Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Professor Stanley Fish on writing - "don't call it a writing course unless you're actually teaching them how to write"

On his New York Times blog, FIU Law Professor Stanley Fish criticizes college writing courses that focus on substantive topics  - "novels, movies, TV shows and . . . a variety of hot-button issues [like] racism, sexism, immigration, globalization" - rather than the craft of writing as an end in itself.

As I learned more about the world of composition studies, I came to the conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, and I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research.

Professor Fish rejects the assumption most of us make that the best way to teach students how to write is by giving them something to write about.  Indeed, he says we're wrong to advertise it as a writing class unless it focuses solely on developing grammar skills, "style, clarity, and argument."

That essay provoked a lot of reader response - much of it negative - that Professor Fish must be off his rocker if he thinks writing can be taught as an abstract set of skills. Professor Fish responds in part II of "What Should Colleges Teach?" asserting that contrary to popular belief, thinking doesn't drive good writing but, rather, developing good writing skills actually improves our students' ability to think. 

Is Professor Fish right? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Hat tip to Professor Michael Masinter.

I am the scholarship dude.


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Unfortunately, writing is almost never taught as a form of communication -- a form of "expression" perhaps, but not communication. Even where communication is hinted at, as in those elements of "the writing process" that suggest communication (objective, reader, and tone) what gets transmitted are amorphous additional requirements to those already embodied in the contrived writing assignments given to students.

If there's an objective in the student's head, it's likely a good grade, survival, or something in the range between those two. The "audience," to the extent there even is one, is probably either some amorphous generalization ("a college-educated reader," "a typical student") or the instructor. And "sound intelligent (or 'serious' or 'businesslike')" is about as close to "tone" as the student is ever likely to get.

Students are basically trying to figure out what they're "supposed to" do or "what [the teacher] wants," with little or no guidance about how to do that. It may well be that the teacher has only a minimal idea him/herself.

Writing well, that is effectively -- as a form of communication -- is a skill set that can and should be taught. And once acquired, that set can be improved, expanded, and polished as a student moves on.

The skills are then adaptable, with relative ease, to an infinite variety of specialized writing demands.

Professor Fish is dead on, but it's a damn hard sell.

Andy Starkis

Posted by: Andrej Starkis | Sep 3, 2009 11:09:39 AM

Amen to the notion that learning how to write well provides a foundation for developing strong thinking skills.

Selina Farrell

Posted by: Selina Farrell | Sep 5, 2009 3:49:52 PM

Stanley Fish is a brilliant man, but his writing is bad, and I find it ironic to read about him talking about the "craft of writing." If you just look at a page of his text you will notice a half dozen awkward bracket-sets, and a relentless overuse of fragments and dashes continually interrupting the flow of his writing.

Posted by: mark | Feb 20, 2011 7:59:43 PM

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