Blogs > Cliopatria > The Bérubé Factor

Mar 14, 2005 1:50 pm

The Bérubé Factor

In my always collegial fashion, I seem to have attracted the ire of Penn State professor Michael Bérubé through a piece that I published a few months back for Mainstream, a bi-monthly journal on issues relating to Israel and Jewish issues. As Mainstream isn’t on-line, I was asked by Campus Watch if it could post the article, and I happily obliged.

Bérubé offers three objections to my article: that I urged faculty and administrators to assist students who support intellectual diversity in the academy; that, to demonstrate the gulf between the faculty and students on issues relating to the Middle East, I mentioned E. L. Doctorow’s anti-war address at Hofstra, a well-reported event in the New York area in which Doctorow’s speech was greeted with a standing ovation from the vast majority of the faculty and near-silence from the student body; and that I . . . criticized Michael Bérubé. (You can take a guess as to which of the three elements of the piece he finds most objectionable.)

Even before writing the Midstream article, I had run across Bérubé’s name in a few different venues. In a 2000 commentary in boundary, Bérubé reminisced about a visit to CUNY’s faculty senate, a special occasion for him in that it allowed him to “meet faculty activists such as Sandi Cooper.” (Cooper, a professor at the College of Staten Island who at the time had never even met me, uttered the single best line of my tenure case, when she informed the faculty senate forum that my receiving tenure constituted the Chancellor of CUNY’s “slapping” her in the “face.”) Bérubé also is the subject of a book review I’ve occasionally assigned to my graduate classes, as an example of the most effective skewering of a subject I’ve encountered in a review essay. Reviewing Bérubé’s The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies, Mark Bauerlein detected

another issue worth considering in this book, a theme that emerges in every chapter and vies for prominence with the argument for economic reform—that is, Bérubé himself. For this analysis of English employment contains not only ruminations on student exploitation and neoconservative assaults but also abundant material on Bérubé’s own career: his experiences at conferences and in the hallways of the University of Illinois; his encounters with students, editors, and writers; opinions on his status in the profession; and scholarly attacks whose target is Michael Bérubé. Bérubé bolsters a point or initiates a discussion by citing something that happened to him or something that someone said about him: Chapter 2 begins with his lecture at the University of Kansas and what the graduate students there told him; chapter 3 starts, “Over the years I seem to have earned for myself a somewhat schizophrenic . . . role as an academic cultural critic” (65); chapter 5 opens with a request that Bérubé write an article for Critique on Fiction Collective Two; chapter 7 begins, “I recently received two student responses to my teaching that shed some interesting light on my classroom practices” (170); chapter 8, “Both of us [Bérubé and Janet Lyon] have long job titles” (183); chapter 9, “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 . . . to Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism” (204); and chapter 10, “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” (216).

Bérubé scatters similar observations throughout the text, remarks ranging from the melodramatically declarative (“I am a classical liberal reformist, and I hope and expect to be pilloried in precisely these terms” [66]) to the piously contemplative (“As I contemplate The End of Racism, I await the requisite soul-searching on the Right” [215]). Even when parleying political and intellectual positions on English, Bérubé selects his antagonists using a personal criterion. In proposing early-retirement packages for incompetent faculty, he quotes extensively from Joseph Aimone, vice president of the MLA’s graduate student caucus, who alters Bérubé’s idea by advising, “Effective teachers and productive scholars need to be induced to retire” (74)—a ridiculous demand. So why give Aimone the column space? Because he mentions Bérubé by name: “Ask Nelson and Bérubé—would they retire in midcareer for the good of the profession?” (74). Likewise, Bérubé spends fifteen pages refuting Fish’s tidy polemic Professional Correctness (145–58), an entertaining tweaking of the noses of political critics and antidisciplinarians, hardly an argument to be taken very seriously. But then, Bérubé explains, “it took issue with my work” (145). Finally, he spends three pages on Jim Neilson and Gregory Meyerson’s criticisms of his plan to shrink doctoral programs. They contend that for ideological reasons, the Ph.D. should be expanded; an education in the humanities has rightly become a “political education, a means by which students learned to read the historical, social, and economic truths hidden and distorted by capitalist culture” (quoted on 81). This is a bizarre conception of literary study—English as anticapitalist detective work—best ignored, but, because it appears in a review of a volume coedited by Bérubé, he features it here.

“Bérubé’s style,” Bauerlein noted, “instances a widespread critical manner,” in which “individual stories and professional status count as evidence, as a demonstration of his major points about academic injustice, right-wing stupidity, and graduate student disaffection.”

I can’t outdo Bauerlein’s analysis of Bérubé’s intellectual style, and Bérubé’s objections to the Midstream piece seem to fall into categories that Bauerlein illustrated several years ago. On faculty assistance to students promoting intellectual diversity, Bérubé suggests that “faculty and administrators should help students distribute red stars for the office doors of anti-American professors; on other campuses, they should institute intellectual diversity programs so that conservative students will feel more comfortable in class and have higher self-esteem.” I’m not sure if Bérubé engages in this sort of behavior toward professors with whom he disagrees at Penn State, but in my Midstream article, I had more in mind the activities of an organization like FIRE, which helped out the elected leadership of the Brooklyn College Student Government Assembly when the Brooklyn administration, last fall, ousted the Assembly Speaker after the Speaker and his party introduced an academic freedom bill. (The action violated college procedures and was annulled.) And while I’m sure Bérubé would have joined in the applause for Doctorow had he attended the Hofstra commencement speech, he avoids comment on whether the faculty’s response suggested that Hofstra professors seem to represent only one point of view on controversial issues.

As Bauerlein’s article forecast, however, Bérubé seems less concerned with the fate of students, whether they support or oppose intellectual diversity, than he does with my criticism Michael Bérubé, in this case of an article that he published in 2003 in the Chronicle. The article spoke of his attempts—“gently but (I hoped) not patronizingly”—to deal with a conservative student in his class, who “snorted loudly and derisively” to express his objection to the content of one of Bérubé’s lectures. Bérubé concludes his essay by noting that, as he does for students with “very little sense of social boundaries, a few of whom may genuinely have had some degree of Asperger's syndrome, with various autistic or antisocial symptoms,” or students who are Stalinists, or students with disabilities, he makes “reasonable accommodation” for students like the conservative subject of his article.

In his blog piece, Bérubé argues that this passage did not represent a comparison of conservatives to students with disabilities. Hmm. I’m not sure that, even off the top of my head, much less in a piece published for the Chronicle, I would compare how I respond to students whose political viewpoints differ from mine to students who “genuinely have had some degree of Asperger's syndrome, with various autistic or antisocial symptoms.” But I apologize if I misinterpreted Bérubé’s intent in making the comparison, and I express the best wishes to the conservative students who can be “gently but not patronizingly” treated in his courses.

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Ralph E. Luker - 3/18/2005

I think that it's a natural and understandable instinct. Learning things helps us to work against it, but I imagine that it runs very deep in all of us -- unless we fall victim to some kind of pathological group self-hatred.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/18/2005

Many years ago I participated in a Jewish-Arab dialogue list: very tense, at times deeply divided and heated discussions. But everyone loved to talk about food and about linguistics: those were the two topics where the discussions could go on forever without ever getting rancorous.

