The Add/Drop Dance

The course I’m TA-ing this fall is required for undergraduates majoring in sociology. It is thus heinously oversubscribed. For the first three weeks of class, we circulated a sign-in sheet in lecture. Actually, we circulated several. Some students signed every single one—one person literally signed-in four times in one day and then came up to me after class to check to make sure I saw she was there.

The students are right to be scared. At Berkeley, if you miss one section or one lecture in the first three weeks, you’re automatically dropped from the course. It’s the raw arithmetic of the neo-liberal university. Even after our weeks of culling the herd, however, there aren’t even enough chairs: our class was placed in a lecture hall with fewer seats than students, so to get peoples’ attendance, I had to scramble around among students sitting on stairs, against the back wall, and out in the hallway.

I tried to shield my students as best I could. I fudged a few records and I quickly caved to the student pleading for me to expand the size of my section to accommodate him (a brilliant solution to underfunding, by which I teach for free). Now, halfway into the semester, my classes are set, and, to be honest, I haven’t been this infatuated since high school. I adore my students. Teaching has given me a new sense of the value of graduate school and, for the first time in a long time, the confidence in the future that comes from having a “calling” in life.

In my usually unsuccessful efforts to make class “relevant,” on the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement—an event marked with an administration-sponsored rally attended mostly by people older than my parents—I tried to obliquely raise the school’s activist history in section. I asked what going to Berkeley “meant” to them and to those in their family (we were talking about Weber’s analysis of the meaning of social action). I expected at least one of 41 students to say something about “radicalism,” “hippies,” or “protests.” Not one did. Instead, they talked about Berkeley being “elite,” “selective,” and “prestigious.”

I should have known. Getting into Berkeley is, of course, an achievement, one that for many of my students signals that they’ve caught one of the last few rungs on a ladder of upward mobility that our ruling class is rapidly pulling up behind it. I see the rankings; I see that my students have made it to the nation’s “Number One Public University,” and that this is, by all accounts, a privileged institution. I know that, whatever my complaints about the institutional context at Berkeley, I would have to multiply them by two before talking about another UC school; by ten before remarking on conditions at Cal State; by one-hundred before even mentioning the community colleges from which 40% of my students come.

It’s just hard to square the crammed classrooms, overworked TAs, and jockeying for spots in required courses with my experiences at the “Number One Private University.” My students ask me about Princeton; I tell them they’re just as smart as the students at Princeton, and it’s true. But it’s also true that the Ivy League considers itself above admitting community college transfers, people working three jobs to support their siblings, ex-convicts, and students in their 40s. I also tell them that Berkeley is harder, and I’m not lying. We had a hearty laugh at the fact that 35% A’s was too low for Princeton students. Nonetheless, I realize how, in so doing, I am reinforcing the double burden that every student—graduate or undergraduate—professor, and staff person at Berkeley faces: that of maintaining a top-tier institution with third-tier funding.

I read today that, through tax deductions, Princeton gets a $54,000 a year subsidy per head from the federal government. Here, state funding languishes at $7,500 per person, and spending per pupil has fallen 25% since 1990 to $15,000 total. But what does Princeton’s money buy you that you can’t already get at Berkeley, one of the finest universities in the world? It buys you an institution that respects you enough to have clean bathrooms. It buys you courses where the papers haven’t been replaced with exams to save graduate student labor. It gets you a TA who doesn’t have to hold his nose at grammatical mistakes and basic composition errors because his contract limits his hours and his professor says it’s not his job to fix California’s broken high school system.

At an event for the FSM anniversary, Professor Wendy Brown said something striking about the comparative “apathy” of today’s youth. In the ‘60s, students had to fight for free speech, but they could take a free public education for granted. Today, students have speech, but they don’t use it, because they’re too busy fighting to get an education. It’s just too bad that this “fight” takes place in the back of a lecture hall, as students vie to get a goddamned chair.

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