Limit Points

I’m sitting here trying to put together a course description for a class I may or may not get to teach (I’m 18th and 20th on the waiting lists). There’s something about being outside your environment that makes you feel your limits differently. I could, for example, take making woefully little money. That was fine.

I could take having no idea whether I’m going to be allowed to teach (and therefore have enough to live) from one semester to the next. I could take watching the university slowly undermine humanities departments and redefine itself as a private STEM university that costs more than Harvard. I could even take–with pain–watching the police beat my professors, students and colleagues.

But now those same people who were clearly peaceful and clearly victimized are being charged with crimes. The professor who held up her hands and said “arrest me, arrest me,” and was yanked to the ground by her hair by police, is charged—as if we were in fact in a Kafka novel and not at a public university—with “resisting arrest.”

Others have been arraigned and charged for “failing to leave the scene of a riot.” (There was of course no riot; everything was peaceful until the police attacked people with batons. The Chancellor later accused the protesters of being “not nonviolent” because they linked arms–as Martin Luther King did before them.) Still others stand accused of “malicious blocking of a sidewalk or public thoroughfare.”

What’s worse is that UCPD is behind the charges (they presented their “evidence” to the District Attorney, who has decided to proceed). And the chain of command leads straight to UCPD’s boss–the Chancellor.

They have, in their way, succeeded: in the absence of any evidence, in the face of a patently absurd charge, a judge has issued a “stay away order” to twelve of the detainees. That’s right: the students, who attend a public university, are forbidden from being on their own campus unless they have “class” there.

As anyone who understands a university knows, only a fraction of the important work that gets done there takes place in “class.” There are classes, of course. As graduate students, we teach them. We ourselves do not, however, attend class–at least not in our later years. We are there for other reasons that include, for example, research: the work the university is getting paid tuition dollars for us to do.

It would be a mistake to say that the “official business” of a student ends there. There are talks, lectures, meetings, days spent at the library. There are chance encounters between scholars and students in different fields. There are lunches, study dates, conferences, office hours, unofficial office hours, extra office hours. Working groups. Seminars. Panels. People quite literally LIVE at the university. That’s why there are dorms!

And yet the energetic District Attorney, in collaboration with UCPD and those in the administration who would like to quickly privatize the UC system and convert it into an online STEM university without anything so inconvenient as disagreement, has decided that my colleagues can’t even go onto the campus (which receives tuition dollars for their enrollment) to use the library.

The judge laughed when the question of library visitation came up. “Between you and me,” he seemed to say, “you don’t NEED to use the library. Come on now.” The person charged stared back blankly, confused. Neither side could quite believe that the other was real.

Apropos of nothing, I went to the British Library today. I’m going back tomorrow. The next day I’m accompanying fellow graduate student Irene Yoon to the University of Sussex Library. After that we’re going to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. We aren’t funded for this work–we are actually using our own meager funds to GO TO LIBRARIES. The judge who issued the stay away orders would probably denounce us as manticores.

Anyone who loves a public university enough to protest its insidious dissolution knows that you can’t “stay away”. For one thing, that’s just not how graduate studenthood works. One reason you love it is that its spaces have become part of your life. Take me, for example: I came to UC Berkeley six years ago because I believe in public education. There were other and better offers; I turned them down. I don’t believe in “students as customers” or “students as patients” (both are analogies frequently used by administrators at other universities, and increasingly at this one). Being old-fashioned, I believe students are students. It is actually its own very particular relation that proceeds as a fine collaborative balance of effort and instruction and generosity and will.

I love the students here. They’re dedicated and hard-working and committed. They know that this is their only shot to make it in a broken economy. In a world where student debt can never be forgiven and where federal grants are dwindling away, where people scorn the idea of an education for its own sake, there’s still one place where you can get an astounding education without going into indentured servitude.

There was, anyway.

So I’m sitting here, a continent away, trying to come up with a course description for this hypothetical class I might someday be allowed to teach. Maybe. If 19 of my fellow graduate students on the waitlist find other ways to live. Meanwhile, thirteen of my colleagues have been charged–four months after they were beaten, let’s not forget that small detail–and they’re getting slowly strangled by legal fees.

Graduate students can take a lot. But there was this straw, and now there’s a broken camel. If this is what happens when people try to defend public education; if no one looks up from their computer and writes a letter or makes a call, then we’re done. A California without public universities in general, and without UC Berkeley in particular, will be worse without them. But them’s the breaks. While the sun sets on the UCs, the for-profit Universities of Phoenix will rise and burn and rise again. Maybe UC and UP will merge! Glory be.

One thought on “Limit Points

  1. Moving. You have put into words something that I suspected. I have worked for twenty years as an English tutor on the edge of the university system in British Columbia, and I have been vaguely aware that the situation was going from bad to worse for grad students. I have been called naive by students for thinking that anyone would go to university to learn something, rather than to just to get a diploma. This year I had international students paying high tuition for courses with textbooks so far above their reading level that they gave up reading after a few pages. I may have to move on to work writing business documents for the construction industry. At least there it’s legitimate to do the writing for the client.

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