Cal lecturer’s email to students goes viral: “Why I am not canceling class tomorrow”

By Ben Christopher

“I email my students all the time—that isn’t unusual,” Alexander Coward tells us. “What is very unusual is for one of those emails to go viral.”

The UC Berkeley’s math lecturer’s surprise is understandable. Among the torrent of listicles, kitty gifs, and youtube clips depicting moderate-to-severe injury that seize the imagination of the Internet daily, an email from a professor to his 800 students about the scheduling details of his class is hardly the stuff that memes are made of.

And yet Coward’s email—in which he used the opportunity of a University of California workers’ strike action to speak at length of the virtues of a college education—seems to have tapped a particular nerve. 

Since firing off the 2,000-plus word email on Tuesday night, the professor has been flooded with emails—from students in his math class, yes, but also from their friends and from their friends. He’s heard from students at other universities, in other states, and in other countries. He’s heard from their parents too. The overall tone, he says, has been gushingly grateful. Many have thanked him for reminding them of the value of their education. A few have vowed to quit part-time jobs or to otherwise redouble their focus toward their studies. Meanwhile, on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, the email is rippling outward.

Coward says he has mixed feelings about all the attention. He wrote the email in response to the sense of anxiety he says he was detecting among many of his students in response to the ongoing labor action, but he didn’t intend it as a missive against the striking workers themselves.

“I don’t want to get embroiled in the conflict about how workers are being treated,” he says. “I haven’t made myself an expert about that. But I do consider myself an expert in education.”

The full text of Alexander Coward’s email is below:

Dear All,

As some of you may have heard, there is some strike activity taking place on campus tomorrow.

I want to let you know that I will not be striking, which means that I will be, so-to-speak, crossing a picket line. Moreover, I know that two of your GSIs have decided to strike, but because I happen to be free in the afternoon when they teach, and because I enjoy teaching smaller classes from time to time and I haven’t had a chance to in a while, I’ll be covering those sections. If you were planning to see me at office hours tomorrow afternoon, then feel free to come to one of the sections I’ll be covering. I will be in Stephens 230c from 2:10 to 4pm, Cory Hall 285 from 4:10pm to 5pm, and Evans Hall 6 from 5:10pm-6pm.

The reason for me taking this decision is extremely simple: We have 7 class days left until the end of the course. Despite the fact that we’ve made good time and are likely to finish the syllabus with a few lectures in hand for review, class hours are valuable and your education is too important to just cancel a class if we don’t have to. Whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for. I say this with no disrespect whatsoever to the two GSIs who have decided to strike. Societies where people stand up for what they believe in are generally better than societies where people do not, sometimes dramatically so. Further, I cannot discount the possibility that I may be in the wrong on this and they may be right. I have certainly been on the wrong side of political judgements before and I’m sure I will be again. However from a practical point of view I’ve made my decision and you should all turn up to class and discussion tomorrow as normal.

Beyond practical matters, I think it’s also worth reflecting a little on the broader relationship between politics and your education, and I think I have some important things to share on this topic that may be helpful to you.

I do this with some trepidation. Normally I try to avoid talking about politics with my students and also my professional colleagues because people have a wide variety of views, sometimes held with great conviction and feeling. If I was to get into a political disagreement with one of you or one of my colleagues, it might get in the way of or distract us from the central mission we have of working together to give you a great education. 

However sometimes political events reach into our lives without our invitation or control, and we have no choice but to engage with each other about politics. Many times in history it has done so with far more violence and disruption than a strike, and it is wise to be psychologically prepared for this fact.

If I’ve learned one thing about politics since I was your age, it is this: Politics, like most things in life worth thinking about, including mathematics, is very big, very complicated, and very interconnected. I’ve lived and worked in four countries on four continents, all with societies set up differently both politically and socially. I’ve discovered that there is no unique or obviously best way of setting up society. For every decision and judgement you reach, there are people who benefit and people who lose out. It’s the same with the way I teach my classes. I know that for every decision I make about how to teach you there are some of you who benefit and there are others who would do better if I did things differently. There is no way of getting around that. Every judgement you make in life is a question of balancing different interests and ideals. Reasonable good people can disagree on political questions like whether to strike or not, and they can disagree about far more contentious topics also.

All this may sound like speaking in platitudes. However it is a point worth making to all of you because you are so young. One of the nice things about being young is that your thinking can be very clear and your mind not so cluttered up with memories and experiences. This clarity can give you a lot of conviction, but it can also lead you astray because you might not yet appreciate just how complicated the world is. As you get older you tend to accumulate life experiences to learn from, and this is the source of wisdom, but the trouble is that the lessons we glean from life do not all point in the same direction. Sometimes it is hard to tease the correct learning from the experiences life throws at us.

So what are we to do with the fact that when we are young we lack a lot of the perspective we need to make definitive judgements about what is right, but that as we get older our judgements tend to be informed by our experiences, and these experiences guide us in contradictory ways, both between different people and within the same person? 

I don’t know. 

However one thing I do know is that you are not going to be able to avoid making these kinds of judgements, just as I cannot avoid making a judgment about whether to strike or not. Like it or not, I have to make a political choice, and I have to talk to you about it. For me, the choice not to strike is quite easy, but for you the kinds of judgements and choices you are going to face in your lives are going to be far from easy; they are going to be of a complexity and importance that will rival that faced by any previous generation. To an extent that you may not yet appreciate, the world is changing incredibly quickly. In just a decade, since I was your age, the internet and telecommunications has truly transformed the way we live, not just in rich countries but around the world. When I was an undergraduate, if I wanted to check my email I went to a little room in the basement to use a computer, and if I wanted to learn something I went to a library. The kinds of breakthroughs we are seeing in biotechnology remind me of the way people were talking about electricity in 1900. Of course I don’t know - nobody knows - but my guess is that biotechnology in the 21st century could be similarly transformative to the way the full power of electricity only hit prime-time in the 20th century. The recent controversy about the NSA has shown that the role of information technology on society can be, or at least might become, double edged. There is climate change, another controversial and difficult topic, the exact impact of which we do not yet know. These are just a few of the challenges we can see, and we should remember that history has a habit of throwing curve balls at each generation that nobody saw coming. And among all this tumult, our search for common human peace and happiness on some level becomes more difficult, though no less important. A previous generation dodged the bullet of nuclear armageddon when things looked bleak, but for your generation the bullets are coming thicker and faster than ever before. The potential all of you in your generation are going to have for both good and harm is tremendous. 

I suspect many of you have heard sentiments along these lines before. However I also suspect that many of you will think something in response along the lines of `I know all that, but these things are for someone else to figure out, not me.’

That is a mistake. 

One of the things you can lose track of when you attend a top tier university like Berkeley is just how exceptional and amazing you really are. I’m blown away every time I talk to you. The way you ask penetrating questions, the way you improved so much between midterm 1 and 2, the way you challenge me to be a better teacher, it just knocks my socks off. You really are amazing. I’ve taught students all over the world, and I’ve never seen a group of students so talented. I’m not just talking about some of you. I’m talking about all of you. It’s a privilege to be your professor. Sadly, however, I know many of you don’t feel that way. The difficulty you all face is that as you look around at all your fellow students, it’s easy to have your eye drawn by people doing better than you. Or rather, I should say people who look like they’re doing better than you. In reality the true extent of how much people are learning can be difficult to measure. Sometimes failures and adversity are better preparations for long term success than effortless progress.

