English panel discussion erupts into shouting match

by Phil Salinger | 10/19/04 5:00am

A panel discussion featuring respected literary critic Stanley Fish turned into a shouting match Monday over the role of professors' personal opinions in the classroom.

Fish, a former dean of the college at the University of Illinois, articulated the three-part lesson for professors he laid out in a May op-ed piece in The New York Times: "Do your own job, don't let anyone else do your job, don't do anyone else's job."

Fish's advice was not well received. A heated debate ensued between Fish and two professors on the panel with him, Irene Kacandes and James Murphy, as well as an array of students and faculty members in the audience. They accused him of not practicing his own message and promoting an impossible ideal of objectivity.

Professors' subjective opinions about topics within their fields of expertise have no business in the classroom, Fish argued. The point of liberal education and scholarship is the search of truth, not to have some greater effect on the world, he said.

"Come to class, keep up in your discipline, correct your papers, keep office hours, and that's it," he said.

But several Dartmouth professors present took Fish's comments as an attack on their chosen profession.

German professor Irene Kacandes retorted that the job of professors is to teach students how to think and discuss.

"We must leave the idea of professors as disseminators of truth behind," she said.

Once the floor was opened to questions, the argument became more contentious. Government professor Roger Masters and English professor Donald Pease took exceptional offense to Fish's comments.

Masters denied the idea of objectivity in the classroom. If a professor has a finding or opinion that would have a profound effect on society, "he has a moral obligation to do something about it," Masters said.

Fish said such discussions are best suited for outside the classroom.

"This might be appropriate for general [expletive] sessions after class is over," he said, but not academic instruction.

After this exchange, Pease stood up and spoke for a few minutes in an increasingly loud and angry tone. Having started off calmly, Pease was pointing and shouting directly at Fish by the end of the speech, accusing Fish of narrow-mindedness.

"You can't do your job without being open," Pease exclaimed in front of the audience of about 50.

Panel moderator Allan Stam had to ask Pease to sit down.

Fish remained cheerful and confident throughout the exchange.

He summarized his position without raising or speeding up his voice.

"Our job is not to change the world but to analyze it," he said.

Any outside ramifications of academic scholarship, Fish said, "are unintended consequences of the enterprise."

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!