How Andrew Ross Became A Famous Cultural Studies Scholar

Here’s an excerpt from a lengthy interview, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, of Andrew Ross, most recently the author of Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (NYU Series in Social and Cultural Analysis). Go to the Chronicle’s website to read the full review.

In “Queen of the Jungle,” the lead story in James Hynes’s Publish and Perish, the protagonist is writing a book that he hopes will gain him the grail of a tenure-track job at the prestigious “Chicago University.” His wife is already there, but he’s stuck in an adjunct position at the University of the Midwest. During a week of wild creativity, he rewrites his otherwise pedestrian dissertation on modern literature, coming up with chapters like “The Sitcom at the End of the New Frontier: The Brady Bunch and The Wild Bunch in Contrapuntal Perspective.” His wife takes one of the chapters to show to the chair at Chicago and reports, “Frankly, it was a little too Andrew Ross for me,” but the chair “loved it, called it very cutting edge.”

It is not every day that a literary and cultural critic is immortalized in popular fiction, even a story set in academe. When Publish and Perish came out in 1997, Andrew Ross was just over 40, but he had already published eight books and had had a hand in editing one of the leading journals in cultural studies, Social Text, for a decade. Trained as a literary critic and writing his first book on modern poetry, Ross had moved on to explore a capacious range of topics, including New Age culture, pornography, technology, and the Weather Channel. The edge he cut was cultural studies when cultural studies was still new in the United States. It drew along a rising generation of critics.

Being cutting edge has its downside. Ross’s work gained him a substantial academic reputation, Ivy tenure, and then a professorship directing the American-studies program at New York University and more than a little media coverage. (While he did not get his picture in Rolling Stone, he did get his picture in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and New York Magazine.) But it also made him a target, drawing attacks from those who charged him with being a postmodern relativist, merely trendy, and unscholarly, criticisms that came to the fore when he edited an issue of Social Text on science that included an article on “postmodern physics” later revealed to be a hoax.

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