Why am I telling you all this? 

I’m telling you this because you all need to know that there is not some great pool of amazing people in some other place who are going to shape the way our species navigates the coming decades. The simple fact is that, like it or not, technology is going to change the way we live in the future, and you’re going to have to solve some very hard problems, as well as figure out how best to use new technology for good, while at the same time facing human dangers that have haunted humanity throughout history.

Part of the work of your generation is going to be technological, using scientific ideas to serve the interests of society, and part of the work is going to be fundamentally human, tied inexorably with qualities of the human condition - human emotion - that dominate the whole of history. These things are not separate, but are inexorably linked, and you are in a better place to understand that connection than me.

I can’t tell you what your particular role should be in the new realities of the 21st century. It’s up to you to decide if you want to make the focus of your life technological, focused on new innovations to drive society forward, or essentially human, focused on the age-old struggles of trying to get along, work together, and find happiness, or some combination of the two. 

However I can tell you this:

Whatever you decide to do with your life, it’s going to be really, really complicated. 

Science and technology is complicated. History and politics is complicated. People are complicated. Figuring out how to be happy, and do simple things like take care of our kids and maintain friendships and relationships, is complicated.

In order for you to navigate the increasing complexity of the 21st century you need a world-class education, and thankfully you have an opportunity to get one. I don’t just mean the education you get in class, but I mean the education you get in everything you do, every book you read, every conversation you have, every thought you think. 

You need to optimize your life for learning. 

You need to live and breath your education. 

You need to be *obsessed* with your education. 

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that because you are surrounded by so many dazzlingly smart fellow students that means you’re no good. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

And do not fall into the trap of thinking that you focusing on your education is a selfish thing. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s the most noble thing you could do.

Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning. 

That is why I am not canceling class tomorrow. Your education is really really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate. 

See you tomorrow,



The email has ignited an impassioned debate, and a fair number of rebuttals—as we report in a follow story here.

