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Go, Fish

How did I miss this? Last Friday, the New York Times published Stanley Fish's farewell to academia:

I exit with a three-part piece of wisdom for those who work in higher education: do your job; don't try to do someone else's job, as you are unlikely to be qualified; and don't let anyone else do your job.

There's not a whole lot in his farewell that will come as much of a surprise to anyone who's had cause to read All in the Game, the column that he's done for the Chronicle of Higher Education for the past couple of academic years. Fish's basic point, if I'm allowed to boil it down, is that academics tend to bite off more than they're qualified to chew, and they should stop. Whether it's couched in terms of overestimating the relevance of theory, faux interdisciplinarity, or more recently, the insistence on politicizing the academy, it seems like Fish has been engaged in a broad campaign to convince us all (in the academy, at least) that we're not as smart as we think we are. And thus, his conclusion,

Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level is a job big enough for any scholar and for any institution. And, as I look around, it does not seem to me that we academics do that job so well that we can now take it upon ourselves to do everyone else's job too. We should look to the practices in our own shop, narrowly conceived, before we set out to alter the entire world by forming moral character, or fashioning democratic citizens, or combating globalization, or embracing globalization, or anything else.

One would like to think that even the exaggerated sense of virtue that is so much a part of the academic mentality has its limits. If we aim low and stick to the tasks we are paid to perform, we might actually get something done.

It's always been hard to argue with Fish--if there's ever been a writer who's as successful as he is at defining an argument in such a way as to rule disagreements out-of-bounds, I have yet to read that person. It's hard to resist the seductive simplicity of the idea that "the true task of academic work [is] the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching." Of course, it would be a lot harder to resist if he could honestly describe his own career that way, a career that ends with generous space on the Op-Ed page of arguably the leading newspaper in the country, a space not normally provided to those who have sought truth and disseminated it through teaching. Here's how Slate described his career when he was hired on at UIC:

He is receiving such a princely sum from the University of Illinois not just because he's famous--or notorious--but because he was the chief architect of two of the most well-thought-of (though controversial) American academic programs in the 1980s and '90s, Johns Hopkins University's Humanities Center and Duke University's English department. His success as an administrator rested on two insights that are now commonplace: first, that the academic star system could be used to create departments with high-profile brand names, and second, that the longing of academic couples to live in the same place represents an administrative opportunity, not a headache. Fish built both the Humanities Center and Duke's English department by hiring celebrity couples and finding room for both, rather than wooing one member of the couple and banishing the other to a lesser department, or condemning husband and wife to a commuter marriage. That both departments are now falling apart can be chalked up either to his considerable skill at maintaining allies or to his cynical lack of concern with long-term stability.

Ahh, yes. The $tar $y$tem, faithful underwriter of the $earch for truth. I should be so lucky, when one day my job is to be a $tar. I promise I won't let someone else do it for me...