Field notes from a failing state

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.
Continue reading “Field notes from a failing state”

The Fire This Time

Once again, southern California is prey to wildfires, an environmental hazard that has become commonplace as the earth has heated up. But I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.

Here in southern California, we are currently living through our annual late August-early September ritual of wildfires. In the San Fernando Valley, where I live, the air is heavy with smoke, and people are staying inside. It was worse in Pasadena, where I attend a Quaker meeting, and where the houses of several Friends are in danger of going up in flames. The advantage this year is that the Santa Ana winds have not come in yet.

But it is somewhat misleading for me to say that this is an annual ritual. It has only been that over the last few years. When I was growing up, brushfire danger loomed every summer and we were not sure what would happen: nowadays, the fires erupt every year. It’s not if the fires come, but when.

One might say, of course, that this is what happens when the world heats up, and the scientific studies suggest as much. But I’m sure it’s really all just a complete coincidence whipped up by left-wing radicals.

A gentleman, and three other guys

Our coblogger Bob Frank was interviewed…that’s not exactly the word I want here…on Fox Business News by a blowhard named Stuart Varney about his interesting ideas that luck matters in life in addition to brains, hard work, and the other Horatio Alger stuff (Alger’s heroes always had an amazing and consequential stroke of luck along their hardworking way). Varney immediately personalized the question and hid behind his extremely delicate ego by saying he was insulted at the idea that luck had anything to do with his success, and his side of the conversation went downhill…again downhill is not exactly the word I want, I need something more precipitous, more vertical…from there.

Varney’s discourse was so painfully and radiantly deaf, ignorant, and stupid I have no patience to argue it, indeed to do so would insult the readers of this blog, not to mention that Bob already did. The issue here is his appalling discourtesy and cowardice. Of course Bob was a gentleman (a gentleperson is one who is at ease in any company) throughout, allowing Varney to demonstrate how essential luck must have been in his work history five different ways. It was like watching a pompous person swan around a room without knowing his pants are split.

But what I am asking myself, with no criticism of Bob intended, is whether his was the best choice. I have talked to reporters (not on TV) who were so clueless that I had to spend twenty minutes getting them to the point where they could ask the right question, but incompetence (or being assigned the wrong story by your editor) is never a excuse for a rude or insulting reply. In this case, however, Varney was (and maybe is all the time) a great crested son-of-a-bitch in addition to being an idiot. At what level of this increasingly common behavior is it appropriate to simply say, “Your rudeness and ignorance put me in a very difficult position, because there’s simply no gracious way to respond to you and do any good for your listeners. If you want to do all the talking, I’ll be on my way. If you want your listeners to hear from me, you will have to act like a grownup with manners.” And just leave if the abuse continues. I’m sure a couple of these, especially on a live show, would do wonders for the level of discourse on Certain Media Outlets.

The other instance of jerky behavior this evening was toward the end of Keith Olbermann’s show, when he and Michael Musto spent five minutes ridiculing Carrie Prejean. Carrie Prejean is a kid who is obviously at her personal limits looking pretty in a Barbie conventional way, ambushed last week in a Miss Something contest by a question about gay marriage that she had obviously never thought about for a minute, and stumbled through with a desperate, flailing grab at a home-and-hearth-values life preserver. Since then it has transpired that the contest paid for her breast implants. Olbermann and Musto (who is a fast-talking, smirking, vacuous sarcast who imitates a social critic) batted her back and forth in a performance that was about as funny as a rubber crutch, but less illuminating. I think the idea was that anyone wrong on gay rights, no matter how naïve, weak, or defenseless, is fair game for a cruel stomping, but this idea is wrong. Musto is just a misogynist with no pretension to be a gentleman (so why does Olbermann give him air time?), but Olbermann is not a trivial or a coarse person and knows perfectly well that a gentleman does not abuse women, especially when they are not present, so the whole episode was quite painful. Dorothy Parker eviscerated Clare Booth Luce at the Stork Club, not the cigarette girl.

I’m not sure Musto is capable of the remorse thing, but Olbermann should really be ashamed of himself, and if he’s any kind of a gentleman, he will put himself in World’s Worst Persons tomorrow night.


I was going to post on the continuing collapse of newspapers, a cloud way closer than the horizon and plenty bigger than a man’s or even Kong’s hand, but this piece, alerting us to something way scarier than an asteroid on a collision course, puts today’s bad news, and smidgens of good news, in the shade. (I’m so upset I can’t even remember how I got to this to give a ht!)

I am an optimistic person and up to now expected us (I mean all the passengers on the spaceship, not just Americans or Californians or bloggers) to get through the crises of the moment by hard work, smart policy and programs, confidence, and some muddling. Sorry to blight the Christmas of the few people who are spending it in front of computer screens, but I have to report all this now to be deeply uncertain. Sandra Boynton summed it up many years ago on an immortal card: front page, “Things are getting worse”; inside page “Send chocolate.” Great challenges, widespread deprivation, and collective enterprise need more chocolate, not less.

Need, I said. I am off to rend the odd garment, brush my teeth for better gnashing, dig some ashes out of the fireplace, and try to find sackcloth pants and jacket that match (and weren’t rent in November ’04). Y’all have as nice a Christmas as you can under the circumstances.

On our way into the coming valley of despair, I can perhaps do our loyal readers a last favor: it’s every man, woman, and child for him- and herself now, sauve qui peut and like that, and you don’t want to be late for the hoarding, which begins tomorrow morning when the shops open except (this is important) in the Bay Area of California, where it begins Saturday morning, not before, is that perfectly clear? And don’t think about hitting my favorite confectionery mail-order websites before I get there either!

Shop till you drop somebody

People are stepping up, thank the lord; we may be on our way out of the economic meltdown. On Long Island, a crowd of patriots pushed down the doors of a WalMart and trampled to death a wretch trying to hold them back until opening time (probably an Al Qaeda operative programmed to sabotage our economy). In Palm Desert, people shop as though they really mean it, with feeling and commitment in the good old American way, packing heat and willing to use it.

Our long national nightmare of wussy vacillation is coming to an end.