Filed under: Cal Culture
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What a wonderfully caring, thoughtful professor.
Am so glad that I took the time to read this truly marvelous story. As a UCB alumni and previous Math 1A student. I can truly say that Prof. Coward really struck a cord here and I can see why it has gone “viral.” Spot-on and a must read for both the masses and fellow academia alike.
Lori Behrhorst you misspelled chord*.
Wow, this is truly amazing.
Lori Behrhorst, your condescending tone in a compliment is ridiculous. You used the incorrect version of chord, and you are an alumnus of the university. Clearly you learned haughtiness but not English. You should consider yourself one of the lowly “masses”, rather than an academic.
I am a parent of two UCB graduates. They are fine young people of great integrity. Thank you, professor, for taking this risk of sharing your beliefs. You certainly speak with strong convictions. Don’t stop! And I hope that your students show up for class.
False: Cord (n) n. 1. A slender length of flexible material usually made of twisted strands or fibers and used to bind, tie, connect, or support. 2. An insulated flexible electric wire fitted with a plug or plugs. 3. A hangman’s rope. 4. An influence, feeling, or force that binds or restrains; a bond or tie. 5. also chord also (krd) Anatomy A long ropelike structure, such as a nerve or tendon: a spinal cord. 6. a. A raised rib on the surface of cloth. b. A fabric or cloth with such ribs. 7. cords Trousers made of corduroy. 8. Abbr. cd. A unit of quantity for cut fuel wood, equal to a stack measuring 4 × 4 × 8 feet or 128 cubic feet (3.62 cubic meters). Hey GrammerNazi2012, take a look at definition #4. You might want to invest in a Thesaurus.
Hmmm. The only person who sounds condescending here is Josh, as far as I can see.
I do believe he struck a “chord,” not a “cord” (as one would strike a chord on the piano.) His comments resonate, they do not bind or tie. And I appreciate his thoughtful email.
Does it matter how one reader spelled “cord,” or whether or not her feelings towards non-academia folks are condescending? What’s of interest on this web page are the ideas in the article, no? I assert that an important lesson of our time will be in discarding the pettiness involved in judging whether someone has commented ‘correctly’ (while fully recognizing the irony inherent in my comment on this thread). These arguments detract from the value of the energy you share with the world.
This article was a truly inspirational argument for why his students should have joined the picket line. Maybe this was twist, but based on all the other inconsistencies, for example referring to the youth, inexperience and relative ignorance of the worlds most brilliant students, or claiming that students need to be obsesses with not just the education you get in class, but with everything you do, every conversation, every book…as long as its not on the picket line and as long as you are in my class on strike day. Add the usual false dichotomy of science vs humanism with an oxford aire and I’m left feeling rather disconcerted that this gush has the potential to go viral.
You’re an idiot!!
Spoken like someone in our society who in the “balancing (of) different interests and ideals,” has been on the right side of that as well. It’s a very sad state when the school most known for helping to push civil liberties in the 1960’s is now advocating for breaking picket lines; especially on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. I get his point that education is extremely important and I fully agree, but this person, who is obviously very bright in math, needs to take a few courses in labor relations, economics, ethnic studies and the women studies department and rethink the damage done to everyone in the long term (outside technology) before breaking a picket line. It’s shameful really.
To Professor Coward’s students, As a Cal Student of the 60’s (63-70) and the father of Erin Gore who was until October Cal’s CFO, I think that the challenges faced by today’s college students totally dwarf the issues that we saw in the 60’s (civil justice versus possible human survival). The trick (which we did not learn well) is to balance daily life and improvement (education) with making real progress on daily crises. In the end you can only be effective if you learn to not sacrifice daily life and improvement (education) while still finding effective ways to support the causes that you believe in. Not easy, but a necessary balance if you want to spend a lifetime trying to help solve daily crises. Figure out how to go to class and effectively support the causes (worker’s conditions) that are important to you. Best, Bill Gore ’67, ‘70
I have no association whatsoever with UCB. I am, however, impressed and grateful to know that there are professors out there who will take the time to address students in such a respectful and thoughtful way. Bravo to Professor Coward! But shame on the ridiculous commenters here, so focused on minutiae that they just look like, if you’ll forgive the expression, a**holes. There is nothing condescending in Lori Behrhorst’s compliment. And frankly, the haughtiness is all in Josh’s reply. If he is an academic, Ms. Behrhorst is better off as “one of the masses.” What is this, junior high school? Unbelievable.
I was a student at Cal during the early 70’s. At one point there was a major student strike, the purpose of which was to show that we students wanted an end to the war in Vietnam. I agreed with the purpose of the strike, but I attended all my classes. I was a music major and I could not see how that not practicing my instrument, not going to orchestra rehearsal, and not turning in my composition assignments was going to stop the war. I was glad that my instructors were there to help me. The things I learned in my classes have been a major part of my life. I also weighed the amount of money that each class was costing me and thought it was silly to throw that away. There were other ways to protest the war and I participated in those.
Let’s be honest though, the Cal Alumni Association has never been particularly in support of graduate student unionization efforts. Two years ago they promoted a University lobbying campaign against giving graduate student researchers the right to organize. As someone who could not have made it through graduate school without the rights and benefits offered by the graduate student instructor contract, I’m still trying to understand why the Alumni Association would oppose GSRs from getting a collective agreement as well. I believe the Cal Alumni Association is on the wrong side of history here, just as they were when they posted a picture degrading Native American culture in the main room of Alumni Hall (something about “scalping Stanford”, which as a sidenote, hasn’t been removed despite multiple complaints). Dear CAA: Now that I’m filing my doctoral dissertation and graduating from Cal, thank you for reminding me why I will not donate to your organization.
To those who are detractors, To me, this isn’t a letter about labor disputes, pickets lines or workers rights. That is the context in which the letter was written. It is the backdrop to a much more important message. To that end, based on the tone of the letter I have no doubt that this professor would support a student who decided NOT to attend class because they felt passionately about the issue at hand. The greater point of this letter, and the take-away I believe many of the detractors are missing, is framing the idea that such things are indeed very complicated, and should be taken very seriously and that individuals must accept that they play a role in human events. Particularly individuals who are empowered to make change things.
Inspiring!! Thank you, professor, for inspiring students of all ages. I’m married to a mathematics/engineer man…I’d say, you just made the study of mathematics very appealing!!
If a strike action needs to be taken - if things have gotten to that point, then whats worse? Future decades of class sizes being large, courses and fieldtrips being cut, lab safety being undermined, whole fields of study dissappearing from campus - or classes being cancelled for a strike? The two just are not remotely comparable, I’m sorry. The guy says he’s doing it for the students education. From the tone of his e-mail and the comments he makes about politics in intellectual life and so on, I would wonder if he actually has some ideological baggage there, but that’s beside the point. But he’s harming their education. He’s also harming his colleagues. People don’t take strike action lightly. It can mean sacrificing pay, for the purpose of depriving management of your work. What do you think it means to those people - who have made a serious decision, democratically as part of a union with their co-workers - to have this guy go in and *do their jobs for the day*? Just try to put yourself in that position, and try to imagine what you would think of this douchebag and his moralising. At one point he says, “Reasonable good people can disagree on political questions like whether to strike or not”. That’s true. But reasonable people, once a decision has been made and they’ve lost the argument (assuming they even bothered to participate in the argument - and I have a strong suspicion that Alexander Coward didn’t take the time to go along to meetings and argue his case for not striking), don’t undermine and sabotage each other when they don’t get their way. That’s not “reasonable”, that’s “I’m a four-year old.” In this case, the issues are about staffing cuts in University of California’s medical facilities, about attacks on wages and pensions of staff, and about persecution of those who supported a strike earlier in the year. All of these things undermine student’s ability to learn far more than the strike does - in fact, losing on these issues guarantees the quality of the University, the care for patients at the medical facilities goes down in the long-run. That’s the side Alexander Coward is taking in his overblown self-serving e-mail. Nothing he is doing is for the long-term benefit of students (or patients). You join your union, you go along to it, you make your argument when you disagree, and if you’re outvoted, then you’re outvoted. When its something like a strike action, you can’t go indefinitely wanking on in long philosophical discussions about who was right and who was wrong. Something has to happen - or not - at some stage. There is an endpoint to the philosophising, where the theory has to get put into practise, or it’s all for nothing. If the strike gets taken, and it turns out it was the wrong action, he can then go and say to his colleagues “Look, i was right in this case”. That didn’t happen. And so now his dummy-spit is a viral e-mail. And I’m sure the management of the University of California love him for it.
