Stanley Fish is an academician, a literary and legal scholar who teaches at Florida International University. I’ve heard several people refer to him as a postmodernist thinker, though it’s my understanding that he prefers to be known as an anti-foundationalist.
This is oversimplified, but for those not familiar with these terms, here is a quick definition. Foundationalists are convinced there is some value or ground or foundation that is available to all thinkers of all cultures upon which knowledge can be based. So, anti-foundationalists, like Fish, argue that no such ground exists, and so knowledge or ethics or ideas can only be explored within their specific cultural and historical context. As a result, anti-foundationalists are usually said to be pragmatists (whatever works is correct) and relativists (no final moral standards) though they argue that isn’t necessarily the case. Anyway, that’s the general idea.
In any case, Dr Fish writes a blog for The New York Times (which you can find here), and I always read his posts. I find them well written, often provocative, and always thoughtful. I may not always agree, but disagreeing with Stanley Fish is a bracing experience.
Anyway, Fish’s December 21, 2009 post, “’Tis the Season,” caught my attention both for the provocative conclusion he draws, and for the description of his experience of public speaking. The reason his description interests me is that he is describing my experience—exactly.
The speaker must worry about doing a good job.
With that in mind he or she will try to learn something about the nature of the institution, the likely make up of the audience—some audiences will regard a basic introduction of the topic as an insult while others will welcome it—the names of previous speakers in the series, the special concerns that may be animating university conversations. (Even with a lot of preparation, you never really know what you’re walking into.)
The occasion is, by definition, make or break. You only get one shot. The visit is short but you leave behind an impression that will last for quite a while. You will be judged by multiple measures. Did you seem well-prepared? Were you attentive to the needs of the audience? Did you present a coherent thesis supported by the relevant evidence? Did you speak clearly? Did you handle yourself well and honorably in the question-and-answer session? Were you responsive and courteous to everyone, even to those audience members who rose with the hope of handing you your head in a basket? Did you remember to thank everyone many times? It is clearly a pressure situation, and when it is over and you are heading out of town, you will be busily assessing your own performance and asking yourself, “How did I do?”
Now comes the curious part. If I have done badly, I feel badly. No surprise there. But if I’ve done well (at least in my estimation), I feel worse.
Why is that? I’m not quite sure, but I have a few notions. It may be a feeling that if I had stayed around for another 20 minutes, the jig would have been up; everyone would have seen through me; I got away just in the nick of time. It may be a feeling that my success was merely a piece of theater; there was nothing of substance in it. It may be a revulsion against hearing myself say the same old thing once again; someday—maybe tomorrow—I’ll run out of audiences. It may be a suspicion (actually more than that) that I am less interested in doing justice to my subject than in bringing glory to myself.
I thought it was just me.
(Be certain to read “’Tis the Season” and reflect on Dr Fish’s conclusion.)