Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Far from fishy

There’s an excellent essay in the New York Times by the esteemed Milton critic and putative model for Morris Zapp in some of David Lodge’s novels, Stanley Fish. Fish lays out his idiosyncratic approach to teaching:”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.”By forcing students to examine the syntax and vocabulary of a language they take for granted, Fish intends (I think) to bring them to an understanding of linguistic forms and, importantly, the ways in which they can break down when the speaker doesn’t really know what she or he is saying.Now, Fish’s points made me again recognize that really good teachers–assuming Fish practices what he preaches–can, in fact, radically change their students’ minds. A truism, sure, but it provides a counterweight to my suspicion (growing with each year’s distance from my own university graduation) that most students’ experience of university, particularly if they studied a Humanities subject, would hardly be damaged if they were merely given a reading list, upon which they would have to sit exams on at the end of academic year. For me, tutorials, for example, usually were more exercises in embarrassment than enlightenment.(Mind-expanding talents such as Fish’s do not come cheap. According to a page from Slate that I found with Google, in the late nineties Fish was paid $230,000 a year by the University of Illinois. (A typical CEO’s lunch expenses, bear in mind). I wonder what he gets in his current role, as his op-ed byline in the paper states, as “dean emeritus.”*)*The high-falutin’ phrase “emeritus” reminds me of an anecdote about Rupert Murdoch getting rid of a staff member, whom he informed would become “editor emeritus.” The baffled underling asked what “emeritus” meant. Murdoch was supposed to have replied that the “e” meant “ex” and “meritus” meant he deserved it.