The School has made no statement on this matter ( at least for know ). It is the opinion of one person, which is protected under free speech. This opinion was offered openly without degrading any party or belief, unless contradiction is in and of itself degrading. True, the riots, pickets and deaths of the sixties “cultural revolution” led to recognition of, and relief from, certain inequalities. True also, is the fact that over time the programs created to remedy those inequalities created new, different inequalities. Many of the greatest mathematicians of all time were exceptional at philosophy as well. How was it determined that our good math professor has neither education nor practical experience in matters of inter-personal respect and communication? Is this allegation based on fact? Is it based on a stereotype of mathematicians? Or is the opinion strictly a reaction based on disagreement? On could argue the Professor’s post is an exercise in discussing the balance of wrong and right, being helpful and hurtful, tolerance and prejudice. One could argue that the position in UCSCALUM’s post is as intolerant and disrespectful as the professor is accused of being. Signed….Graduate Fellow, UC Berkeley. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Phi Beta Kappa.
Inspiring!! Thank you, professor Coward, for inspiring students of all ages. I’m married to a mathematics/engineer gentleman…I’d say, you just made mathematics very appealing!!
It’s unfortunate though that this email is tied to a labor dispute strike, because that detracts from the message a bit I think. It would have been better if he had sent it out for no reason. The message about personal responsibility and how complicated things can get is very important and I hate to see it get lost in the context of workers rights, which is a totally separate and important argument.
Professor Coward’s credentials speak volumes about his intelligence. Many of his comments, especially about the “controversy surrounding climate change” are troubling, to say the least. I realize Cal is no longer the bastion of free speech and progressive thought, I hadn’t realized the very decided step right the institution had taken. Thank goodness California still has Stanford.
Congratulations for crossing a picket line, trying to defuse the impact of your co-workers’ strike, and then trying to justify the whole thing in a long, semi-incoherent ramble about nebulous idealism. I think you *are* selfish, sir.
Josh, a female graduate or former student is called an alumna. I’m sure I made an error too as happens when we correct each other, but it’s worth trying!
Yeah! Because you need to pay your student loan debt back with that great job you are guaranteed to have at the end of your rigorous education. I am so thrilled to have been taught to sit in a cubicle all day and engineer shit no one needs at prices that can’t be afforded unless externalities that break someone’s back are in place. Hoorah! Education can be had in every breath, and you are lucky enough to be living in a flagrantly wasteful nation whose citizens are devastated and live in fear of one health crisis. So, get educated and realize that this system is not in your favor. And that the only real thing to get out of this letter is that politics are complicated. Not participating or sitting in the middle of the road as if the sides are “equal” in the political opposition is not in your best interests. As for the rest, meh. It is an outright lie that society is investing in you. Society wants to invest in you but that is not where the money is going. Otherwise our education system would not be how it is. At all. This professor is sadly not aware of reality despite having lived in so many countries and so many political systems. Also, here is a curveball that has been quite long in the making that is complexly tied to the strike that this prof decided to ignore and prattle on about as if it were of no consequence at all: 27 trillion dollars has been moved out of circulation from the US American middle class in about 50 years. It is now in the hands of less than, say, 6000. Good luck figuring out the impacts that has as you polish the edges of your bright future and climb out of the naivete that has been whispering about luck to you since your fortunate birth in a rich nation! And even more luckily for you, you took a class on the ramifications of geopolitical destabilization and the economics of public self delusion and the military industrial complex and know how to move forward with your dreams. Right? Sincerely,
What a self-righteous, self-centered, hypocritical scab. Not only is he breaking the strike by teaching his own classes, he’ll be doing the work of two strikers! Here’s hoping the strike is strong enough to stop him from scabbing. Andrew Pollack, former shop steward for Columbia U. UAW Local
Lol. Which university teaches Putting Your Foot In Your Mouth 101 and for how many years did you attend?
The fact that you can think and publish [all] these conflicting thoughts, mails and replies, is a privilege that you should not take for granted. Not everybody in the world “can think what they want, and say what they think”. Liberty and pacific non concurring is priceless. Hopefully somebody else noticed and learnt. You can think I’m an idiot, we disagree, but we both think. Peacefully. That is good. Very good.
An admirable sentiment, couched in pleasant rhetoric - but ultimately with negative consequences. The lack of solidarity towards picket lines and unions in general sends a far harsher and more effective message than his e-mail. “Hey, students - your future potential is more important than their current situation!” An attractive thought for students and educators - but what about the strikers? A selfish and limited viewpoint, that will cause untold amounts of damage as people lose the moral fibre required to respect a picket line, despite whatever temporary inconvenience it may cause students. There are plenty of ways of disseminating information without disrespecting strike zones - or has Dr. Coward forgotten how he distributed the e-mail in the first place?
Original quotation is from the 19th century: Mariano Moreno, La Gazeta de Buenos Ayres #1: “Raros tiempos de felicidad estos, en los que se puede pensar lo que se quiere y decir lo que se piensa”
He’s a scab. Period. Also, his last name is strikingly appropriate.
I agree completely. He should be treated like scabs used to be treated when the working class was strong.
Thank you!!
Nailed it….and by “it” I am referring to all the cosmic wisdom in existence.
Must you be such an ass, Josh? Look up “projection” in a psychological text. Happy thanksgiving to you., too. Jeesh.
Josh Anderson, where did you learn to place a comma outside of quotation marks? Surely you are not a Berkeley alumnus.
Josh Anderson, the condescending tone only exists if you perceive it that way. Either you’re just trolling the Internet or you are in fact a prime example of a part of the lowly masses whose contributions to solving problems are only detrimental. If you’re being serious.. Then you live a sad, sad life, my friend.
I agree with you. I graduated from UCB and it took me a few years to get a descent job to pay my bills and survive on my own. I look around me, and many of my co-workers don’t have a bachelors, yet we are all getting paid the same ( most of them are prior military). Yes, education is important and empowering, but nowdays it seems like a luxury. I know many of my friends who have gotten letters from prospective employers telling them they were; a. overqualified (beacuse they had a masters or PH.D) or b. not enough experiance. These are tough times…
Mind blowing..!! I can say UC Berkeley went viral :-)
The case has reached me in Scotland through LinkedIn. In Britain, the word and concept of “strike” or “striking” is the withholding of services against an employer as a protest or bargaining tool in order to coerce. There is a strange contradiction in using this term for the stoppage of work by students. They can stop classes as a protest. They are not “striking”. If they stop classes; they are sacrificing part of there learning or being voluntarily under the added stress of having to catch up later. Perhaps this is a dramatic way of bringing an issue to the fore. University staff such as professors may strike, but the impact is not on the university. It is in effect against the students. They, the students, become innocent victims. Many of the comments have got extremely petty about grammar. The actual issue has been lost. So if the issue is now one of grammar and semantics, lets clear up what “striking” in this case means, if it is instead protest, what it achieves, who is coerced, who suffers, what message it conveys and if the whole process and experience actually instead reduces or enriches the potential of the students to make more meaningful contributions later in life. So if this professor is not striking, he is in support of the students.
I am very happy to be one of the many people to have read this educative words globally! Having passion for what you do, and knowing why you are doing it are the results of such piece produced by this great Professor of global influence. I believe you are really impacting your generation and keep on to inspire future generations for the good of humanity worldwide! God Almighty be with you, stay blessed!!!
You petty petty person, Grammarnazi2012. Shown yourself up to be a rather ridiculous person in my estimations. Maybe focus on the bigger picture when poised ready to deflate someone next time. I truely hope for you that one day you’ll find a way to get kicks out of something worthwhile.
