“Love and Hate at San Francisco StateE/font>


             My first job at San Francisco State began a couple weeks before the 9-11 attacks. I’d just come back to California, which I’d not visited in decades.  But I’d been born here.  That was in another era, when not even freeways existed, nor computers, nor national television.  No one had then thought of the term Silicon Valley, a place still in the 1940s of so many sleepy small towns and ranches.  No one among the old, family-owned fruit farms, almond groves, and tomato fields of the Central Valley had yet heard the word agribusiness.  Through the 1950s, however, and beyond, everything changed, across America as well as in the Golden State.  By the late summer of 2001 our quaint old republic had long since morphed into empire.  My native state had grown so large, and so key to empire that, were it a separate nation, it alone would rank as the seventh-largest economy in the world.  California more than any place led the way as the epitome of the new sprawl culture:  automobile-based, with cul-se-sac subdivisions, shopping malls, and eight- and ten-lane freeways all teeming with traffic.  And yet, though all had changed, the same menthol-like aromas from the tall, shedding eucalyptus still wafted the air.  Fields of mustard grass and cedars often enough still stretched off to the same brown ranges of hills that had enchanted the long-gone Edwin Muir, Mark Twain, Thorstein Veblen, Frank Norris, and Raymond Chandler Eas they had the Spanish had before them, and native American Indians before that.  The rules of poetry had not changed.  So where millions of suburban plots subdivided their Eichler and other modern homes in zinc cyclone, cinder block, and redwood fencing, older aromas latent from my earliest, otherwise forgotten years yet drenched them in ever-ongoing vining, effulgent draperies.  The same old ivy twined up billboards, pylons, and utility poles.  I’d come back to California imagining myself different for the intervening years, travels, and chapters of life, but everywhere even the newest fences went on variously blooming with scented infusions of fuchsia, anise, bougainvillea, jasmine, camellia, and rose.  They said something about time:  that, like sentences, it doesn’t just go forward, but contains multiple layers that ever collapse back on themselves.

I liked it how my own years of travels had ended up back on the Pacific rim, how an older California invited further considerations over the larger empire’s promises.  I had not returned rich.  I had no job.  But the dot.com recession was just starting and, as the economy dipped, more people were going back to school, giving me, new arrival, immediate teaching work.

              The work at San Francisco State gave me a couple sections of English composition in the humanities department.  Beginning just prior to the September 11 attacks, they were adjunct jobs, part-time and temporary positions such as those that for years now all across America regularly if irregularly floated thousands of similarly under-employed Ph.D.s such as myself.  We who worked the subsistence levels of corporate American teaching had no more money, or job security, than the hundreds of thousands of immigrants without papers who coast-to-coast picked the fruit and vegetables, or the greater numbers of minimum-wage working poor who dished the assembly-line burgers, played guard for private security firms, clerked shopping mall registers, and cleaned offices, hotels, and motels.  But with our advanced degrees and the motley book collections we periodically sold and reassembled, in many ways we traveled the same roads as the rest of America’s underclass.  43 million of us now worked and lived without health insurance, and our numbers were growing.  Perhaps it helped that we outside institutional privilege had at least some serendipitous predecessors:  in the nineteenth-century these included John Chapman who planted his apple seeds, Stephen Foster who picked up his tunes, Emily Dickinson who stayed around the house, and Walt Whitman who perambulated as he loafed and counted his contradictions.  In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries I’d have liked a real job, with windowed office and year-round paychecks.  Lacking that, however, I still had, for what it was worth, the blessings of a road yet similarly open as that which gave the music to B. B. King, Robert Johnson, and Woody Guthrie, or the great photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and the others Roy Stryker hired on to roam the land.  James Agee knew that road, from Fort Saunders Hill in Knoxville, Tennessee, to the tenant farmers of Hale County, Alabama, to the West Virginia river in his screenplay from a Davis Grubb novel where two orphaned kids float their way to safety from their hunter.  James Wright knew this road from where it dipped into the Ohio River at his native Martins Ferry.  Elizabeth Bishop knew it where it clipped across Central Park.  Theodore Roethke felt it with the pistonsEpush and shove from a night train riding him prone in his Pullman berth across a Midwestern landscape of sleeping villages and hamlets.  One could do worse than to know the open road in America.  One could even pick up some of the oldest, best wisdom, as did Preston SturgisEdirector character who, along with his Veronica Lake girlfriend, relearned something too many forget, in Sullivan’s Travels

My own road came full circle, like the travel clip that begins with camera panning the harbor, many scenes elsewhere, and eventually return to same harbor.  San Francisco State lay within sight of the Pacific Ocean.  Its tropical landscaping beguiled me.  I relished the recollection that fellow collegiate itinerant and Denial of Death author Ernest Becker had taught here back in the E0s, before the reactionary Hayakawa administration got rid of him.  Demographics had changed since then.  SFSU, like the entire state of California itself, now had more blacks, Hispanics, and Asians than whites.  This multiethnic brew augured charm to match that of the lush, effulgent landscaping.

Students in my two sections took the course because San Francisco State required it of them.  All SFSU students had to take this or an equivalent course in the different colleges, all theoretically to prepare them for a mandatory junior year literacy and writing exam called JEPET.  In a perennial statistic bearing some morbid humor, 40% of those taking JEPET always failed it. Stretching related humor still further, the public schools of California had been declining in funding for many years now, and declining in many other ways, ever since the Jarvis tax revolt of the 1980s.  So while students went on failing JEPET in large numbers even after two and three years of college, new freshmen continued to enter all the campuses of the California State University system with yet worsening literacy deficits.  Annual tests given to the state’s high school graduating seniors showed more than half them getting their diplomas Eand headed for college Ewithout having reached even minimal literacy standards.

