Date: Thursday, March 6th 2011
Title of Post: “Views on the subject of -Writing & Teaching Writing-”

In revisiting this archived article by Fish today:
NYTimes Opinion piece: <http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/what-should-colleges-teach/>]

… it is difficult not to recognize the fundamental difference of opinion about -what is writing?- between Fish and, for example, the discourse theorist James Moffett [in his (1968) “Teaching the Universe of Discourse”].

How can we agree about how to teach writing if two such divergent  views are prevalent?

View one, Fish: “… mathematics, the natural sciences, foreign languages and composition are disciplines with a specific content and a repertoire of essential skills. Courses that center on another content and fail to provide concentrated training in those skills are really courses in another subject.”

View two, Moffett: “But English, French, and foreign languages are not about anything in the same sense that history, biology, physics, and other primarily empirical subjects are about something. English, French, and mathematics are symbol systems … Symbols systems are not primarily about themselves; they are about other subjects. When a student “learns” one of these systems, he learns how to operate it. The main point is to think and talk about other things by means of this system” (Teaching the Universe of Discourse, p. 6).

A pragmatist might conclude that simply recognizing whereby both conceptualizations are possible, this is the most important thing to understand. At the very least then, we can understand how fully our views of the subject might diverge.



2 thoughts on “Stanley Fish versus James Moffett on what is writing:

  1. It turns out that both Fish and Moffett said the same thing. Fish said that there are disciplines with specific content. Moffett said that languages are systems. Well, surprise, surprise. A discipline is a system. However, Moffett points out that the other disciplines are built upon the system of the language they use. In otherwords, you can’t learn a system (discipline) without the semantics and syntax language provides.

    Another misconception is that language is literature. It isn’t. Language is an empty vessel. All the other disciplines use language to handle content.

    I highly recommend looking into Linguistics (literacy) and Semiotics (symbology).

    • Hello Grant Czerepak,

      Thank you for your comment. After reading it, I visited your relationary blog which, as it turns out, I have actually read and visited before. I am somewhat familiar with and certainly interested in your work.

      I agree with your comment. In the NYtimes Fish article that I linked to in my original post, my main distinction, however, was between how Fish described the teaching of language as a system, versus Moffett who -while steeped in general semantics (Hayakawa and Korzybski) and informed by the principles of logic- was much more interested in recognizing the wide-ranging uses of language first, then language as a system-to-learn second (this is especially true when it comes to how he wanted teachers to teach language -pedagogy and practices in the classroom).

      So, conceptually I agree with your point that both Moffett and Fish saw language as a system. But pedagogically there is a huge gap between how Fish describes the teaching of language and the pedagogical approaches that Moffett worked so hard to realize. Fish would teach it as a system (as per his NYTimes opinion piece), Moffett was much more pedagogically attuned to the needs of language-users first then language as a system second (realizing that the two are intractably connected). While Fish, I would argue, might excel in a class for linguists, his approach to teaching writing (not language) is outdated. Moffett’s work in the pedagogies of teaching writing, in fact, helped make it outdated by most current standards (even for those writing classes in-the-professions/disciplines).

      Cheers, Damian

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