.....But conservatives aren’t the only critics. Many trained in philosophy in this country (so-called "analytic" philosophers) are generally hostile to Fish’s so-called “philosophy” and to the philosophy of the proponents of “theory” (i.e., postmodern theory such as Deconstructionism) generally. I have always been in the latter camp. (See Stanley Fish. Note philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s critique of Fish. See also The Sokal affair.)
.....But Fish is a complex guy. Though he shows no signs of abandoning his (unfortunate) epistemological beliefs, re teaching, he rejects the proselytizing approach of many of his postmodernist colleagues. In fact, he sounds damned conservative.
.....In this morning’s Inside Higher Ed: Fish to Profs: Stick to Teaching:
.....…In a new book to be published this month by Oxford University Press, [Stanley] 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.
.....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 ….
.....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....
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....
.... [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….
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: 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? ...”
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.