Michael Bérubé

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Michael Bérubé (born 1961) is an Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, where he teaches American literature, disability studies, and cultural studies. He is the author of several books on cultural studies, disability rights, liberal and conservative politics, and debates in higher education.


  • Sokal was right to warn us that a certain kind of skepticism toward science could allow for a meeting of the minds between postmodernists and Creationists but was wrong to imagine that such a skepticism need necessarily flow from an attitude of epistemological relativism: as David Albert pointed out, the epistemological and political ducks just don’t always line up that way.
    • "The Sokal Hoax for Beginners", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • One of the strengths of Cultivating Humanity is that it explicitly explores the conflict between authority and reason, even if the book does not entirely resolve this conflict. Nussbaum’s untrammeled confidence in both the universality of reason and the diversity of human life makes hers a challenging and curious book, one that strongly endorses multicultural study while distancing itself from nearly everything typically associated with it, including postmodernism, identity politics, and the critique of philosophical universalism. Here, in other words, we have an emphatic humanist who rebukes the ethnocentrism and willful ignorance of her fellow self-described humanists and the relativism and irrationalism of her postmodernist colleagues. Who knows? If her book is read as carefully and as sympathetically as it was written, it might just give humanism a good name again. But can it convince readers who don’t understand “reason” as she does? That’s another question entirely.
    • "Citizens of the World, Unite: Martha Nussbaum’s Plan for Cultivating Humanity", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • Global capitalism doesn’t necessarily entail a global citizenry dedicated to relentless, free-ranging inquiry; sometimes the two can be positively antithetical — as they are in China, where multinational businesses have little sympathy for demonstrating students or organizing workers.
    • "Citizens of the World, Unite: Martha Nussbaum’s Plan for Cultivating Humanity", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • I suggest, therefore, that we try to see the intellectual challenges of contemporary literary study as enriched by rather than in competition with knowledge of the history of literary theory. In the same spirit, I suggest that we cultivate a determined antagonism to disciplinary territorialism, whether in faculty hiring, curricular design, or graduate admissions. While I have numerous complaints about the profession and various critiques of its mode of conducting business, I have not forgotten that literary study truly is a remarkable field whose appeal lies in its ceaseless intellectual delights and debates.
    • "Days of Future Past", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • One signal virtue of teaching undergraduates, then, is that it serves as a powerful reminder that pedagogy should be understood as a means of dissemination rather than a means of reproduction, even — or especially — on those bad days when you are teaching only to the six.
    • "Teaching to the Six", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • In an important sense, then, the discourse of affiliation is both more and less pernicious than the discourse of professionalism. For the problem with the rhetoric of professionalism, as it pertains to professors of English, is that the conditions of employment in the humanities are not professional enough; we see ourselves as analogous to doctors and attorneys but have no professional apparatus comparable to the AMA or ABA and accordingly far less control over our working conditions.
    • "Working for the U: On the Rhetoric of “Affiliation”", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • We sometimes play the blues, too, but we don’t talk about which blues club or which blues tradition we’re “affiliated with.” Who knows? Maybe if there were fewer academic workers caught up in the mechanisms of disciplinary and institutional snobbery, we could start thinking about what it means to be a member of a musicians’ union or a players’ union. And then maybe, when we got the workplace blues, we could get together and work it on out.
    • "Working for the U: On the Rhetoric of “Affiliation”", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • Buddhists speak of learning to see the world with “beginner’s mind,” and that’s precisely what you have to do every semester: begin again, from scratch, knowing that anything can happen — seeing those ten, or fifty, or even five hundred students, like the two thousand students you’ve seen before, with beginner’s mind. Our anxiety dreams, surely, are the index of our secret fears of failure and inadequacy. But they’re also the measure of how very difficult it is — and how very exhilarating — to begin each semester with beginner’s mind.
    • "Dream a Little Dream", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • The paradox is that university life can be both terrific and troubling for parents and children alike: the workplace environment is casual and accommodating on the one hand and clueless and hostile on the other. Usually all at the same time.
    • "Professing and Parenting", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • Universities can try, with a little imagination, a little nerve, and a little more money, to provide a humane working and living environment for every human being they employ and every human family in every form of human social arrangement. A few are already doing so. And like those universities that have adopted livingwage policies and have negotiated in good faith with campus unions, they are setting an example for the rest of American business culture to follow — and perhaps even an example for which our children and our gay colleagues will someday thank them.
