SPP: We did the research and everything when we found you. We read your books. You’re an extremely distinguished author and professor. What prompted you to go into the literary arena and to kind of continue on the path that you’ve gone on within writing and teaching?
Stanley Fish: What prompted me to write this particular book was graduate school, of course, when my students were producing papers that were ungrammatical and barely readable? I then discovered that those same graduate students were teaching Freshman Composition courses. I investigated the situation and discovered that in many courses in my college, I was then the Dean of the College, writing was not being taught. I found what was being taught was interesting sets of ethics on hot button topics, like racism or gay marriage or gun control.
So I decided that this had to be reformed, but I also decided that before I did anything I should once again return to the Composition classroom and teach a class myself. So that’s what I did and I began to develop the ideas that are now in that book in that way. I found that much of the teaching of Composition had been unfortunately politicized by a weak kind of multiculturalism, which seemed to take over the entire course and leave no room for the teaching of the craft of writing.
SPP: Could you go into that last point you made just about how you disagree with the way it’s being taught in class?
Stanley Fish: Well in a lot of composition courses two things happen. First of all, the course is built around a series of ideas as presented in essays written by well-known people. Those essays are often really, very good essays but that’s part of the problem. Because once a student becomes interested in ideas, in the content of the essays, that interest will take over from the interest in learning how to craft sentences.
One of my first rules is never have any ideas in a composition course, and especially don’t have any ideas that an instructor might be interested in. Because then you’ve lost the game before you begin if the point of the game is to teach students how to write. I also found that in many composition courses instructors felt that what they were supposed to do was train their students for a certain kind of ideological warfare, usually on the left. They wanted their students to come out having the appropriate and correct views. I think that both of those things, the concentration on essays and the insistence on some instructors what they were teaching was ideology and politics got in the way and has gotten in the way of the teaching of writing.
SPP: Okay. OF course the book that you speak of is your newest book that just came out “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read a Sentence?”, which I found very incredibly specifically because, and I mention this in my email to you, almost everyone I come across at some point has considered writing a book. Everybody thinks they’re going to be an author. I kind of wanted to get your point of view on your advice to them and also what you think about that.
Stanley Fish: Being an author is not an easy thing to do and you can see why when you think about how hard it is for many people even to write a sentence. It’s odd really because the people who have difficulty in writing a sentence are often people who have no difficulty in saying a sentence, speaking in conversations to their friends. But once the assignment is given to write something down anxiety takes over and you can almost see people, especially students, freeze. So what I’m arguing in this particular book that if you want to become comfortable with the idea of writing sentences you should practice with sentence forms. Not so much with sentence content and ideas, but with the forms of sentences so that you can produce sentences of different forms and even dull or nonsensical content on demand. The more you do this the more a facile in a good sense, the more practiced you become in manipulating forms without any concern for their content. The more will you be able to write something powerful when you do have a content that you want to get across.
That’s why I call this in one section of the book The Karate Kid Method of teaching writing, because if you remember in that movie the kid doesn’t learn the craft of writing by writing. He learned the craft by doing formal exercises like waxing cars and painting fences. It is then that after he’s learned that and internalized the formal skills that he is ready for a match. So my idea of the teaching of composition is form, form, form, form, content will follow when you need it.
SPP: I actually wanted to ask you if you could tell me and tell our listeners some advice on creating a first and last sentence. Because I know you talk about it in your book and I know from personal experiences a student once I got the first sentence on paper I could cruise through it and then I would struggle one more time with the last sentence.
Stanley Fish: All right. Well I think what you’re experience is the experience of many. The reason is that a good first sentence is written by an author who knows where the rest of his text or composition is going. If you don’t know that, it’s hard in fact to write a first sentence. If you have a good idea of where you want to take your reader you can write a sentence that leans in the direction of the goal to which you will finally bring your reader.
So it’s important to write first sentences, and this will almost sound mystical, that know all about the sentences that will follow them. If you can write a first sentence that invites your reader in you as you write it know how that sentence is going to unfold or flower into a full composition, you’ve in fact gotten a head start, and as you said, things go very well after that.
SPP: How about in terms of a final sentence?
Stanley Fish: Well a final sentence is a little tricky because there are more goals that you might want to have. The goal of the first sentence is to set things up in a way it would direct both you and your reader. The goal of a final sentence could be to sum up what’s been said, it could be to raise new questions which you deliberately leave unanswered because you want to have a kind of open ended texture at the end, or it could be to go back to an earlier part of the book and now redeem its promise, which at the beginning was perhaps a vague or not filled up.
