Monday, February 09, 2009

Stanley Fish's straw man

In the New York Times, Stanley Fish has a column about Professor Denis Rancourt of the University of Ottawa, who was apparently fired for (1) announcing on the first day that all his students in a physics class would receive an A+ and (2) defending what he calls "academic squatting" (teaching about the oppression of the system rather than physics), which he cast as an exercise in academic freedom.

I don't know about the case and suspect there's more to it than Fish lets on, but it's this statement that caught my attention, a hypothetical instance that Fish poses to his course in the law of higher education: "Suppose you were a member of a law firm or a mid-level executive in a corporation and you skipped meetings or came late, blew off assignments or altered them according to your whims, abused your colleagues and were habitually rude to clients. What would happen to you?" Fish goes on to say that, a la Rancourt, you'd be celebrated for standing up for academic freedom instead of being fired, as you would in industry.

Is he right? Not where I teach.

1. "Skipped meetings or came in late." The crucial part here is which meetings? Skipping class meetings? A professor who's habitually absent or late for class is going to get crucified on student evaluations, which are, in many cases, the only evidence that the administration admits for the "teaching" part of the teaching/scholarship/service component of yearly evaluation.

Skipping department meetings is another matter. Some people don't show up for years at a time, unless something upsets them, while others try to go to every one. In what seems to be an academic parable of the vineyard, both are apparently treated equally at evaluation time, so Fish may have a point about that.

2. "Blew off assignments or altered them according to your whims." Absolutely not. Aren't we now in the era of the iron-clad syllabus, where we're held to the syllabus as we are to any other contract? Students may like exciting classes and variable activities, but when it comes to assignments, they hate change. Like most reasonable people, they want to know what they have to do and when they have to do it.

And how is Fish defining "whims"? One person's "whim" may be another person's brilliant idea of how to make the pedagogy work better. There's usually a way to make those kinds of changes, and they aren't "whims." "Whim" is just a pejorative way of saying "idea."

3. "Abused your colleagues and were habitually rude to clients." Okay, Fish may have us there. Everyone knows or has heard of the academic whose rudeness or ruthlessness is legendary but whose scholarship/grant productivity is such that he or she is untouchable by ordinary mortals and their disciplinary procedures. Still, these types are more rare (aren't they?) than they used to be, or is that just a Panglossian view of the academy?

So would this person be an academic hero in your department? Fish says he would.


Anonymous said...

I think Fish is way overestimating non-academic professionals.

undine said...

Amen to that. He makes it sound as though it's all puppies and lollipops outside academe, where the wicked are punished and the virtuous rewarded. Somehow, I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

Precisely. And I *liked* classes without ironclad syllabi. I thought the ironclad syllabi were correct for language classes, calculus, things like that. Only. Hm.