Flushing Public Education

Here’s an exciting topic for a blog post: bathrooms.  News of the imminent arrival of seventeen shiny new graduate students to the sociology department somehow got lost in the University of California bureaucracy, so for the first five weeks of school, none of us had keys to the departmental bathroom.  As a result, we had to go downstairs to the first floor of Barrow’s Hall, where the classrooms and a public bathroom are located.  That’s the undergraduate bathroom, and let me tell, it’s disgusting.

Presuming that UC Berkeley undergraduate students are not any less hygenic than their peers at Oxford or Princeton, I could only presume that the bathrooms here get cleaned less often.  Sure enough, when I asked around I was told that janitors were hit hard by the last round of budget cuts.  But it’s not the same all around.  My housemate works in the Chemistry Department; he tells me that one group of labs, with private funding from a medical foundation, has daily cleanings of their bathrooms (at the behest of their donors), while the bathrooms for labs relying on public monies are cleaned less frequently.

The state of our facilities is a broader reflection of the pernicious, day-to-day injustices of a system undergoing privatization.  Some of the classes held in our building are so overstuffed that students have to sit in the hall, catching glimpses of the professor through the doorway.  I have graduate friends who have let three, five, ten extra students into the sections they teach—students who desperately need the classes to graduate, but for whom their TAs will not see a single penny added on to their $16,000-a-year stipends (a bloated wage brought to them by a public sector union, of course!).  Not yet convinced that the budget cuts have gutted the UC system?  Try this: my housemate rolls a dice to determine which problem from a given assignment he will grade, since there aren’t enough graduate assistants to actually grade the entire assignment.

All of these things make me pretty angry, even though I—especially now that I have a key to the clean faculty bathroom—am not a victim of any of them.  Given that the wider masses of undergraduates here are, and are facing an 81% increase in tuition over the next four years, I would think that Berkeley students, of all people, would be throwing Molotov cocktails by now.  They aren’t.  In fact, Thursday, the first campus “Day of Action” against austerity—held in the same place where the anti-Vietnam War movement started, on the same liberal campus—was a complete flop.

I can’t help but think that UC Berkeley students are apathetic because they are victims of a divide and conquer strategy.  The irony of public education is that it’s so damn unequal.  The scientists want nothing to do with the humanities, because the former are sitting on big government grants they don’t want to share.  Another chunk of the population knows they shouldn’t complain, because they’re jut lucky not to be at Cal State, where budget cuts are really hurting.  And as for the graduate students, why should we care—our bathroom gets cleaned.

Barnard’s Law

Pursuant to a conversation I had at our departmental drinks night last Wednesday—by which I mean, a conversation I’ve now had with shockingly little variation about four-hundred times since I went vegan—I have decided to officially coin my first sociological theory:

Barnard’s Law: In any heated discussion between a vegan and a non-vegan over animal rights, the non-vegan will eventually begin listing his or her favorite types of meat (usually, though not always, beginning with bacon).  At this point, the non-vegan has officially conceded that he or she lacks any compelling argument, but the vegan should probably give up on the debate anyway.

Example (rough transcription of this Wednesday):

Me:  “…and that’s why I believe that the morally relevant distinction should be sentience, not species.”

Non-Vegan Coursemate: “The other night I had lamb with pears.”

Cf. Godwin’s Law

Bike Co-Op Blues

Two weeks ago, I bought a bike.  I was committed to buying a used bike—seeing the carcasses of cheap, mass-produced bikes around Oxford scared me off of new ones—but was also wary of purchasing something from Craiglist and feeding into Berkeley’s rampant bike theft.  I lucked out, though, and found a store that refurbishes old bikes.

The dated Schwinn road bike I bought needed some repairs before I drove it off the lot (so to speak), but I was assured they would be done in a week.  I gave it an extra day, and called to see if it was done.  No one answered, and their voicemail box was full.  After waiting another day, I decided to just go to the store—no easy feat since, given my lack of a bicycle, I had to walk three miles.  I arrived to discover that, in the last week, they had done absolutely nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  After pointing this out to the mechanic on duty, he set to work, promising that he could recable it by the afternoon.  Again, though, I played it safe, waiting until the next day to call and see if it was done.  Once again, no one answered, so once again, I trekked to the shop.  At this point, the bike was even less rideable than the day before; shortly after I left—I was informed—the mechanic disappeared, and he wouldn’t be back for a few days.  The staff member who was there proceeded to try to convince me to take another bike—in this case, a run-down children’s mountain bike—but I passed.