I wonder if I need to do a bit of soul-searching on this question, though: I was very ready to believe that Jews were the genesis of someone else's tradition, when if I'd thought about it I might well have realized that some kind of preserved beef was probably part of the diet of a lot of Europeans and immigrants at that time.

John H. Lederer - 3/18/2005

When PBS ran a series in 2000 it which it interviewed people over 100 years old, one was former North Dakota farmer who reminisced about the beef that was kept in brine jars on the back porch, finally asserting that "they ate a lot better back then".

Fascinating series-- it included a woman who was a survivor of the Triangle Shirt fire, and another woman whose parents threatened to disown her for riding on a motorcycle with a young man.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/18/2005

"Interesting," as opposed to "food fight"?

Jonathan Dresner - 3/18/2005

Interesting (I've posted a link here from the original post). And I thought I was going to get away without a historiographical fight....

Food history, actually, very interesting stuff.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/18/2005

Mr. Lederer, I suspect that you meant to make this comment at Jon Dresner's post. Tho' goodness knows, enough corny and "where's the beefy" things have been said on this one.

John H. Lederer - 3/18/2005

"Emphasizing its long history in the Irish diet, Regina Sexton...points out that a similar product is mentioned in the 11th-century Irish text Aislinge meic Con Glinne.... She adds that corned beef has a particular regional association with Cork City. From the late 17th century until 1825, the beef-curing industry was the biggest and most important asset to the city. In this period Cork exported vast quantities of cured beef to Britain, Europe, America, Newfoundland, and the W. Indies. During the Napoleonic wars the British army was supplied principally with corned beef which was cured in and exported from the port of Cork."
---Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (page 218)

So perhaps the immigrant Irish, who probably had made it in Ireland, but had not themselves eaten much corned beef because of the expense, rediscovered it from the Jews? It would be interesting to know the relative value of beef in Ireland and New York, in say, 1845.

Personally, I have always imagined that manna consisted of alternating salmon halves and corned beef briskets -- how else did the Jews find these in the desert?<g>


Leo Edward Casey - 3/18/2005

Okay, Ralph, you win. It is clear that the price of trying to engage in a respectful manner, but with disagreements, is to be draggged into this blog war. It is a price that I am not prepared to pay. You are welcome to the last word, to which I will not respond, as this is one battlefield I am not prepared to meet you on.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/17/2005

Mr. Casey, You are stunned, I take it, because you don't read very carefully.
1. I specifically repudiated any equivalency between Berube on the Left and Horowitz on the Right. You continue to argue with something I never said.
2. It really isn't any of your business, but as it happens I am a Republican. Worse than that, I am a Southern, white, evangelical Republican. Let that, with all its stereotyping, sink in deeply. The fact remains that I have been to jail, shot at, and fire-bombed in the civil rights movement; and haven't voted for a Republican candidate for president in over 40 years. I don't keep track of the party politics of my colleagues and they speak for themselves.
3. I suspect that you do not know much about KC Johnson's politics. I suspect that after blogging with him for 14 months I probably know more about his general political attitude than you do. Sometimes I agree with him; sometimes I do not. Always, he has my utmost respect.
4. The fact remains that Professor Berube, whom I also respect, launced a snide and vicious blogwar aimed at Professor Johnson over a relatively minor matter in Berube's impressive body of work. That just happened to coincide with attacks by David Horowitz, for whom I have very little respect, on another of my colleagues. I made note of that fact. You apparently are determined to renew the "blogspat". Good for you.

Leo Edward Casey - 3/17/2005


I am a bit stunned by your answer.

Is Michael on the left? Yes, of course, he is.

Is Horowitz on the right? Yes, of course, he is.

Is that the issue? Hardly.

From what I can gather from your many posts here, you consider yourself to be a liberal on most political questions. [My apologies if I read this wrong, or if you prefer to be non-denominational in your politics.] Would I be justified in asserting some sort of equivalence between you and Ann Coulter? Wouldn't the suggestion that you conducted yourself in the same fashion that she did, just as a liberal, be rather offensive?

Or take KC Johnson, who is certainly on the right. Would it be fair game to call KC an Alexander Cockburn or a Michael Moore or even a Noam Chomsky of the right?

The left and the right are awfully broad designations, and they both contain folks who act honorably and with decency, and folks who don't. You have selected a person of the right who seems to have very short supplies of both of those departments, and equated him with Michael Berube. There is a rather obvious inference you are asking the reader to draw, that Berue also comes up short in those two qualities.

The problem is the equivalence you established between the two, as if the Michael conducted himself in the way that David Horowitz does. As if Michael was the sort of ideological true believer, with complete disregard for the truth, that David Horowitz is.

From where I sit, that's more than unfair. Among other things, Michael has a history of being willing to stand up against authoritarians and simple minded anti-Americans and such on the left, and this has earned him a great deal of abuse in return. It isn't all that hard, with the help of a google search engine, to discover that.

And if you take a step back from what has become so heated an exchange that I don't think any non-participant could even keep all of the charges and counter-charges straight at this point, I think you, as the decent and honorable person you have so often shown yourself to be here, would recognize that Michael has done nothing here that would justify this sort of approach.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/17/2005

Mr. Casey, I've just pointed out over on Michael's blog that Cliopatria is a diverse group of historians, I am not their spokesperson, some of us were taking hits from Horowitz, others of us were taking hits from Berube. Am I wrong to characterize Horowitz as being on the Right? I don't believe he is a conservative, but he claims to be on the Right. Do you believe that he is not? Has Michael repudiated his own credentials on the Left? I made no claim that they were of equal intellectual heft or seriousness -- only that some Cliopatriarchs were taking hits from the Left; others were being targeted by the Right. You seem to think there is something wrong with an observation that I think is banally obvious. O.k., its banality is a flaw. What else?

Leo Edward Casey - 3/17/2005

I unfortunately [perhaps that it not the best choice of words in this instance] came to this blog war late, and reacted to what appeared to be an entire thread, before I discovered that there were threads all over not just this site, but the Internet. At this rate, there will be more links to this mother of all blog battles than there are connections on David Horowitz's infamous web site.

I have now read most of it. Truth be told, I should be finishing a paper I am writing on collective bargaining in education, but I was tired of trying to work my way past one particular problem, so I was looking for distractions. If nothing else, I found a multitude of exemplars of folks who could probably use a little of the writer's exhaustion I was experienceing.

But having spent a whole lot more time on this dispute than I should have, I can't say, Ralph, that I find my initial impressions to be wrong.

Even if you were right that Michael had transgressed in the ways you say he did, the one-sided way in which you have come down on him, while basically ignoring the way in which KC Johnson began and carried on the exchange from his side, just can't be defended. It's disappointing, because I had come to expect far more fairmindedness from you.

And I find completely unconvincing this effort to paint Michael as some sort of true believer left equivalent of David Horowitz. In your hearts of hearts, you have to know was the most unfair provocation to escape from your own keyboard in this little exchange.

