Fish to Profs: Stick to Teaching

Should we be worried about politics creeping into the classroom? Professor and columnist Stanley Fish enters the fray with a new book.
July 1, 2008

Stanley Fish is very clear about what college professors should do in the classroom.

They "can (legitimately) do two things: (1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience; and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills -- of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure -- that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over."

And what should they not do? Everything else.

In a new book to be published this month by Oxford University Press, Fish, the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University, argues that instructors need to approach their jobs narrowly -- and to, as the title implies, Save the World on Your Own Time.

That doesn't mean they can't have opinions, espouse views outside of the classroom or make partisan pronouncements in public. But the argument -- that professors should do their jobs, and nothing else -- does establish a framework through which the book tackles every major academic controversy, from Ward Churchill (a professor who erred in melding politics and his academic work, Fish says, not in expressing those views per se) to the intelligent design movement (a relativistic attempt to sneak a nonscientific idea into the classroom) to Larry Summers (a man who went beyond the bounds of his job description).

The book itself developed from Fish's own experiences, both as a teacher of literature and law and as an administrator. After chairing the theory-laden English department at Duke University and serving as executive director of Duke University Press, he surprised many by accepting a post as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, from which he stepped down in 2004. Now he's been enjoying his perch as a weekly online columnist at The New York Times, where he first articulated some of the book's themes.

As someone who's been both derided from the right as a postmodernist and recently described by his editor as a "curmudgeonly semiconservative guy," Fish's own positions have evolved over time and can sometimes be hard to pin down -- and maybe that's the point. But he's perfectly clear about his views on higher education, and the book delves beyond classroom controversies into more familiar territory for many academics: how to run a university (and should it be democratic?), the life of a dean, the teaching of writing and, of course, the best way to shake down state leaders for more funds.

Fish spoke over the phone with Inside Higher Ed last week from upstate New York, where he lives for about half the year. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: How does the general public view academe, and how does that view differ from reality?

A: I think the perception is that college campuses these days are populated by liberal/radical faculty who are always imposing their loyalties on the students in an attempt ... to recruit students into a political agenda.

The reality is that the percentage ... who do something like that is perhaps small, I would say, at the most, 10 percent, probably more like 5 or 6 percent. But the success of the neoconservative public relations machine has implanted in the public mind this idea of a university simply permeated by political ideologues masking as pedagogues....

[T]he word then begins to be sounded as if you couldn't walk into a classroom in this country without being subjected to liberal propaganda. In my experience, this is not the norm. But even if it were only a small percentage of what happens in the classroom, it's still, I think, the cause for concern if not alarm because certainly in my view [it's] what should not be happening in the classroom.

Q: But even aside from political implications, you argue, especially in the teaching of writing, that such agendas can actually have a negative effect on learning.

A: Whether anyone notices it or not or comments on it or not, the teaching of writing in universities is a disaster. [There is] the conviction on the part of many composition teachers that what they are really teaching is some form of social justice, and that the teaching of writing ... takes a back seat. And in fact in many classrooms the teaching of writing as a craft as something that has rules with appropriate decorums ... is in fact demonized as an indication of the hegemony of the powers that be. This happens over and over again in classrooms and it's an absolute disaster.

Q: Are you mostly talking about "quips" -- say, an aside about Dick Cheney in the middle of a lecture?

A: It signals something to the students about what the views of the professor are.... It's my conviction that teachers should not have posters ... on the doors of their office that indicate some political, partisan or ideological affiliation. The office ... is an extension of the scene of teaching, and no student should enter an office [believing that] some ideas are going to be preferred and others are better not uttered. The larger part are those professors who are sincerely convinced that it is their job to take their students and mold both their characters and their ideological views....

I'm holding in my hand right now ... a book called Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, which is a popular book published by a very reputable press [Routledge, 2007], and its thesis is that teaching social justice, preparing students to operate in the world in a particular way is what we should be doing.

[Quoting from the book:]

"The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure. We envision a society in which individuals are both self-determining (able to develop their full capacities), and interdependent (capable of interacting democratically with others)...."

I think there is a significant number of persons espousing or being persuaded by that view, some self-consciously and some less than self-consciously.... [At The New York Times, a]ny number of readers will testify, and I think that is the word, that they went to college and university never knowing what the political and ideological affiliations of their professors might have been, and several have written in to say when they later discovered by accident ... they were surprised, they never would have guessed.

I still like to believe that most people go into classrooms attempting to do justice to the materials that are taught in the course as described in the syllabus and listed in the college catalog, and that ... is the core of my position.

This is a daunting enough task, and it doesn't seem to me to be necessary or possible to perform other tasks....

Q: Are you concerned that your book will be brandished by those with an agenda to enforce "intellectual diversity"?

A: Well, yes, I think that there is a danger that this will be welcomed ... by some of those conservative critics of the academy. But on the other hand there's plenty in the book which criticizes the conservative efforts, for example, to enforce proportional hiring in college and university faculty.... I over and over again attack that argument, so even though the conservative critics of the academy might find some comfort in parts of the book, they'll find other parts of the book directly criticizing them.

