- The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies
In attempting to answer the question, “Does academic literary study even have a future—or should it?” (viii), Americanist and cultural critic Michael Bérubé surveys not only the discipline of English studies but also the academic culture in which the discipline is embedded. Responding to a variety of attacks (from both the Left and the Right), Bérubé offers persuasive arguments for the value of the discipline’s sometimes undisciplined embrace of areas like popular culture, film studies, cultural studies, and literatures in English that derive from places other than Great Britain or North America. Overall, Bérubé views this activity as a sign of health and vitality. Even so, he understands the vulnerability of a discipline that appears at once amorphous and inchoate to those who demand that English departments attend exclusively to the “literary” (or to established Great Works). Thus, he rightly warns that “institutionalized literary study, as an academic subject and as a profession, simply will not exist very much longer if it does not demarcate, for its potential clients, its domain and procedures, however loosely these may be defined” (159). No less urgent, in Bérubé’s view, is the need to establish what he calls “ethical working conditions for faculty and graduate students” (143). His sobering delineation of the current job crisis will surprise no one. But while many faculty members are content merely to bewail the paucity of tenure-track openings, Bérubé insists that we address the “increasingly tenuous relation between our discipline’s expectations for publishing and the jobs our discipline characteristically offers its new Ph.D.’s” (104–5). The demand that Ph.D.’s produce scholarly or critical books even before they leave graduate school, he argues, contrasts absurdly with the fact that, in the 1990s, the profession of English studies devotes less than half its courses to literature and “more than half its courses to composition” (101). Bérubé’s remedies for the job crisis include timely retirement packages, downsizing of graduate school admissions, and the curricular redesign of graduate programs. Given Bérubé’s humanely progressive political stances, it is surprising that he nowhere discusses the political origins of the current crisis or analyzes the economic impacts on higher education of funding cuts initiated by Presidents [End Page 606] Ronald Reagan and George Bush. And he never notes that we are downsizing the professoriate and continuing to underfund all levels of public education at precisely the moment that the United States needs to accommodate the largest and most diverse school-age population in the nation’s history. Despite these omissions, this is an important book, thoughtful and intelligent throughout. Bérubé’s most important argument, however, may be that the introduction of cultural studies into the English department curriculum should also “have an impact on the mundane and quotidian world of public policy”—in which he includes “school breakfast programs, disability law, or the minimum wage” (219). As eager as he is to support cultural studies, Bérubé nonetheless admits that he fears “an intellectual regime in which cultural studies is nothing more than a parasitic kind of color commentary . . ., too busy explaining the rise of the postmodern . . . fundamentalist Right to be of any use in actually opposing it” (230). This reviewer heartily agrees.