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Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies

MICHAEL BÉRUBÉ
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 270
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qgg1j
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    Employment of English
    Book Description:

    What sorts of cultural criticism are teachers and scholars to produce, and how can that criticism be "employed" in the culture at large? In recent years, debates about the role and direction of English departments have mushroomed into a broader controversy over the public legitimacy of literary criticism. At first glance this might seem odd: few taxpayers and legislators care whether the nation's English professors are doing justice to the project of identifying the beautiful and the sublime. But in the context of the legitimation crisis in American higher education, the image of English departments has in fact played a major role in determining public attitudes toward colleges and college faculty. Similarly, the changing economic conditions of universities have prompted many English professors to rethink their relations to their "clients," asking how literary study can serve the American public. What sorts of cultural criticism are teachers and scholars to produce, and how can that criticism be "employed" in the culture at large? In The Employment of English, Michael Brub, one of our most eloquent and gifted critics, examines the cultural legitimacy of literary study. In witty, engaging prose, Brub asserts that we must situate these questions in a context in which nearly half of all college professors are part-time labor and in which English departments are torn between their traditional mission of defining movements of literary history and protocols of textual interpretation, and their newer tasks of interrogating wider systems of signification under rubrics like "gender," "hegemony," "rhetoric," "textuality" (including film and video), and "culture." Are these new roles a betrayal of the field's founding principles, in effect a short-sighted sell-out of the discipline? Do they represent little more that an attempt to shore up the status of--and student enrollments in--English? Or are they legitimate objects of literary study, in need of public support? Simultaneously investigating the economic and the intellectual ramifications of current debates, The Employment of English provides the clearest and most condensed account of this controversy to date.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2342-5
    Subjects: Astronomy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. I EMPLOYMENT IN ENGLISH
    • 1 CULTURAL STUDIES AND CULTURAL CAPITAL
      (pp. 3-36)

      In the past decade, cultural studies has named a desire, a desire Fredric Jameson rightly links to the aspirations of populist intellectuals and the Utopian hopes of the Left. Yet cultural studies has also been presented more “theoretically” (or prosaically) precisely as the floor plan for a new discipline—a transdisciplinary or antidisciplinary discipline that promises to remake the humanities and redraw or erase the traditional boundaries between academic fields. What is arguably the most striking feature of cultural studies in the contemporary landscape, however, is the role it has played in the collective disciplinary imaginary of literary studies: in...

    • 2 THE BLESSED OF THE EARTH
      (pp. 37-64)

      In the fall of 1995, not long after graduate students at the University of Kansas voted to unionize, affiliating themselves with the American Federation of Teachers, I was invited to speak at Kansas on the future of graduate study in the humanities. In the course of my talk, I not only endorsed the unionization of graduate students at KU and elsewhere, but also referred, in passing, to what I called the “bad faith” attempt of administrators and faculty at Yale University to claim that their graduate students were simply students and not also “employees.” As long as people are working...

    • 3 PROFESSIONAL OBLIGATIONS AND ACADEMIC STANDARDS
      (pp. 65-89)

      Over the past five years I seem to have earned for myself a somewhat schizophrenic—or at least double-voiced—role as an academic cultural critic. On the one hand, I have taken a number of opportunities to defend and explain contemporary theories and practices in the liberal arts and sciences; on the other hand, I have more recently taken a number of opportunities to criticize contemporary academic practices that touch on the structural and economic determinants of the profession of teaching in American higher education. There should be no mystery as to why I began taking more of the latter...

    • 4 PEER PRESSURE POLITICAL TENSIONS IN THE BEAR MARKET
      (pp. 90-111)

      Nineteen ninety-four was a momentous year for many reasons, and perhaps one of the least important of these was the reemergence, in late fall, of the figure of the Arbiter of Aesthetic Value. Although Rwandans and Republicans made infinitely more important news during the year, something ought to be said nonetheless about how wondrous a moment it is in American culture when a mere literary critic can write a book insisting that (alas) literature has no socially redeeming value, no “utility” at all, and get glowing reviews from practically every major English-language newspaper on either side of the North Atlantic....