One of the arguments that conservative critics make is that there are very few or relatively few conservative members of the faculty, especially in humanities and social science departments. But when I came into the profession ... in 1962, the statistics were the reverse. There were very few progressive members of the faculty and there were of course determined efforts to exclude, for example, people who self-identified as Marxists. [I don't think there are parallel efforts of exclusion today,] although that is a charge that's been made.

Q: Do you believe the current movement against perceived bias in academe is a recent trend, or part of longstanding cultural currents?

A: The anti-intellectualism that's always been a part of the disdain for the academy doesn't, I think, operate in the current scene of the culture wars at least as I describe them.... This is not a repetition of the old anti-intellectualism which has been around forever; I think this is much more specifically political and ideological.

Q: If all professors "academicized" the topics they covered in class and avoided melding their material with outside political views, as you advocate, would that leave room for institutions with specific missions, such as "progressive" colleges, colleges that identify as conservative-oriented or those with a Great Books focus?

A: A Great Books college or a progressive college is a college that is organized around a certain view of the way higher education should be implemented. In other words, these are colleges which are attached to an account of the best way to perform higher education. But I have no quarrel at all with colleges like that, because if one can think of them as having a point of view, it's an educational point of view, not a political point of view. That would be quite different if a college were self-consciously dedicated to the conservation or promulgation of conservative principles or religious principles.... [They would not be] operating according to the traditional ideals of liberal education, which doesn't mean that they shouldn't be allowed to exist ... they are simply not attaching themselves to the ideal of liberal education....

Q: You've worked at both private and public institutions. Do you see any difference in their missions?

A: Well, there certainly is a difference in terms of the funding and the way in which funding is dispensed....

The interesting thing, or actually distressing thing ... is that at the same time that the legislature of many states takes the money away from universities, the legislatures seek to impose more and more curricular and faculty control over the universities, so it's a very unhappy situation in which colleges are being told we're going to take your money away and we're going to increasingly monitor every single thing you do.

Q: You describe a novel approach to handling state lawmakers who control the purse strings, a tactic you used during your time as a dean: criticizing, even belittling them, in public. Did it work?

A: It worked in a limited sense. My response was, look, higher education administrators go hat in hand ... they're always in a begging or petitionary posture, and that just doesn't work. People don't in fact respond well to that, and I found what they did respond well to was confrontation of an aggressive kind.... If you say to state legislators, "You guys don't know what you're talking about! What if I came to your offices and told you within five minutes and without having any experience ... what it is you should be doing, you'd throw me out, laughing me out of the room." Well that's what we should be doing.... "What do you know about 18th-century French poetry? ..."

If you embarrass people ... if you make them afraid of you, you are in a better position than you are if you go to them on your knees. [S]econd, which might seem contradictory ... is that most people who are not in or of the academy are fascinated by it. On the one hand they disdain it in part because they believe the academy disdains them. But on the other hand they would like to be initiated into [its] pleasures.

Q: From your chapter on administration, it seems that in many ways the perspectives of both a faculty member and an administrator can be at odds.

A: There's a great deal of faculty bashing in my book, especially on that point. But I think that university administration is a wonderful, wonderful activity and in fact when I used to go to conferences of administrators ... the word that was most used by those fellow deans or provosts or chancellors or presidents to describe what it is we did ... "it's fun." That might surprise a lot of faculty members, I suspect it would.

Q: As a veteran of the canon battles between proponents of French "theory" and the traditionalists, do you think the outcome has had an impact on the public debate about politics in academe?

A: I think academia is very fundamentally different.... I'm old enough to remember when there were three TV networks, NBC, ABC and CBS. That meant that everybody watched the same thing.... But of course now there are all kinds of television networks and semi-networks and so forth, and everything is diffused. The same thing has happened in the curriculum, at least in the social sciences and the humanities, so that whereas it used to be the case that the same set of texts in relation to relatively the same set of questions was taught everywhere in more or less the same way, now there's an explosion, a tremendous variety. Much less of a mechanism of exclusion.... That's a huge and important change.

And I think in the end, or actually the middle, the theorists won. They won partly because of the statistics of age and death, that is, the new people who were coming into the departments had all been trained in and excited by [theory] and they trained another generation of students.

I believe that to be a beneficial change even though I also believe ... that a lot of people made a mistake when they politicized theory and thought that the lessons of theory could be immediately translated into an agenda that could be actively pursued in the classroom. [T]heory's rise has contributed to the politicization of some classrooms in higher education today. So it's a mixed blessing.

Q: Any parting thoughts on the book as a whole?

A: [I'd like to] rehearse for your readers the three-part mantra which organizes the book: Do your job, don't try to do someone else's job and don't let anyone else do your job. And I think that if we as instructors ... would adhere to that mantra, we would be more responsible in the prosecution of our task and less vulnerable to the criticisms of those who would want to either undermine or control us.


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