An Open Letter to Stanley Fish

Dear Professor Fish –

I have very much enjoyed reading your recent three-part piece in the online version of the NY Times entitled, “What Should Colleges Teach?”:

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/what-should-colleges-teach/

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/what-should-colleges-teach-part-2/

http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/07/what-should-colleges-teach-part-3/

I recognize that it is part of your role as an opinion columnist for the Times to provoke response, and based on the number of responses to these pieces – numbering over a thousand at last count – you have certainly succeeded in generating conversation and controversy.

I find myself mostly sympathetic to your argument that in too many undergraduate writing courses the emphasis is on teaching specific content that is of interest to the person teaching the students, and not enough on the skills involved in successful writing.   In my experience teaching as a graduate student at a major research university, much of the teaching of writing there focused on issues of content over issues of writing.  Further, I can add that, based on my ten years teaching composition at a liberal arts college, including six years of experience overseeing the freshmen writing program here, it is a challenge to convince faculty members – both from the English Department as well as from other departments – that the concepts that they are introducing to students in composition courses are secondary to the writing skills that they are meant to help students develop further.

However, my overall experiences over the last sixteen years have also taught me something else that you do not account for in any way: the teaching of writing at a research university has very little to do with the teaching of writing at most colleges.  The primary teachers of composition at research universities are graduate students who tend to focus their teaching on their research interests. While I commend you and those colleagues of yours at the prestigious research universities where you have taught for taking on the difficult work of teaching composition, I would point out that the great majority of your colleagues at those universities, and the great majority of professors at virtually all research universities, do not actually teach composition courses.

You are right that graduate students should pay more attention to the teaching of writing and less to their research interests in those courses, but surely we should recognize that there are systematic reasons for them to do so.  It can help them to continue to focus on their research and continue to work on their dissertations, helping them make progress on their Ph.D. while gaining valuable teaching experience.  This positions them better for the brutal job market they will soon enter.  Moreover, there is no incentive for them to change – after all, their advisors aren’t teaching writing anyway!  You seem to want them to change because it would be better for the undergraduates, but it certainly wouldn’t be better for the graduate students, and the universities are offering them no reason to change (especially because universities won’t allow graduate students to unionize and join forces for more equitable pay, benefits, and security).  Generally speaking, I think it is fair to say that the system at these types of institutions, at least in relation to the teaching of undergraduates, is broken.

But what about the teaching of writing at other schools?  At most colleges (or even universities) that are not research-focused – that is to say, at the great majority of institutions of higher learning in the United States – graduate students are not the primary composition instructors.

While there are some adjunct professors at these institutions who teach composition who have not yet completed their dissertation, most graduate students locate teaching positions at their research universities.  The majority of instructors are full-time or part-time professors who are dedicated to teaching as a profession.

This dedication means a different type of schedule than for those professors at research universities, where the production of knowledge or critical perspectives is central to the mission of the institution and the teaching load is primarily two courses each semester.  While there are some professors who teach at colleges with a two-course teaching load, the large majority teach at least three classes, or even four or five.  And at most colleges, teaching composition is one of the expectations for an English professor, sometimes more than once class a semester.  (While this can lead to less prep time, it also means double the papers to respond to.)  At most colleges, demonstrated excellence in teaching is a primary requirement for tenure and promotion.  It is valued certainly more than original scholarship, though that is expected as well, and service to the college is another major area of focus for faculty at such schools.  Time expectations are enormous, in other words, for junior faculty especially, but really for most of the faculty teaching composition courses.

You have delineated how you have taught writing throughout your teaching career, often taking on extra loads, asking the faculty at the great majority of colleges and universities to take on extra seems problematic, to say the least.  With their teaching loads, most of them are already overworked, and at a fraction of the salary that their colleagues at research universities receive, colleagues who do not have to teach these time-consuming composition courses.  Adjunct faculty members tend to have to shuttle back and forth from school to school and have no time to take on more work, especially at the pay scale that most colleges and universities offer them.  In what you write about teaching composition, you don’t account for the role of adjunct faculty, a striking omission considering just how many adjuncts are actually the ones who teach composition classes throughout the country.

So while I don’t actually disagree that much with you about a pedagogical approach to composition classes that privileges writing skills over specific content, I have serious reservations about your recognition of who teaches the majority of composition courses to undergraduates in this country.  Your focus is almost exclusively on the pedagogy of teaching writing at elite research universities – Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, etc.  But in doing so, you do not consider where most of the students who are seeking an undergraduate degree attend school: community colleges, regional colleges and universities, online universities such as the University of Phoenix.  The economics of teaching at these institutions – and here I use economics to refer to issues of salary, teaching load, and time – is radically different than those of most research universities.  It is emboldening to hear about the choices you have made to teach writing as part of your commitment to undergraduate education.  But it should be noted that for the vast majority of professors out there, choice doesn’t have anything to do with it.

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