Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Heady 1990s (Bérubé's Employment of English)

The 1990s was a much busier time in academia than the 2000s are shaping up to be. At a very general level, the 90s were a decade of 'culture wars', beginning with the raging debates over political correctness and affirmative action in the early 1990s (1990-93). These were soon followed (in English departments) by heated arguments about the centrality of the canon in the wake of the rise of cultural studies -- following the publication of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (1994). I should also mention the crisis of the academic left in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and then the Republican Revolution of 1994. And: the Yale graduate student union strike (1994). And also: the controversies attendant on the rise and fall of queer theory (the rise followed Eve Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet [1990]; the fall followed the implosion of Duke English [1997-1998]).

The political correctness issues have played themselves out at least at the institutional level (though judging from the stories I hear from stressed students in office hours, today's college students still lack tools for dealing with difference). By the late 1990s, most colleges and universities had imposed sexual harassment and hate speech codes -- but most stopped short of the excesses of Antioch College. Affirmative action debates have also settled out somewhat, as some recent Supreme Court decisions have allowed the practice to stand, albeit a little uneasily.

Because the issues were never definitively resolved, we continue to struggle with all of them. The only newish issue on campus in the 2000s so far seems to be 'intellectual responsibility in the wake of 9/11' -- really a replay of the questions about the role of public intellectuals that started a decade ago. The only new twist is that now the forces asking for political correctness in the form of 'responsibility' tend to be on the right rather than the left (i.e., Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch).

I bring this up because I finally got around to reading Bérubé's The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future. I must confess that I picked it up in the bookstore because I've been reading Bérubé's blog with some envy & admiration for the past few weeks, and got curious. So maybe blogs are a good advertisement for one's more 'serious' work? (Tell it to the tenure review, son...)

In The Employment of English, Bérubé takes coherent positions on all of the big debates of the 90s, including the state of the academic job market, the downsizing of the university, the politicization of literary study (as against the privileging of aesthetic value/canonization), the responsibility (and dangers) of academics to engage in public debate, graduate student unionization, and the merits and limitations of 'cultural studies' as a discipline.

Politically, Bérubé takes positions that lead to solutions tending towards the democratizing of academia, and improvement of the scope of the academic left in the broader world. But in the course of such advocacy many of his arguments are based more on pragmatism -- engaging and responding to material reality -- rather than the ideals of any academic theoretical paradigm (i.e., Marx, Foucault, etc).

At times, Bérubé seems excessively concerned to respond to people who had earlier criticized him. Take the chapter on Berube's ethical quandary when writing an article in The New Yorker on African American public intellectuals like Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, bell hooks, etc. It would have been nice, here, to have a reprint of the original essay, not merely the afterthoughts on the essay. (It's almost as if one needs a collection of the original essays Bérubé published that earned him the criticism that he responds to here: a prequel.) But it's a relatively small criticism, as I still found the chapter interesting to read.

Bérubé's book was attacked when it was published (in 1998) for being too self-involved and autobiographical (I read a particularly harsh review by Mark Bauerlein in Boundary 2, and Berube's response to Bauerlein). And indeed, in the book Berube often refers to talks he was invited to give, conferences he attended, courses he taught, and essays he wrote. But what comes out is not a picture of a man who is doing a lot of navel-gazing; rather, what I see is a person who is right in the thick of all of the aforementioned debates and controversies. The use of autobiographical material dates the book a little, but in another way it adds to Bérubé's credibility: when the graduate student unionization debates were going on, he was one of the primary faculty voices in favor, so it's natural he would refer to his role in the matter.

This sense of being in the thick of things, and the ability to respond and argue instantly, are also why Bérubé makes a good blogger today. Even in his academic writings he is constantly rhetorically engaged, and tends to come to the point immediately. He writes fast, and makes arguments in 1-2 page chunks -- like a blogger avant la lettre. The comparison to blogging might help explain other aspects of Bérubé's style. The self-involvement is not so different from a blogger's self-involvement. Ditto for the pithy arguments. Ditto for the urgent responses to critics. Ditto for pragmatism and direct engagement with policy issues. [Today Bérubé writes that he has been getting upwards of 40,000 hits a month.]

It's a reflection of Bérubé's prolific output in this period that in the very same year he published The Employment of English he also published a well-received, non-academic book on what it's like to raise a child with Down's Syndrome: Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child. I haven't read the book yet, but I have read an essay Bérubé published in the journal Literature and Medicine more recently (2002), where he recounts the ethical quandary entailed in subjecting his son to a medical operation, when his son wasn't really cognitively able to understand what the operation was about. It's moving writing, clearly the product of much careful thought.

There are perils in writing too much -- you often expose yourself to attack -- but surely The Employment of English reveals there is also much of value. Surely also, the problem with humanities academics continues to be our tendency to insulate ouselves behind Foucault and Said; we seem uninterested (or perhaps just unprepared) to engage with the Fareed Zakarias and Daniel Drezners of the world.

I would recommend this book to people who are looking for an intelligent response to the debates of the 1990s, whose implications we are, for better or worse, still worrying about today.