes, Fish's argument is difficult to stomach. I truly believe that part of my job is to help make the world a better place. While I may not always succeed, I can help students see things from new perspectives, ones that enable them to make better decisions, and I can teach them to use writing for purposes that are not merely academic. As a professor-- yes, even as an adjunct-- I hold a position of power. My students are mostly traditional freshman. Since they are trying to get a grasp on what it means to be a college student, they look to me for an example and for guidance. I believe that my age contributes to this even more. I am not much older than many of my students, and so, in some respects, they can place themselves in my position, a young academic. I try to show them that I use my brain and my academic interests to function as a real person in society. Aside from being an academic role model, though, I believe I need to be a moral one. The classroom is solid space for me to advocate positive change in the world, as well, which I why I love teaching writing so much.

Fish would say this is a no-no. He argues that we can go change the world on our own time, and that is perfectly acceptable, but when we bring politics into the classroom, we leave a space for outsiders to label universities as places where students are being indoctrinated with liberal ideologies or viewed as production lines for corporations. He also says that academic work is "useless," and that's ok. We should not be producing laboring bodies for capitalist reasons or tell students that their study should have a purpose in the world outside academic (that's the value of academic freedom). We should simply teach students to explore for the sake of knowledge and skill attainment. I don't necessarily disagree with him, either.

Where I do think Fish misses the mark is when he says that we shouldn't aim to teach students to respect all cultures or practice pluralism. He says that the university is not a democracy, and we should not teach democratically. Yet, my understanding of respect and his may be different. I believe that students should be taught to respect all cultures, meaning that they don't attack people because of they hold different ideologies. When you respect something, it does not mean that you agree with it. I respect my religion, for instance, but it doesn't mean that I don't question it or debate what practices I want to uphold. Respect doesn't mean that students should be forced to accept all ideologies, but that they should respect the people that hold them. Fish doesn't think diplomacy is getting us anywhere, however, so he'd probably still disagree with me on this point, although, he does make a distinction between name calling and debating a point with evidence.

Throughout the entire text, I found myself resistant to Fish. I wanted to disagree with him at every turn. The margins of my book are covered in sarcastic quips to match those made by Fish. In the end, though, it seems that perhaps I'm somewhat in line with Fish's theories of pedagogy. And I really hate to admit that. For instance, as Fish does, I believe that my students deserve an open forum to consider theories, not that all theories are right, but that they need to learn for themselves how to evaluate and analyze them. I don't believe I have a right to say, "I think that war is wrong" or "We should promote marriage rights for gays." I bring in controversial texts such as Palin's argument that her aggressive campaign language had nothing to do with the Tuscon shooting, not for the purpose of making my classroom agree or disagree with Palin, but to consider freedom of speech rights, how political rhetoric works in the public sphere, and whether or not she constructs an effective argument. I also believe that it's true that I cannot directly affect the way that my students use the information that I give them. At the end of the day, though my class may be transformative, it is not intrinsic to the material. I may still have "bad eggs" who will use the information for harm rather than good, and there is not much that I can do about it outside of teaching and being engaged in the education of my students.

I even see Fish and I standing on common ground when it comes to my Writing as Activism assignment, which is perhaps a politically charged one. It directly advocates activism, which Fish recommends against. He writes, "Once you start.... engaging your students in discussions designed to produce action in the world, you are surely doing something, but it is not academic, even if you give it that name" (169). However, my students' projects reflect their own interests, and throughout, I encourage them to do rhetorical analysis, to evaluate the ethos/pathos/logos of their debates (this part is new for me), and to consider their rhetorical purposes. There is a learning value far greater than simple political activism. I believe it is two fold. It shows students that there is a purpose for writing beyond writing essays that will never leave the academic safety bubble (although I'm not sure Fish would like that idea very much). I wouldn't teach it if I thought that the only value was an activist one. I know, however, that they are learning a great deal about writing through their projects.

In the final paragraph of his book, Fish cautions, "Beware, that is, of doing something for a reward external to its own economy" (178). This is really what I take away from Fish's argument and what I think all teachers can adopt. Regardless of how much we hope to do do, we shouldn't be teaching our own political views at the expense of our students' education. We can blend the political with the academic, but we should not advocate only the former.

Even if you whole-heartedly disagree with Fish, I think that this is one of those texts that every teacher should pick up.


Susan Tiner said...

Hi Nicole, I just found your blog today searching for blogs on Composition. I've applied to an MA in Composition program at SFSU and am still waiting to hear re: admissions status but couldn't resist digging into writing pedagogy research/texts to get familiar with questions framing Composition inquiry and debate. I enjoyed this post. Stanley Fish is very smart and I usually agree with him -- I've read his NY Times pieces on the same topic. Not sure politics belongs in the classroom but anything that engages students in the writing process is probably of value.

NP said...

Thanks for your response, Susan, and lots of luck getting into your graduate program of choice.

Fish's book is definitely an interesting read. My advice would be to read multiple perspectives when you're just starting out. You'll begin to shape your own philosophy that way.

And just a side not: this blog was actually a class project for a grad class that exploded into something bigger. I would recommend blogging to anyone starting a grad school trek. It helps you to see the evolution of your thinking process and keeps tidbits that you can reflect back on later. For papers, projects, and your thesis, it really comes in handy.

Susan Tiner said...

Thank you Nicole. I do plan to blog. In fact I've been busy reading all of the material from the first course syllabus because the instructor posted the Fall 2011 syllabus online and also created a blog for the class -- it's interesting reading the student comments.

I like your idea of reading multiple perspectives and plan to do that. Thank you for the advice.

Susan Partlan said...

It's funny seeing my maiden name in the earlier comments :).

I recently finished reading the book and have to admit that I agree with almost all of it. As I understand Fish, there's no problem at all with writing about politics or exploring writing as activism as long as the approach is academic, i.e., debating the merits and drawbacks based on research.

My one complaint about Fish is that he's had the privilege of teaching well-prepared students, hasn't faced the challenge of a broad spectrum of preparedness. I wish he would give it try because I'm curious how that experience might (or might not) change his thinking.