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.Â 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 decisionÂ 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.
Continue reading “Field notes from a failing state”