Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 13 2000 9:30 PM

Stanley Fish

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I began the day with a 7:30 breakfast at an elegant private club in Chicago. The purpose of the breakfast was to meet with representatives of a foundation interested in alternative certification, a device for getting teachers into K-12 classrooms without requiring them to be certified in the usual way. The rationale is, first, that there is a shortage of teachers (especially in math and science) amounting to a crisis and, second, that there are mature and knowledgeable people (retired policemen and -women, retired military personnel, disaffected but well-pensioned corporate executives) eager to devote their talents to the crucial project of secondary education, but not so eager to spend three or four years learning something they think they already know.

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I'm not sure whether this was what they call a "power breakfast," but it felt like one: a large circular table, populated by deans, associate deans, a provost, an associate provost, and the foundation people. It also felt very much like a poker game; some cards face up on the table, others closely held, still others so deeply buried in the pack that you could only guess at what they might be. In the middle of this, I think after a proposal began to be nibbled at, someone said, "Well, why don't we get the shape and details of it straight before we begin to deconstruct it." As soon as I heard the word "deconstruct," part of my consciousness left the table (only metaphorically, of course) and began reflecting on the taming of a vocabulary that only a short time ago (if 30 years can be considered a short time) either brought a sparkle of excitement to the eyes of ambitious young academics or struck terror into the hearts of an older generation who saw, in the emergence of the word and everything it stood for, the end of everything they stood for. Now, in the early days of the year 2000, "deconstruct" is a verb that can casually be dropped into a perfectly ordinary sentence with no sense of the exotic or, for that matter, of the avant-garde. The word "deconstruct" can be found everywhere; TV newscasters who have never read a word of theory, sprinkle it liberally; it gets into the title of Woody Allen movies; I read a capsule review of Clint Eastwood's Bronco Billy that describes the movie (quite accurately) as one where "Eastwood deconstructs his Dirty Harry image." The fact that in some corners of the academic world and on some Op-Ed pages in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post there are those who still rail against deconstruction only demonstrates the investment people have in ideological struggles, even those--perhaps especially those--that have long since passed. It's a nice and interesting configuration; at one and the same time the energies of literary theory have been thoroughly domesticated, and yet the very idea of literary theory, especially in its post-structuralist, postmodern versions, is enough to get the right-wing blood boiling.

When I returned from this self-indulgent mental excursion to the table, I found that more cards had been shown, some direct questions had been asked and almost answered, and that the gathered company was moving toward a sense of purpose and perhaps toward an accomplishment greater than any that literary theory or philosophy in any form could claim. I went away once again marveling at the form and pace of progress in administrative life. Meetings like this one (usually without breakfast) are always filled up with bits of ceremony, nervous turf-establishing patter, occasional posturing, and a whole lot that is beside the point; and yet, mysteriously, somehow, at the end of it--not every time but some of the time and certainly today--you really do get somewhere.

I know that many of my academic colleagues are wary and weary of meetings and committees and retreats and phone conferences and (worst of all) transparencies, and believe that something more efficient and upfront would get the job done better. But I have come to the conclusion that the elaborate ritual and machinery and the elongated rhythms of administrative affairs are essential to doing the job, if only because they provide shadow spaces in which complex and delicate matters can be worked out without being squarely confronted. Everyone says--not only about administration but about almost everything--let's be completely upfront, put all our cards on the table, acknowledge our position and our interests, let the sunlight in. A bad idea.