Tuesday, May 31, 2005
The Temptation of Content
I so rarely agree with Stanley Fish that when I do I wonder how it happened. Fortunately, Fish’s op-ed in today’s NY Times occasions no concern. On first reflection, it seems a classic Fishism--provocative, counterintuitive, and on consideration . . . still totally unconvincing.
Fish’s case today is that writing is taught badly in college because of an unfortunate preoccupation with content. Really, we should be pure formalists, he says. As an example of an appropriate pedagogy for a freshman composition course, he offers a semester-long assignment to construct an artificial language. (Am I missing the obvious here? Is he pulling my leg? Except for being counterintuitive, the very notion seems unFishlike.) By the end of the semester, if the class is able to avoid “the temptation of content,” students will arrive at a basic understanding of “how language works.”
Sounds like a great assignment. But Fish manages to end his essay without addressing the major issue: does the assignment in fact make students better writers? It sounds like a more fun way to learn what used to be studied by diagramming sentences. I did a lot of that in seventh grade, and just ask John Bruce, it did nothing for my style.
As I mentioned awhile ago. The whole approach seems backward to me. The problem with teaching writing is not that it’s too content driven, but rather that it’s already overformalized. Students can’t learn to express a thought well or argue an idea forcefully by mastering, or building, a model. They need to have an interest in clear or forceful expression. Alas, having a thought or an argument is really the hardest part about writing. The problem with most writing pedagogy--Fish’s included--is that, pushing content aside, it teaches students that their ideas and convictions are of secondary importance. No surprise if they don’t learn how to write well in that context.
Sean--I completely missed your post on this. Sorry for the repetition.
No prob, Jonathan.
Couldn’t you just make the students take Syntax 1? Assuming you’ve got a Linguistics department, I mean.
The problem with most writing pedagogy--Fish’s included--is that, pushing content aside, it teaches students that their ideas and convictions are of secondary importance. No surprise if they don’t learn how to write well in that context.
Perhaps it’s possible to run a successful freshman comp course that focuses on form and style without cultivating the bizarre beliefs and attitudes I presume you have in mind. (E.g.: It doesn’t matter whether I believe anything I write in my paper, and it sure doesn’t matter whether the reasons I give are any good, so long as they fit the form and so long as I throw in enough “colorful” words and make sure I give the professor the impression that I’m enjoying writing this.)
Perhaps. But I doubt it.
I doubt it too, Zehou. Thanks. That is exactly what I meant.
I too found the Fish piece suspiciously smelly. Not only does he ignore the fact that to write well requires having something to say-- by no means an easy requirement--, but he also ignores relations between reading and writing. Many brilliant writers have learned to write by being careful readers; I would guess their knowledge, what there is of it, of linguistics and grammatical construction was acquired from an interest in content and style, rather than the other way round (one need only mention one example: Shakespeare).
After all, a machine can learn--or be taught-- how a language is constructed (witness works of fictions in which constructed languages feature: 1984, Clockwork Orange), but it cannot learn style or exeptions to rules of language. In other words, a machine could not write Ulysses.
The exclusion of content--or the refusal to acknowledge it in a writing course-- obliterates a crucial part of the appreciation of literature, and it does not teach critical thinking. Nor does excluding content address muddled thinking, which is one reason for poor writing, and something which Fish is fast to accuse his students of. He has the poison, but not the remedy.
It is already a strangeness of the American university system that writing itself is amicably divorced from the curriculum by the presence of writing centers and programmes, whose aim ought to be--oughtn’t it?-- to show how writing is integral to the curriculum. For writing is one way of thinking, and clear thinking, like clear writing, requires subjects as well as objects.
After all, you can take a Fish out of water, but you can’t expect it to survive.
This has nothing to do about the artical specifically. Any good suggestions for kids to
learn to write well from the beginning? Kids
nine to 12 years old. In your opinion, what is
the best way to teach kids to be great Authors?
They have to be great readers first.