a phish devoid of content

Stanley Fish has a new one in the NY Times: Devoid of Content.

His main assertion:

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.

Hear the spiritual overtones in that last sentence? Fish’s way of addressing fyc, then, of helping students find The Way, is to teach it as an introductory linguistics course. Students devise a language, creating the linguistic principles of the language along the way.

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions – between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like – that English enables us to make.

This is nothing new. British scholars did it with English in the 17th and 18th century: that’s why Teaching Grammar has become an exercise in applying Latin grammar to Anglo syntax. And, at bottom, it seems like an interesting course to teach – if tedious to take.

Here’s the twister. In taking on this linguistic construction project,

the students will naturally and effortlessly conform to the restriction I announce on the first day: “We don’t do content in this class. By that I mean we are not interested in ideas – yours, mine or anyone else’s. We don’t have an anthology of readings. We don’t discuss current events. We don’t exchange views on hot-button issues. We don’t tell each other what we think about anything – except about how prepositions or participles or relative pronouns function.” The reason we don’t do any of these things is that once ideas or themes are allowed in, the focus is shifted from the forms that make the organization of content possible to this or that piece of content, usually some recycled set of pros and cons about abortion, assisted suicide, affirmative action, welfare reform, the death penalty, free speech and so forth. At that moment, the task of understanding and mastering linguistic forms will have been replaced by the dubious pleasure of reproducing the well-worn and terminally dull arguments one hears or sees on every radio and TV talk show.

I’m pretty certain Fish is having us on. He’s irked with the level of discourse in fyc when it’s done as recycled thought cast as clever or insightful. And fair enough: there really is little to be learned by mindlessly reiterating the tried and true, putting on the pose and posture – just as there’s little to be learned from mindless drill in comma use. But Fish knows he can’t separate the form of articulation from the idea meaningfully; that function bangs into meaning at the sentence level. He knows that.

Fish is phishing, or at least trolling. He’s seeing what kind of deep sea creatures and bottom feeders he can bring to the surface for air. He’s unbalancing the stock-in-trade favorites of thousands of comp instructors. As an antidote to a course that focuses on the five paragraph theme, he’s proposing a course entirely on grammar. And that’s calculated to send a few comp instructors out of the shoot like a pinball.

Here’s more bait.

And when there is the occasional and inevitable lapse, and some student voices his or her “opinion” about something, I don’t have to do anything; for immediately some other student will turn and say, “No, that’s content.” When that happens, I experience pure pedagogical bliss.

Gonna bite?