Monday, March 14, 2005
KC and me, round two
Well, dear readers, I have been rebuffed. Despite going to all the trouble of making up ready-made replies for Professor KC Johnson, so that he could simply check a box in order to explain why he claimed that I wrote an essay “advising professors to treat conservative students as they would students with learning disabilities or who exhibited aberrant behavior,” I have instead been met with a reply whose evasiveness beggars description. No one told me that hosting The Bérubé Factor was going to be such hard work! It’s hard, hard work!
Professor Johnson spends most of his reply quoting a hostile review of one of my books, which seems appropriate enough, I suppose. Then, in his final paragraph, he gets around to establishing himself as more judicious than I am:
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 hmm right back atcha, KC. You know, I’m not sure that, even off the top of my head, much less in a piece published for Midstream and reproduced with my consent by Campus Watch, I would so thoroughly mischaracterize someone else’s written work.
After all, two (or more!) can play that game. So let’s say I go ahead from here and publish something in which I claim that . . . hmm . . . KC Johnson has written that faculty members who applaud E. L. Doctorow “require constant, vigorous oversight.” (And let’s note, for the record, that my mischaracterization of Johnson’s paragraph comes a good deal closer to the spirit of his essay than does his mischaracterization of my paragraph about disruptive students.) And then let’s say that KC Johnson himself complains about my misquotation. Would I then reply that KC is excessively self-absorbed, as he charges in his reply, by way of citing a disparaging review of one of his books? (As to whether KC actually is self-absorbed, that’s for others to say.) No, I wouldn’t do that, my friends. This humble blog may be humble, but it does have some pride. We don’t play that little wingnut game in which we put words in people’s mouths and then chastise them for taking exception to it!
Nor would I close my reply with anything like KC’s textbook non-apology apology:
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.
Hmm again. This sounds to me a little like “I said you’re an unethical teacher, and I apologize-- I’m sorry you’re an unethical teacher.” Remember, folks, KC wasn’t just misquoting me-- he was adducing my Chronicle essay as an instance of academe’s “almost comical hostility to perceived conservatives.”
Well, I owe KC an apology in return, then. I’m sorry I called him “thoughtful.” [OK, that’s a bit much. See the update, below.] [Actually, as of the morning of March 15, it turns out that my revised assessment of KC was too generous. Unstrike those stricken words, and see the second update.]
As for Mark Bauerlein’s boundary 2 review of The Employment of English: boundary 2 graciously allowed me some space to reply to that review, though KC doesn’t say so. My reply to Bauerlein opened by admitting that “Although Professor Bauerlein’s review stings in places, it seems to me to have identified the flaws in The Employment of English all too accurately.” But it also pointed out that Bauerlein’s criticisms were themselves not beyond criticism:
Bauerlein writes: “When [Bérubé] questions the theoretical status of cultural studies (86–87), he does so to ask how it should be taught to graduate students so as to make them better interviewees at the Modern Language Association (MLA) Annual Convention” (202). This is poor textual conduct, I think, for someone so invested in reliable standards of evidence. Here’s what I actually said on the pages Bauerlein cites:
If we conceive of cultural studies— and theory more generally— as something that is potentially as relevant to freshman writing as it is to graduate seminars, then, perhaps, we can begin to make productive use of the multiple theoretical paradigms currently operating in the profession without overspecializing or underpreparing those graduate students who do choose to seek the Ph.D. We can, in other words, escape the illogic of the current system that asks job candidates to be brilliant, original researchers up until they receive an MLA interview, and then to be all-purpose generalists who can teach writing, Shakespeare, and the History of the English Language once they arrive on campus. (Employment of English, 87)
This is not a point about how to make students better interviewees and marketing strategists, as Bauerlein implies; it is, rather, a point about providing Ph.D. candidates with ways of thinking about theory and cultural studies that will reduce the growing tension between the research and teaching missions of the profession— a tension that is particularly acute during job searches.
Then there follows a passage that seems kind of relevant to this very exchange right here:
Ah, but it is true that I quote myself too much, especially when I am convinced that I have been misquoted (how else to set the record straight?), just as it is true that I refer to myself too much, as in sentences like this. On this count, I’m afraid I have to agree with Bauerlein entirely. The Employment of English contains far too many references to its author— as many as Bauerlein enumerates and still more. Here too I was at first tempted to defend myself, particularly with regard to my habit of addressing my most trenchant critics directly. For when Bauerlein complains that “even when parleying political and intellectual positions on English, Bérubé selects his antagonists using a personal criterion” (205), I have to admit I have no idea what he means. I do not select my antagonists, they select themselves; and when they publish critiques of my positions, I sometimes publish responses to those critiques, whereas Bauerlein would simply dismiss them as “ridiculous” and “bizarre” (206). Now, one of the critiques to which I responded came from a long review essay on [my second book] Public Access— and not “a review of a volume coedited by Bérubé” (206), as Bauerlein writes. Replying to arguments mounted in review essays, I think, is one of the ordinary forms of intellectual and professional exchange, and it is vexing to be chastised in a review essay for having written a response to another review essay. Bauerlein’s characterization of my exchanges with my critics thus confronts me with a conundrum: By engaging with the ridiculous arguments of, inter alios, Joseph Aimone, Stanley Fish, Jim Neilson, and Gregory Meyerson, I am not defending my “logically justified beliefs” (200) but “using a personal criterion” (205) for debate. There is, it would seem, a strategic elision here between defending one’s beliefs and simply being too self-absorbed, just as there is a nasty performative contradiction entailed in trying to defend oneself from the charge of being too self-absorbed when part of the evidence for the charge is that one defends oneself too often.
Well, I could post the whole dang exchange in boundary 2 if anyone’s interested, but I can’t imagine anyone being that interested. I think if I were a more economical writer I’d have simply said something like what Amardeep Singh said in his reply to KC’s Cliopatria post.
But hey, KC, old boy, one final thing before The Bérubé Factor sends you back to the green room. I’m really sorry that I wrote in The Employment of English, with regard to my visit to the CUNY Faculty Senate in 1997 (they offered me $100 to speak, and I told them I’d do it gratis), that I wanted to meet people like Sandi Cooper. (Bauerlein didn’t like my mentioning this visit either, for some reason.) But had I known then that six years later, Cooper would offend you (as you point out in today’s post, “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’"), I would not have wanted to meet her. And I’m glad to see you don’t take these things personally!
UPDATE: I do have a somewhat nicer reply here, in the form of a comment indirectly mediated by the remarks of the always-thoughtful Timothy Burke, to which KC responded rather more generously. OK, ça suffit. Tomorrow on the Factor: David Bowie and Elton John. You have been warned.