May 31, 2005

Stanley Fish moves into linguistics

Today the New York Times published an article by Stanley Fish (printer-friendly version here; it may disappear behind a pay wall if you don't take a look now) in which he explains how he teaches freshman writing classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago in which content is banned, forbidden, verboten. No opinions allowed, just work: the work is that the students have to create a language. Seriously. Look:

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.

Stanley Fish is famous for the way he built up the English department as Duke University during the heyday of postmodernism in American universities. (He is also famous for something else: he is generally held to be the original model for the character named Professor Morris Zapp in David Lodge's novels Changing Places and Small World.) He moved to the University of Illinois at Chicago as a dean in 1999 to improve that university's standing in humanities disciplines, and reportedly resigned the deanship when he found that the institution was not standing behind its original financial commitments.

Of course, at first the students don't know what he's talking about when he tells them to devise a language, having never heard of tense, agency, and such. But by the end of the semester they get it. To invent a language of adequate expressive power you have to develop a grasp of syntax. His point is that you can never be a really effective and confident writer unless you know something about sentence structure, and you'll be distracted from sentence structure if you start paying attention to content and writing about your experiences and opinions and have the writing instructor pay attention to them. No content, he insists, because the topic of this course is pure linguistic form. Professor Fish has turned into a linguistics instructor, only I suspect he doesn't know it.

I first heard about this course from a group of applied linguistics professors at his campus that I met while I was in Chicago last year. They say it works pretty well. Though they also say that while he was Dean of the College he never paid much attention to them, and when they pointed out to him that he was now doing a linguistics course, he looked surprised, and simply said "Oh." But it's certainly right, he really is doing linguistics (if a little unconventionally). In fact, you could almost define the fields of syntax and semantics as the study of the ways in which a language might be designed to be able to indicate the distinctions between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like that English enables us to make (and other languages enable us to make).

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 31, 2005 05:59 PM