occupy cal

It’s silly to take these things personally; the victims of police brutality are important, whether or not I know them myself. Still, it has been especially disturbing to me knowing that one of the people treated violently by UC cops was a former colleague of mine from the Berkeley English department, Celeste Langan. I’m not surprised she was in the front lines. While I didn’t work with her during my time in the department, she went out of her way on more than one occasion to help me; she was one of the most generous people I knew at Cal. The Daily Cal wrote of her situation:

Langan … said in an email that she knew that what she was doing by participating in the human chain was a form of nonviolent resistance, knew that she was disobeying the police order to disperse and knew that her participation made her subject to arrest. But, she said, she expected the police would arrest the protesters “in a similarly non-violent manner.”

“Rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed,” Langan said in the email. “They could have taken the time to arrest us for refusal to disperse without violence, but instead seem to have been instructed to get to the tents as quickly as possible. Since the tents posed no immediate threat to public safety, their haste and level of force were unwarranted.”

Here is an excerpt from the open letter (see petition link above) sent to the Chancellor, the administration, and the Regents:

We are appalled by the Chancellor’s account, in his November 10 “Message to the Campus Community,” that the police were “forced to use their batons.” We strenuously object to the charge that protesters—by linking arms and refusing to disperse—engaged in a form of “violence” directed at law enforcement. The protests did not justify the overwhelming use of force and severe bodily assault by heavily armed officers and deputies. Widely-circulated documentation from videos, photographs, and TV news outlets make plainly evident the squad tactics and individual actions of members of the UCPD and Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. This sends a message to the world that UC Berkeley faculty, staff, and student protesters are regarded on their own campus with suspicion and hostility rather than treated as participants in civil society. …

We call for greater attention to the substantive issues raised at the protests on November 9 regarding the privatization of education. With massive cuts in state funding and rising tuition costs across the community college system, the Cal State network, K-12, and the University of California, public education is undergoing a severe divestment. Student debt has reached unprecedented levels as bank profits swell. We decry the growing privatization and tuition increases that are currently heavily promoted by the corporate UC Board of Regents.

We express NO CONFIDENCE in the Regents, who have failed in their responsibility to fight for state funding for public education, and have placed the burden of the budget crisis on the backs of students.

We express NO CONFIDENCE in the willingness of the Chancellor, and other leaders of the UC Berkeley administration, to respond appropriately to student protests, to secure student welfare, and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.


I just submitted the grades for my spring class. Since at the present time, I have no more classes scheduled at ARC, it might be a good time to thank all of the people who have done so much for me over the years.

I am the kind of amiable but befuddled teacher who never remembers to do my paperwork. I have spent time in six departments at three different schools, and in every single case, there was someone who covered my ass. Schools can’t run without qualified staff, yet most professors are too full of themselves to say thanks. So if any of you are reading this, thanks from someone who needed your help far more than I should have.

Being able to give a keynote speech to a gathering of counselors remains one of the things I’m most proud of … it gave me a chance to thank them in person. I had great counselors as an undergrad, I had great counselors as a grad student, and I worked with great counselors as a professor. Their job is vital to the success of students.

I have been lucky to work with some fine fellow teachers, first as a student learning from my professors, later working together with other graduate students, and finally as a professor myself with graduate students working with me. I’m not sure I was very good at the latter, but I hope my respect was obvious. I am proud to say that many of the graduate students who worked with me have gone on to successful careers, not just at universities, but in other fields, some related to academia, some not. If I had any useful influence on even one of them, I’ve done something right with my life.

I’ve also been lucky to work with some terrific students. A few have become friends over the years, and nowadays, thanks to Facebook, I’m able to keep track of more of them than I used to. Again, I’m proud to say that many of those students have gone on to success in various fields, and here, too, I hope I’ve had even the smallest influence on their successes. Without students, there are no schools and no need for teachers.

The above reads like a requiem, and it’s probably premature. But you never know, and it’s better to say these things now than to have time run out before they’ve been said.

pushing the edge

I start teaching a critical thinking class next week, and awhile back, after a long discussion with my wife, I made an adjustment to the syllabus. I like to assign at least one movie in every class I teach. The main difference between this semester and earlier classes is that I’ve chosen one of those big-ass textbooks that covers the basics of critical thinking, instead of my usual method of choosing several shorter books. I mention this because part of that textbook is devoted to “current issues,” and I wanted a movie that would fit into that package.

I chose Juno. Or rather, I replaced my original choice with Juno. I think this will work out well … it addresses teen pregnancy and abortion, and what’s more of a hot-button issue than abortion? So let’s just say I haven’t made my life any easier by choosing this movie, but it will fit well, especially since abortion is covered in the textbook.