Leo Casey

Ralph E. Luker - 3/17/2005

Btw, both here and at The Weblog you accuse me of saying that I called you an unethical teacher. Neither KC nor I have made that accusation and your failure to withdraw the claim that we did is noted.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/17/2005

Michael, I found the exchange we had at The Weblog and where I mentioned my own daughter's disability in order to disarm you of that rhetorical weapon. I think that is fair. We stand on common ground in that respect and it was fair of me to indicate that.
Whether you self-consciously "used" Anthony Smith, in particular, is beside the point. He certainly wanted to be used. He's been looking anxiously for someone to deliver some heavy-weight attack on KC for months -- because he didn't believe that he had the heft to do it himself. His glee when you launched that attack was rather pitiful in all its adoring glory.
What you claim is "pulling that punch" was only a recognition that you'd already done your damage and that the knock-out blow wasn't required. It wasn't required because your disciples had already been gnawing away at KC's ankles and nailing his palms.
I can tell you from personal experience, Michael, that it is extremely unpleasant to be on the receiving end of your invective. Erin O'Connor knows about that. KC knows about it. I know about it. Try to seize high moral ground, if you will, by declaring our responses to it "surreal, and more than surreal" if you will. It is no less vicious.
You do, in fact, have my very best wishes.

Michael B?rub - 3/17/2005

All right, this really has to stop. Ralph, you know that you have not been at the receiving end of any rhetorical abuse from me. On the contrary, I have taken a great deal from you, and I have not responded in kind. Nor will I do so. In this exchange at The Weblog, you make a series of truly extraordinary charges about me, the very lowest of which is that this debate is really about my son with Down syndrome and that I have "gone all ballistic about it when people don't bow low enough in my august presence because of it." I invite Cliopatria readers, including Leo, to review that exchange at The Weblog, and determine for themselves whether I said anything to warrant Ralph's remarkable outbursts, and whether my response to Ralph there merits anything he's said here.

At the end of that thread, finally, you accuse me of "deploy[ing] others in [my] service" and "us[ing] other people to carry out my work." I remarked at the Weblog that I had no idea what you meant, and you did not clarify. But apparently you believe that I have "used" or "deployed" Adam Kotsko and Anthony Smith. That accusation is or should be beneath you, but I have to admit that it's the only thing in this sorry affair that has made me laugh out loud.

And lastly, as to the charge that I "loosed a torrent of personal abuse and invoked some very painful memories" with regard to KC Johnson: what I actually did was to remind Professor Johnson-- who had, by then, gone into considerable detail on this site about two irrelevant but unpleasant exchanges in my professional career, one of which demonstrates that Mark Bauerlein doesn't like me and the other of which demonstrates that I lost my temper with Erin O'Connor-- that if I were to do the same to him, which I did not do, then he would not be pleased with the results. In other words, I actually pulled that punch.

I have also apologized for using the word "liar," as you well know. But I have put up with a great deal of abuse from you and KC here, not least the repeated insistence that my conduct in this exchange suggests that I am an unethical teacher. It has been surreal, and more than surreal.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/17/2005

Mr. Casey, If for no other reason, because I am a historian, I welcome this rather late contribution to the discussion. For the record, you should be aware that Professor Berube had loosed a torrent of personal abuse and invoked some very painful memories in order to overwhelm Professor Johnson as a dialogical opponent. One can do that. But let me tell you something, Mr. Casey, I've been on the receiving end of the sort of rhetorical abuse Berube was dishing out. I've seen people I cared about turn on me in a threatening way -- in a way that destroyed my own career. Your "analysis" of Professor Johnson's post, paragraph by paragraph, might even be, on the face of things, accurate. It can be, at the same time, entirely wrong. KC Johnson and I've been there and I doubt that you have.

Leo Edward Casey - 3/17/2005

Since the analysis of Berube's original piece has now proceeded along the lines of what arguments were made in which paragraphs, and how the sequence and relative weight of these argument determined the overall tenor of the essay, might I make my own contribution?

In reading the KC Johnson piece which began this thread, I was struck by the fact that paragraphs 1 though 8, purportedly written for the purpose of answering Berube's assertion that Johnson had misrepresented his views, contained nothing which spoke to this issue. Indeed, it would be fair to say that paragraphs 1 through 8 was ad hominem attack piled upon ad hominem attack. When he tired at the task, he brought in a sub off the bench to continue with full zeal [paragraphs 4 and 5]. At least paragraph 9 spoke to the issue, albeit in the form of an apology surrounded with enough sarcasm surrounding it to make sure the most dim-witted would recognize it as insincere.

I will practice some Leavisite criticism here, and leave the political signifance of this for others to decide.

Alastair Mackay - 3/15/2005

Well, Prof. Berube--unlike me, you deserve the honorific--thanks for making time for this respectful exchange. To be clear, I have criticised your essay for its inflammatory caricature of conservatives. I've suggested that this goading had a lot to do with the furious reaction you experienced, then and now.

And I have also backed up your specific point, that you did not compare conservatives with disabled people, in the final paragraph or anywhere else. Rather than get angry at those who disagree, I have suggested that they click the hyperlink and consult the Chronicle's archives.

Two people can disagree on one subject, and agree on another.

An essay beats a conversation at times like this, as your original words are there for the re-reading.

Michael B?rub - 3/15/2005

Well, Professor Mackay, the thing is that I think your criticisms of the essay are quite reasonable. Saying those paragraphs "detracted from the essay" speaks not only to the aims of the essay but, oddly enough, to its manner of composition. My first "final" draft of the piece was completed in September 2003, and I thought I was done after the Chronicle edited it. Six weeks later, they asked for some comment on the Academic Bill of Rights and Horowitz's travels through Colorado, as well as H.R. 3077, and in retrospect I simply should have said OK, but that's matter for another essay.

But your legitimate criticisms of the piece really are a world away from the claim that I advised faculty to treat conservative students as if they were people with disabilities. I know I may be a minority of one here, but I think writers who don't get angry at that kind of misprision-- and the damage it can do in the public sphere-- just aren't paying attention.

Alastair Mackay - 3/15/2005

Prof. Berube, your writing here and at your blog suggests a firey temper--that you are quick to take offense, and quick to give offense. Yet you are a thoughtful writer, willing to engage in public introspection, to admit to error, and to extend olive branches. That's quite a combination.

To offer a different answer to "Were they, in fact, gratuitous swipes?" (12:39pm): "If you meant Should I Have Asked John to Cool It? Standards of Reason in the Classroom to have been about pedagogy and the Teachable Moment, then, yes, your slams at conservatives were indeed gratuitous. They detracted from the essay, as the just-ended contretemps with Prof. Johnson illustrates.

On the other hand, if you wanted to mock your adversaries as badly as you wanted to say something about the teaching life, then no, those glorious middle paragraphs were just as they should have been. Breaks or no breaks.

It's disappointing that you seem so reluctant to distinguish between the two positions. Perhaps they don't seem very different from where you stand. But from outside the Academy's 'liberal cocoon,' they are indeed distinct.