Both the email and the comments show what is exactly wrong with Berkeley.
There is something very strange happening here. There is opinion on the right to demonstrate, but the issues of the student and university staff stance, here referred to as a strike, are already lost. We have some pragmatic reaction to the professor’s intention to carry on teaching and apparently heated reaction at a very petty level - even petty against petty. University education is aimed at providing a combination of information, perspective on society and training in logic. The differences in the sciences and the arts are mainly on the application, but the basic mental training has similar benefits. If you make a stand on an issue, you need to retain the ability to see it in perspective and appreciate other views even if you don’t quite agree with them. As someone else has pointed out, as your perspective changes over time with experience and hindsight, you need to be able to build and mould your views constructively. That does not make your current views any less valid and valuable, but they must be seen as the foundation for growth. So if you “picket” and make a stand as a blind lemming in the crowd, what is being gained and what is being lost? Are you foolishly and selfishly stopping others from making the most of their educational opportunities while you blindly hold onto one view? Is the current issue rather petty, too petty to warrant this type of reaction instead of more practical actions and procedures ? Will it change things or simply let you let off steam?
Opens my eyes again !
I have read through (all the way through) his comments, and the amount of excess verbiage is the frou-frou that brings criticism to academia. How about a shorter email that ditches the political content and focuses on the fact that that extra hour of math lecture is too important to allow them time to drive or fly home to be with their families, whom some of them have not seen since August? There’s simply no other way to get that knowledge, other than to sit there and listen to him tell them how to work that proof! Oh, wait, that reasoning starts to sound a little off. Once or twice a year, there are some things in life more important than math.
Awww that brought in much joy and hope. And to think that it moves so many people is the best thing that has happened the past couple of days. The micro, the macro, the interconnectedness of familiar things and those we dare to be dismissive of - the teacher-writer has dealt with all of it so well! Thank you.
OhHowIronic wrote: “where did you learn to place a comma outside of quotation marks?” He probably learned it by being up to date on style guides and is choosing to ignore MLA and APA in favor of Telegraph style guide, The Guardian style guide, The Radio Times stylebook and the journal of the Linguistic Society of North America. In other words, neither way is inherently wrong and it depends on whose style guide you are using.
I stopped sending emails to students after one stupid student sent one of my letters to a stupid professor who used this email to discredit my efforts. The letter was intended to help student but these idiots found the “ground” for appeal. Such idiots. I decided that lets all suffer and stopped sending letters to students.
if we stop protesting for things which dont concern us, the underdogs , the disadvantaged wont have any one to fight for them. Yes education is important and disrupting classes for a strike not very desirable, but sometimes disruption is needed to make an impact. Thats REAL life and cant be learnt in a class
You’re wrong; don’t throw the baby with water. Why the majority should suffer and don’t receive decent education in favor of few underdogs? I understand that minority rights should be respected but education is a very special good.
Scab. If you’re so interested in students learning about the big complicated world, maybe encourage them to use the strike as a unique opportunity to speak to workers and here from them why they are taking this action, and ho they think its related to students’ education. I was one of the organizers that brought the union to the UC in the 1990s and everyone involved was incredibly dedicated to the education of our students. We did something about it that took quite a bit more effort than writing an email, and was much more effective. There’s a life lesson for you!
What an amazing and inspirational Professor!
First of all, it is rather silly to focus on single comment. But considering that it’s one of the first impressions we get of what the written feedback to this blog post is, it’s probably worthy noting a few things about it. The use of the term “masses” is what’s causing the problem (a misspelling isn’t much to gripe about, although it looks bad). My take is that anyone who has a concept of “the masses” and is using that concept to distinguish communities of equal citizens is, frankly, a snob. It’s a sad reality that some of us view our fellow human beings with such a broad, ugly stroke and reveals a lack of discernment and enlightenment on our part. It’s a blunt form of classism and Berkeley should want no part in it. Josh Anderson made his point well. To add to that, there are bullies on this thread.
Hear hear. Thank you for your reasonable comment.
He is not a scab. He is a teacher.
There was a real easy option for him to encourage the students and support the strike. Instead of breaking the strike, why didn’t he just set up a webinar, invite the students to participate (and other potential lovers of math) and do it from home.
I completely agree with Jules, here ! It’s a fantastic message !! Straight from a caring teacher’s heart !!
Seriously, I noticed the misspelling too; however, is this really about misspellings, or about a person brave enough to make a choice that isn’t politically correct? I am fill of admiration for this person. Often we do not know when we will have to step out and stand up for our own principles.
Very good framing of his opening and ending comments. Too bad he wrote this e-essay with such a big soft belly in the middle. And I’m not surprised some people found him a condescending scab. Comes with the territory of expressing opinions in print.
Josh, Lori, the user you so rudely addressed, is a woman. Therefore, she is an _alumna_ of the university, not an alumnus.
Well, Josh Anderson, talk about the pot calling the kettle black. “Cord” is not an “incorrect version of chord”, they are separate words which mean different things. Neither is a “version” of the other. I think you meant to state that Lori used the incorrect word. I believe your condescension and haughtiness prevented you from grasping this basic command of grammar. Away to the “lowly masses” with you….
“I know that for every decision I make about how to teach you there are some of you who benefit and there are others who would do better if I did things differently. There is no way of getting around that.” This was a thoughtful letter and I appreciate the message and the good intentions. However, I take exception to the above statement. Teachers are expected to get around that in each lesson in order to reach all learners. It’s called differentiation. With all due respect, does the professor think it is impossible?
Ahem… that’s “alumna,” if you really want to pick
Josh Anderson, Lori, if female, is an alumna of the university. Latin is also worth knowing besides English. “Just sayin’.”  : )
She is the kind of person that could spot a speck of rust on the tip of a sewing needle, and then try to have the entire steel industry shut down. We should not condemn her. We need to use this an oppurtunity to grow our our tolerence. Society is full of this kind of thinking, and we must learn to integrate these attitudes into our ability to fulfill our mission; whatever that may be.
A working man in American has only his labor, organized with the labor of others as a defense against slavery and tyranny. The ballot box changes nothing. Elections did not give workers their rights, it merely reinforced that which they had taken for themselves. I hope Professor Coward remembers that when his graduates are working at McDonalds to pay off the half million dollars of debt they have incurred because all the decent jobs have gone (as a result of the destruction of organized labor). Tally ho..
“They say in Harlan County There are no neutrals there. You’ll either be a union man Or a thug for J. H. Blair. Oh workers can you stand it? Oh tell me how you can? Will you be a lousy scab Or will you be a man?”
Even if you’re an elitist, history-less snot who thinks it’s innovative to teach your students that putting their individual needs before those of others is an ethical, principled response, you’re still a scab. A scab who breeds other scabs. You might well choose to cross a picket line for unfathomable personal reasons, but to encourage and coerce others to do so is simply evil.
“A selfish and limited viewpoint, that will cause untold amounts of damage as people lose the moral fibre required to respect a picket line, despite whatever temporary inconvenience it may cause students.” People like you are what is wrong with this nation.
How did he coerce anyone to “cross the picket line”. Did you mean to say “do his job”? Or perhaps you meant to say “perform his duty to educate the paying students so they can complete their life-changing coursework.” You sound like you or your relative works for the public education system. I know exactly what type of person you are.
The anonymous online attacks toward professor Alexander Coward are a shining example of how broken the education system is. Someone who is attempting to render critical education to the nation’s youth deserves unapologetic commendation. This is truly what education has become at all levels society: politics. Bunch of lousy, self-entitled thugs.
Assuming Lori is female, I believe you meant to call her an alumna, not an alumnus.
…and the correct word is alumna, rather than alumni ;)