              My classes began at 8:10 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.  So I was teaching that September 11 morning the hi-jacked planes exploded into their targets.  Crawling out of bed just after six Pacific Time, I’d heard the initial news on the radio, when fairly perplexed National Public Radio announcers reported the first crash.  They volunteered the fact that weather couldn’t account for what had happened:  it was a clear, sunny day over New York Harbor and all the eastern seaboard.  They sounded more perplexed fifteen minutes later when the second crash came. By the time I got off the MUNI train in south San Francisco, and into my classroom, students were arriving with later news Eof a crash into the Pentagon, and another in rural Pennsylvania. SFSU administrators soon canceled all university activity, but by then I’d had time to talk with my students about the fact that some people from somewhere could hate the United States so much as to launch so vast a destruction.

              Apparently I offended some of my students.

Not long earlier I had been living for over a decade abroad.  While this expatriate sojourn let me see the popularity millions held internationally for American culture Eour music, film, cosmetics, fast food, fast sports, and clothing EI could also see resentments.  The U.S.A. represented change on a global scale Emassive, total, and irreversible change. Our marketing and advertising, corporate agriculture, energy harnessing, and global outsourcing of jobs all figured a fantastically re-shaped world.  Like some giant rhizome, one single international megalopolis culture was growing, already with more than two dozen separate, monster urban environments, each of them swollen to more than ten million persons.  Scores of smaller, formerly provincial towns had also enlarged to multimillion-person conglomerations on every continent, in every climate, though not necessarily with water and sewage systems, health facilities, schools, transportation service, and jobs to match the flood of new arrivals.  No part of the world was spared.  Village life, traditional culture, and local economies everywhere succumbed:  sucked dry, exploited, and often totally abandoned.  From North Africa deserts to Southeast Asia tropics, from the plains draining the Himalayas to the grassland deltas of Amazon rain forests, everyone felt the one-way pull of a singularly powerful, synchronized, black hole migration.  The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, corporate CEOs and their wickedly clever accounting firms could look at all this new conglomeration of resources and labor and cut quickly to their own bottom lines.  A fair number of otherwise isolated poets and writers were recording these changes, too, though not in the reduced ethics of corporate arithmetic.  The writers saw their stories from the perspective of families and individuals, as Steinbeck had seen the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, whose land and social webs were stripped away from them, abruptly, and by a similar amount of faraway design.  The weather of the E0s played some key role in the making of the Dust Bowl, along with farming practices ruinous in the High Plains.  But many traditional cultures around the world possessed wiser, centuriesEolder knowledge of their lands.  And though many tribes and peoples could subsist in some self-sufficiency, and cope with climatic oscillations, they, too, have more recently succumbed, as the Joads before them.  Privileged modernity has proved too invasive and destructive for too many antiquarian clusters.  Often now even frequently fertile, highly productive rural landscapes have gotten flooded simply for the hydroelectric dams our energy-sucking lifestyles require.  Virgin forests have been felled, ores mined, and nuclear, chemical, and petroleum poisons dumped where people like the Joads, but of many other colors, have lived.  And if writers, playwrights, and poets around the world turned their attention to these scenes, they too often got themselves variously imprisoned, physically attacked, exiled, and sometimes killed for pointing out the damages everywhere being done:  Ken Sarawewa in Nigeria, Amanda Toer in Indonesia, Naguib Mafouz in Egypt, Irina Ratushinskaya in the Ukraine, Mahmoud Darwish in Palestine, Khalil Hawi in Lebanon, and more.

No American officials directly arranged the persecutions of these who, for their cultures, acted as canaries in coalmines.  Their own local elites banned, imprisoned, tortured, and exiled them Eand in Sarawewa’s case had him hanged, soon following a trump trial.  Cold War real politik had earlier arranged these regimes.  Some leant to Moscow, others to the west.  But when the Cold War ended, local dictatorships stayed on.  If CIA and KGB financing withdrew, powerful transnational corporations continued to finance, arm, and otherwise subsidize them Eespecially the oligarchies of oil-producing states Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Iran, and Iraq. After the Cold War, the corporate multinationals continued working in a virtually seamless web with Downing Street, the Pentagon, the U.S. Congress, White House executive agencies, the World Bank, and European Union offices in Brussels to prop up the dictatorships, underwrite their nepotism, and train their secret police, death squads, and military special forces.  If a few human rights advocates cried foul, too many of the rest of us benefited in lifestyles that seemed only to warrant our own further obliviousness.

              In addition to some people working in human rights, a few journalists knew the score.  The BBC World Service, the Christian Science Monitor, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Deutsche Welle, for instance, all to important degrees stationed reporters abroad, and featured probing features from them.  In America, however, news belonged to an ever-narrowing band of commercial interests.  It had become “infotainment.E An enlarged celebrity culture more and more became the focus of “news.Enbsp; Feature and commercial programming fused to serve entitlement scenarios for most-cleverly-designated age, race, gender, and class demographics.

