Think Again

Stanley Fish, a prolific literary theorist and legal scholar, is one of my favorite authors. I like his work because he tries to engage with the public in interesting and useful way not something, not many academics do. I also appreciate his work because he often takes on unpopular causes and minces few words about his opinions. I just as often disagree with him as not, but I always come away better informed and more thoughtful by reading him.

Before I mention his interesting recent book, I wanted to give a couple of examples of his earlier work. He has commented extensively on the nature of academic writing. His How To Write A Sentence and How To Read One (New York: Harper, 2011) reminds us that writing, of any variety, is a form of artistic expression. It requires practice and experimentation: “To be sure, your eventual goal is to be able to write forcefully about issues that matter to you, but if you begin with those issues uppermost in your mind, you will never get to the point where you can do verbal justice to them. It may sound paradoxical, but verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales” (p. 26). Writing requires learning to be selective and strategic: “Sentence writers are not copyists; they are selectors. It is impossible not to select when you are making an assertion. The goal is not to be comprehensive, to say everything that could possibly be said to the extent that no one could say anything else; if that were the goal, no sentence could ever be finished. The goal is to communicate forcefully whatever perspective or emphasis or hierarchy of concerns attaches to your present purposes” (p. 38). Writing is a creative act: “What we know of the world comes to us through words, or, to look at it from the other direction, when we write a sentence, we create a world, which is not the world, but the world as it appears within a dimension of assessment” (p. 39). Fish’s advice is first-rate, and his own writing practices what he preaches.

Fish has also weighed in on the testy territory of academic freedom. Another recent book, Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), is a good place for anyone interested in this topic to start. Fish examines five schools of thought about academic freedom, considering particular academic debates and case law, and drawing distinctions between First Amendment rights and academic freedom. He has many things to say that have implications for what academics publish and how they publish although he does not directly consider publishing. For example, “It is perfectly reasonable for academics, like any other group of workers, to desire working conditions that afford maximum freedom of action, but the realization of that desire is a matter of constraint or disciplinary convention, not of law or constitutional right” (p. 86). Fish also draws distinctions between what a professor says in the classroom and what he does in his or her research: “The assistant professor has different responsibilities depending on whether he is in the classroom (and on what kind of class it is, a survey or a seminar) or in the archive, and that his different roles have attached to them different degrees of freedom and constraint and different degrees of freedom and constraint and different degrees of protection” (p. 91) In discussing academic freedom, the concept of the purpose of academic work emerges: “The academy is the place where knowledge is advanced, where the truth about matters physical, conceptual, and social is sought. That’s the job, and that’s also the aspirational norm. The advancement of knowledge and discovering truth are not extrinsic to academic activity, they constitute it” (pp. 131-132). In considering the controversies over hiring or having Holocaust deniers speak in public venues, Fish exclaims, “In fact (a phrase I do not shrink from), the most vigorous debates about history are not about how to interpret the facts, but about what the facts are” (pp. 145-146). Good stuff to ponder.

Fish’s latest book is Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), essays culled from three hundred columns written for the New York Times between 1995 and 2013. That is quite a body of work. The subtitle captures the vast range of topics Fish expounds on, and readers will be able to select their own favorites (mine are his various essays on motion pictures, for long ago I dreamed of being a movie critic, like so many others I suppose). But there are two things I want to comment on. One, is that this collection is a fine resource for learning about the art of the newspaper op-ed – timely, personal, clear essays – that I might require my own students in the future read when I require that they try their hand at such writing (I require this as a means of getting them to think about how to reach the public and advocate for their professions). Two, Fish describes early on in the volume that his educational preparation to become an academic was anything but a foretaste of success. That Stanley Fish has been so successful makes me pause when I lament students’ work, focus, and other attributes; undoubtedly, some of these individuals will go onto being successful. Good for them. I only hope my pushing and prodding might have had something to do with what later comes.

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