On Wednesday evening I attended a “teach-in” sponsored by the local chapter of student “government” at Berkeley, the Senate of Associated Students of the University of California. A half-dozen faculty (not me) offered ten-minute perspectives on current events, which are heading to a university-wide walkout on Sept. 24; Friday the Senate voted unanimously to support the walkout, as the faculty guests urged.
The event itself was frustrating; the room was much too small, so the mostly student audience was packed in with many standing and all sweating miserably, and more were looking in the door from the corridor. There were perhaps 200 in attendance, which raises the question, what is the meaning of such an event when the student body numbers about 30,000? My colleagues, from several different departments but, oddly, no-one from political science or public policy who might have expert knowledge of the situation, mostly played variations on the theme that budget cuts at the state level are wrecking public higher education in California and that this is especially bad for current students and alumni as the value of their degrees is being damaged, and more generally for higher education as a path up the socio-economic scale. The student chair insisted that the discussion period only allow questions, not statements, from the audience, so we didn’t learn anything about what students were thinking. And I was uncomfortable with the tone of the discussion generally, on which more below.
Note was taken of my school’s decision to teach Bob Reich’s very popular course in a lecture-only version for two units and a lecture-plus-discussion version for four, owing to underfunding the GSIs needed to staff 25-person discussions for everyone who wanted to enroll. The clear implication that the learning of ten students in a lecture course equals that of five in a course with discussion sections has not been examined enough, either to refute it or to implement it. Lectures (limited only by the size of a room and the wattage of the sound system, I guess) are much cheaper per unit: if units are the measure of learning, as indeed they are the only thing we use, the opportunities for costcutting holding ‘productivity’ constant are awesome (never mind putting it all on the web). As Reich is an especially conscientious mentor of GSIs, this cut will have consequences for future teaching; the GSIs whom he will not train will be less effective teachers of their students when they become professors. Of course our normal practice, including courses required for minor and major programs, is for the prof to set a limit on enrollment with a waiting list maintained by the registrar’s computer. Students are allowed to enroll in courses in tranches, with freshmen last and athletes first. As we hack at our course offerings, it becomes more and more difficult for students to graduate in four years. The whole system is an outrage, as we admit too many students in order not to lose their fees, but the students seem oddly resigned to the abuse.
The university president has passed down orders that we not take our required furloughs on teaching days. [Mark and I disagree about what to do here.] On the one hand, this protects the students who are already being mistreated through no fault of their own; on the other, it makes us complicit in deceiving the public into thinking state services can be funded less and less with no actual consequences. I will probably turn a session scheduled for something else into a discussion of the state’s budget and politics, which is easy for me but not such an easy letoff for a microbiologist.
Most of the traffic on the university crisis listserv I’m subscribed to has been about finding ways to tell the legislature and the governor how much damage they are doing to Berkeley by cutting UC funding. This is important, but I fear that coming from us it’s too easy to dismiss as special pleading. The costs of the state’s Republicans’ mindless, heartless refusal to consider any ratio of the government budget to the state’s economy but “less!”, and their intolerable constitutional stranglehold on policy, are much broader: not only Berkeley’s, but the whole University system, and the Cal State and community college, and the K-12 system are going in the toilet, and so is our infrastructure of every kind. We should be advocating for the single moms who need day care, the unemployed who need a bus to get to a job, the kids who need a real education if we’re to do anything for them in college, and hope for some reciprocity.
One thing that bothers me more about this campaign to get a larger slice of the pie while wringing our hands about the injury to our students is the invisibility (that I take as prima facie evidence of nonexistence) of any serious effort to improve our own performance as teachers. One of the first economies of the new regime was to close the office of Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning: there is simply no activity on my campus that anyone from Toyota or P&G or Southwest Airlines or any competent private firm would recognize as a quality assurance program for pedagogy. I’m newly on the Faculty Senate Committee on Courses of Instruction, and at my first meeting I learned that COCI defers to department judgment about what and how to teach; indeed, our main function is to compare the number of student work hours a prof expects to the units the course counts for. Courses are approved without reference to assignments or exams or anything the students will do, and without any indication of mechanism for continuous improvement or evaluation of the offering over the years. There is a Teaching Committee, but its function is to give an annual award on the basis (so my former dean informed me) of student evaluations (which we know are uncorrelated with learning); one year I called them to ask where I could see videos of the winners in the classroom, look at their assignments, etc. so I could learn and imitate them; the staffer who answered the phone said no-one had ever asked that, but she guessed I could call the winners and ask them. On the way out of the COCI meeting, my head spinning, I asked the chair “where is the quality assurance function for teaching at Cal?” and she said she had no idea.
Note that the entire state budget deficit this year amounts to about a pack of cigarettes, or a couple of lattes, per family per day. California is hurting economically, with high unemployment and a lot of pain. But it isn’t going broke, unless you deliberately confuse a society with its government of the moment. What’s happening to us is a combination of wilful ignorance with moral decline. The first element is distinctively Californian intellectual fecklessness and wishful thinking (until about a decade ago, it was common to use the word if in connection with the next earthquake, not unlike discussing what to do if the sun goes down this evening), abetted by elected officials more concerned with getting their next jobs and being liked than doing their current one. They passed out non-nutritive candy, policy meth, instead of leadership and we kept asking for more, but neither reality nor the financial markets are mocked indefinitely.
The second is larger and uglier, the new legitimation of “I’ll do my share, but not a penny more. Unless I can get away with a little less…” as a moral code. Previous generations of Californians invested enormous resources in a capital stock of roads, parks, schools, universities, museums, concert halls…and most important, very well-educated citizens, even against the grain of an extractive “dig it up, sell it, and move on” formative cultural history. The current generation was expected to keep it in repair and pass it on with interest, having benefited so greatly from using it, but they have decided that, nice as it was to use the education and the infrastructure the greatest generation left them for free, it will be even nicer to just stop maintaining it, let it go to weeds, spend the savings at Wal-Mart, and leave their children with an educational system Alabama would find familiar, unemployable and sitting in traffic. I suppose this is legal but it’s despicable behavior: intergenerational equity is real equity and even though posterity never did nothin’ for me, my forebears did a lot, the debt is real, and it can only be paid forward or reneged on [UPDATE: James Wimberley points out that welsh is an ethnic slur, as obvious now (blush) as it was opaque when I used it. With an interesting if apocryphal history.] The Kingston Trio had a corny song, Desert Pete [starts at about 0:48] that pretty well sums it up, and it keeps going through my mind these days.