Michael Bérubé regularly crosses the divide between academic and popular spheres. Bérubé launched onto the scene in the early ’90s with a Village Voice article debunking charges of political correctness in the academy. Just out of grad school, he had already earned an academic reputation with articles in places like PMLA and a book on the reception of contemporary literature, Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (Cornell University Press, 1992). But through the ’90s he came to serve as an informant of matters academic to the literate public, publishing at a brisk pace in the Voice, Harper’s, The New Yorker and The Nation. He also did early work defining disability studies with his book Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child (Pantheon, 1996), which teases out the theoretical nettle of the nature/nurture argument, as well as recounts parenting a child with Down syndrome. He staked out the blogosphere with American Airspace, which comments on politics as well as on more specialized pursuits like literary theory. His 2006 book, What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education (Norton), defends the humanities and higher education.
Following Marginal Forces, Bérubé’s second book, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (Verso, 1994), calls for a more publicly relevant criticism. Responding to attacks on the university, he also co-edited the collection Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities (with Cary Nelson; Routledge, 1995). After Life as We Know It, he published a collection of his essays, The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies (NYU Press, 1998), which continues his commentary on cultural politics and focuses on the academic job crisis. It appears in the NYU Press series, Cultural Front, for which he serves as general editor. Alongside Liberal Arts, in 2006 he published a wide-ranging collection of his essays on the Sokal hoax and the science wars, the state of academe and the academic left, Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities (University of North Carolina Press). In addition, he edited the collection The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies (Blackwell, 2005). Since this interview, he has continued his commentary on cultural politics with The Left At War (NYU Press, 2009). Among his most notable journalistic pieces, see “Public Image Limited,” Village Voice June 18th, 1991; “Discipline and Theory,” Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, ed. Edmundson (Penguin, 1993); “Life as We Know It: A Father, A Son, and Genetic Destiny,” Harper’s, Dec. 1994; and “Public Academy,” New Yorker, 1996. His blog archive can be found at michaelberube.com.
Born in New York City in 1961, Bérubé attended Columbia University (BA, 1982) and the University of Virginia (MA, 1986; PhD, 1989). Beginning in 1989, he taught at the University of Illinois, where he ascended through the professorial ranks, and he moved in 2001 to Penn State to take the newly-created Paterno Family Professorship in English, which he has since resigned. Now he holds the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and is Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities there. In 2012-13 he served as the president of the Modern Language Association.
This interview took place in Jeffrey Williams’s apartment in Pittsburgh, on August 11th, 2006. It was conducted by Williams, then editor of minnesota review, and transcribed by David Cerniglia.
Jeffrey Williams: This year you have two new books on cultural politics and the academic left coming out, and you have a blog that is one of the more noteworthy ones for those of us in the humanities. It seems to me that your role now, or one of your roles, is defending liberal education. Certainly in What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?, you mount an even-toned and good-spirited defense of liberal education.
Michael Bérubé: Thanks for the kind words. I actually think of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? as continuous with the same project of Public Access. There’s a line somewhere in Public Access about how the first job is to scrape off the nonsense that has been said about us, then get around to explaining what it is we really do. I actually didn’t start Liberal Arts with that in mind; I started with a Chronicle of Higher Education essay I wrote on dealing with a disruptive student in a seminar. It turns out to be incredibly difficult to try to describe entire courses. The amount of labor that goes into a course comes to hundreds and hundreds of pages when put into prose, and at first the book was just going to be something like that, more along the lines of “this is what teaching undergraduates actually looks like.”