Two simultaneous trials in the same New York City courthouse scarcely a year before 9-11 underscored this profound intertwining of commercial and public interest.  In one a trial was underway where witness after witness testified as to the mortal intentions, potency, and determination of a previously scarcely known America-hating group called al-Qaeda.  Based in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and circulating with ease around the world, and with extensive financial resources, this group had sponsored the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanganyika for which this federal trial of arrested suspects was being held.  Shocking as the information was that was coming out of these legal proceedings, U.S. media assigned virtually nobody to cover it.  They were, instead, all next door, in the adjoining courtroom.  Dozens of sound trucks parked outside for this other trial, festooned with television monitors for all the networks, miles of cable, and scores of reporters and photographers milling about.  This huge contingent was covering the trial of “Puff DaddyECoombs, a big, black, hip hop celebrity who had gotten into some Harlem night club altercation along with some pistol that either was or was not in his possession.  The media had its appetite aroused for Mr. Puff Daddy not only because he was big, black, rich, and famous, but also because he had been accompanied that night by a film star and recording industry girlfriend who was not black, but even richer and more famous than himself.  This Hispanic beauty, Jennifer Lopez, had just secured herself into the public imagination when she had worn a silken, supple dress to the most-recent Emmy awards.  This tantalizing brevity of fabric had all the cameras focused on her as its neckline plunged past collarbones, opening farther south, still opening to belly button and below, to vortex at what might have been Miss Jennifer’s pubic line, were it not for the further depilatory magic there.  On its way south, the two widely parted curtains of this fabric also featured a breath-taking feast of skin between her breasts.  To the sides of this open field her inner globes shone symmetrically bare, nipples barely hidden just where slight hems of fabric buoyed on them.  Throughout the Emmy awards Miss Jennifer bore a smile as sweet, nonchalant, and gracious as this dress of hers billowed open in insouciant plunge.  The media riveted in.  Commercial ratings rose.  So the Puff Daddy trial promised more than mere sequel in sensationalism of guns, gangsters, and nightclub moll.  Americans had learned since Day One of our holy Pilgrims, and again throughout Hawthorne’s cautionary tales, and in roughly a million Hollywood films, that if sex aroused, it also had to challenge, invoke, and call for justice.  Tabloid journalism helped.  Everyone understood that sex guaranteed pay-off  in narrative evil and turns of melodrama all headed to finalities of undoing, failure, cruelty, and betrayal.  Miss Jennifer had dared the gods.  She had not just advertised her charms at the Emmys, but had challenged the great scriptwriter-in-the-sky.  The East Africa bombersEtrials next door had no such clichEscenario.  Those foreigners had done whatever they’d done for reasons of their own history, not for the fairy tale predictabilities for which our media were primed.

              When 9-11 hit, I began class for both my sections by describing most of us Americans as stupid about too much going on in the world. 

                   A week or two after 9-11, San Francisco State responded by soliciting suggestions for a program in multiculturalism.  I jumped.  I had one.  Over many years in central Europe I’d developed something I called “Essaying Differences.Enbsp; If any time called for it, this was it.

              To be on the safe side EI was, after all, only an adjunct, temporary employee Efirst I went to an administrator I’d met prior to beginning my teaching at SFSU.  This man, while elderly and crippled, yet dressed with great care.  He occupied elegant offices, staffed with courteous black and Hispanic secretaries in an outer office, and a tall, Oxford-accented young Englishman as his own personal appointments person.  Altogether they administered what San Francisco State called its office of faculty development.  I’d found this place shortly after my arrival in the city, before I had jobs anywhere, when I was first checking in at all the area’s main academic institutions to find places that might be sympathetic to my “Essaying Differences.Enbsp; Because it would challenge professional habits all acquired who aimed for full-time, tenure positions, I wanted to check in with this administrator again before writing up my proposal and submitting the 17 copies required.  Also, did my adjunct status disqualify me?  The elderly, wheelchair-disabled, impeccably tailored gentleman remembered my “Essaying Differences.Enbsp; He had liked Eor found pertinently amusing Ethe way it went against some of the most entrenched academic conventions.  He instinctively felt on this, my second visit to his offices, that common sense of course recognized me now as part of the San Francisco State community.  But he studied the official call for proposals, to be sure, and concluded yes, I should submit mine.

              At this time San Francisco State, as most all other institutions of higher learning in America, already operated various programs in multicultural studies.  These had occasioned debate, with conservative faculty opposing multiculturalism for watering down the classical canon.  The liberals, however, won.  Their victory showed itself Pyrrhic, however, in the fact that no Chicano, La Raza, Black, Native American, Asian American, or Women’s Studies program ever presented anything new beyond obviously new veneers.  Instead, they replicated the oldest entrenched habits of traditional disciplines.  Dividing and subdividing into sections, areas, and departments, they posed as advances, but each of these newly empowered specializations kept its isolation from the others.  Each delimited its own jargon.  If they had any common denominator, it was the tenured-enhancing vocabulary of Lacan-Derrida-Foucault-Kristeva “theory,Eand their easy-to-ape “deconstructionism.Enbsp; My program would challenge these and all other turf entitlements.  Mine asked faculty to model skills so students could locate themselves more widely.  By three steps for instructors to take, “Essaying DifferencesEwould stress ways to see the multiple and overlapping themes we inhabit, and enable abilities to link up with “othersEby the varieties of cultural “stuffEthat at one and the same time both express and hide our themes.

