Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Distinguished Alumni Series Kicks Off: Peter Chernin

Peter Chernin (BA, English, 1974) serves as President and Chief Operating Officer of News Corporation, and Chairman and CEO of the Fox Group. He has overseen Fox’s tremendous growth in sports, cable, and entertainment programming, and gained a reputation as an executive with a unique mastery of the creative side of the business. Mr. Chernin is also Chairman of Malaria No More, a non-profit dedicated to ending deaths due to malaria. Please come to hear him in conversation with incoming Chair Sam Otter and Professor Bob Hass this coming Monday!

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Literature and the Environment

In what follows, fourth-year English major Stacy Lee gives a brief meditation on what is it like to balance a study of literature with her second major, Conservation & Resource Studies.

When I see aching beauty in T. S. Eliot’s verses or understand why a no-till system is beneficial for soil fertility, I get the same kind of joy in learning something new and interpreting it in my own way. Because I major in both English and Conservation & Resource Studies, I constantly adjust my vision to see the connections between both fields. In analyzing novels, for instance, the role of the environment often goes unnoticed in the pursuit of a character’s agency. Yet, we are realizing the significant impact of nature in our lives now more than ever; why should it be any different when it comes to the works created to reflect our experiences? The resources within a region have a way of shaping how communities think, behave, and live. Perhaps the closest we come to this realization is through poetry: Whitman aptly writes, “if you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

So much of our humanity lies within our environment. Agriculture itself is a story of humans trying to manipulate nature, a world of struggles between protagonists. The greatest tragedy can be found not in books but on marginal lands and waters, in which farmers and fishermen export their food in debt-accumulating systems that leave them too poor to feed themselves. What is more horrifying than societies which consume resources at a rate that reduces the quality of life for future generations? Do we have any agency in determining how this story will end? These are the questions that my English classes inspire me to ask, to find the human heart that beats beneath policies of conservation and behind the manmade sources of particulate matter in parts per million. Just as we try to explain ourselves with words, we also define our humanity with our interactions with nature.

Balancing the two majors is not hard (obtaining advisors’ codes from both L&S and CNR is another story) when I remember to acknowledge a holistic perspective that connections are everywhere between English and Conservation & Resource Studies. I equally admire the flowing syntax of William Cronon’s works in environmental history and that of Tobias Wolff’s short stories. And I see how the portrayal of resource extraction in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is not much different than what continues today. In a narrow view, it would be easy to create a simplified dichotomy between nature and culture. But studying both has taught me otherwise: each becomes a lens through which I can examine the other and enrich my understanding. My hope is that others might also adjust their sights for another look.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

English Dept Teaching at San Quentin Correctional Facility

In what follows, Annie McClanahan, a sixth-year PhD student in the English Department, gives a brief overview of her teaching at San Quentin Correctional Facility. This is the first of a number of posts about the English Department’s involvement with the program. In the future, both Annie and other members of the department will report specific stories from their classes as well as describing the different facets of the experience in greater detail.

I imagine that most of us are pretty sure we’ll remember where we were on election night this year—I know I will, because I happened to be in prison. Lest you think the academic and financial pressures of graduate school have led the department’s students to a life of crime, let me explain: on election night, I was teaching my class at San Quentin Correctional Facility, through the Prison University Project’s program there. I teach English 101, a “freshman comp”-style course which is one of the main requirements towards the AA degree that students in the San Quentin program can earn. I learned of the election results from one of my students who had a portable radio with him; besides celebrating the news—and as if the scene couldn’t have gotten more surreal—that evening our class was dedicated to watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove, a film whose image of the potentially apocalyptic results of political stupidity certainly amplified our shared sense of the stakes of this election!

The teachers in the San Quentin College program are all volunteers, though there is an incredibly dedicated and hard-working three-person staff that manages all the organizational aspects of the program as well as doing fundraising, outreach, and probably a thousand other things behind the scenes. The San Quentin program was started in the mid-90s when legislation was enacted that prohibited the use of federal Pell Grants for inmate higher education. This legislation effectively ended over 350 college programs in prisons across the country, but through the dedication of a number of people, San Quentin's program persisted. Currently the program offers about a dozen classes each semester, and has graduated almost 70 students with an AA degree (though many more are paroled and continue their education on the outside).