Michael B?rub - 3/15/2005

Were they, in fact, gratuitous swipes? Insofar as those paragraphs suggested that John's conservative opinions, rather than his classroom outbursts, were the problem, they were infelicitous and misleading. (This is what Erin O'Connor was right about.) But my point was that there is indeed a national network of conservative activists protesting what they see as liberal bias on campus, and that they often resort to histrionics in making their case. Originally, those paragraphs were supposed to be set off from the rest of the essay with section breaks. Not that these would've solved the problem, but I was surprised and dismayed not to see them in the published version.

Really, I think the single weakest sentence in those paragraphs-- and in the essay as a whole-- is this: "Still, I have never seen a conservative student on any of the campuses I've inhabited -- Penn State, the Universities of Illinois and Virginia, and Columbia -- penalized by a professor for his or her beliefs." In my forthcoming book, I admit that this is a "careless" sentence, for "there are indeed classes in which conservative students are quickly made to understand that their convictions will meet with disapproval of some kind from their peers or from the front of the room, even if this disapproval does not take the form of a lower grade, just as there are any number of social contexts in which liberals know that their lives will be a little easier if they keep some of their opinions to themselves." One of the people who wrote to the Chronicle in response to my essay (Irfan Khawaja by name) basically flayed me for that sentence, and I have to admit (and so I hereby do) that Professor Khawaja had a point.

Alastair Mackay - 3/15/2005

Prof. Berube's comment (10:47am) speaks to some of the matters Prof. Johnson raised, but seems to elide others. Yes, his Chronicle essay was a rumination on the teachable moment. To that, he melded five paragraphs (17-21) of gratuitous swipes at conservatives. John's flaws as metaphors for the flaws of conservative intellectuals.

Despite the eloquence of paragraphs 3-6, quoted by Prof. Berube immediately above, it's hard be surprised that targets of the essay's bile felt, well, targeted by the essay's bile. And responded.

The obvious thought experiment: suppose Prof. Berube hadn't segued into conservative-bashing. How would KC Johnson, Erin O'Connor, et alia have written about this hypothetical essay--the one that didn't stray from its ostensible subject?

Michael B?rub - 3/15/2005

Sorry about those italics at the end, everyone (only the word "John" should be italicized). They do make that last paragraph look absurdly urgent.

Michael B?rub - 3/15/2005

Last comment from me, folks. I'm still not entirely convinced that the essay KC read is the essay I wrote, and I remain struck by the repetitiveness and narrowness of KC's citations of the thing. KC has quoted the "gently but (I hoped) not patronizingly" line, and he's quoted the bit about how John "snorted loudly and derisively." But he's never bothered to address himself to the legitimate question raised by the passage that contains these lines. For those of you who don't want to wade through the essay paragraph by paragraph (though I thank Alastair Mackay for doing so, and I want to point out that paragraphs 17-21 were added to the essay very late in the game, after Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights had begun to make news in Colorado in fall 2003 and the House had passed H.R. 3077), here's that context:

"Unfortunately, to most of my students, the passage [on black nationalism in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo] was just so much mumbo jumbo, so I explained briefly that Muhammad Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam had been incendiary in the mid-1960s but eventually led the United States to reconsider its criteria for conscientious- objector status; that the comparison between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and members of the Nation of Islam was a fairly common one at the time; and that one nationalist group, the Republic of New Africa, had called for the creation of a separate black nation based in five Southern states, as partial reparation for slavery.

"At that point, John, a large white student in the back of the room, snorted loudly and derisively: 'That's completely ridiculous!' he exclaimed. 'It may seem ridiculous to you, yes,' I replied, 'and, for the record, I don't believe there was any possibility that the Republic of New Africa was going to become a reality. I don't endorse it myself. But it was proposed, and some black nationalists pointedly compared their relation with the U.S. government to that of the Mormons.'

"But John was just getting started. These people are not Africans, he insisted. They are African-Americans. The whole 'Africa' thing is a charade; racial separatism and identity politics are tearing this country apart; people have to realize that if they live in this country, no matter how they got here, they are Americans first, and something-Americans second.

"Apparently, we had touched a nerve. I pointed out, gently but (I hoped) not patronizingly, that whatever any of us might feel about the various projects of black nationalism, we are, after all, dealing with a character in a novel -- a character, I hastened to add, whose reductive brand of nationalism is ultimately undermined in the course of the narrative. It only makes sense to try to understand what he might be trying to say. And now let's move on to another example of anachronism in Mumbo Jumbo. . . ."

I fail to see how any of this supports KC's contention that my problem in this class is partly "self-created." And the reason I made my initial point to John gently but (I hoped) not patronizingly-- as KC has, strangely, failed to acknowledge thus far-- is that here I had a student who was going off on a rant about a literary character's rendition of late-1960s black separatism without any sense of the character's role in the novel or any sense of why Reed would have placed such a character in a novel about the Harlem Renaissance. Imagine a student whose strong feelings about alcohol led him to denounce Jay Gatsby for bootlegging and throwing large parties, and you'll get some sense of what was going on. The irony here, which KC seems to miss for whatever reason, is that it was John who kept derailing the class into explicit discussions of political questions (black nationalism, Japanese internment camps) rather than staying with the question of how these political questions played out in the texts before us.

I've explained these things in the past to my conservative critics, and when I have, some of them have come back with the argument that the assignment of Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, in itself, demonstrates prima facie liberal bias. I do hope no one here is going to attempt that dive.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/15/2005

Again, I'm sorry, but I simply don't follow the point of the Mackay comment. If one wants to make the claim that "John" represents a stand-in for contemporary conservatism, that strikes me as wildly overinflated.

On Sharon's point, the answer to question one is yes (although, as I noted to Tim, I assign the review as part of a broader list of reviews that students in my PhD class can consult to see what a review is).

On two, I agree completely--I wouldn't want to be a student in any of John's classes, either. Part of the problem, however, seems to be self-created by Berube. Where I differ with Berube is that I go to great lengths to keep my politics out of the classroom--most students end a class without any sense of what my political views are, and, indeed, my views don't reside comfortably at either end of the political spectrum--and so when dealing with a "John"-like student, it is, more strictly, a classroom-management style issue, rather than the Berube classroom management/ideological problem.

Alastair Mackay - 3/15/2005

> I should hope that anyone publishing in the Chronicle would attempt not to be caustic.
Prof. Berube met that hope, in the Chronicle and in his comment on this thread as well.

> A generous interpretation of Bérubé's motives would be to suggest that he was discussing pedagogical techniques...
A close reading of the Chronicle essay supports this interpretation for a majority of its paragraphs, including, arguably, its closing one.

> But Mackay seems to be making a harsh reading of Bérubé...

> ...saying that it's OK for Bérubé to use this conservative student as a "a stand-in for Bérubé's antagonists on the right."
Well, it was evidently OK as far as Berube went. As a reflection on pedagogical challenges, the essay would have been leaner and stronger if Berube had deleted the sophomoric "John's traits are Conservatism's traits" subtopic that constitutes paragraphs 17 through 21. He chose not to.