One of the pettiest comment I have ever come across, with due apologies for making another petty comment. This is typical of an impulsive response. A positive impulse response is acceptable. But not a negative one. We must exercise caution. That’s where real education and scholarship plays a role. What is needed is a discrimination for when to be critical when to ignore a mistake, when to spend energy and when to conserve energy, etc. Of course, this wisdom is not so easy. However, we should know enough that we may not be wise and behave with a little humility and with some doubt in mind about what other person could be feeling while he was expressing. Again, the most difficult part is to put ourselves in other’s shoes. If this had happened, we would have sacrificed some of our self respect for the common good. There would not have been so many misunderstandings, divorces, etc. Let me quote an ancient Vedic scripture though I may not be fully qualified to do so. “Thyaagaineke Amritatvamaanasuhu..” It is equivalent to “Only through sacrifice is eternal peace is attained”. Care must be given to the word “sacrifice” and should be understood from the context. It is not a simple word. It is not a sacrifice of “goat”, etc. It could mean, for example, a sacrifice of momentary, impermanent impression of our “goodness” in others mind. We could have a mature outlook that “one day others will come to know the truth…” Once those “others” are in a better mental disposition to understand themselves, the things around them, and come to know about this sacrifice, their hearts may melt and come back to us with an apology. This again is context based. There are occasions where we must go for the fight as was said to Sri Arjuna by Lord Krishna in Srimad Bhagavat Gita. That’s why the UCB professor rightly said, things are very complicated in this multi-dimensional universe. If we truly appreciated his statements, humility should have dawned in all of us rather than being impulsively judgmental. May the Eternal one permit me to quote this: Luke 6:37 “Do not judge, and ye shall not be judged”. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Scriptures also say that, nothing is permanent, including our misunderstanding, and lack of wisdom, negative feelings, etc. Everything will evaporate in fire of wisdom. Scriptures of wisdom say everyone of us has the inherent potential to express the highest ideal with the blessings of the Eternal. This professor has done it now. It only a matter of time others also will follow. Borrowing from professor’s words, we should not judge ourselves negatively also though some introspection is required. With the blessing and the grace of the Infinite, the Eternal One, may we all achieve this inner and outer balance and the master the art of tight rope walking in life. Peace to All, Joy to All.
The previous comment by “Anonymous” was meant to be reply to “Mr. Josh Anderson”. Sorry for the misunderstanding caused. I was under the impression that the reply to someone’s comment will be posted just below that person’s comment. Apologies.
That “cord” cannot be struck. It can be bound / tied. If you want to strike a chord, it has to be a chord.
Dear Mr. Coward I was sent this story by my dean in the hopes that I would be inspired to share the story with my students to motivate them to value their education. I was, instead appalled. I reproduce below my response to him. “Dear Dean _____: I must respectfully disagree with your interpretation of the email in this story. It is not, fundamentally, about the value of education. Rather, it suggests the futility of political engagement. The email suggests that politics is “too interconnected” for students to sensibly take a political stand; urges them to treat anything that does not affect their personal prospects as too “complicated” to worry about until they get older ; equates education primarily with the acquisition of skills; and, implicitly, takes a stance against collective bargaining. As a professor of political science, I wish to convey to my students that part of the purpose of education is precisely to explore the interconnections among human endeavors; that the social and political context in which all these endeavors take place fundamentally conditions the consequences they have; that the essence of education is therefore the development of the ability to think critically about the social context of our actions; and that collective efforts at exercising political influence are praiseworthy and valuable to engage in. A message that, effectively, offers a view of education as a pursuit of technical skills divorced from social and political reality is not one I can endorse. ” In other words, I reject the contrast you draw between engaging in politics and getting an education. I am struck, in reading your litany of technological opportunities and challenges for which you wish your students to prepare themselves, that it never occurs to you that it is precisely in and through the political realm that their efforts to have an impact will either succeed or fail. If climate change is “controversial,” it is surely not because the science is very much in dispute, anymore. It is because of the politics. So what good is it, I have to ask, for your brilliant students to train themselves to be better scientists and engineers, if they forego learning from the political effort before them what works in effecting change and what does not? Here, in the interest of full disclosure, I must offer a personal confession: I am myself a former UC Berkeley grad student — I received my Ph.D. in Political Science in 1996 — and was present for the 1989 and 1992 AGSE strikes. I supported the first (I was a GSI), but not the second, primarily because I thought it was poorly thought out and failed to consider the structural constraints facing graduate students (especially the vulnerability of research assistants, of which I was, of course, one). Nonetheless, I am deeply disturbed by the position you take. There are legitimate arguments against the unionization of graduate student employees ( ultimately, their job is to finish up and stop being graduate students) as well as arguments in its favor (the exploitation of graduate student labor is one reason they can’t). But, although you do not yourself question the legitimacy of the strike, your email gives cover to the most baseless one. That is the idea that educators, generally, are somehow supposed to sacrifice themselves on the altar of education to the point of pretending they are not employees, with legitimate needs, interests, and obligations outside the workplace, and must refrain from collective bargaining even if that is the only means available to employees in society to protect themselves from arbitrary or exploitative treatment. The only people your students are entitled to expect that kind of self-sacrifice from is their parents. It does the cause of education, at any level, no good to predicate educational policy on the unattainable image of the educator as Mother Theresa. Now I know you didn’t actually say that but in a political climate in which the hopes for education reform are almost uniformly seen as resting on breaking teachers’ unions, it is inevitable that your screed would be received that way. If you did not foresee that it would, that only illustrates the poverty of a mathematical education that does not adequately prepare students for a life in which everything is political. That said, I have only empathy for you. I have faced a choice similar to yours. I have made a choice similar to yours. But my reasons, and feelings about that choice were, for better or worse, very different.
I received my Ph.D. in political science from Berkeley in 1993. I, like Dr. Coward, am a college professor. While I am fortunate enough to hold a tenured position in a job that I love at Knox College, like most Ph.D.s these days, I worked in adjunct positions early in my career. I suspect that is also the case for Dr. Coward. His position is identified as “lecturer” despite the fact that he holds the Ph.D (at most places a visitor with a Ph.D. would be Visiting Assistant Professor). My point is that I am assuming (especially given the long list of other places he has taught) that in Berkeley-speak lecturer means adjunct, or non-tenure track, or vulnerable academic who is underpaid and has no job security. In other words, precisely the sort of person for which AGSE and other academic unions fight. His decision to cross a picket line is a decision to undermine the sort of solidarity that could improve his professional life and the lives of all the rest of us. That decision is not surprising, of course, strike-breakers are most likely to come from the ranks of the most vulnerable. But it is surprising and disturbing that the Cal Alumni Association would choose to celebrate this sad decision, one that is destructive to the values for which the Cal Alumni Association should stand.
Even Prof. Alexander Coward wrote “breath” instead of “breathe”…I believe it’s not the syntax or grammar that strikes a ‘chord’ or ‘cord’, but the passion in which people instill in their comments that really counts.
Wish my Math 1A professor at Cal could have been Prof. Alexander Coward! It would have made me more motivated to attend lectures and sections =) There’s really no right or wrong in the decisions we make if we believe they are for the greater good and no physical harm is done. Scabs are those who act on selfish wants & needs and could care less if others are hurt in the process of their crossing the picket lines. Prof. Coward is BRAVE enough to take on the extra work with the heated backlash coming his way and be there for the students he believes are the future because he truly cares, not just for the moment, but for lifetimes to come.
I agree. There is nothing profound about what he is saying. It’s actually fairly superficial. I mean, he’s a MATH teacher. Not a philosher by a long shot
He’s a scab!
I think this guy is fairly narrow and his grammar is bad. He’s not saying anything profound. He IS a math teacher.