This is not my first time teaching at San Quentin—in fact, I’m now in my sixth year in the Ph.D. program and also teaching my sixth class at San Quentin: I’ve taught a range of courses, covering the main curriculum of the English Department. I TA’ed for my first class during my first year at Berkeley, a class called 99B that is the second (after 99A) of the two “gateway” courses most students take before beginning the college-credit classes in the program. 99A and B are basic college writing courses but also introduce students to study skills, good reading habits, college-level classroom discussion, and a host of other skills that may be new to many of the students, especially those who haven’t been in school for many years. Since then, I’ve taught 101 a number of times and have also taught English 102, Introduction to Literature. This semester, I am teaching with a fantastic team of 3 other graduate students, two from the English Department and one from Philosophy—two of us teach on Tuesday nights and two on Thursday nights, from 6:30-8:45 pm. One of the best things about my work in the program has been this rare opportunity to try out team teaching. Teaching at San Quentin has allowed me to to teach with faculty and graduate students from colleges and universities all over the Bay Area, including both those with many years of teaching experience and those who are newer to teaching; I’ve thus been able to find great mentors and to do some ad-hoc teaching mentorship of my own.

This semester, we have a fantastic group of 7 students (an unusually small class). The reading for our course is designed around a specific topic: the manifesto, a type of text that offers a critical perspectives on the world as it is and a vision of the world as it might be. Manifestos we’re reading include Plato’s Republic; the Declaration of Independence and 19th-century feminist responses to it; essays by Thoreau, Ezra Pound, and Salvador Dali; poems by Aime Cesaire, Sonya Sanchez and Oscar Wilde; hip-hop lyrics; professions of religious faith; and platforms from both mainstream and marginal contemporary political parties. The idea of the course is to connect the reading students are doing to their writing: as I say in the syllabus, writing does not just describe the world, it brings a new world of ideas into being. And nowhere is that creative potential clearer than in the manifesto.

Stay tuned for future posts about teaching at San Quentin that will describe the nature of teaching in the prison, interactions with students and other anecdotes about this amazing pedagogical experience.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Undergraduate English Major Combines Literature and Medicine

Medical school is not necessarily the “traditional” career path of English majors, but department alumna Elana Shpall, who graduated in 2007, has found a program that allows her to combine her humanist interests with research in science and medicine. Unsurprisingly, this forward-thinking course of study is the Joint Medical Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and the UCSF School of Medicine, where Elana is a first-year student.

Elana reports that she was always curious about the functioning of the body and used to page through her sister’s medical school books. But she found the draw to literature at Berkeley too difficult to resist. Though she had been considering a number of courses of study as an undergraduate, she said that reading Mrs. Dalloway in Professor John Bishop’s 45C course clinched her decision to major in English. It was reading Ulysses with Professor Bishop in his Fall 2005 course on the Modern Novel, however, when Elana began to perceive a way to connect what seemed to her like unbridgeable discourses. Joyce’s famous investigation of the body in his novel stimulated Elana to keep reading Ulysses (the “Lestrygonians” episode in which Joyce treats the digestive system is her favorite part) as it also made her enroll in science classes to investigate the subject from a different point of view.

As Elana combined her science classes with volunteering experiences in the immune-compromised unit at Oakland Children’s Hospital and began to foresee a fruitful career in medicine, she was not willing to give up her interests in literature. The Joint Medical Program was a perfect fit for her because, after an intensive summer course in gross anatomy, it offers its students a holistic, case-study approach to learning medicine. Rather than didactic lectures, Elana and her classmates receive a patient scenario which they are expected to investigate and recommend treatment for. She says the kind of flexible, creative thinking that she learned as an English major, along with the skills in research and critical reasoning, helps her immensely in this kind of learning. In the meantime, she is also pursuing a scientific research project that explores the relation of Vitamin D to the development of certain types of cancer. After three years of this kind of intellectual exercise in Berkeley, she will spend two years in the hospital at UCSF for her clinical experience. She will graduate in 2013 with an MD and a MS from UCSF and Berkeley, respectively.

Literature remains, however, one of her great loves and she said she has tried to follow Professor Bishop’s advice that everyone should re-read Ulysses before any major life event. So, this past summer, she picked it up again. The demands of a scientific approach to the body in her anatomy class proved daunting, however, and she only made it half-way through the book. She says, though, that she’s marked her place and is waiting for this coming summer to return to it.

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