The first of these three steps:  that instructors cite their own out-of-class reading.  They normally never did this.  As professionals they had learned to confine themselves to specialization for a reason, and for the same reason they’d long had students also learning to become consumers of knowledge by staying within fields that never touched other fields.  Though sincerely posing as neutral and “objectiveEeven the most impartial experts hid another agenda Ea theme no one ever stated or could admit:  the love of closure.  This urge, like gravity itself, pulled all into it.  In every department, however inviolably separate from the other departments, however differing by jargon, method, and formulae, all specialists modeled the myth that things add up, that they have bottom lines, conclusions, order, and boundaries.  A mass fiction, it worked wonderfully so that well-meaning adults could forever portray maturity as dutiful arrival into guild specialization, shorn of the contrariness of loose ends and shameful subjectivity.  Perhaps it did no harm for so many to annex knowledge into awaiting orthodoxies.  Perhaps we could go on ceding public platforms to sophisticated enclosures.  We could keep the curtain up on the fictions hidden in expertise Ethe Wizard of Oz could go on promising whatever, while primarily satisfying base narrative needs.  We might indulge this surreptitious retreat logic, except it is no accident that, like specialist academics in their departments, nationalist demagogues the world over thrive on the same conceits.  Listen to them.  Listen to the prevalence of tell-tale “shouldEvocabulary.  When authorities of any kind take for granted their sheltered and conclusive autonomy areas, they belie their fictions with the language of “have to,E“must,E“ought,Eand “it is necessary.E“OthersEEother people, other information, other questions Escarcely fit in such imaginations.  When we expect niche closure, the very prospect of “othersEcan provoke anxiety.  For imaginations locked into closure fiction, “othersEcan augur fear and Eold story Estir up maddened, hate-filled people.  Demagogues will arise for them.  (“OursEalways appear more polite, charming, and correct.)   And from suspicion, fear, and paranoia then ensue the trundling trains of hostility, war, murder, mass murder, and genocide.  It all follows the mythology that says we are and of a right to be safe, enclosed, finished.  If we don’t see and test this script as the fiction it is, we lock ourselves into repeating it.  But it could change.  Instructors could invoke other themes if, first and foremost, they could signal their own ongoing questions.  If they admitted their own outside-of-class reading into class Epertinent to course material Ethey could tease some freedom from the trap of the safe and the established.

 Second challenge of “Essaying DifferencesE  that instructors model analogies to other disciplines Eto other academic specializations or to the wider culture of landscapes, foods, architecture, film, music, cosmetics, transportation, and clothing.

Third, my program proposed that faculty listen to students, and quote them Erefer back to things they said, or to thematic concerns that they raised by other hints. Students might try to show themselves as but dutiful consumers of course material, exhibiting the banking theory Paolo Freire decried, where they perform as empty vessels awaiting information deposits.  They might articulate more explicit concerns, or otherwise reveal themselves:  in essays they have written, in oral discussions, or in body language, grunts, groans, and exclamations.  Instructors can key to individual issues, questions, quandaries, contradictions, and values.  Whenever faculty add relevant themes in any student to course material, they automatically end the monopoly of closure’s fiction.  They replace it at least with, say, the latent themes of community, fellowship, and human inclusiveness.  And if students highlight other, specific themes, teachers referencing them put course material in new perspective.

Even before the terrorist hijackers arrived with the devastation of 9-11, of course I knew normal faculty had comfortable habits far contrary from those I imagined.  Their systematic divisions of the humanities had long ago turned upside-down all the original risk-inviting principles that originally underlie the tenure system.  But I got the go-ahead from the elderly official in charge of faculty development.  I wrote my proposal for “Essaying Differences,Espelling out the stipulated categories of advantages for San Francisco State faculty and students.  I detailed a weekly syllabus and printed up the required 17 copies.  I sought the routing signature of the dean of my college Ethe humanities dean Ebut I turned to her, too, for anything she felt might bear on this new world of post-September 11 academia.  Everyone was saying, after all, that after 9-11, “things would never be the same again.E/font>

She ignored my e-mails.

I learned that, in the local machinery of San Francisco State, for her to OK continued routing of my proposal, first my department head had to recommend his OK.

I went to his office, and found him unavailable, either due to religious holidays he stayed home to observe, or for meetings his secretary said he was in.  One day on going to his office I found him in, but his secretary handed me back my proposal, and informed me the department chair had declined to recommend it for further SFSU routing.  She pointed out to me that he’d attached a brief note to my returned proposal, saying that, as I was a temporary hire, and he could not predict my hire even as an adjunct for the next semester, he could not vouch for this or anything from me.

When he received me in person in his office, he expressed the same regret as he had in his note. He’d not read my proposal, nor felt any need to.  Something else had come to his attention.  And so he proceeded to read aloud to me from a letter one girl had recently written to the humanities dean.  This girl had just dropped my class, and did so charging that the university harbored an instructor completely unable to respect SFSU students.  I had, she announced, used the occasion of 9-11 to assault her and all fellow students as “stupid.Enbsp; I had turned what should be a class in writing into some wild agenda of my own.  I was disregarding the abilities of my students and showing disrespect for her and her peers in a way that she would not abide.

The girl cited my remarks from 9-11, as if they had been directed personally at her and the other students.  She did not mention how, in the week after 9-11, I returned everybody’s first essays, and hers got a “C.Enbsp; When she had seen this grade, she promptly came to me and, distraught, informed me that she had never in her life gotten a “CEon any essay Enever, ever, she kept repeating.  As she was highly upset, in tears, I asked her first, please, to calm down a bit, and we could talk.  Her essay had had perfectly fine mechanics Egrammar, spelling, and punctuation.  It presented clear viewpoints of her own, with orderly organization.  But it lacked evidence.  She’d had no specifics from the book we’d been discussing in class.  Rather than citing it either directly or indirectly in her essay, she had instead tacked off into generalizing opinions.  I knew we’d have to talk, office hours perhaps, about the importance of focusing on specifics, and keeping ideas and opinions tied to them Eespecially when the assignment called for attention to a particular author we’d been discussing in class.  I also knew, however, that her writing followed her personality.  In class she, more than anyone else, always had her hand up, always eager to speak, to volunteer her views.  So the “CEdidn’t just shock her for being unprecedented.  It more likely embarrassed her, who had been so sure of herself, happily and continuously piping up in class.  I’m not sure how long it took her to go from feeling first shocked, then under-appreciated, but she quickly turned to the offensive, quitting the class and writing her denunciation.