> ...If so, this is a remarkably simplistic reading of conservativism, and would harken back to my original comment...
Maybe so. But to paraphrase the response to Inspector Clouseau's query, "Does your dog bite?," That is not my essay.

Alastair Mackay - 3/15/2005

Sharon Howard - 3/15/2005

I have a couple of questions for KC.

1. When you assign students this review, do you also assign Berube's response to it, or indeed the book itself, so that they can decide for themselves whether he's been 'skewered'?

2. How would you respond to a student like 'John', regardless of his politics (but especially, let's say, a left-wing student), whose behaviour is disrupting a class and affecting all the other students? You might not want to be a conservative student in Berube's classes; I wouldn't particularly want to be a student in any of 'John's' classes.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/15/2005

I'm not quite sure how noticing the fact that Berube was less caustic in the Chronicle piece than he sometimes is on his blog is a defense of the Chronicle piece--I should hope that anyone publishing in the Chronicle would attempt not to be caustic.

Beyond this point, I don't particularly follow the thrust of the Mackay comment. A generous interpretation of Bérubé's motives would be to suggest that he was discussing pedagogical techniques, and providing a sincere (if condescending) explanation of how he handled "conservative" students. But Mackay seems to be making a harsh reading of Bérubé, saying that it's OK for Bérubé to use this conservative student as a "a stand-in for Bérubé's antagonists on the right." If so, this is a remarkably simplistic reading of conservativism, and would harken back to my original comment that I wouldn't very much want to be a conservative student in one of Bérubé's classes.

Alastair Mackay - 3/14/2005

The following comment was written prior to seeing Prof. Bérubé's thoughtful 10:38pm entry, immediately prior. Given the different perspectives of the Chronicle essay that launched a thousand ships, I will submit it 'as-is.'


Prof. Bérubé has kindly provided a link to his Chronicle essay. It's very well-written, and worth returning to after reading the comments here.

The first 16 paragraphs are a portrait of disruptive and somewhat-deluded 'John' in Bérubé's classroom. Seventeen through 21 present parallels of American conservatism's dysfunctional traits with those manifested by 'John.' Paragraphs 22 through 30 return to what 'best teaching practices' should be in dealing with a disruptive and fragile student. The final four paragraphs are a rumination on how to teach in difficult circumstances, ending with the "reasonable accomodation" sentiments quoted in part by KCJ in his post (this post).

Bérubé's web-log shows that he is can match Menken or Clemens in the production of bitter invective. This essay wasn't written that way. But the middle five paragraphs (17-21) convey Bérubé's deep disdain for the nasty, Machiavellian, stupid notions that, he implies, drive the American conservative movement.

That said, KCJ ends his post by skeptically noting that In his blog piece, Bérubé argues that this passage [the final paragraph] did not represent a comparison of conservatives to students with disabilities. But it seems to me that KCJ is off the mark here: Bérubé has fairly characterized what his final paragraph actually says.

Yet it would be difficult to portray the Chronicle essay as restricted to discussions of pedagogic practices. It was Bérubé's choice to make the obstreperous 'John' a stand-in for Bérubé's antagonists on the right (paragraphs 17-21).

Michael B?rub - 3/14/2005

Hey, I can't write in defence of my own style. (Not again, anyway!) But if KC is going to assume that I am well-meaning (a charitable assumption, and one that calls for charity in return), and is willing to say that he'd misread my closing paragraph, then I'm willing to go back to my original assessment of him as a thoughtful conservative.

As for Erin O'Connor: fifteen months ago, I thought her reading was deliberately mischievous (that is, I couldn't believe she meant it seriously), and my initial reaction was outrage-- a significant overreaction, really, for which I apologized at the time. But that's why I bothered, this time around, to call attention to what is (KC's right about this) a minor, tangential feature of an essay about anti-Israel sentiment in the academy: precisely because I've seen this canard about this essay before, and this time the charge had been magnified into the claim that I had "advised" people to treat conservatives as if they were students with disabilities. And, of course, the fact that it's a minor, tangential feature of an essay doesn't make it OK to mischaracterize my words so substantially. Caleb's argument (#56375) has it exactly right, I think: every student deserves reasonable accommodation, and the challenge-- for teachers-- lies in coming to terms with students whose sense of the "reasonable" clashes with ours. (I'm surprised that no one has pointed out that the student in question derailed a discussion of a Richard Powers novel by launching an extended defense of the Japanese internment camps. Those of you to the left of Michelle Malkin might well regard this defense as "unreasonable," quite apart from how you'd handle the question of how best to steer the class discussion back to the novel.)

But Erin O'Connor was right, 15 months ago, with regard to a more subtle point: the essay unfortunately suggests at times that "John" was obstreperous because conservative, when I'd meant to suggest that I would simply have had an easier time pulling aside an outspoken liberal student and saying, "chill already" (as I have done many times). But I continue to be amazed that people underread (just as O'Connor underread) what was for me the center of the essay, namely, the dynamic between John and the other sixteen students.

"If I asked John to cool it, then, he would undoubtedly feel silenced, and I would be in the position of validating what was perhaps, for him, a stifling liberal hegemony over classroom speech; if I failed to restrain him, I would in effect be allowing him to dominate the class, and thereby silencing the other students who’d taken the time to speak to me about the problem."

It seems pretty clear to me that in that dynamic, the question was how to give John space to speak without (a) letting him reply to everyone else or (b) allowing everyone else to pile on him. (One student in the course, upon reading the essay in early 2004, wrote to remind me that I'd sent emails to the other sixteen students asking them to stop ganging up on John on the course listserv, as well.) So yes, I "accommodated" him-- in more ways than he knows. But the very fact that the word "accommodation" carries such nasty connotations in some quarters suggests to me that we still associate "disability law" more with abjection and social stigma than with civil rights. Apparently, no one likes to hear that he (or she!) is being "accommodated." Perhaps that's matter for another essay, some other time.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/14/2005

Everyone and his second cousin agrees with you that "responding to students with social disorders or with disabilities is fundamentally different than responding to conservative students, even outspoken ones." The thing is, Berube's original paragraph never said otherwise.

It is also flatly false to say that he only mentions "conservatives, Stalinists, and students with social disorders." He also mentioned "intelligent, articulate students who behaved as if they had a right to speak more often and at greater length than anyone else in the room," blurters, and students who "knew the answers to every question ever asked." In short, different students who present different challenges to the teacher.

I only point these omissions because you continue to selectively quote the paragraph to suit your interpretation of the entire article. But it seems irrelevant to me which categories of students he lists in the last paragraph. None of them are slandered by appearing there, unless you think teachers should never admit that teaching some students is difficult.

In your response to Kotsko, you are still missing the point of the reference to "disability law" and accommodations. If he has decided to stop saying so, I'll say it again.

Suppose Berube had said that in dealing with all students, "I try to apply the standard of the Golden Rule: I treat them as I would want to be treated." Nothing offensive there, and nothing that suggests every student will thereby be treated the exact same way. So what strikes me as increasingly troubling here is your presumption that to borrow from disability law to speak about non-disabled students is somehow offensive to "normal" students.