Dear California Alumni Association: It took courage for Mr. Coward—a poorly paid lecturer without job security—to write the words he did. And, he hit the nail on the head: ‘In order for you to navigate the increasing complexity of the 21st century you need a world-class education, and thankfully you have an opportunity to get one. ’ In his opinion, the best way for his students to further their world-class education was by attending a math lecture. That’s fine. The CAA should know better. Education is complicated and one of the most important things a university can do is to train students to make difficult choices. Should one spend an extra three hours to make my 3-dimensional topography assignment perfect, or would that time be better spent going to a lecture on astrophysics? Or going beyond the syllabus to learn something new but related to my math class? Or going to a philosophy lecture? Or getting a coffee (or, dare I suggest, a beer) and talking with friends and strangers about astrophysics, philosophy, or a labor action—thereby learning HOW to talk with friends and strangers and maybe learning something new about myself and the world at the same time? For at least one mathematics lecturer, these choices are apparently easy. They (believe that they) are hired to transfer knowledge from a syllabus to some students and they have learned, through professional development, that their syllabus is ‘important.’ It is right and good for a lecturer to be clear about the ‘cost’ to a student of doing something-other-than-math; presumably a-bit-less-math will be learned (at least on that day) and a student might see that less-learning reflected in their grade. That’s fine, too. A student who misses a lecture pays a price for this choice. That does not mean that the choice is wrong. Some things ARE more important than an hour of class. Education is complicated, yet students seem to have figured this out. And so have professors. AND, despite claims and cultural expectations to the contrary, math students (and professors) have figured this out. You’ll find many more mathematicians at politics lectures than you’ll find political scientists at math lectures. Mr. Coward is still young. He’ll figure it out, too. The California Alumni Association is not young. You guys should have figured it out already.
A lecturer (adjunct) writes a long email to his students attempting to justify his (“easy”) decision to cross a picket line and to persuade them that they, too, should cross the picket line to attend class. CAA features this email in a story that seems to endorse the view that it powerfully conveys the virtues and value of a college education. I hope not. I find this email and its theme of “whatever’s going on out there, it’s nothing to do with you; you can’t possibly have any responsibility for anything other than your own success” deeply troubling, and as a UC Berkeley PhD in Political Science, I find the promotion of it by CAA offensive. The email is politically naïve (or disingenuous), not only in ducking the question of whether our participation in an institution comes with any responsibility for its behavior, but also in its portrayal of a world that consists of (apparently apolitical) technology “driving” society and (apparently apolitical) “human dangers that have haunted humanity throughout history”. I hope this orientation to the world is not what UCB seeks to cultivate in its students, particularly its future technology-developers.
I’m disappointed by the fact that a few are downplaying Professor Coward’s words simply because he is math professor. I am an engineering student at Berkeley, and just because I don’t study political science or philosophy doesn’t mean I don’t or shouldn’t have an opinion in political matters. Why can’t a math professor be involved in politics? As a student reading this letter, not once did I feel like he was forcing his opinions on me. Instead, it presented me with the opportunity to really reflect on where I am now—why I want an education, how I want my education, why I wanted to go to Berkeley. And more than anything, I realized how we can’t just stay in our own little bubbles: politics is not just for the political science majors, just like how technology is not just just for the computer science majors, and art isn’t just for the art majors. We need to acknowledge our interconnected world. I see this letter is a greater call for reflection, especially for the younger generation and I see events like these as learning opportunities that should be taken advantage of in an ever changing world. If we keep focusing on those small things that we disagree with without looking at the bigger picture, we progress nowhere, and that would be quite a sad, divided, world, wouldn’t it? Change is inevitable, but that’s just my opinion. I’m proud to go to a University that makes me think everyday—positive or negative. Go Bears!
I think not participating in an organized labour action is a terrible example for students in a nation where the gap between rich and poor is widening and labour rights are being constantly eroded. Seems like the professor prefers math literacy to civil literacy.
Dear “current Berkeley student”: speaking for myself, I can certainly assure you that I do not discount anyone’s political views because they are math majors or math profs. Quite the contrary. I wish more mathematicians would engage in politics and political debate, and do not doubt that more political scientists need to be mathematically literate. The point of my comment was that I thought he was too quick to dismiss the value of political engagement for those taking math. Or actually, for those getting an education at all. If that is not the message you received, then I applaud you.
What great rhetoric rises here! It sounds like it came from a dialogue of Plato. It’s wrong, however, to try and justify a self-serving “greater good” by denying others their rights by failure to support yearnings for a more just society. That’s egalitarianism not scholasticism. If the Professor would like to debate his views I would be more than happy to do so -outside of class hours.
Please make the following correction so that I can make a link to this page. Thanks. Please change > You need to live and breath your education. to > You need to live and breathe your education. Then delete this comment, if you please. Thank you.
The question of when a political action is important enough for faculty and students to participate in, and therefore cause students to miss class, is not a new concern at all. It has been written about since the days of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement by people far more eloquent and informed than Dr. Coward. On the contrary, I find his email rather cliche. However, not only is Coward’s email uninteresting, it is simply flat-out wrong. Coward’s answer is that no political action is ever important enough to warrant the participation of faculty and students. He attempts to defend this through arguments which have been considered for a long time now, while not even acknowledging the very powerful counterpoint: so today that single-variable calculus class is oh-too-important for students to miss, tomorrow, it will be their college debt, and consequentially, their jobs which are too important to miss in order to learn about and engage in political action. This is all too convenient to the Establishment. Had Coward made specific comments as to why he thinks this particular strike is not worthy of classes being cancelled, then I might find his email interesting. However, he attempts to plead ignorance and instead writes general platitudes. I say “attempts” because he does not do a very good job of hiding how he really feels, that he personally disagrees with the politics behind the strike. I would respect him if he actually just said that, instead of trying to pull the wool over us about how great a person he thinks he is. To be clear, Coward writes the following: “There is climate change, another controversial and difficult topic, the exact impact of which we do not yet know.” This is both ironic and indicative. It is ironic because climate change is “controversial” only because right-wing activists have been very loud and well-organized in opposition to the overwhelming consensus of relatively timid scientists. Indeed, if Dr. Coward’s advice was followed any further, Climate Change would cease to be “controversial,” in the same sense that the geocentric model of the Solar System was not “controversial” in the time after Ptolemaic. There are only two possibilities as to why Coward would write something like that. Either he is terribly politically uninformed, or he is firmly in the right wing. The first is a menial sin, but he should take care to be better informed before he decides to ramble on about things which he knows very little. The second, in the context of his email, is rather inexcusable. Again, he should just state he disagrees with the strike, I’d have respect for that position. With that in mind I also find his frequent descriptions of politics, and by consequence political actions, as fraught with “complications.” The line that something “is complicated” is my preferred personal method of not having to tell an inconvenient truth whenever I am at a sleazy bar. No, at the very end politics is rather simple: take a stance, or one will be taken on your behalf.
I stopped reading because, as a high school teacher I know that his decision to teach every class that he committed to teaching on that day could have happened at an alternate site, without any of this wasted space online. Perhaps someone else already mentioned this in a comment—I did not want to wade through all of the “thoughts” expressed in order to find a like-minded person who wonders why this man simply did not take any action to accommodate his students’ concerns or his colleagues’ situation, especially an action that is only slightly more inconvenient than composing an email of that length. If he really struggled with the educational impact on his students, why didn’t he show them how to hold more than one thought in his head at one time? Has he ever made an effort for anyone other than himself, in any realm outside of academia? You never know at that level of education how connected people are to the outside world, but like him I could be very wrong about his tunnel vision approach to right and wrong. It is beyond argument, however, that he could have taken an action that more appropriately reflects his concern for the whole student. College professors have a reputation amongst educators for being pretty soft when it comes to actually supporting their students; for some reason their personal time seems to be more sacred than that of the great unwashed masses in lower education. But, the pontificating-via-email thing lost its effectiveness after I figured out it sounded like a gigantic excuse for why he wouldn’t look for a reasonable alternative and simultaneously provide a model of how to fulfill your obligation to your students and act like a friend and colleague to your peers. This may seem harsh, but I have seen less intelligent people deal with much harsher realities in much braver and more ingenious ways.
