MLA 2008: Politics in the Classroom, Stanley Fish-Style

December 29, 2008

San Francisco — Is Stanley Fish illogical? Wrong about what happens in the classroom? A provocateur who really likes irritating people?

MLA attendees packed into an overflowing room yesterday to hear Patricia Lynn Bizzell, Judith Butler, and Jonathan Culler, along with Mr. Fish himself, dissect Mr. Fish’s latest book, Save the World on Your Own Time (Oxford University Press). Although the discussion here was civil and even good-natured, Mr. Fish annoys people on both the left and the right by maintaining that politics has no role in the classroom and that inculcating values such as social justice and citizenship in students amounts to hubris.

Gerald Graff, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and current president of the MLA, opened the session by saying that he had started hearing a few years ago that the culture wars were over. “I had the feeling that there was some wishful thinking in that observation,” he said, since the culture wars had not so much ended as reached a deadlock. “People on different sides got tired of arguing with each other, and retreated to their armed camps,” he said.

With his latest book, Mr. Fish may have restarted those debates, as each of the scholars found something in his argument to counter. For Ms. Bizzell, a professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross, it was Mr. Fish’s dismissal of composition programs and the different ways professors have tried to work with students from diverse backgrounds. “Our job was to teach writing, but we needed new ways of doing that,” Ms. Bizzell said.

Ms. Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, went after Mr. Fish’s argument for a nonpolitical stance in the classroom as itself a political stance. “Fish draws a distinction between analysis of a point of view and propounding of a point of view,” Ms. Butler said. “This is a political point of view in that it sets out how the political is circumscribed.”

Mr. Culler, a professor of English and comparative literature at Cornell University, compared Mr. Fish to other public intellectuals and said that he had pioneered a different role, as a provocateur. Mr. Fish seems to view the classroom as a realm of provocation as well, Mr. Culler observed — the teacher as provocateur. “To offend people on both sides, that’s really quite hard to do,” he said. “It’s not a cheap trick.”

In his response, Mr. Fish conceded that he needed to better define what he means by the “legitimate” goals of higher education. Still, he insisted, the proper job of the professor is to “academicize” a topic — to examine and analyze it in such a way that the political urgency retreats into the background and the academic urgency comes forward. “Any topic can be so academicized,” he said. “This is what we do, and what we should do.”

To Ms. Butler’s contention that his stance is a political one, he said, “I’m not pitching my argument at that level. I mean something very simple. In an academic classroom, the point of the exercise is to understand a phenomenon … not to give the person leaving the classroom marching orders.”

At one point, Mr. Fish said he was heartened to hear so many serious discussions at this year’s MLA gathering about canonical authors such as Matthew Arnold, John Milton, and Daniel Defoe. “We are back to 1962, when I entered the profession,” he said. “We are back to old questions about old texts, but of course they are not the same questions.” —Liz McMillen