    • "Professing and Parenting", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • Amazingly, this disdain for aggressive marketing and self-promotion is matched or exceeded by academe’s aversion to the kind of structural, systemic change that has made the American economy so remarkably productive. While it is true that American universities have adopted some of the most constructive developments of the business world — boosting the pay of dynamic executive officers to almost a million dollars a year while maintaining a flexible, “as-needed” workforce for outsourceable tasks such as physical plant maintenance and freshman composition — it is also true that not a single American university to date has shown enough basic business sense to register its name as a commercial trademark. This has had a strongly negative impact on universities’ mobility, and therefore prevents them from seeking out optimal wage environments in New Delhi and Singapore. But it also speaks more generally to academe’s cluelessness about how the world actually works.
    • "Universities Should Be Open for Business", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • I also tell students that an essay of two thousand words doesn’t give them all that much space to get going. “You’ve only got a few pages to make that argument of yours. You don’t need a grand introductory paragraph that begins, ‘Mark Twain is one of Earth’s greatest writers.’ It’s far better to start by giving us some idea of what you’ll be arguing and why. If you like, you can even begin by pointing us to a particularly important passage that will serve as the springboard for your larger discussion: ‘Not long after the second scaffold scene in The Scarlet Letter, when Arthur Dimmesdale joins hands with Hester Prynne and her daughter, Pearl, Nathaniel Hawthorne asks us to reconsider the meaning of the scarlet A on Hester’s breast.’”
    • "Analyze, Don’t Summarize", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • The rules for literary analysis are the same rules in play for any kind of analysis: mastery of the material. Cogency of supporting evidence. Ability to imagine and rebut salient counterarguments. Extra points for wit and style, points off for mind-numbing clichés, and permanent suspension for borrowing someone else’s argument without proper attribution.
    • "Analyze, Don’t Summarize", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • I’m not suggesting that every aspect of popular culture has the pedagogical potential of Antigone or the Aeneid, and I’m not suggesting that “classic” popular culture can do all of the intellectual work of core courses in Western Civ. The advent of “classic” popular culture means, among other things, that the cultural dreck of your childhood has somehow survived to become the cultural dreck of your children’s childhood. But it also means that popular culture is not necessarily ephemeral after all, and that the saga of Star Wars and the faux funk of KC and the Sunshine Band may in fact unite the past two generations more effectively than any number of Great Books and Western Civ courses. The curious thing about teaching popular culture these days, then, is really this: while so much of it is transitory and ephemeral, so much of it, surprisingly enough, seems to be here to stay.
    • "The Elvis Costello Problem", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • In foreign affairs, both left and right claim to speak for the conscience of America, but on Iraq the right has no moral clarity and the left has lost its moral compass. This is not a problem for the masters of realpolitik, who have long since inured themselves to the task of doing terrible things to human beings in the course of pursuing the national interest, but it is utterly devastating to those few souls who still dream that the course of human events should be judged — and guided — by principles common to many nations rather than by policies concocted by one. The emergence of the antiwar right, however, may yet hold a lesson for the left, insofar as the antiwar right relies on Brent Scowcroft’s internationalism rather than Pat Buchanan’s isolationism: the challenge clearly is to learn how to be strenuously anti-imperialist without being indiscriminately antiwar. It is a lesson the American left has never had to learn — until now.
    • "Can the Left Get Iraq Right?", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • So these days, when I talk to my scientist friends, I offer them a deal. I say: I’ll admit that you were right about the potential for science studies to go horribly wrong and give fuel to deeply ignorant and/or reactionary people. And in return, you’ll admit that I was right about the culture wars, and right that the natural sciences would not be held harmless from the right-wing noise machine. And if you’ll go further, and acknowledge that some circumspect, well-informed critiques of actually existing science have merit (such as the criticism that the postwar medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth had some ill effects), I’ll go further too, and acknowledge that many humanists’ critiques of science and reason are neither circumspect nor well-informed. Then perhaps we can get down to the business of how to develop safe, sustainable energy and other social practices that will keep the planet habitable.
    Fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the Sokal Hoax was making that kind of deal impossible, deepening the “two cultures” divide and further estranging humanists from scientists. Now, I think it may have helped set the terms for an eventual rapprochement, leading both humanists and scientists to realize that the shared enemies of their enterprises are the religious fundamentalists who reject all knowledge that challenges their faith and the free-market fundamentalists whose policies will surely scorch the earth. On my side, perhaps humanists are beginning to realize that there is a project even more vital than that of the relentless critique of everything existing, a project to which they can contribute as much as any scientist–the project of making the world a more humane and livable place. Is it still possible? I don’t know, and I’m not sanguine. Some scientific questions now seem to be a matter of tribal identity: A vast majority of elected Republicans have expressed doubts about the science behind anthropogenic climate change, and as someone once remarked, it is very difficult to get a man to understand something when his tribal identity depends on his not understanding it. But there are few tasks so urgent. About that, even Heisenberg himself would be certain.

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