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.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Fish

  1. Paul Aitken

    Great post Michael!

    I have a profound ambivalence about Fish’s stance on this. While I at once appreciate his directness, and the courage to stake some ground and stick to it, I also find that he flirts way to much with a black and white view of how scholars fit in the world. Granted, he is talking about the world of professional academia, but I find his emphasis on “function” to be playing right into the hands of an instrumentalist view of education that he suggests is only “contingent.” He perpetuates a type of separation that appears at this point to have little basis in reality: the notion of both discrete disciplinary territories and the idea that academics somehow (ought to) function apart from the worlds of politics, social engagement, and activism. Especially under contemporary conditions of precarious employment, gutting of benefits packages and wages, and lack of research opportunity for emerging scholars, the days of the academic riding above the fray of the “real world” are over. We’re all part of the real world now. And if this is the case, then do we not have an obligation to transcend binaristic divisions about what constitutes “our job” and “their job” and beginning seeing our positions as relative (and related) to all others?

    I suppose it depends on your point of view, but isn’t part of the remit of scholarly research of all kinds to, in fact, “save the world”? I can’t see any other reason for this enterprise other than to learn more in order to make the world a better place. And this is where Fish’s ethical ambivalence really stirs me up. There is a difference between dogmatic acceptance of ideas, and recognising when an idea is a good one and worth fighting for, and when an idea is simply unacceptable. It’s not always the case that just because there are conflicting arguments that both are equally valid. One of the failings of Fish’s argument in this case is that it presents an all too easy way out of dealing with the tough ethical issues; we can present “both sides” and thus have done our objective duty of equipping the students with information – but have we facilitated “knowledge”?

    An example from popular music: let’s say that one argument posited that signing African American rock’n'roll artists in the 1950s to contracts that clearly saw the lion’s share of the royalties return to the record label was simply the natural order of things because an African American artist was “naturally musical” and made music that transcended concerns for money, and that furthermore, shouldn’t the record company receive more money as a result of taking the “risk” of throwing their efforts behind an African American artist amidst the emerging tensions of the civil rights movement? Do we present this argument and allow the students to decide for themselves? Or do we engage on ethical ground and call it for what it is: racism. If Fish can stake some ground and stick to it, so can we.

    I do appreciate his intervention though, particularly in bringing to the fore the relationship between scholarly pursuits and the administration of these pursuits. I agree that we might perhaps do better and proactively pre-empting administrative policies that threaten academic freedom, research time, and professional development; I think you raise some really important questions and areas of struggle for us to address, especially around the “either-this-or-that” type of decisions that pervade the academy, and society more generally.


    1. Michael Ethen Post author

      Thanks for the comments, Paul. I’ll reply here, but it may require an additional post to do them justice.

      First, on Fish’s “black and white view of how scholars fit in the world”: It’s equally clear that he believes academics should be able to “tell the difference between a soapbox and a teacher’s podium” (96) and that he isn’t out to proscribe anyone’s political engagement.* A soapboxer that Fish describes is an urban researcher, activist, “former academic” named Paul Street, who “complains that by conceiving the academic task so narrowly, [Fish turns] professors into ‘good Germans, content to leave policy to those who are ‘qualified’ to conduct state affairs–people like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.” Even if most academics would share Street’s political views, “does that mean that the educational experience of our students (many of whom hold opposing views) should be guided by them [i.e., those views]? [. . .] In a classroom, the gathering of evidence on the way to reaching a conclusion is the prime academic activity. In Street’s classroom, that activity would have been abandoned from the get-go; for him, the evidence is already in and the conclusion–a partisan conclusion–has been reached in advance.” (69-70) I don’t believe Fish thinks academics are disconnected from the real world. He’s not even saying that academics ride above the fray, rather he’s suggesting that by eschewing dogma (right-wing or otherwise) and teaching students to reach their own conclusions, academics are a benefit to society.

      Second, on your excellent counter-example: I suppose one could present this in class, but we both know that a blog and a classroom are different environments. We’d have to pull this apart and marshal evidence as with any other argument: After the first premise (that African Americans were “naturally musical”) a student might ask, “Did record labels sign whites, too?” Yes. “Did they receive the same low fee?” Usually not, but a higher one. “Were whites, then, more naturally musical?” Well, no. “Why would record labels pay whites more for less natural ability?” . . . And so on, the point being that classrooms are wonderfully dialogic and academics owe it to themselves and students to progress incrementally and to present arguments–even the Bizarro ones–logically, building steps to a first-floor window.

      The third part of Fish’s mantra (don’t let anyone else do your job) is, you might agree, the most problematic. Sure, some academics will run class this way, others that way; in the end it’s our position in the humanities that even provides us these opportunities. But it’s shrinking, and those with just a foot in the door (graduate instructors hired cheaply) have the most at stake and the least sway with administration. We need advocates, presumably among the tenured. And we’ve got a lot of those in IASPM, which is why I think this discussion is far from over.

      * – Or archery, for that matter, or anything else an academic chooses to do when not leading students.

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