Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Early Academic Outreach Program

In what follows, PhD candidate Jhoanna Infante details her experiences with the University's Early Academic Outreach Program and shows another way that the English Department gets involved with the surrounding Bay Area community.


One afternoon last summer, I unexpectedly found myself behind a podium defending the U.S. War on Mexico of 1846, channeling President James K. Polk’s argument that Mexico instigated conflict by “invad[ing] our territory and shed[ding] American blood on American soil.” At the time, I was teaching a summer writing course for high school students, entitled Founding Words: Powerful Arguments in U.S. History. As part of an in-class debate designed to prepare the students for an upcoming essay, I had to muster all the zeal and evidence I could to defend an argument with which I disagreed. Though this was exactly in accord with the advice I had given my students earlier that day -- “You must understand your opponent’s argument in order to understand your own” – it was nevertheless strange to inhabit a pro-war, expansionist argument that had led to the deaths of thousands of American and Mexican soldiers. It reminded both me and my students how powerful words can be, and, over the next week, they became increasingly enthusiastic and skilled in the use of those words. I saw the results in their written analyses of the U.S. War on Mexico, which demonstrated their firm grasp of the multiple ways of interpreting that historical event.

This course was the fifth College Writing course that I have taught for the Pre-College Academy (PCA), a summer enrichment program of the University of California’s Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP). Since 1985, EAOP has enrolled more than 200 students each year from under-resourced public high schools in the Bay Area in PCA math and/or writing courses; it reaches out in particular to students who come from low-income families or who will be the first in their family to attend college in the United States. EAOP also offers an SAT academy, year-round academic advising, and several programs that enable students to complete college courses while still in high school. EAOP’s philosophy that students will succeed if presented with opportunity, high expectations, and a well-coordinated support network shows results: 76% of EAOP students go on to two- or four-year colleges or universities.

PCA students in a 2008 College Writing class: left to right, Devonté Jackson, Gloria Vo and Christian Vasquez. Photo by Sarah Padula.

PCA courses have taught me that six weeks can positively transform a young student’s (and a young teacher’s) life. I first taught as a PCA instructor in 2004 and, having returned every summer since then, I have gained additional skills in empowering students by drawing them into a community of scholars. My own experience as the daughter of immigrants and the second person in my family (after my older sister) to attend college taught me that one needs a sense of academic belonging and intellectual community to succeed at the university and in careers beyond it. EAOP generates that sense of belonging by bringing students onto the Berkeley campus and by making them part of the university in a larger sense. Inspired by this vision, I have tried to teach my students not only to be transformed by college culture, but also to transform it by contributing to and, in some cases, even redefining intellectual debates.

Both English Department undergraduates and graduate students contribute to the program by working for EAOP in the summers. Last summer, I had the pleasure of collaborating with two undergraduate English majors who are both pursuing careers in education: senior Felix Chinchilla who served as a Teaching Assistant and junior Sarah Padula who served as a Tutor. Their skills in textual analysis and in working with students were essential to the success of the course. I am looking forward to returning to PCA as an instructor this coming summer, and I hope to report back on even more collaboration between members of the English Department and EAOP in future posts.

In the meantime, though its programs have been dramatically successful, EAOP faces funding challenges, and always welcomes donations. They are also constantly in need of volunteers (particularly those who are people of color, among the first in their family to attend college, graduates of under-resourced public high schools and/or bilingual) to speak to students and families about higher education: to describe their personal experience, to answer questions, and to speak to any concerns. If you are interested in volunteering for these crucial events, please email Chase Adams at
Read full post....

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Teaching at San Quentin, FAQ

One of the ongoing ways in which some members of the English department involve themselves with the larger community of the Bay Area is, as we’ve already touched on here, through the Prison University Project. Below, graduate student Annie McClanahan continues her account of teaching at San Quentin by answering some “Frequently Asked Questions” about her experience. As the semester progresses, the blog will include a number of posts that describe the members of the departments' involvement with the program in more detail.

What is the prison itself like?

It’s about as hard to generalize about the prison as it is to generalize about the students: for those who don’t know, San Quentin is located on one of the most beautiful pieces of property in the Bay Area, on a kind of headland near San Rafael, between the Golden Gate and Richmond bridges. Set up high, it overlooks the ocean. Parts of it look like the 19th-century building it is, with castle-like turrets and old stone. But you can see guards with guns up in watch-towers, and there are of course lots of very large metal gates to walk through. The courtyard in which you enter contains lovely manicured gardens in parts, while you find lots of concrete and asphalt in other parts of the complex. The education program used to be housed in a very old and somewhat unpleasant building, but in the last few years the classrooms have moved to new, much nicer spaces. They have tables, desks and blackboards, and inspirational posters decorate the walls just like any other classroom. And, yes, there are guards at the entrance to the building but not in the classroom with us.

What are the students like?