I waver in my commitment to assigning texts that will challenge students, believing strongly that college is a place where you are exposed to different ideas, but also accepting that some things are so bothersome to large numbers of students that you never get past the bothersome part. I took an undergraduate course on the Western at Cal, and the professor showed Junior Bonner. I was puzzled by this, and asked him why that and not The Wild Bunch? He said something to the effect that some movies, like The Wild Bunch, had such a strong (and perhaps mostly negative) effect on students that it became very difficult to do any real analysis of the film. I thought he was wrong … and if it was me, I might still show The Wild Bunch … but I found myself understanding his position the first (and only) time I showed Natural Born Killers to a class. (More than one student’s paper included the admission that they hadn’t watched the whole movie because they couldn’t take it. This was at Cal, BTW.)

There are several factors that enter into the selection of texts in my current environment. My community college students are a varied bunch, as is true in all classes at all levels. And, just as at a top university like Cal, there are good students and lesser students … and the good students can be just as good as their Berkeley counterparts (I attended three junior colleges, myself, before transferring to Cal). But in general, the Sacramento area that supplies most of my student body is more conservative than Berkeley (not that hard … it’s Berkeley, after all). This doesn’t mean we can’t push the edge, but the edge is in a slightly different place in Sacramento than it is in Berkeley. Also, I teach online classes, and it is much more difficult to push the edge when you don’t have regular, face-to-face encounters where you can hash things out.

So … I chose Juno, which pushes the edge a bit, but I decided it was a better choice than my first pick … and if you’ve made it this far, I hope you are wondering what I had in mind that I thought would be more troublesome to my students than a movie about, among other things, abortion.

That movie was The Rapture. I love The Rapture more than most people do, and I’ve long wanted to teach it in one of my classes. I was a bit concerned by all of the sex in the early parts of the movie, but decided that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for my students. But when I told my wife about my choice, she started a serious discussion that led me to chance the movie away from The Rapture. And it had nothing to do with sex.

No, it was religion. She reminded me that I tend to avoid religion as a topic in my classes, far more than I do with any other “controversial” issue. And she reminded me that the setting for my class, where I wouldn’t have daily face-to-face with students, would make it hard to get my points across. I argued that The Rapture doesn’t take sides, but she noted that such a statement is a bit loose … the movie’s version of not taking sides is to piss off all sides equally, or at least everyone in the audience who doesn’t welcome an honest examination of the role of God and religion in our lives. One thing is for certain: no matter what you bring to the table, The Rapture does not make things easy for you.

And that’s when I knew I had to change the syllabus. My wife convinced me that the class would never get past the uncomfortable, pissed-off part, would struggle to get to a place where rational analysis could take place. I think The Rapture is a better movie than Juno, but a syllabus isn’t just about selecting your favorites, or we’d read Camus and watch The Godfather every semester.

What really interests me, what inspired this long post, is the realization that the basis of my decision is that I think religion is the one topic I just can’t face up to in the classroom. Whether it’s because I don’t think my students could get past their own beliefs, or because I don’t think I could get past my own beliefs, religion is still something I avoid in my classes.

(I am fully aware that my students can read this, if they bother to google me … heck, some of my ex-students are Facebook friends who will see this when it gets cross-posted. It would be interesting to see what they think of my teeth-gnashing.)


I was talking to a neighbor today, and he said the whole block was wondering where I was. He said he hadn’t seen me for three days. As far as I know, I haven’t been any more of a hermit lately than is usual, but when I thought about this later, I remembered that it had been a couple of days since I posted here, and perhaps I should show my head so everyone will know I’m around.

The problem is, I have a few things I’m mulling over, but they aren’t connected, and I don’t have enough to say about any of them to warrant a full post. So here comes a variety show of items:

