Stanley Fish and the Debate between Content and Form in the Composition Classroom - National Council of Teachers of English
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Stanley Fish and the Debate between Content and Form in the Composition Classroom

This post was written by NCTE student member Kimberly Bain.


I recently came across a New York Times op-ed by Stanley Fish titled “Devoid of Content,” which, though not current, caught my interest. In the piece, Fish discusses his frustration with the state of students matriculating from high school and college with inadequate writing skills. The reason for this, he laments, is the focus on content in the writing classroom. Students are prompted to discuss current events and “hot button issues” rather than learning how to formulate syntactic sentences. He considers content “a lure and a delusion.”

Fish provides an example of a practice that he performs with his first-year writing students in which they are prompted to develop a language with its own syntactic structures. Rather than use literature and texts to teach writing skills, he relies on form. He calls this “pure pedagogical bliss.” In his opinion, a focus on developing form, rather than on content, frees the writing instructor from the burden of having to find appropriate content for use in the classroom.

But is the job of the writing instructor to obtain pure pedagogical bliss at any cost?

What Stanley Fish may fail to consider is that students enter the writing classroom for goals other than becoming grammatically correct products of education. The standards of the writing classroom should include the development of clear and effective writing; however, there may be more to learning how to do this than an objective focus on form.

Many colleges and universities have begun requiring students to take courses in ethnic studies and social justice, as seen in the case of Cal State University, which states the move will “empower” students and give them “knowledge and broad perspectives.” Writing courses too should be planned to provide students with an enriched learning experience. It’s not enough to teach the standards of writing without having students understand why they are writing in the first place. Instructors cannot assume that students leave their racial and cultural experiences at the door of the classroom. It’s important that students can identify with what they are learning, so that they have the motivation and desire to learn it.

Forsaking this essential concept for the sake of “pedagogical bliss” can alienate students who have the desire to apply their thoughts and perspectives to the writing classroom. Stripping down the teaching methods of the writing classroom to focus solely on getting students to write sentences properly neglects an important point: Effective writing is not limited to proper sentence structure; effective writing involves passion and intent. It involves allowing students to identify with the content before them.

Much of the writing that society holds in great esteem comes from those who have a passion and a desire to have their words heard. If the writing instructor refuses to engage with the passions and perspectives of the writing students, which motivates them to write, the plot can be lost.

Cultural and ethnic representation has been a growing issue in academia. Students who feel that their voices and their experiences are not represented through the course materials can often feel silenced. But when writing instructors model and present content from diverse perspectives, it can help give students a sense of belonging within the academic space.

This is one benefit of including content, specifically multicultural literature, in the writing classroom. The texts can serve as models for students to critically analyze and emulate, and if students can relate to the literature under study, it can help them find strength in their own writing competencies.

An effective piece of writing isn’t one that is simply syntactically and grammatically correct; it is one of passion and intent. It is one where the writer has found their voice through acceptance and understanding and has a desire to share it with others. This is what writing instructors should strive to instill in the students of the writing class. They should seek to equip their students with all and not just some of the skills that it takes to become an effective writer.


Kimberly Bain is a doctoral student at Florida Atlantic University, studying composition and rhetoric. Her interests include race and ethnic studies and pedagogical methodologies.