Two of my current co-instructors this past semester were new volunteers to the program, and both of them, after their first night teaching, said the same thing with surprise (and some relief) in their voices: “Wow, it’s just like any other classroom!” In other words, our students at San Quentin are in some ways just like our students at Berkeley: they complain about homework; they love some of the course texts and hate others; they are sometimes sleepy in the classroom; they disagree with each other sometimes and other times give each other support. Some are very adept and some struggle with the material. I’m often asked whether I hold them to the same expectations as I hold my Berkeley students -- indeed, I’m most often asked that by the San Quentin students themselves, who want to be reassured that they aren’t being treated differently. The answer, of course, is yes. There are more non-native English speakers and far more students with learning disabilities in the San Quentin program, but there are also students there who are quite proficient. This past semester we had a few students with prior college coursework and a number of students whose writing skills are actually more developed than a typical Berkeley Reading-and-Composition student.

The students at San Quentin, however, are less likely to have experience with literary texts, especially poetry, and they are not always as familiar with certain customs of academic writing and language. But they are incredibly fast learners and hard workers, and they never take their presence in the classroom for granted. They are more likely to be curious about history, and very often know much more about it than I do. They are also more willing to be critical -- of the texts we read, of each other’s arguments, and of their instructors! And they are as ready to admit that they don’t get something as they are to question our authority, though rarely in a disruptive way. They are argumentative, funny, and imaginative. To give one anecdote from this past semester, for instance, one of the students raised his hand after discussing Mina Loy’s futurist aphorisms. “Wait,” he said, “what do these have to do with Africa?” Puzzled, the teachers asked him to clarify: “Well,” he went on, “aren’t these supposed to be Afro-risms?” Laughing, the teachers explained the word aphorism more clearly, but asked, jokingly, if he had an example of an Afro-rism. “Yeah,” the student shot back, smiling. “How about ‘Pick your hair, not your nose!’?” The rest of the class burst into laughter.

Most interestingly, the students don’t necessarily want to think only about the kinds of “obvious” issues that many of us initially assume will interest and engage them. For instance, they don’t only want to read literature about prisons! In fact, many of them see the education program as a chance to escape intellectually or emotionally from their daily lives and the constraints of the institution. However, they do often want to talk about their personal experiences and their lives before and in prison; they just want to do so in a context that gives choice and doesn’t hem them into one particular way of using those experiences in the classroom. One of the most successful negotiations of this I’ve seen was in a class I co-taught a few years ago with another English grad student, Peter Godwin. Peter designed a fantastic literature course around the theme of islands. Texts from Robinson Crusoe to The Tempest, from Derek Walcott’s “Omeros” to Kurt Vonnegut’s Gallapagos allowed us to discuss a wide range of topics, including free will, magic, race, imperialism, and evolution. But the themes of isolation, seclusion, and the survival of the fittest also allowed them to speak and to think about their own experiences on another kind of deserted island.

Read full post....

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The MLA Tourist, 2008

In what follows, fifth-year graduate student Matthew Sergi reflects on his experience “visiting” the Modern Language Association convention that recently took place in San Francisco. This is a somewhat condensed version of Matthew’s more colorful account which can be found on his own personal blog.


MLA members are the custodians of language, and language is at the heart of virtually all disciplines (at least the humanistic ones).– Rosemary Feal, MLA Executive Director

The thirty thousand scholars of language and literature who form the Modern Language Association convene annually in late December. In a different city every year, we critique each other's research, compare notes on teaching and evaluate the current state of humanities education. We also hold preliminary interviews for the majority of academic jobs available in the humanities.

Graduate students' futures are set in motion at this conference. Which is why, well before entering the job market as interviewees, some Cal graduate students attended this year's San Francisco MLA as tourists: to adjust ahead of time to the gravitational pull of a conference so massive. To see and not be seen, and to learn tips and tricks about the profession.

As overwhelmed as I was by the sheer size of MLA, I found my way to some truly memorable panels, particularly on the second day of the conference. In "Public Shakespeares," after Bryn Mawr's Katherine A. Rowe deftly analyzed three virtual Globe theaters on Second Life (one with a paid "acting company"), Harvard's Marjorie Garber presented her talk on "Shakespeare's Brand." With clever insights on branding in Sonnet 111 and in twenty-first-century advertising, Garber argued that American education in Shakespeare, which had once been representative of broad literacy, now threatens to overshadow and replace broad literacy. The National Endowment for the Arts, according to Garber, supports Shakespeare programs to the exclusion of other literature; its new Shakespeare in American Communities initiative, whose logo features the Bard's bust before a rippling American flag, appeared immediately after the White House cut back much of its funding for contemporary American poets, many of whom were protesting war efforts.

"Liturgy, Literacy, and the Literary: Katherine Zieman's Singing the New Song" came next for me. Well-respected medievalists gathered at this session to present responses to Cal English alum Zieman's 2008 debut book. Andrew Galloway (another Cal English alum) discussed, via Zieman, the importance of "unanalyzable utterances" in understanding the words of the medieval liturgy, and cautioned literary scholars that too much attention to the meaning of words can eclipse the use of words. Then our own Steven Justice, shrugging off his narrower pre-planned topic, embarked on a relentless and at times unforgiving evaluation of Zieman's arguments, including examples of "unnecessary scaffolding" in her language which, when removed, would truly reveal the groundbreaking impact of the book. After the session, Zieman stood up, and was given only ten minutes (!) to respond to the respondents: extempore, Zieman summoned up a poised and very effective counter-counterpoint. Go Bears, indeed. The direct, aggressive (though never disrespectful) debate was representative of the kind of "big league" mentality that I loved about MLA.