Let's be clear: Berube was not insulting any students by invoking the concept of "reasonable accommodation." To suppose otherwise is an uncharitable interpolation that is insulting to students with learning disabilities if it is insulting to anyone.

I hesitate to pursue this argument. As I said at Berube's, I don't like confrontation. But there are clear misrepresentations here, and they really do strike me as uncharitable.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/14/2005

To respond last to first:

On the Hofstra speech, it was a throw-in vignette to the article, mentioned only because it had gotten a good deal of play in the NY press the week before I wrote the Midstream article and therefore was the most in-the-news demonstration of a sense of political imbalance in the faculty. If I were writing the article now, I'd probably use some sort of political registration figures, precisely because, as Tim points out, of a desire to avoid the possibility of subjective reporting.

Regarding my response to Berube, the Berube article was a very minor aspect of my Midstream piece. I suspect that he was (and is) very well-meaning. I still can't imagine myself, from a pedagogical standpoint, linking students with social disorders and either mainstream conservative or liberal students. It might be, as Tim points out, that both Erin and I overread Berube's intent in his comments. This was, however, a Chronicle article, from a well-published intellectual--the comparisons he used, I'll assume, had some meaning.

With regards to my assigning habits, I practice what I preach on the importance of transparency in the academy: the syllabi for every course that I teach, including all reading, document, and paper assignments, are all on-line, available through my website; I also post the lecture notes that I hand out before every lecture I deliver in class, as well as study questions for all discussion assignments. Whether people consider my instruction guilty of the "sins of ideological teaching" I'll leave to others' judgments, but I invite people to take a look:

On the Bauerlein essay, when I teach at the CUNY Grad Center (a Ph.D. program), I require students to hand in several Reviews in American History-style reviews throughout the course of the term. Since many of these students don't have a clear idea of what a review essay is, I normally begin the term by handing out a list of 15 or so review essays that I consider good, for a variety of reasons (either well-written, well-argued, or dealing with important books). The purpose of the handout, however, is simply to expose the students to what a review essay is; we don't discuss the contents in the class itself, since nearly all of the essays (as with Bauerlein's) deal with subject matters other than those that I teach at the Grad Center.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/14/2005

Ralph, Professor Berube is right: not having read the book, I shouldn't really have commented on that discussion in the first place, so I hope you'll excuse me not picking up this debate on this particular thread.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/14/2005

As I said above, it seems to me that responding to students with social disorders or with disabilities is fundamentally different than responding to conservative students, even outspoken ones. I believe that most professors would agree with me on this matter. Perhaps Prof. Kotsko has had a different experience with conservative students in the classroom than I have had, but, to me, the gap between the two types of students is enormous.

If the point of Berube's article is that professors need to accomodate all students, then the response is of course they do. Yet Berube himself mentions only certain types of students that need accomodation--conservative, Stalinists, students with social disorders.

Timothy James Burke - 3/14/2005

I recall Erin O'Connor reacting very negatively to Berube's "disabilities trope" in his article and some of the resulting back and forth, and I thought it was one instance where O'Connor was straining an interpretation to the limit of a criticism, to the point that she (and others) were greatly overreading what Berube had to say.

As for Bauerlein's critique of Berube's Employment of English, I find extremely (and uncharacteristically) ungenerous as well as also faulty in its reading of Berube's book--or at the least an extreme statement of personal taste regarding autobiographical framing of argument. (If so, Bauerlein himself violates his own standard in some of his writing.) I hadn't seen the review before: I'm trying to guess why KC assigns it. If it's to provide an example of a book review that "skewers" its target, then I think KC might want to read the genre of Anglo-American book reviews in the last 150 years a bit more widely, or consult some of his colleagues in English Departments, because Bauerlein's review is relatively courtly compared to a great number of fairly famous negative reviews, both contemporary and past. If it's to provide a perspective on the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s and their relation to literary criticism, then I begin to wonder if KC isn't committing the kind of sins of "ideological teaching" that he so frequently condemns: it's hardly a good or particularly fair window into that moment. What does he assign to balance the reading? If it's to provide a window into academic politics in the last two decades, the same--at the very least, I again wonder what KC assigns alongside it.

On questions like the Hofstra speech by Doctorow, I find myself increasingly frustrated by KC's evidentiary standards (and many others, left and right, doing the same kind of interpretative work): I first off mistrust accounts that proclaim silence on one hand, unbridled enthusiasm on the other, with perfectly conventional historian's skepticism, a skepticism that KC seems to employ somewhat lopsidely. I secondly mistrust assuming that I know what a silence means in this context. At my commencement, the widow of Anwar Sadat spoke. We applauded (mostly) in a lukewarm fashion while the faculty applauded (mostly) fairly warmly. What did that mean? I know what it meant for me: she was boring and trite. Did it mean that for my fellow students? Maybe. That seems plausible. But maybe some didn't like her for some other reason. If I thought it was important to know, I would have done ethnographic research then and there, or looked for some kind of other evidence to help me understand the reaction. But it didn't and doesn't seem an interesting difference. At the least, I'd want to avoid "reading" that reaction without doing some more legwork if I were involved in a debate several years later about the event.

I've been talking about a more general issue this week in regard to the uses of humor and satire. Berube has taken a sharp turn in that direction lately. It's not always the way I would choose to write myself--if I were going to complain about KC's article, I would and have done it more the way I just have. But ok, to each his own. I think KC's response throws out a lot of chaff and distraction: at the very least, the earlier exchange between O'Connor and Berube on the conservative students/disabled trope stayed pretty tightly focused on the meaning of what Berube had said, and I thought that over time, O'Connor made an increasingly plausible case that Berube's original language was a problem. I didn't agree even then, but she stayed pretty focused.

Michael B?rub - 3/14/2005

Oops, that should have been "perhaps it's worth noting." Or maybe I was right the first time, and it's worth nothing. Hard to say.

And everything after "I remarked that" is from my published reply. Sorry I didn't make that clear, either.

Michael B?rub - 3/14/2005

You know, it doesn't look to me like anyone here except Amardeep-- KC included-- has actually read The Employment of English. May I simply ask that you not take Bauerlein's word for it? Perhaps it's worth nothing (as KC does not) that I did have a chance to reply to Bauerlein's review, and in the course of that reply, I remarked that "there's something odd, perhaps even ungenerous, about Bauerlein's line of argument here-- both with his attempt to read my self-referencing as a contradiction of my proposals for English studies, and with his broader attempt to cast me as a symptom of the intellectual decline of the profession. The key, I think, lies in Bauerlein's phrase about how my book "reveal[s] how often [I am] invited to lecture by conference organizers, students organizations, literature departments, and faculty senates." The effect here, no doubt unintended, is to render me as a self-obsessed superstar whose "work" consists of countless stories about my struts down the runway, my Caribbean photo shoots, my private jet. But wait a minute: Faculty senates? Is my book really littered with references to my lectures before faculty senates?