The department chair didn’t have a copy of the girl’s essay that had occasioned her “C.Enbsp; Her letter never mentioned this, the proximate spur to her indignation.  When I mentioned this to the department chair, he didn’t need to know any particular cause for her anger.  Her passion itself presented a transcending issue.  So eloquently did she advance victim scenario and upset feelings that the department chair felt obliged to read aloud to me.  He read slowly, periodically lifting his eyes from her text to peer at me.  Claim to injury counted automatically for the fact of her feeling it.  I was, or had been, her instructor, charged as the department saw it with the development of so many neutral, impartial, and objective skills, and here she was who somehow had been made to feel emotion and emotionally.  The department chair again and again paused in reading aloud lines from her letter, again and again looking up at me to convey the massive betrayal of herself as a person which she had taken from my 9-11 talk to the class about likely causes for the terror attacks that day.

Soon after this a couple of the tenured faculty paid a classroom visit to my courses.  Their job:  to insure professionalism in the English department of San Francisco State University.  They had gotten copies of the letter from the girl expressing insult to her.  They had reason to suspect one of the temporary, adjunct faculty might be violating one of the most important of the professionalism ethics by which they lived Ethat extracurricular subjectivity might be interfering with professional delivery of programmatic skills.  And though one of these tenured women was breezily hip in demeanor Ea full head of cascading, wavy blond hair to punctuate her talkative, gesticulating personality, and the other was grim and stern, with a shaven head to match small, bony figure Eboth united in their task.  They found what they feared.

I finished fall semester, 2001, and didn’t teach at San Francisco State for another year,  when I came back not to the English department, but to the College of Business.  They needed someone at the last minute to fill-in for a tenured faculty person who suddenly had reason to take a sabbatical from his communication courses.  About this time, beginning winter term 2003, friends of mine in Silver Spring, Maryland, sent me a copy of an essay which two academics, Patricia Somers and Susan B. Somers-Willett, had published in the preceding fall.  Their essay, “Collateral Damage:  Faculty Free Speech in America After 9/11,Erecounted some of the after-effects which came to American academia in the year after the 9-11 terror attacks.  150 different legal proceedings ensued during this year, all across the map.  Somers and Somers-Willett went into detail on three of these pending, ongoing adjudications.  They also described the general climate of university administrations everywhere becoming frightened of faculty or staff exercising opinions Ein any setting, even off campus Ethat might ever appear even remotely unpatriotic.  In a brief history of post-WWII American university life, they described how administrators everywhere had come to see students in market terms Eas consumers.  Somers and Somers-Willett showed how commercial, corporate America had come to loom as large in public and private university priorities by the Reagan era, just as the Department of Defense had begun shaping things in Eisenhower, post-Sputnik America.  The last good discussion of “corporatizationEof university life that I knew of had come in 1977, when the Sierra Club published Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America.  In it Berry had described how the land grant system of schools in the U.S. Eall those Techs, Aggies, and States Ehad evolved over many years to serve not small farmers, but agribusiness interests.  Somers and Somers-Willett extended the Wendell Berry thesis to the full spectrum of American corporate research investments:  in addition to them, scores of philanthropies, foundations, and other institutions had brought billions of dollars of research donations and special-interest funding to American higher education.  University administrators, as Somers and Somers-Willett claimed, now absolutely feared upsetting this mix of great corporate money sources which all schools had become highly dependent upon.  They feared frightening away their consumer components Ethe students necessary not only for tuition fees, but also to fill the physical infrastructure and the teaching loads that subsidized graduate the students who did the undergraduate teaching. Such grad students were still euphemistically called “teaching assistants,Ewhen really they and armies of other temporary, ill-paid adjuncts now did half of all the undergraduate teaching in America.  For sheer efficiency of bottom-line finances, universities needed these masses of grad students as they needed the tens of thousands of H-1B-visaed Pakistanis, Indians, Taiwanese, and other foreigners who staffed all their corporate research projects, group studies, and other outside-funded activities.

In 1979, in The North American Review, Vine Deloria published an essay well-anthologized since, “Civilization and Isolation.Enbsp; In it he looked at how American and other western intellectuals furthered the cutting-up of knowledge, confining it to ever more-discrete disciplines.  Specialist areas became more and more measurable numerically, statistically, by data, formulae, causal theory, system interpretation Ewhat Deloria called “uniformitarian principles.Enbsp; These developments all allowed greater mastery through technology.  This process also institutionalized human fragmentation Ethe “isolationEof his title.  More importantly, it brought about the outlawing of emotion and personality.  Conceptions of life and the universe “as a giant machine that operates according to certain immutable laws,Esaid Deloria, let us feed “the intense desire to objectify, to render human activities in mechanical form, and to accord respect by discovering similarity and homogeneity.Enbsp; He aimed his critique at the institutional machinery of intellectuals.  It could just as easily describe commercial society Ewhere we all fit the demographics whereby marketers identify us, and advertisers target us.  The fragmentation and compartmentalization Deloria feared for intellectuals in his 1979 essay now blended perfectly into the profit motives that drove the larger culture