So there are many kinds of things that you can do at the end and you have to choose what affect you want your reader to experience. Do you want the reader to be satisfied, feel that the circle has been closed? Do you want to keep your reader thinking do you want to upset your reader? At the end do you want to send your reader out watching or going to the barricades? Many, many different goals that you might have in writing that last sentence.
SPP: I wanted to take a step back real quick to one of the answers you gave a little bit ago about the professors teaching their ideas and values. You also wrote the book “Save the World on Your Own Time”.
Stanley Fish: That’s right.
SPP: In that book you mentioned that universities need to return to their job of teaching students to think rather than what to think. Stanley Fish: I wouldn’t put it that way. My message was even simpler than that.
Stanley Fish: My message was that professors in colleges and universities should do their job and not do the job that belong appropriately to other people and other professions. That is what is it that we as professors were trained to do? What kind of a mastery of certain sense of materials, whether in economics or literature, politics or chemistry. What we’re supposed to do when we come into a class is, first of all introduce the students to those materials, presuming they are unfamiliar with them, or at least relatively unfamiliar with them.
The second thing we want to do is to equip students with skills that will allow them to move around in those materials easily. It may be statistical skills, analytical skills or laboratory skills, argumentative skills, or interpretive skills, in the case, literary courses, but those are the two things that you want to do as a teacher. Anything else as far as I’m concerned is out of bounds because it belongs to another job and not to the job that you were trained to do and are paid to do.
SPP: With that being said, is it possible for professors to take stances in their writings? I mean a lot of professors are published, and even if they’re not trying to get their values across in the classroom if a student realizes what this professors’ bias on a subject is, do you see that as shaping the way a student looks at that class or at that professor?
Stanley Fish: I would think that the appropriate distinction would be between what the professor writes and in ways that do display his views, opinions and perhaps even values and what happens in the classroom. In the classroom I think you should leave your views and values to the side and devote yourself exclusively to the unpacking or analyzing of a material. If you do that you’ll communicate to your student that that is the job that they should be interested in. At the end of the courses that I teach no one ever knows where I stand on the big issues that come up in the course of our readings. What I’ve been doing is explaining how those issues have developed, what kind of perspectives have been brought forward, which one of them seem to have been persuasive and influential out of that persuasiveness and influential career occur, and so on.
A student of mine could read, let’s say the columns that I write in The New York Times weekly and find out a lot about the way I think about a variety of matters. I hope that that student would not find that the teaching of my course, whatever the course might be, had anything to do with the promotion of those values.
SPP: I read online that you describe yourself as an anti-foundationalist. Stanley Fish: Yes.
SPP: What foundationalist approach are you against?
Stanley Fish: Well foundationalism in general is a thesis that if we can only identify the core basic thing, the really real thing at the center, then we can organize our thoughts and our actions on the basis of that identification. That means to get outside of our own perspectives or interpretative views. I believe that that’s an impossible project because it seems to me that the very instruments that we might use, instruments of language and other forms of communication are already laden with precipitations, with values and with perspectives.
So it’s not that I’m against the foundationalism as if it were an alternative that one might choose. I’m saying foundationalism is not a possibility. That you cannot get to the side of your own partial situated being and that the only agent in the world who possibly could is God. None of us sees things from a God eye’s view; we all see things from the views that we occupy as historical, limited, temporal human beings. The idea that we could get out of that to some foundation is I think an illusion.
SPP: One last question for you. Could you share with us and our listeners a couple of your favorite books or things you would want to lead other people to, because I know personally it’s hard to find good books these days?
Stanley Fish: Well unfortunately most of the books that I find good are books that were written a long time ago and they wouldn’t always appeal to younger readers, at least right off the bat. Although I think if younger readers were to give those books a chance they would in time become entranced. So for example, one of my favorite novels is a novel written in 1915 by an author called Ford Maddox Ford called “The Good Soldier”, which is about a complicated set of relationships between two couples. It’s written in a marvelous and deceptive fashion that I find absolutely fascinating.
Another of my favorite books, and this used to be next to the bible the bestselling book in the western world, is John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, which was written in the 17 Century. In order to learn how to read, which is part of learning how to write, you have to learn both how to go slow and to like going slow.