Well, now, it can't be, since I've only spoken to a faculty senate once in my life. In truth, The Employment of English contains brief references to exactly four of my speaking engagements, and one of the four was a three-minute, bullhorn-enhanced speech at the University of Illinois, where I participated in a graduate student union protest outside a trustees' meeting. I hope Professor Bauerlein will credit both my motives and my rhetorical occasion on this one. Another of the four talks was my appearance before the CUNY Faculty Senate-- aha!-- in 1997. I went to CUNY to learn more, first hand, about one of the most distressed systems of higher education in the United States, and to meet faculty activists like Sandi Cooper. I was offered a cool hundred dollars for my appearance, and I replied that I would not accept even a token honorarium from a university system in such financial straits (as my book notes, CUNY has gone from 15,000 full-time faculty to 5,500 in only twenty years). The reason I turned down the honorarium was the same reason I went to CUNY in the first place: I believe (and here comes the self-righteous, sanctimonious part of my demeanor) in being a good citizen of the profession; in involving myself in national debates over curriculum, tenure, and working conditions; and in cultivating political alliances among faculty members who under ordinary circumstances cannot agree on what to have for dinner, in order to forge a broad coalition dedicated to saving the profession of college teaching from the forces of corporatization and plutocracy, which I see as greater threats to the life of the mind than the phenomenon of people writing talks on airplanes. Interestingly, among Bauerlein's complaints about the profession, there is no emphasis on the ideal of intellectual citizenship-- and no willingness to acknowledge that aspect of my work, either. Hence his review's fixation on my lecture invitations, and its relative inattention to those sections of my book that deal with less sexy things like departmental bylaws and procedures for post-tenure evaluation.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/14/2005

Caleb, I don't see what is ad hominem in Bauerlein's criticism of Berube's work. Two points in further response:
1. The subjectivism that you point to coheres disasterously with the celebration of self by those who deem themselves to be academic stars in our current situation.
2. Whatever it may mean for literary criticism, that subjectivism is disasterous for the writing of history. If I am writing a history of the civil rights movement, who the heck cares where I was and what I thought at the time about the events I am rehersing? At the opening of every chapter?

Adam Kotsko - 3/14/2005

This is ridiculous. This is absolutely and completely ridiculous. I don't know why I even bothered to write a comment on this post.

I will not make the same mistake in the future.

Feel free to get the last word by accusing me of being intolerant of "different views" -- or at least indulge in a little self-satisfied smugness that your expectations of liberal behavior have been fulfilled.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/14/2005

I admit that I'm not an expert on literature regarding how to deal with students with disabilities (I'd defer here to my mother, a longtime special-ed teacher). It has not been my experience, however, as a professor at some pretty different types of institutions (Harvard, Williams, Brooklyn) that "dealing with a student who has a mental disability such that they can't help but interupt class is an associated, though obviously also different, challenge that an educator has to face" is in any way comparable to dealing with students influenced by "the rhetorical stance cultivated in conservative media outlets"--a description, it should be noted, that would apply to a large swath of contemporary conservatism.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/14/2005

Is even the desire not to be patronizing, ipso facto, patronizing?

Again, you're fixing on one or two phrases instead of dealing with Berube's introspective report on how he went about meeting the challenges in a particular class. He is up front that meeting these challenges required triangulating his own views together with the multiple viewpoints of students in the class. It seems to me that this is precisely the kind of thoughtful reflection on a class that you would want left-leaning professors to do.

He did not silence the student. He admits that there were times when he wanted to vehemently disagree with the student in class, but he held his tongue. He even talks about reining in the rest of the class when they were ganging up on John. To continue repeating the lines you find offensive in the piece without grappling with the entire story is still to miss the point.

For example, you wonder how Berube would deal with mainstream liberals, when in fact he does address in the piece the range of liberal viewpoints in this particular class, some of which he describes as well to the left of his own views.

I agree with Anthony Smith that the closing paragraph is an expression of a pedagogical truism: we must accommodate the uniqueness of different students without allowing their personalities to unreasonably dominate the classroom space. To say this does not entail that those accommodations will be the same, or that the differences being accommodated will be the same.

If Berube could be faulted for this paragraph, it would be that he reached for a term -- "accommodation" -- which yoked the essay to a previously unintroduced set of ideas having to do with disability. At worst, this strikes me only as the perfect example of why writing teachers instruct us not to bring in new information in the closing paragraph of an essay, because it can throw readers for a loop and distract from the main point of the essay. That's precisely what has happened in this case, I think: the main point of the essay is being missed. Chalk it up, though, to a questionable writing decision, not to clear evidence that Berube is patronizing.

As Smith points out, it strikes me as highly unlikely that Berube in particular would ever intentionally use disability in a jocular way. (And if you were confused in the essay, the blog post makes it clear that this was not his intention.) But with all due respect, if you continue to detach this one line from the context of both the essay, the blog post, and the author's life, you will continue to reach a different and distorted conclusion.

Anthony Paul Smith - 3/14/2005

Seriously, read the damn article before you start talking about it again. He made a comparison between the kind of action the disibility law lays out for correct treatment of disabled students and the way profs should treat STUDENTS (without a qualifier).

As to how he treats Liberal students? Well, hopefully he also awards them an "A" in the course if they put in the work, since that's what this poor, oppressed conservative recieved. Perhaps he also encourages them to not take over the conversation, just as this poor, oppressed conservative recieved. Hell, he might even *GASP* let them voice their opinion, just like this poor, oppressed conservative was able to do.

I swear, you have to be doing this on purpose now.

Adam Kotsko - 3/14/2005

Obviously the challenges represented by Stalinist students also differ from those who have conservative views.
And it's also obvious that "John"'s challenges stemmed from embracing part of the rhetorical stance cultivated in conservative media outlets -- that is, a tendency to butt in, to insist on one's own spin on everything, etc. To that degree, dealing with a student who has a mental disability such that they can't help but interupt class is an associated, though obviously also different, challenge that an educator has to face.

This seems to be a clear-cut case of just expecting to be offended and latching onto the first thing you find. I really hope that this post doesn't become the impetus to a "Michael Berube thinks conservatives are retarded" meme.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/14/2005

Well, it's a difference that Berube, in his article, elects not to articulate. If he had given a couple of paragraphs on how he deals with students with Asperberg's Syndrome, and how that's different than how he accomodates conservatives or how he accomodates Stalinists, he might have confirmed your point that he believes "there is a difference, and it's not hard to see." Berube made the comparison, however, not me.

I wonder, for instance, how Berube accomodates liberals in his classes. Most of his viewpoints seem well to the left of contemporary liberalism in the United States. Are students who represent mainstream liberalism also subject to gentle but hopefully not patronizing treatment?

I actually completely agree with Sherman's post above that Berube, in his last PP, was trying to write with irony/humor. But as we've seen in the intellectual diversity debates, sometimes the most telling remarks (ie, the Duke philosophy prof's comment that they don't hire conservatives because, as John Stuart Mill said, conservatives are less intelligent) often represent stabs at humor.