Somers and Somers-Willett did not delve particularly into how corporate academia mimics prevailing commercial values, except for their stress on how university administrators fear anyone ever giving offense to the larger corporate patriotism.  They could have looked at the mimicry that schools and commercial sponsors share, something like that between dogs and their owners who begin to resemble each other as they age together.  Textbook publishers, for instance, target student demographics, ostensibly to serve them.  These corporate suppliers hew to the scientifically arranged, highly segmented, formulaic, and step-by-step programmatic units that Deloria said intellectuals were retreating into themselves.  But the corporate textbook publishers so well adapted themselves to fragmentation, isolated division, and excessively chronological and numerical subdivision that they in turn began to govern classroom activities and syllabi, not just serve them.  University departments everywhere had come to feed the profits of these publishers by requiring students to buy more and more slick and heavy packages at greater and greater mark-up in prices.  The publishers paid a few thousand dollars here and there to tenured faculty at community colleges and state universities nationwide, for editing and annotating services.  Faculty thus profited from constant rounds of revising the corporate product.  The publishers could reissue their product line frequently enough to make previous editions rapidly obsolete, so students could not sell back their used texts, and had no choice but to buy the ever-new revised versions at new-book prices.  Corporate academia in collusion with their textbook purveyors had come to follow the wisdom of Detroit, back when it had perfected the issuing of fantastically-different styles every year, with incredibly minor engineering changes under the hood.

The publishers never lapsed obviously into hucksterism Ethis was college, after all, so no “New and Improved!Eon any textbooks.  But they helped English composition, social sciences, and others humanities to appear increasingly erudite, further divided and sub-divided by jargon and methodology, and ever more deeply set in turfs unintelligible and taboo to each other.  But this is a story that antedates Deloria’s cry of foul. Edmund Wilson saw it coming in “The Fruits of the MLA.Enbsp; Poe saw it a hundred years before that in “the Masque of the Red Death.Enbsp; And wise souls long before them saw it all in the Tower of Babel.  Somers and Somers-Willett, bless their hearts, just brought this old story up to date, recapping it, locating the climate where, even before 9-11, administrators had become anxious never to upset the nexus of student-consumers and corporate sponsors. Their essay gave attribution to various writers who had before them noted how corporate academia ha settled into the division, sub-division, and delivery of specialist information Eand to doing so impersonally, by so many “knowledge packets,Eso much “bounded knowledge.Enbsp; Where Deloria saw this serving “isolation,ESomers and Somers-Willett saw it perfected in:

a strategically-packaged product sold to consumers (students) and delivered by an interchangeable series of customer-service representatives (graduate students, adjuncts, contingent faculty, and decreasing ranks of tenured faculty), none of whom should offend consumers or potential consumers in any way.

Intimidated, expected to know their places and follow marketplace ethics, people in corporate academia learn to beware of digression.  They learn to suspect deviation from carefully bordered specialization.  Venturing outside prepared script leaves one open to charges not only of wasted time, but professional impropriety.  Worse, departure from the impersonal leaves one prey to the pitfalls of the personal Ea world tangled and sinister in ways ever as great as Hawthorne and his pilgrim forebears imagined lurking in the primeval forests surrounding their puritan outposts.  Except things have gotten worse.  Everywhere college and university administrations have grown larger staffs to handle complaints of harassment, discrimination, and any and all suspicions of arbitrariness.  The girl student of mine who got a “CEon her first college paper Eher first-ever-in-her-life “C”– knew not for long to be upset, but to express professional injustice at having to endure a mere skills delivery person bad-mouthing her culture.

When the two tenured faculty visited, each to one of my two classes, they found, as it truly turned out, grievous lack of professionalism.  In one case, something came up where the entire class was having trouble with one long sentence by the poet Auden.  They were getting confused for some complications in a subordinate clause, so I asked them first to pay attention to the dominant clause Ethe sentence’s subject-verb-object logic.  Speed readers know that if you want to get the dynamics of English syntax, you can aggressively hurry through lines, and retain comprehension if you key to subject-verb-object basics.  Relative clauses, adverbial phrases, appositives, similes, and prepositions all recede in importance, so one can tag them as minor details, especially when their syntax troubles.  When I asked what was the subject-verb-object in the Auden line, and none could say, I quite visibly flinched.  I spoke with some perturbation, posing the fairly-anguished rhetorical question as to how so many could go so far in California public education with so little basic literacy.

My observer for that class reserved her greatest rebuke for this incident Ethat an instructor would ever demonstrably show feeling in class Eand not only that, but direct feeling back against students.  Coming into the class having read the denunciation the indignant student had leveled against me, this observer was prepared for the possibility that students might be made to feel uncomfortable, that they might be exposed to an instructor discomfiting them by his indulging in his own exasperation. 

