Stanley Fish

A generally pleasant day gave me two moments of particular pleasure and I’ll try to figure out whether there was any relation between them as I go along. (I couldn’t come up with one.) The first came to me as I was reading through the journal Heterodoxy, which describes itself as offering “articles and animadversions on political correctness and other follies.” Its editor and creator is David Horowitz, one of those ‘60s lefties who has turned on his former views with a vengeance and, accordingly, is now doling out vengeance to anyone who says anything that he might have said in 1964. What caught my attention this time is a long piece discussing the many times conservative students, and especially conservative students who work on campus conservative newspapers (usually not really campus newspapers since their funding comes from wealthy outside foundations), are disdained, mistreated, loathed, ignored, and even threatened. (Poor babies!) In the course of the piece, its author winds around to the founding of the Duke Review in 1989, a time, he says, that marked a “low point” on the campus because “Stanley Fish, the communist English professor, was in top form” and was “gutting the English department” by bringing in “revisionists such as Henry Louis Gates and Frederic Jameson.” This is so looney tunes that I hardly know what to say, but I will say a couple of things. (Actually, it turns out, four.) First, Jameson and I were hired in the same year so I couldn’t have brought him in. Second, the correct spelling of his first name is “Fredric.” Third, I did hire Henry Louis Gates and would certainly do it again today if I thought I had the remotest chance of succeeding. And fourth, the idea that you gut a department by bringing in Fredric Jameson and Henry Louis Gates–two guys who will certainly merit chapters of their own when the history of 20th-century scholarship is written–is truly bizarre; it is easy to think of hundreds of departments that would line up for the chance to gut themselves in that way. I won’t even bother with the “communist” bit.

The other moment of pleasure came to me when I was listening to a lecture by a job candidate, a statistician so sophisticated that I barely understood a word he was saying until he turned his attention to the thesis of another scholar. So and so, he said, says this, “but then he caveats it all over the place.” Here was a double pleasure: first, in hearing someone transform a noun into a verb at once casually and effectively (everyone understood what he meant; so and so said something, but then qualified it so many ways that the assertion became exceedingly thin); but second, and even more pleasurable, a recognition that this wonderful piece of grammatically wayward prose accurately named what scholars in every discipline routinely do. We hazard a bold assertion and then we surround it with reservations, footnotes, acknowledgments of alternative hypotheses, and other varieties of waffling and weaseling. In short, we caveat it all over the place. In the space of about 20 seconds, I became so enamored of this phrase that I decided to invent a new school of criticism, the caveat-it-all-over-the-place school, already of course the school every one of us belongs to, but not yet, till this moment, properly labeled.

In between these two moments has been the usual administrative day, made up largely of meetings. First, a breakfast meeting on a matter so delicate and political that I cannot identify it here. Second, a meeting with another dean to discuss teacher education and the state of writing instruction on the campus. Third, a meeting with a colleague to discuss the progress of two search committees. Fourth, a meeting of a committee charged with overseeing the redoing of the plaza in front of my building; here much talk of soil borings, timelines, excavation with relation to underground tunnels, and most insistently, charettes (don’t ask me what a charette is; someone told me but I still don’t know). Fifth, interviews with two job candidates, usually the most fun part of any day because you are likely actually to learn something.

That’s the end of the day and the end of the week of diaries and the beginning of a week in which I and a host of others will be celebrating my wife’s birthday. A good way to start the millennium.