  • I’m preparing for my spring class on critical thinking. The last couple of times I’ve taught this course, I’ve found myself focusing particularly on the idea of cognitive dissonance. I always show a movie in my classes, but the film doesn’t always match the theme of the course … last summer, I used Minority Report, which kinda/almost/didn’t really fit. I think I’ve narrowed my choices this time to a pair of movies. Good Will Hunting has enough of a relationship to cognitive dissonance that you can buy essays on the topic, so that clearly matches. But my left-field preference is for The Rapture, which is an all-time favorite of mine that I have never used in a classroom. I’d argue that the ending of The Rapture involves cognitive dissonance, so I think I could make it work (and the film is obscure enough that I doubt there are any essay factories with a backlog of papers to be purchased).
  • Somewhere in the late spring, Robin and I got behind on a couple of our TV series, and then they sat on the DVR for months. I needed the space on the machine, which explains why I watched almost all of Season Two of Nurse Jackie over the last couple of days. Normally, I’d say a few words, but the season ended so long ago, I doubt anyone cares about it now. I still find some of the characters so annoying they are almost enough to make me quit watching (although, interestingly, they aren’t the same characters who drove me crazy in Season One), and part of me admires the show’s reach more than I love the result. So I like the idea of a title character who is increasingly unlikeable, and Edie Falco is very good. But it’s still in the “B” range as these things go … The United States of Tara, which Showtime matches with Nurse Jackie, is closer to an A grade.
  • Speaking of my lovely wife, Robin is in Japan right now, after spending a week in Singapore. She’ll be in Japan for two more weeks before coming home. There was a time when we would never think of spending three weeks apart, and I was welcome to come with her on this trip. I haven’t spoken of it here because I fear the whole thing shows me in a pathetic light … I could have gone to Singapore and Japan, and I didn’t, because I’m lame. For punishment, I’m here alone with the cats, left with a couple of Skype sessions a day to help maintain my relationship with my wife. I am so unadventurous.

the twitter occupation

There was really only one way to keep up with the happenings across UC campuses as students rallied against fee increases. Twitter. It wasn’t all good … there was a tendency for people to re-tweet everything, so each bit of news was repeated a dozen times. And while the immediacy of the tweets were invaluable, there was a definite feeling of the blind men and the elephant: people tweeting from inside Wheeler had a different perspective than people tweeting from outside Wheeler, and no one seemed to recognize the elephant for what it was. But that was a small price to pay for the ability to get unfiltered information out to the masses. There is a place for analysis, but that comes tomorrow. For now, follow the tweets.

i read the news today, oh boy

Kevin Drum:

We used to have the world's greatest system of higher education and we thrived.  Now we have the world's biggest system of penal institutions and we're broke.  That's the decision Californians have made over the past 30 years: more prisons and better paid prison guards, but lower taxes and less education.  (And not just higher education, either.)  It's hard to think of a stupider allocation of resources.  But hey — at least our property taxes are capped!  Hooray!

unemployment residue

I last taught at American River College in the spring semester of this year. I was unavailable for summer classes, and did not get assigned any classes for this fall (at times, I would be given classes at the last minute), and I applied for unemployment on the first day of classes. I mention this only as a way of explaining when, in my mind, my unemployment began.

I still received information from the English Department via regular mail, as well as departmental emails etc. Although the current economic climate in California isn’t particularly inviting, I continue to hope a class or two will fall my way (I have some reason to hope in this regard). So every day or two, I check my ARC email, so I can keep up and do whatever networking is needed.

Last week … maybe ten days, can’t remember … I couldn’t log in to my ARC Web Outlook or whatever it’s called. I figured the system was down, but it lasted for a few days. Then I noticed I couldn’t access old Internet files on my previous courses. I talked to my sister, who still teaches part-time at ARC, and she said her email was working fine. Which made me realize I’d been cut off.

It took another week to find out what had happened. Today, someone in HR explained to me that if I wasn’t working, I didn’t get email. This seemed rather sudden … I know people who left Cal a decade ago and only just lost their email access … but rules are rules, and while she said I could talk to IT, there really wasn’t much she, they, or I could do, other than get another job with them.

You know, I’ve often read about the legal disputes over who “owns” work-related email. I’m getting first-hand experience on this now. I have thousands of emails in my Inbox and Archives at ARC … student correspondence (it builds up when you teach online), department updates, information from my union, stuff like that. Not to mention everyone’s email address. As I said to the woman from HR (and none of this is her fault), it would have been nice to get advance notice that my access was going to be restricted. I could have saved necessary information. Instead, I’m left looking in from the outside, relying on personal email accounts (esp. unfortunate since I only have one person’s email address in those accounts, so the poor guy has to be the conduit for everything I need).

welcome to the boomtown

I’m in my fourth day of unemployment, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to what’s going on in my state:

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau of UC Berkeley … said the school currently expects to lay off about 300 nonfaculty employees, and will reduce faculty positions by 100 through attrition. Employees at all 10 UC campuses will have their pay cut between 4 and 10 percent, depending on income level.

"Everyone is really angry and demoralized because we're doing more and being paid less," said one veteran English professor who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal. "And then we're given a little pious lollipop stuck in our mouth about how Berkeley can still be a great school."

The school has also cut 8 percent of courses. But the impact appeared minimal Wednesday compared with the opening-day havoc at San Francisco State University a day earlier, where 10 percent of courses were cut and hundreds of students were reduced to pleading - often unsuccessfully - to get into required courses.

When an English professor is worried about opening his mouth, you know it’s bad.

All that money makes such a succulent sound: