"Do you know the Baffler? They called me something like 'an uncritical epigone of critspeak as revolutionary praxis.' Oy!" In his office on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana-Champaign, Michael Bérubé starts to laugh. "I get that sort of thing every once in a while. I wanted to keep a few of the choicest phrases and use them as blurbs. Kirkus Reviews called me 'soaringly jejune.' The Hudson Review called me 'a whiz-bang manic trendy'!"
Seven years after his assault on conservative critics of academia landed on the cover of the Village Voice, putting him on the front lines of the so-called culture wars, Bérubé, a professor of English and director of Illinois' Program for Research in the Humanities, is used to being attacked, although not quite resigned to it. "I had a tendency in the beginning that I've tried to work on ever since -- when I would get, in my opinion, outrageously stupid or dismissive or outright malevolent readings from people, I would write to them to say in no uncertain terms, 'There's no way you should get away with this stuff.'" These notes, which Bérubé jokingly calls his "poison-pen letters," have led him into written conversations with critics across the political spectrum. They are in many ways typical of how he's best known outside the academy: as a left-leaning scholar, annoyed by what he sees as the misrepresentation and unfair attack of his work, going to battle to set the record straight. But much as the notes are only a small part of Bérubé's astonishing writerly output (four books, a co-edited anthology and scores of articles since 1990), the image of Bérubé as a culture warrior gives only a partial picture of his work. One of the best-known defenders of academic multiculturalism outside the ivory tower, he's also one of its fiercest internal critics.
His career as a public intellectual was born out of his exasperation over the response to books like Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and Roger Kimball's "Tenured Radicals," which depicted America's universities as overrun with crazed, politically correct deconstructionists hell-bent on destroying Western civilization. "It's the same reflex I get when I watch 'The Capitol Gang' and you've got really serious righties against these wishy-washy centrists or mealy-mouthed liberals; I keep wanting to stride out of the dugout and call to the bullpen for the real lefties to come in. I was sure that someone was going to deal with Kimball, but after a while it seemed to me that the responses were sort of missing the point, and were utterly clueless about where this stuff was coming from and how it had been building for years." So Bérubé, then a junior faculty member who had published only two scholarly articles on the obscure African-American poet Melvin Tolson, sat down in the spring of 1991 and wrote his own response. That article, which appeared in the Voice, was a scathing attack on critics of political correctness. It argued, often with detailed refutations, that most of those critics were ill-informed of, or even actively misrepresenting, what they claimed to criticize. It mounted a defense of the academic left and of the value of literary theory. And perhaps most important, his writing style was nothing like the stereotypical theorist's jumble of jargon. Colloquial and funny, he wrote with a "volatile mix of Irish ire and Irish wit," as Bérubé proudly quoted a fellow colleague -- and funny was precisely what the humorless drones of PC were not supposed to be. It brought him immediate attention and a host of further mainstream publishing opportunities.
Since then his fervent defense of university has become more complicated and more nuanced. "Over the next couple of years, I ran into enough academic nonsense to make my defenses of the academic left more qualified," he says, mentioning his disavowal of speech codes. But he hasn't stopped publishing dispatches from the cultural front. For example, in a mostly favorable review of David Denby's recent "Great Books," Bérubé agrees with Denby's praise for the value of introductory courses in Western civilization like the ones Denby recounts taking at Columbia University. But he also takes pains to note that many of the great books Denby encounters were only added to those introductory courses's syllabi recently, and largely because of the efforts of the very leftist and feminist professors Denby deplores in his book. There's something between exasperation and glee in the way Bérubé knocks down all of Denby's rhetorical straw men, going so far as to offer to award "door prizes" to anyone who can find the Columbia professors that Denby alleges had objected to teaching the "Iliad" because it glorifies war.