Both observers wanted to stress to me the value of teaching English comp at San Francisco State through the system its faculty had carefully developed over the years.  Exactly as the national textbook publishers had English grammar and composition instruction books arranged in unit-by-unit progression, each divided into neat pedagogy delivery sections, so did the SFSU English department have its own discrete instructional packets developed to cover each and every situation that could ever come up in compositions in English.  When the class showed its ignorance at subject-verb-object, I ought simply to have stopped, obtained the relevant packet, and administered the relevant skills delivery as that module programmatically presented.  It didn’t do any good for me to point out to the observers that, when the subject-verb-object incident came up, one girl in the class gaily volunteered that “I used to know that three years ago!Enbsp; The students had all been taught these things Eor, more accurately, they had all been exposed to the same yearly doses of formulaic English teaching, repeatedly, over all their years in California’s public schools.  This information got delivered everywhere in the same standardized, impersonal modes, always from the inevitable cycles of new, revised, and expanded textbooks Eor, at SFSU, in sophisticated modules of paper handouts with their sample exercises and quiz questions. Interchangeably with each other, all their English teachers over the years had presented the same erudite and time-fixed “knowledge packetsEand “bounded knowledge.Enbsp; The texts had gotten more, more covered in impressive plastic laminate, more visibly authoritative in ever-more discrete subdivisions of material set off in font varieties of boldface headlines, and with cartoons, too Ebut the material never stuck.  It didn’t matter that the teachers brought sincerity, determination, patience, and the best intentions in the world.  Many had renewed and kept their English-teaching expertise up-to-date by attending recurring specialist conferences.  Working as hard as they did in English departments of course isolated from the other departments, they agonized over how literacy rates worsened.  The two tenured women who visited my class, and the chair of the English department, and the humanities dean, all keenly regretted the fact that 40% of the students continued every year to fail this junior year literacy and writing exam.  They went right on failing despite the preparation courses for JEPET that they had to take, despite the erudite knowledge modules and systematic exercises that so pleased those in the English department who had devised them.

The chair of the English department, the humanities dean, and the two tenured observers all had reason to anticipate the likelihood that, in my classes, I might touch what was for them the Pandora’s box of feelings.  I’d volunteered it.  It lay at the heart of my “Essaying DifferencesEprogram.  Seeing students Eand instructors Eas people possessed of values, issues, and concerns all mattered more to me than anything else.  These things mattered to good liberal and conservative educators, too, but academic orthodoxy had long relegated humanity to specialized departments of “the humanities.Enbsp; Sociology, psychology, history, and anthropology all imitated the pure, physical sciences in presenting humanity as something to quantify, to portray by charts, graphs, statistics, and governing theories of differing jargon to explain all data.  All could study these things “objectively,Eimpersonally Eand position oneself always above messy loose ends or subjectivity that might be prickly, deceptive, elusive, and impossible to pin down.  Academics loved measuring things Eby multiple-choice testing.  Their standardized exams could be systematic, impersonal, and measurably fair.  For these reasons literacy had long been vacating “the humanities,Esequestered in the step-by-step erudition of English composition experts.  In these English specializations, however, the same orthodoxy prevailed for being scientifically systematic, incremental, and Eabove all Eimpersonal.  At the beginning of the school year, in fact, an occasion had come up that invited my comment on all this Eespecially on the cult of impersonality.  Before classes began all of us instructors, privileged tenured along with temporary adjuncts, were attending a first-of-the-academic-year faculty meeting.  And the issue of plagiarism came up.  Invested academics had a purist view of this, as if plagiarism were a shocking party-crasher that bumbled into correct and honest academia for some strange, uncalled-for reasons.  I viewed it contrarily Eas evidence of teaching where nobody was involved personally in anything.   No wonder it might intrude when professors scarcely knew the names of their students, let alone any of their inner concerns.  In a revolving-door world of impersonal skills delivery it made sense for students to “borrowEmaterial wholesale from others.  Rather than student depravity, this seemed to me another sign of diploma mill ethics.  And what ethics could any university have where administrators and tenured elite fattened at the expense of part-timers?  What ethics could any university have where “humanitiesEprofessionals abandoned literacy, dooming it to yet another isolated, specialist ghetto?  But plagiarism came up, as a scandal to privileged, polite society.  In the meeting held just before the beginning of the school year, this issue animated these instructors more than any other Eas if the bulwarks of higher education were under epidemic assault.  They waxed indignant, collectively “shocked, shockedEnbsp; Eas if the engines of smooth-running, virtuous information acquisition could so casually be sullied.

I didn’t say anything during the meeting EI was the new guy.  But afterwards I approached the humanities dean, who’d emceed the meeting, and told her I had a program which could deter plagiarism.  I mentioned my “Essaying Differences.Enbsp; She suggested I memo her, summing it up.  So she soon knew that I wanted students to acknowledge each other in class, and to quote and otherwise reference each other in cycles of ongoing essays.  She knew I believed literacy could grow if people connected by their actual themes, issues, concerns, and feelings.

When I memoed her, I made it an open memo.  I mentioned students quoting peers as a way to end the plague of plagiarism.  I also mentioned how strategies to do this ran counter to habits built into the current tenure system.  I didn’t elaborate on “impersonality.Enbsp; Somers and Somers-Willett hadn’t written their article yet, so I hadn’t heard their take on how corporate academia packaged “bounded knowledge.Enbsp; I could have cited, but did not, people like Edmund Wilson, Paolo Freire, Adrienne Rich, and others who had urged more links between public and private.  But I said enough.  Before 9-11, before the girl student wrote her letter denouncing lack of professionalism, my own memo made clear my lack of respect for things the tenured cherished.

If you visit the campus of San Francisco State University these days, amid its beautiful palm trees, hydrangea, hibiscus, camellia, jade, cypress, and eucalyptus, you can see everywhere canvas banners festooned from lamp posts bearing the slogan “Love is Stronger than Hate.Enbsp; The university president with great fanfare Eand at considerable cost Eput these up in the weeks following 9-11.  They were going up when I was having my visit with the English department chair.  Along with discussing the “CEthat the girl neglected to mention (or not discussing it Ehe wasn’t interested), I asked the chair if he didn’t feel it his place to speak out against this official and officious sloganeering.  For one thing, as slogans inevitably do, this one lied.  As anyone who has lived in the real world knows, hate can burn at least as hot as love. 