At the conference, however, job anxiety weighed heavily on the sessions, the talkbacks, the informal conversations, straight through to Executive Director Rosemary Feal's convention blog: "Between the decline of available positions this year and the erosion of full-time tenure-track positions in the academic workforce overall, we are facing a situation that demands our advocacy and action." The California Report on NPR has even done a feature on the subject. When I ran into the fabulous Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, though, she assured me that an English Ph.D. from Cal, even in this market, was a powerful thing. And this helped quell my anxiety a bit.

Leaving Professor O’Brien O’Keeffe, I shuffled into "Publish and Flourish: A Roundtable on Academic Publishing for Graduate Students," hosted by the MLA Graduate Student Caucus. The Caucus had invited six professors to advise nervous grads like myself on when and how to publish, and how it would affect our job searches. But (to the Caucus leader’s surprise, I think) the first speaker, Stanford English Professor Franco Moretti, vehemently discouraged graduate students from publishing at all. Publishing before the dissertation, he said, potentially allows “external signs” of professionalism to distract from the kind of "profoundly serious, deep, even religious commitment to a subject" that was characteristic of academics only decades ago. Moretti lamented that the profession itself has "lost its fire. It's boring. It's not about the ideas anymore.” Berkeley’s own Charles Altieri rejected the implicit premise of the session: that any scholar (grad or not) should approach academic discourse as a means of résumé-padding. He pointed out that sessions which offer standardized rules for a profession that should focus on the insight of individuals only “tend to create, rather than allay, anxiety.” His advice, instead: “You submit [your article] when you have something to say. That’s the time when you should try to publish something… once you believe in it.”

The MLA lesson seemed to be the following: the professorial career is not built on anxious, generalized rules, or on ways to game the job market, but only on a solid corpus of solid work. Seeing my friends nervously prepare for their job interviews reminded me that, in order to study the humanities, you have to be human: not just a functional conglomeration of "external" signs of professionalism. Only humans, with room for failure and not paralyzed by fear, can maintain the kind of productive, active debate like the professors of the Zieman session did. I do not wish to belittle job panic, only to draw attention to the negative effects that it can have on the work we do, by skewing our attitudes about our work. We cannot address the situation with CV-padding and small fixes, but only by, as Feal put it, direct "advocacy and action" (if you're looking for a place to start, click here). But in the meantime, for me, the time for tips and tricks and tourism is over: it is time to get to work, and if I get my dream job in the process, all the better.

Read full post....

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Undergraduate Major Spends a Research Summer at Yale

UC Berkeley is famous for inspiring its undergraduates to pursue advanced degrees in graduate school, and the English Department is no exception. Senior English major Ana Schwartz, one of the department’s very promising young scholars, spent this past summer participating in Yale University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, where she was funded by the Leadership Alliance, a program that helps to prepare minorities who are under-represented in the academy for graduate school. A Mexican-American who grew up in Sonoma County and a transfer student to Berkeley, Ana reports that she was a bit dumb-founded by the gothic grandeur of a university like Yale (and she also reports that she was happy to return to the sunshine and tall trees of Berkeley’s campus).

As a participant in the program, Ana spent her summer exploring the rich holdings of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. She was paired with a faculty advisor from Yale, with whom she met once a week to discuss the progress and development of her research. Though she initially began with a plan to think about Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, she quickly turned to more contemporary issues. What is the ambivalent relationship that contemporary “highbrow” culture has to the phenomenon of the Oprah Book Club?, she wondered. What is the resistance to this kind of “democratization” of literature in the hands of a minority female leader? Indeed, how is the “female reader” figured in contemporary popular discourses and why is there such a critique of “book clubs” in general? These questions led her to trace the representation of and response to Oprah’s book club in the New York Times and the ways in which these representations either coincided or diverged from treatments of Toni Morrison’s difficult book Beloved (which, Ana noted, Oprah has never chosen as a selection despite having starred in the film version).

Ana’s research culminated in a presentation at a conference in Hartford where all the undergraduates who were funded by the Leadership Alliance (and who had spent their summers at over 20 different universities) met to exchange their ideas. As one of the few humanities students in a sea of scientists (of the 25 students at Yale alone, only 5 were in the humanities or social sciences), Ana quickly found her niche and reports having stimulating conversations about a wide range of issues.

Ana is currently working on an honors thesis that, at the time of this writing, is provisionally about the mother-daughter dynamic in postcolonial literature. She was one of Berkeley’s nominees for the Rhodes Scholarship (no small feat, to be sure) and has applied to graduate programs in English and American Studies. She hopes to continue her work on contemporary literary and cultural issues, especially the role that literature plays in the process of immigration and naturalization.

Read full post....