09 March 2009

Seeing Red

After a busy week that involved an incredible conference on Penn's campus and a lovely weekend filled with local food and good friends (I hosted a local/sustainable potluck this past Saturday and the range of dishes was fantastic!), I awoke to an opinion piece in the the New York Times that makes my blood boil and heart sink. Stanley Fish is, at best, polemical, but really he is curmudgeonly and pig-headed. Last summer he used his status as "public intellectual" to childishly rant about the "inconvenience" of eating organic, recycling and being green. In this previous post, Fish writes, "I resist and resent the demands made on me by environmental imperatives. I don’t want to save the planet. I just want to inhabit it as comfortably as possible for as long as I have." He goes on to whine about toilet paper, gloat over a hidden stock of paper napkins, bemoan the ugliness and dim-lighting of "environmentally approved lightbulbs" and then takes a stab at organic and humanely raised meat.
Meanwhile, by the weak light shed by the virtuous bulbs, I am eating local meat — meat from cows organically raised and humanely slaughtered (what a phrase!). It is of course expensive, but what is worse, it tastes bad. That is, it tastes like real meat, gamy and lean, rather than like the processed, marbled, frozen, supermarket stuff I had grown up on. I’m sure it is a better quality, and that buying it sustains the local community and strikes a blow against agrabusiness, but I just don’t like it. And since I hate vegetables, becoming a vegetarian is not an option.
These opinion pieces supposedly allow for reader responses and commentary. However, they are monitored and not all comments are allowed. Both Paula from Civil Eats and I submitted comments that were rejected. Admittedly, my response was heated, but I had a feeling it would be rejected (Paula's already had been), and I didn't want to tailor my reaction to suit the comment-moderator's conservative filter. Here is my unpublished comment:
Dr. Fish,

I'm afraid your latest blog entry has seriously ruffled me. It angers and saddens me actually. I feel it speaks very directly to "tree-loving rustic wackies who don’t like to have any fun" (with a nod to comment 11), like me. I'm just a "nut-case" environmentalist (ref. comment 4), but ... come on! You write yourself into a disappointing stereotype of western (American) [wo]man: selfish, closed-minded, short-sighted and resistant to change! I am very concerned about the environment and conscientious in my own private life, though I don't generally preach my views and force change on others. I'm certainly a bad environmentalist for this, but I do honestly believe in making an impact on a small scale and inspiring change through example. Outspoken, "popular", read figures who laud their own ignorance and laziness and who clearly reach an audience of like-minded or on-the-fence readers really make me want to grab a jar of my homemade vinegar (made with local honey and local plums -- thank you http://alucidspoonful.blogspot.com/) and toss it into the eyes of those blinded by their own self-importance.

I find no inconvenience in maintaining a low carbon footprint. A true gastronome, I rejoice in my (vegetarian) meals which consist mainly of local and organic ingredients. Living an environmentally conscious life has in no way affected my studies (I am graduate student of literature at UPenn), nor has it cramped my style.

I urge you to use your well-trained mind to read your actions and your here voiced opinions and consider whether or not you want to stand behind a statement which encourages laziness, recklessness and human-elitism.

-- Melanie, a tree loving rustic wacko who doesn't have any fun in Philadelphia
I should mention that some of the comments that were published were nearly as bad as Fish! "Tree-loving rustic wackies who don’t like to have any fun" is a direct quote from a comment, as is the "nut-case" environmentalist.

Moving on to today's opinion piece, Stanley Fish returned to familiar grounds and decided to defend his support of the professionalization of academics and his closed-minded belief that academics should not mix politics and the classroom. Academic freedom, according to Fish, does not extend beyond the wall's of the academy, and a scholar, therefore, should not apply his expertise to the greater questions that trouble the world at large.

There is no denying that the academy is becoming more and more professionalized. Fish himself sums up pretty well the extent to which universities have been affected by neoliberalism:
Faced with this situation universities have responded by (1) raising tuition, in effect passing the burden of costs to the students who now become consumers and debt-holders rather than beneficiaries of enlightenment (2) entering into research partnerships with industry and thus courting the danger of turning the pursuit of truth into the pursuit of profits and (3) hiring a larger and larger number of short-term, part-time adjuncts who as members of a transient and disposable workforce are in no position to challenge the university’s practices or agitate for an academy more committed to the realization of democratic rather than monetary goals. In short, universities have embraced neoliberalism.
At an attempt to be "objective," Fish neither claims to support nor reject this occurence. I, however, am not being objective and will say that this embracing of neoliberalism both depresses me and makes me want to jump up and start a revolution. In their new status as "consumers and debt-holders," students are becoming victimized by higher education. I can personally attest to the burden of excessive student loan debt. Being a graduate student who will eventually enter the job "market" (I find that the farmer's market is starting to be the only kind of market I can stomach) in order to find a position as a professor, the trend to hire more adjuncts and decrease full-time tenured positions is alarming and disgusting. With the commodification of education, instructors are being exploited as cheap labor, hired to "educate" a bunch of kids who are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars.

Again, Fish defines academic freedom to exist only within a given university. Academics should publish in their field and not look to attract controversy. He sums up his opinion on this matter and the counterargument as follows:
By defining academic freedom narrowly, as a concept tied to a guild and responsive only to its interests, I am said to ignore the responsibility academics have to freedom everywhere, not only in the classroom or in the research library but in the society at large and indeed in the entire world. In the view of the critics of the neoliberal university, a limiting definition of academic freedom forfeits the good that academics, highly trained and articulate as they are, might do if they took a stand against injustice and unfreedom wherever they are found.
I, honestly, want nothing to do with an academy that looks like Fish's model. I believe that my training in close reading, criticism and sensitivity to detail and nuance should be applied to the current state of affairs. I hope to train students to learn how to take the skills they have learned in analysing literature and use them to better understand the world they live in. The ability to think critically and to learn to be reflective and thoughtful should not be stifled by greed and professonalization.

Enough about Stanley Fish. His caustic opinion piece turned my verdant thoughts red, and I had to let off some steam. I have a few days off from classes this week. I will be doing a considerable amount of work, but hopefully I will manage to put up a few posts concerning my usual food and environmental concerns.


  1. I stopped reading Stanley Fish a few months ago; my NYTimes browsing is now considerably less anger-ridden.