Even as Bérubé defends the intellectual standards of Columbia professors to a more general readership, he's more likely to be known to those professors for his attacks on the way their profession is run. In 1994, Bérubé and his colleague Cary Nelson published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Graduate Education Is Losing Its Moral Base." This article didn't focus on right-wing attacks on higher education, but instead on the deep cuts to university budgets that those attacks had helped make politically palatable. Bérubé and Nelson argued that safely tenured senior faculty were ignoring the plight of "the real victims of the fiscal crisis: new Ph.D.s seeking jobs." Graduate school has always been an apprenticeship, offering hard work and low pay but promising a good, secure job at the end of the process. With more and more new Ph.D.s in all fields unemployed, and nearly 40 percent of all faculty nationwide in part-time positions without job security, Bérubé and Nelson charged that apprenticeship had veered into exploitation. "What does it mean," they asked, "to face an academic future in which many graduate students will have none?" The article's controversial recommendations included a reduction in the number and size of graduate programs, early-retirement packages for "faculty members who are neither effective teachers nor productive scholars," and better pay and alternative career counseling for graduate students.
Both men have also argued elsewhere in favor of faculty and graduate student unionization. "Unless you have collective bargaining, unless you have contractual job security and benefits, especially for people like adjuncts and graduate students, I think the potential to erode the profession is almost unlimited. What's there to check it?" This view is far from universally shared. Even professors who are ideologically in favor of unions may insist that the apprenticeship system still works, or feel personally attacked when their graduate students complain about their working conditions. At many schools, faculty have actively worked against graduate student unionization. So when Bérubé takes up arms in defense of unionization, as he does in several essays collected in his latest book, "The Employment of English," he contends not only with university administrators and the general anti-union political climate, but often with his professional colleagues, some of whom he subjects by name to the same ire and wit he honed in their defense. For Bérubé, however, there's no real contradiction: Both of his battles are waged on behalf of an ideal of university education still worth fighting for even as it is fast disappearing. "Between distance education and the reduction of tenure-track positions," he says, "it's possible that this will be the last couple of decades of the professoriate as we know it. I kind of wish more people had seen it coming."
The politics of the academy are not the only thing Bérubé feels passionately about. He and his wife, Janet Lyon, also an Illinois English professor, have two young sons. The younger, James, was born just a few months after Bérubé's first Voice article appeared, and was diagnosed at birth with Down's syndrome. So even as the young professor was becoming a sought-after writer in his field, his life was becoming "wall-to-wall infant care" as he and Lyon took their child home. At first, he did not let this radical change in his personal life show up in his work: "To use a currently fashionable word, I was compartmentalizing." But the more he learned about child development and his own child's needs, the more the experience reshaped his thinking. "Let me put it this way: There are various ways in which I've just changed my mind about everything." Eventually, he published an autobiographical scholarly essay about how his son had changed his life. Friends who thought it the best work he had ever done forwarded it to editors at Harper's, where after much revision it became a long article and eventually a book titled "Life As We Know It."
The book, published in 1996 to overwhelmingly favorable reviews, is on one level a loving yet unsentimental memoir of Jamie Bérubé's first four years: the feeding tubes, the physical therapy, the educational decisions and bureaucracies. But on another level it's also Bérubé's best defense of the value of the humanities. Throughout, he uses the work of social philosophers and literary theorists to explain the political and cultural forces that shape his child's life. "When I talk deconstructively to folks in Special Ed., they're no strangers to the proposition that studying so-called aberrant populations is central to an understanding of who we are, whatever 'we' means. They may not have been reading Derrida, but they've been working the same terrain." In his more recent work ranging from an account of his bout of Bell's palsy to a philosophical essay on the nature of reality, Jamie appears again, not so much as a character but a limit-case and a check against the theoretical tendency toward abstraction. Bérubé wants no part of any theory that he can't be sure will provide a place at the table for both of his sons.
"Life As We Know It" could have easily lead Bérubé to prominence in the growing field of disability studies. But Bérubé is wary of making a career out of writing about his children -- although he'll happily tell an inquisitive reporter about Jamie's first-grade successes and his love of the Indianapolis Zoo dolphins. Instead, he plans to return to his literary roots: "I haven't started the next book yet, but it's going to be on 20th century African-American literature, and even worse, it's going to be intelligible. That'll piss people off." He makes a point of saying that in the coming years he plans to publish "fewer but, I hope, better things." Yet even as he says this, he has articles forthcoming in three journals and two anthologies, and his noise-rock band Nastybake is releasing its first CD. So no matter what his political adversaries might secretly hope, we haven't heard the last of Michael Bérubé.