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Beautiful Angry Shirley


The last course I taught at San Francisco State ended mid-August, two weeks ago, and I can still feel the wrath of one girl.  Shirley was a tall, pretty, and intelligent Chinese-American, born and raised in the U.S.  In the final assignment she thought she had done well – a memo where each student thanked others who had aided in one's development through the course.  Shirley got recognition from seven peers.

I only credited her with two thanks from peers, however, because five came from students who thanked her with nothing related to themes they'd developed over the course, nor to any themes in Shirley.  These five, instead, only generalized good feelings for others clustered interchangeably with each other.  From day one I'd warned against such shopping lists.  Only a few had well learned to focus on values in others and in oneself and, in memos, reviews, and oral presentations, to cite them by cohering specifics.

Shirley, however, was angry she didn't get her full points.  If five out of seven recognized her without doing so as I wanted, she felt it unfair herself to be accountable for their omission. In her final, e-mailed comments she expressed strong sarcasm, as if it were onerous, ludicrous, and impossible for her to have gone around to everyone writing final memos to be sure that those thanking her did so to please me.  She was pleased.  She expressed scorn that I as instructor should void generosity she felt clear.

The course at San Francisco State was a required one for all its College of Business seniors, but CoB administrators never scheduled near enough classes for it.  Every term brought crowds desperate for any last-minute openings.  Failure to get in meant extending one's senior year – saddling many with an additional semester's tuition.  Those who got in my course, or hoped so in wait lists of twenty and more, all nodded their heads yes, they understood, they accepted the peculiar communication standards I set.  Students had to quote peers in all work after the first week.  They had to base all oral and written work on the cultural "stuff" that expressed them:  transportation fashions, food styles, landscapes they lived, worked, or played in, interior design, music, clothing, film – all the "stuff" that showed selves in public performance.  It also displayed the overlapping layers, contradictions, and thematic consistency that friends, family, and larger society gave us.  But I stressed – and again, yes, they agreed, yes, they understood – I would grade on how well they tied such connections to themselves and peers.

To help students focus, I asked that in memos they include a heading line with "re" or "concerning" to specify theme or a main value unifying each memo.  This helped some keep focus.  Too many others could never get the difference between theme and topic.   For the thematic heading – which might be conformity, freedom, neighborliness, loyalty, belonging, and so on – too many instead kept indicating only topical terms, neutral as to good or bad, stopping short as to engagement or none (my family's former neighborhood, some film character's workplace, a favorite sport or meal).

Confusion between topical and thematic opens the gate to the illogic of shopping lists.  Shirley fell into this confusion more than once in the course, and again in her last memo – throwing together a bunch of peer names as a generalized happiness she claimed her growth in the course.  How she had grown in light of any theme or values, or in association with any issues any peers had raised, never occurred to her.  Beautiful, radiant, confident, and genuinely intelligent, Shirley had nevertheless never particularly engaged any themes in the course, but did so randomly, occasionally, by hit-and-miss.

One could ascribe this all-too-common failure at thematic focus to the heavy schedule students had:  the part-time or full-time jobs of almost all, the long hours many spent in traffic congestion, the inevitability of courses isolated from each other, and the class sizes that grew every semester.  These circumstances, while true as facts – as topics – still could not explain anything substantively about the habits most of us acquire.  Shirley had thought that if peers through the course were listening to her, and able to recognize her in the end, their ability to see and say thank-you came from themselves – from their own intentions, time, and energy.  Or it came from talent or patience in reportorial skills that some of them honed (to please teacher).  She presumed that if one listened to others or not depended mainly on oneself – as if, by the logic of our television, movie, and electronic media culture, the consumer of experience has a right to feel oneself set apart, or above, but certainly beyond whatever one takes in or shuts down.

In order for beautiful Shirley to have gotten a better grade – for others in the course to have responded to her more specifically – she'd have had to have written things during the course, and to have given oral presentations, all with some effort to pull listeners and readers out of their observer-only comfort zones.  If she had invested herself in some key issues of her choice – conundrums, concerns, or any other cohering themes – she would have communicated herself as a person engaged, alive, implicated.  This posture differs from that of the dutiful student bowing to specialization orthodoxy, the  neutral consumer impartially absorbing whatever authority gives.  If she had couched her cohering self in terms of reference to peers listening, it would have challenged them to sit up and think, to ask themselves if she was locating herself accurately in relation to them.  If her substance connected well to them, she'd had shown specifically how she took at least some peers seriously, and they could have thanked her finally for that.

Most of us do not take others seriously.  By the nature of commercial culture, we ever position ourselves above, apart, and beyond.  Such buying-and-owning poses feed into the entitlement and control promises our consumer culture builds into everything.  Willy-nilly, even amid the crowds and competition of everyday life, we fit ourselves to the ethics of imagining ourselves as number one, but alone.  Corporate academics elevate this as being objective, specialist, and secure for the interchangeable units of hierarchy.

The older gods of nationalism, religious intolerance, and ethnic chauvinism all work the same way.  Under guise of group cohesion, all reduce the messy loose ends of individuality to the comfort of being like others in the group.  All learn to imagine others in the group as like oneself – all mirrored in the same narcissistic imaginations, so the only skills that finally matter are turn on or turn off, listen or not listen, buy or not buy.

Republicans and Democrats both have now had their national conventions, both squared off in electoral war aimed at November 2.  Both elevate themselves in fighting something called a war on terrorism, as if all America – or all the world –  equally subscribes to winning as main narrative.  Our triumphalism unrolls in its simple script allowing technological, military superiority to humiliate, anger, and alienate the entire Muslim and third world.  Shirley isn't alone.  As she assumed peers in our course could listen or not according to their own choices, so we good Americans could for years assume that Muslims, third-world types, and others were similarly free to accept or not the many benefits of our rich, good-hearted corporate colonialism.  Shirley isn't alone.  As she could not imagine placing herself into more engagement, walking-in-their-shoes with her peer audience, and crediting them as active parts of a relationship – and she a reciprocal part in it – we good Americans could not imagine the relationship we have already reached with mainly Muslims but also many others worldwide (foisting on them the despotic, savage, and corrupt regimes we have ever propped up for our happy flow of cheap oil).  We think we're simply the good guys, crusading against bad.  We can't see that we've located ourselves in many other stories worldwide, too – or we pretend we don't have to see – that the others can fit our simpler innocent narrative:  whoever not being with us is against us.

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