In Praise of Fish

I’ve just finished a short book by Stanley Fish worth recommending to everyone aspiring to or currently living an academic life. Save the World on Your Own Time (OUP, 2008) is Fish’s paean to the academy, written from a perspective of forty years’ academic experience, including a five year stint as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. No stranger to controversy in those years, Fish has given us another polemical text, but this book – aimed directly at academics – reads more like a hymnal.

The book conveys Fish’s clear and simple message for academics: do your job, don’t try to do someone else’s job, and don’t let anyone else do your job. The legitimate, two-part task for academics is simple, Fish suggests: “(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.” (pp.12-3) That’s it, that’s all. That’s the “do your job” part.

The “don’t try to do someone else’s job” song has two stanzas. First, Fish inveighs against academics who use their teaching position not only for teaching but also for indoctrination, flaunting their political colours during class. Save it, Fish implores, for after class, when you’re not directly discharging your duties as assigned by the university.

Second, when Universities claim to transform students – to produce, for example, “an effective and productive citizen” who contributes through “the insightful use of knowledge” (p.12) – they overstate the proper reach of academia. Any transformation, Fish argues, will be largely contingent, and not something taught directly in the classroom. Moreover, once the university enters the game of teaching morality, rather than the evaluation of texts (many of which concern morality), then they must also address the question of whose morality? There are academic goals – introducing students to knowledge and skills – and then there are political goals.

So what has this book to do with the study of popular music?

First, it’s a reminder to stay close to home, pedagogically speaking. Present the logic of texts, and teach the arguments, Fish seems to say, without also accepting them dogmatically. Compare the texts, asking students to decide if the arguments brought to pop music classes are sound; sometimes the answer remains undecided. It is more appropriate for university students to learn how to deconstruct arguments than to merely memorize a script.

Second, it’s a challenge to academics in the humanities to design proactive administrative strategies. This is equally important to Fish, if not more so. It’s also less intuitive for the academic. The problem is this: When academics are placed in a responsive position, their academic enterprise is always framed in the terms of those (board members, elected officials) who initiate the conversation. But how to lean forward? how to anticipate administrative budgets, queries, and tasks? Perhaps a discussion IASPM should be having concerns upper-level administrative strategies, minimizing tough, rock-and-a-hard-place decisions, and preparing would-be graduates to hit the ground running when they find employment and the associated administrative duties.

And if this discussion had a bibliography, Fish’s most recent book would be included. Our organization stands to gain immensely from reading his book and debating the arguments.