This is, you might say, no way to run a business.  But here’s the catch: the store from which I bought my bike isn’t a business, at least in the conventional sense.  It’s a workers-owned cooperative.  The idea behind Recycle Bike is a great one: take the abandoned bikes left by students every year and give them at low cost to people who need them.  Unlike some of the other anarchist-inspired cooperatives I’ve visited, both the store’s customers and workers are a racially and socioeconomically diverse bunch.  In short, there was nothing not to like about Recycle Bike—except, as it turned out, that it kind of sucked at providing bicycles.

Community-run cooperatives do not have a monopoly on inefficiency.  Despite the faith Americans place in financial incentives and free markets, I’ve had plenty of bad customer experiences at for-profit businesses.  But, to some extent, I expect it there—businesses that exist to make money, not serve people, tend to be better at making money than serving people.  Cooperatives like Recycle Bike, on the other hand, combine a commitment to helping people with humane labor practices and a lot of good intentions—and yet, somehow, these things concatenate into dysfunction.  It’s a paradox I’ve experienced with many a leftist movement: a tendancy for innumerable positive qualities of the individuals participating to lead to outcomes that are somehow much less than the sum of their parts.

I did eventually get my bike.  Ultimately, I just showed up and refused to leave sans wheelsThe guy who performed the final tune-up was so kind and apologetic that I couldn’t help but feel bad for my frustration.  I rode home, my faith in humanity restored.  At least until the chain fell off.

The Strange Species

It is fall and I am back on an American university campus, which can mean only one thing: I am surrounded by undergraduates.  It’s most obvious at 9:55 a.m., as I look out the window of my office to see hordes of dazed-looking late-teenagers staggering to class, clutching textbooks and coffee cups.  The lampposts on campus have blossomed with fliers advertising everything from Taiko Drumming to public interest internships; if you missed those, you’ll hear about them from various aggressive leafletters if you mistakenly stray within 200 feet of the campus center.  In the evenings, Memorial Glade is divided between intramural ultimate Frisbee teams and sunbathers enjoying the last few weeks where they can even pretend that their reasons for wearing a bikini involve getting a tan.

Frankly, it’s all so familiar—the autumn air, the mad rush between classes, and the fact that I’m studying sociology—that I can’t help but imagine myself here a few years prior, as an undergrad myself.  In fact, I practically saw myself the other day, walking among four members of the Cal Marching Band heading towards the stadium for afternoon practice.  They were carrying an assortment of trumpets and trombones, proudly sporting “Beat Stanford” t-shirts and wearing their marching band hats.  Clearly, they were blissfully unaware that—regardless of the university—being in the marching band is totally not cool.  Truly, these are my people—or at least, they would have been.  I am not going to join the Cal Marching Band, but for a second, I wished I could.  I am surrounded by temptation: opportunities to relive the glory days—or maybe, just to acquire some of the positive memories I never got around to creating.

But, unfortunately, I also remember how, as an undergraduate, I found it was a bit strange when graduate students joined groups clearly not meant for them.  Don’t they have friends their own age?  On one occasion at Princeton, my preceptor asked me to explain “The Street” to him.  “What a ridiculous question”, I thought, “How can you be a student at Princeton and not know about ‘The Street’?”  Now that I’m on the other side of the divide, though, I get it.  I wake up in the morning, run, and head into my office, which I leave only to re-caffeinate or attend class.  When I’m done, I go to my house off campus.  I’m happy with my routine—it makes me feel like an adult—but as a result, I have no idea where the undergrads here go to party, or to study, or to socialize or… hell, I don’t even know what campus looks like after 9 p.m.

I find this unfortunate because—despite the complaints bandied in our graduate student lounge about “those kids” filling our classes and competing with us for library books—I believe that undergraduates are the lifeblood of any university.  That’s not to say that the critical output of a university stems from its undergraduates, only that the university as a place and an institution and a culture depends on them.  There are, after all, no graduate student theater troupes, graduate student activist groups (beyond our union), or even graduate student parties.  There are just atomized groups of us holed up in our departments burrowing deeper and deeper into our specialities.  The figurative glue that holds campus together—the people who, quite literally, travel between our parochial ivory towers on a daily basis—are our younger peers.  And yet, even as I write exultations about their role, I haven’t actually had a single conversation with one during my time here.

The rigidity of the unofficial and unspoken separation between graduates and undergraduates would be easier for me to accept had it not been for my time at Oxford, where both sets co-mingled in the college in a way that, a few years prior, I would have thought highly unlikely.  I miss that.  I am, when all is said and done, two years older than a senior—hardly an unbridgeable rift, but one that, as I advance up the ladder of academia, I am sure will grow.