    • 5 STRAIGHT OUTTA NORMAL NONPROFIT FICTION PUBLISHING ON THE MARGINS
      (pp. 112-140)

      I argued in chapter 1 that contemporary literature in English has been strangely and unconscionably overlooked in our current debates over literary and cultural studies. Since the previous three chapters have not touched on literature at all, except to gesture, at the close of the last chapter, toward the importance of literature in a cultural studies curriculum, readers may well be asking by this point why I should have made such an argument in chapter 1, and how, if at all, it informs my own practices as a reader, writer, and teacher. I am no expert, after all, in Michael...

  5. II EMPLOYING ENGLISH
    • 6 ENGLISH FOR EMPLOYMENT
      (pp. 143-169)

      I hope thus far to have made a few convincing proposals about the relation of contemporary literature to departments of English, and about the importance of maintaining ethical working conditions for graduate students and faculty in the humanities. I am not claiming that these two topics are intimately related; on the contrary, I admit that ethical working conditions for faculty and graduate students need not facilitate the teaching of literature any more than the teaching of literature guarantees ethical working conditions for teachers. And yet there may well be a nontrivial connection between the relative autonomy of the “aesthetic” and...

    • 7 PROFESSIONAL ADVOCATES WHEN IS ʺADVOCACYʺ PART OF ONEʹS VOCATION?
      (pp. 170-182)

      I recently received two student responses to my teaching that shed some interesting light on my classroom practices and my students’ expectations. The first was from a student who wrote on one of my evaluation forms that he or she was glad that I had discussed the question of whether gay or lesbian sexuality was an issue in the work of Willa Cather, Hart Crane, and Nella Larsen. The student was pleased that my class even broached the subject, and praised me for being unlike “those politically correct professors who never bring up controversial topics for fear of offending someone.”...

    • 8 FREE SPEECH AND DISCIPLINE THE BOUNDARIES OF THE MULTIVERSITY
      (pp. 183-203)
      Michael Bérubé and Janet Lyon

      Both of us have long job titles. We both hold appointments in the English department at Illinois; in addition to this, one of us has a faculty appointment in the women’s studies program while the other is a faculty affiliate of the Afro-American Studies and Research Program; and we’re both appointed faculty members in the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. We begin by noting our multiple institutional identities because they bear, directly and indirectly, on the subject of our essay: the ongoing critique of disciplinarity and institutionality that has characterized American universities at least since the early 1960s, and...

    • 9 EXTREME PREJUDICE THE COARSENING OF AMERICAN CONSERVATISM
      (pp. 204-215)

      Strolling through the Detroit International Airport in October 1995 on my way to my parents’ home in Virginia Beach, I came upon a newsstand-bookstore that was devoting eight or ten shelves of space—roughly one-quarter, I believe, of its “new best-sellers” wall—to Dinesh D’Souza’sThe End of Racism. I had heard a great deal about the book before it was published, and had just recently been asked (twice, actually) by theChicago Tribuneto review the thing. I declined, partly on the grounds that I’ve already read more D’Souza than any human should, having perused bothIlliberal Education(1991)...

    • 10 CULTURAL CRITICISM AND THE POLITICS OF SELLING OUT
      (pp. 216-242)

      My first attempt to write this essay dates from the spring of 1995, and one of the more curious features of its original composition was that it turned out to be anything but the essay I had intended to write. When, in the summer of 1994, I was asked by the English Department at Kansas State University to address the subject of cultural studies and the public sphere, I assumed that I was being asked to do so partly because my work has addressed the relations between academic and popular knowledges: the university in the public sphere, the university as...

  6. WORKS CITED
    (pp. 243-252)
  7. INDEX
    (pp. 253-259)
  8. ABOUT THE AUTHOR
    (pp. 260-260)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 261-261)