The English department chair, however, didn’t see anything wrong in flying sanctimony.  With its emphatic period concluding its five simple words, the president’s slogan asserted a truth more powerful than the words themselves Ethe truth of closure.  The president was ordering everyone to bottom line, finality, and conclusion.  His pay, roughly a quarter million dollars a year, entitled him to inflate the value of his opinion, too.  More importantly, in a world of specialized departments fragmented, sequestered, and isolated from each other, someone had to affirm some ethical fiction which, from now on, everyone would see flying everywhere, beyond debate.  That’s the great thing about closure.

America represents empire now to the rest of the world.  If corporate academia belongs to this empire, and furthers it, Caesar would approve. A good part of all of us wants order.  Outside of it, there is much fear to feel.  Beyond neat enclosures, beyond the demographics where marketers and advertisers see us as interchangeable parts of groups, beyond the polls where politicians see us as units among other special interests, beyond all our statistical categories, we risk odd spill-out from all the inarticulateness gnawing within us.  Caesar would answer such dangers with police, as Somers and Somers-Willett have shown that, since 9-11, 150 colleges and universities in America have attempted to lock down free speech issues by recourse to police, courts, and legal proceedings.  The president of San Francisco State University himself called the San Francisco district attorney’s office after groups of Palestinians and Jews got in a shouting match with each other on campus in the aftermath of 9-11 Ean embarrassing confrontation directly under his slogans proclaiming love stronger than hate.  Fears, grudges, animosities, envies, regrets and related feelings have a funny way of bubbling up and festering in people.  The American empire grows more powerful, but humanity keeps roiling underneath in unruliness.  K-12 school boards, superintendents, and education offices across the 50 states have gone on applying ever more sophisticated management techniques to this humanity with increasing dosages of more expensive, more plastic laminated, and ever-heavier corporate textbooks.  School principals have aimed to soothe the deepest feelings in pupils by contracting for vending machines in the schools to keep kids fixed on their favorite corporate sugar products.  Along with servicing kidsEsugar highs (and profiting from it), principals are also administering annually increasing dosages of pharmaceuticals which they have to dispense to keep epidemic levels of restive and violence-prone kids ever more sedated.  But the fears go on, threatening to explode. The U.S. government answers them with military might.  The states address them by more and more prisons.  Architects draw away fears with hermetically sealed office buildings, cul-de-sac subdivisions, and gated communities.  But, still, not everyone fits.  Masses of homeless fill the cities.  The fact that fears remain suits Hollywood fine, which profits hugely from them through titillating scenarios of death and violence, and of course reducing sex to demonology.  Detroit profits from the threat of menace in the land, too, through marketing its huge, high-center-of-gravity SUVs.  So now drivers negotiate demonic landscapes with upraised middle finger, road rage increments of speed, and red-light running.  All across the empire, the monster grows. 

In our oldest story, that of the Garden of Eden, both Eve and Adam honored the devil for one perfectly good reason Efor the possibility that they could have closure. Genesis had previously shown these two already with a magical key reserved for them:  the power to name things Eall the animals, all of creation.  The devil arrived to offer them fuller finality of imagination, as if they could embrace all imaginatively, as if by ingesting something (an apple, a textbook, political slogans, or other consumerism Eit’s all the same) mere humans could possess final vantage points of knowledge Ein a word, closure. 

We might go on berating Caesar Eall the politicians, all those who run commercial and corporate culture, and all who serve them.  We might flip the coin and imagine Jesus and Christianity as an alternative. Or by the same token, Mohammed and Islam, Buddhism, Talmudic wisdom, and Zen might equally serve as Caesar’s reverse.  Maybe so.  But as soon as we let ourselves start flipping that coin with its apparent alternatives, we may only be reenacting that first, primal story.  Maybe one side of that coin really differs from the other, but how can we be sure if we pick up that coin with our perennial longing for closure?  Don’t we always find ourselves going from authority to authority, only to find in the end that they make the same promise?  Cynical about this all-too-human predicament?  The story of the Garden of Eden remains our oldest story because none of us can never entirely shed the urge it describes.  It doesn’t go away.  It repeats itself in university “courseEafter “courseEEas if, in traveling them, we were launched on different routes.  Escape this story?  It recurs in our desire for perfection, for explanatory system, ultimate road map, belonging, and sinecure.  The president of San Francisco State with his slogan, “Love is Stronger than Hate,Eshows once more the power of our need for stories Eor, for him, the power of the one story into which he thinks he’s paid to order all.

Other stories?  Do we, or can we, inhabit other themes, values, and scripts besides that of closure? Essaying Differences says yes.  An instructor who brings one’s outside reading to bear on course material automatically pricks the bubble of closed systems and invokes another theme Ethat of our questing, unfinished, seeking humanity.  An instructor who connects course material to activity in other academic fields, or in broader public culture, automatically steps aside from the tyranny of specialization for new perspectives and vantage points.  And an instructor who quotes one’s own students automatically baptizes at least one more theme:  either that of community, or more specific values in any student.  It can all connect.

Wars need not go on.  Nationalisms need not circle the wagons again and again around peoples.   Academic departments need not continue to set imaginations in their corporate divisions. These inevitabilities have gone on till now because they derive from the oldest theme.  They helplessly repeat that oldest story that the devil built into us.  We’ll never be free of that story:  our very humanity posits all our other themes in relation to this first, original one.  But when we see these others, we can begin practicing living with “othersEEall nationalities, all of us in our varieties of clothing, in buildings opened by any number of bay windows, porches, terraces, and gardens, in kitchens savory with regional foods, in musical forms that quote earlier loved ones, in films that draw from widening neighborhood, and landscapes redolent of aromas from all the earth’s trees, rivers, ponds, and soils.


Philip Balla

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