Anthony Paul Smith - 3/14/2005

Berube didn't say that you had to deal with students "all the same", he said that all students have to be given accomadation. There is a difference, and it's not hard to see.

So, you aren't even going to admit that you screwed up? I wonder how much of this behavior is the fault of Berube defending himself (liberals are NOT supposed to do that!) and how much is the martyr complex.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/14/2005

And HERE I win the "forgot to edit comments" award for the day HERE now that I didn't hear myself saying "hear" so much.

Just chalk it up to a tin here.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/14/2005

Disagree, obviously, with the interpretation of Berube here. As a professor, the challenges posed when dealing with students with whom you disagree politically is fundamentally different than the challenges posed by dealing with students who have Asperger's Syndrome or who suffer from disabilities. One wonders how much of this behavior was the fault of "John" and how much of it was a reaction to the 'gentle but hopefully not patronizing' response of the instructor.

As for Bauerlein, I've found much of his work compelling. The essay itself is password protected (boundary is on Project Muse), but is worth reading.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/14/2005

Somehow, I think both Johnson and Bérubé are too easily offended here. Johnson is clearly misreading Bérubé's Chronicle article, and in that regard, I agree with several other comments here. On the other hand, Bérubé isn't exactly treating this with the deft touch I'm used to seeing in his blog. I mean, I'm glad the guy's human after all, but this is a case of Johnson's reading too much into that paragraph rather than deliberately distorting it.

What's the word Berke Breathed coined? "Offensensitivity." Yep. I think we're seeing a case of it here.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/14/2005

That last comment was a joke ... but maybe it didn't sound funny. I'm constantly being reminded that on the blogosphere, friendly irony needs to be flagged prominently, so consider it noted in this case that I did not mean to be as biting as that.

I do stand by my view (and Anthony Smith's and Amardeep Singh's) that Professor Johnson's comments on Berube's essay unfairly mischaracterize its tone and content.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/14/2005

Er, that should be "conversations" in the penultimate sentence, not "conservations." Hopefully I won't be labeled as a tree-hugging crypto-environmentalist on the basis of one line.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/14/2005

Even without having read Berube's book, it seems to me that Bauerlein's criticism is unfairly ad hominem. There have been wide-ranging and influential movements both within philosophy and literary studies that foreground the power of subjectivity to shape our views of texts and the world. Consequently, defenders of these movements often adopt a critical and rhetorical posture that foregrounds their particular point of vantage, rather than presuming that they can assume an Archimedean viewpoint. There may be good criticisms of this rehabilitation of subjectivity, but "All you talk about is yourself" is not one of them. The point these critics are making is that it is extremely difficult not to talk about the self, even when talking about anything else. A dismissal of that argument as simple vanity deserves an even swifter dismissal.

But, not having read the book, let me turn to the Chronicle article, which I did read. (By the way, the link if your post is to a members-only URL: here's the URL to the free version: I still think you have failed to place Berube's closing paragraph in any kind of meaningful context by selectively quoting from it, and it also still seems to me that you are distorting the general argument of the piece.

First, anyone who has been in a classroom knows that obstreperousness is not the exclusive property of either conservative or liberal students. In this particular class, there seems to have been an obstreperous student who was conservative. The entire article demonstrates, though, that Berube wrestled mightily with the pedagogical challenges set for him by this particular student. It is clear that he did not think those pedagogical challenges stemmed mainly from the student's conservative views, but from his attempts to dominate the discussion and to divert the class from its subject material. (Diversion from the curriculum, by the way, is something that Professor Johnson has always criticized here at Cliopatria, yet it seems that this diversion is precisely what this student was guilty of, to the extent that other students in the class emailed Berube to express their own frustration that the course material was becoming overshadowed by "John.")

The only reason why John's particular obstreperousness was more than just a pedagogical challenge was because he made it clear that he was judging Berube's every move to see whether he would enforce a leftie hegemony on the classroom. It seems clear from the article, however, that despite these pedagogical challenges and the political bent that John insisted on giving them, that Berube did not give him what he wanted by silencing him from the get-go. Rather, he engaged the student after class and by email, and tried to separate the public space of the classroom from private conservations with students.

By fixating on the last paragraph, you still refuse to wrestle with all of this evidence that Berube clearly did not conform to the dictatorial leftie that you make him out to be.

Anthony Paul Smith - 3/14/2005

Oh come on!

He wasn't offended that "criticized Michael Bérubé"! You credited him with saying something HE DIDN'T DAMN WELL SAY. I would hope you'd have the integrity to admit that nowhere in the article Bérubé wrote did he say that conservatives were mentally handicapped, and yet you said he did. In fact, had I been the one whose position you were radically mischaracterizing I’d have skipped the part where he called you “one of the most outspoken and (sometimes) thoughtful conservatives in the business.”

I think Bérubé has a bit more of the moral right to talk about disabilities, as he has written pretty extensively on the subject and is raising an son with a severe disability. Furthermore, you still aren’t reading very well and are still crediting Bérubé with something he didn’t say! I’ll quote the whole damn thing to help you out:

”Over my 20 years in teaching, I've had many conservatives in my classes. I think I've even had a few Stalinists, too. I've had many intelligent, articulate students who behaved as if they had a right to speak more often and at greater length than anyone else in the room; I've had versions of Reese Witherspoon in Election and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, who knew the answers to every question ever asked; I've had my share of blurters with very little sense of social boundaries, a few of whom may genuinely have had some degree of Asperger's syndrome, with various autistic or antisocial symptoms. To all such students -- indeed, to all students, those with disabilities and those without -- I try to apply the standard of disability law: I make reasonable accommodation for them. The challenge, though, lies in making reasonable accommodations for students whose standards of "reasonableness" are significantly different from yours. Few aspects of teaching are so difficult -- and, I think, so rarely acknowledged by people who don't teach for a living.”

If you read it slowly you’ll see that he isn’t talking about conservative students, but merely the different kinds of students he has had. That for all students, whether they be radically political or just brainiacs, a teacher must make reasonable accommodation for them. Why you can’t read that clearly is beyond me.

Seriously, I normally respect you but that is just ridiculous and further convinces me that your crusade is based on anything but the hope for good scholarship. I had a feeling you wouldn't respond to the actual bulk of his complaint and instead just continue to bemoan the "oppression" of conservative through culturally minoritarian views. What you did was worse.

Color me disappointed.

Amardeep Singh - 3/14/2005


I don't find Bauerlein's criticisms of Berube's writing style very compelling. For one thing, the autobiographical references don't necessarily distract from the argument; they make it more concrete and readable.

Also, in at least some of the instances mentioned (I'm thinking particularly of the chapter in "The Employment of English" on graduate student unionization), I think Berube's self-referentiality is justifiable because of the fact that many of the 'culture wars' types of conflicts that took place in the 1990s did involve him directly.

Berube's Chronicle piece does perhaps suggest an indirect comparison between his conservative student and other anti-social or disabled students he's had over the years. But his response to what sounds like a truly difficult student -- charitability, and an attempt to work with the student -- is infinitely better than the method chosen by groups like "Campus Watch," which sews mistrust between teachers and students in the classroom.