The irony is unbelievable
I would expect that ANY professor at the esteemed UC Berkeley, would know how to spell “judgment”.
This comment betrays it’s author’s biases and loses credibility with blatant speculation and baseless supposition. Kudos to this professor for making a priority of something other than his own self interest. If not for the over unionization of education, perhaps more people could afford college. The booming costs of higher education parallel a remarkably similar trajectory as the rise of union influence in academia. Hmm. The self importance and hubris of many academics is sad. Pension systems are unsustainable. Learn how to budget and save for your retirement with the 93% (and growing) of American workforce that is not unionized. You’re not special. You’re not elite. You are replaceable. Professor Coward is a brave and wise man.
I agree. Judgment was spelled correctly only one time. The rest of the time it was spelled as “judgement”. This is a word that is used frequently in the sciences and statistics. I would suspect Dr. Coward to have done a minor in a science like physics.
Wow! It must be nice for all of you who disagree with this to be so smart and self-righteous to feel comfortable excoriating this bright and thoughtful person who actually treated his students like adults. I read the professor’s email and came away with two thoughts—1. I’d love to have him teach my kids; and 2. It’s refreshing to hear somebody say that a lot of life’s problems don’t have a single “right” or “wrong” answer. Sadly, though, it appears that many of the commenters believe that his “speech”, which was intentionally apolitical, was wrong because it failed to adhere to the orthodoxy that the strikers somehow must be right. I’d guess if a student or group of students had replied—Thank you, but we’re still supporting the strikers and will not attend—there would have been no discernible consequences. It must be nice to be smarter than everybody with whom you disagree.
The NLRB protects labor’s right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations; to bargain collectively; to engage in other concerted activities; and to refrain from such activities. It is any citizen’s right to refrain from labor actions, but to imply, as the Professor does, that it’s somehow educationally self-treasonous to participate in, or respect, a labor strike, is beyond advocacy for one side. It is a threat to one’s grade. The Professor’s lengthy, self-serving, email smacks of academic extortion.
Read the comments to find pretentious snobs using big words to sound more educated while arguing over small matters such as grammar while ignoring the bigger picture. Jeez, your lack of useful contributions show for something. If you can clearly understand what someone means by what they say there is no need to point out the very minor flaws you may notice. As for the email, it is great to see someone influencing students to actually learn an make change rather than just land a career and get money, though that’s still important too. I agree with many of the commenters when they say the problems college students face aren’t as dire as those during the 60’s though I do agree with Dr. Coward when he says that the problems we WILL face with the coming decades will be great and complicated problems. As for those of you calling him a scab, the professors striking could have chosen a better time to go on strike. As a student, if professors when on strike during the time approaching my finals I would feel the professors were selfish and cheating me out of an education. The students just went a semester with learning course work, the professors shouldn’t strike at the END of the semester and deny the students the ability to complete coursework. That’s selfish in my opinion. Sorry for any typos I’ve made. Please note this does not discredit my education, merely my fingers typing from my iPad and my use of informal speak via technological media. Honestly, if you’re offended by my rant against grammar nazis or typos, you should probably reevaluate what makes you upset.
1786 August 13. (from Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe) “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness…Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance…” Thank you Dr. Coward! Nowadays, more than ever, education is the key.
Actually #5 is more in line with the use of “struck a chord” the etomology puts it in the same vein as “struck a nerve.”
The difference between Mr. Coward’s email/comments and yours, David Elliott, is that Mr. Coward clearly states he may be wrong (or right) and that he fully understands not everyone will agree with him AND he is accepting and even appreciative of that. Your comment, David Elliott, is quite judgmental and narrow minded. In addition, your credibility is diminished because you lower yourself to name calling. It is possible to offer an opinion without belittling others. It is possible to give respect to another opinion and still disagree. Mr. Coward’s email was refreshing in that it truly is open minded and tolerant of the idea that there will be those who disagree with him. And, that is okay (and even good). The method of name calling and belittling others (while professing to be the tolerant one) is old.
Many of these comments, particularly the ones citing Coward as a “scab,” really peeved me off. I guess one must blindly tow the union line whether you agree with their (in)action or not! Bravo to those who called out the bullies (you know who you are sad sacks).
Finally! Someone who understood the point of this prodessor’s email! Is it possible that so many others seemed to miss the essence of what was being said?! I’m amazed…Are those making the inane comments and cursory judgements about this email the bright young minds we are putting our futures in the hands of? Or are they the leaders of/participators in the strike being judgemental and dismissive before fully understanding this professor’s points? Either way, I would encourage them to spend a little more time reading carefully before making such sweeping judgements about the intent of this email and it’s true message. You are college students, after all! Reading comprehension should be a skill you all have under your belts by now. (Or does no one read anything longer than a “text” or a “tweet” any more?)
Christopher Rodriguez, Not only did you not take the time to read through people’s comments (or “thoughts”, as you put it), bit you obviously did not take the time to read the initial email message from the professor in its entirety, either (or at least not carefully enough to really understand it). I suggest you read it again and take your time, so you can fully appreciate his intent. I think you have terribly misjudged it. It is ironic that you could not be bothered to spare the time to read it carefully, or to read the insights of others, yet you found the time to leave a very lengthy (albeit misguided) comment of your own.
Josh, why is Lori condescending? I do not see that. I just saw your mean and aggressive tone, however.
But here’s the most important part: “I don’t just mean the education you get in class, but I mean the education you get in everything you do, every book you read, every conversation you have, every thought you think.” Sometimes you can get amazing education opportunities by skipping a few lectures. Keep that in mind.
I appreciate the professor’s thoughtful comments. I in no way disagree withnthe importance of education. However, one of the earliest moral lessons taught to me was: do not cross a picket line. My father was a labor union negotiator, and he also taught me that unions do try very hard to avoid strikes. They are a last resort for when negotiations break down, but they also represent the power of the workforce.
Josh Anderson: I’m guessing she’s an “alumna.”
Totally agree with you, what a bunch of lousy, entitled thugs. Shame on them. It’s not principled and noble to strike given the benefits and job security these people have, it’s destructive and selfish.
The reason they were striking was BECAUSE of a lack of benefits. They have far less job security than Professor Coward and the other lecturers and professors with tenure. As one of Coward’s students, I feel that although the message about education was valuable, the letter was very disrespectful of those fighting for basic worker’s rights that day.
As a UC Berkeley graduate,(1968) I was very pleased to read this. The challenges to this generation are very different than those I experienced in the 60’s.They are also much more complex. When we had strikes, classes could go on in living rooms and outdoor venues and the libraries were packed (as usual) to help us research the papers (still) due. I do not know the details of this labor action. But I know the disruption & frustration many felt because of the nature of our strikes. The atmosphere is different now and the times call for different actions. Thank you Dr. Coward for your faith in Cal students and their ability to change the world.
Well put. Its not “opposible thumbs” wich seperates us from lesser species, its the ability to aquire knowledge. As far as politics, there is no “rich or poor”, “dem or rep”, “black or white”. There is only the “educated” and “everybody else”.
Sir, Wonderful post. Thanks for letting us know the importance of Education and time. Respect you whole heartily.
Let the guy teach. Students: there are tens of thousands outside of the US that would pay enormous sums and take your spot. Don’t take your golden opportunity for granted. Shut up and learn. Union: likewise, if you love to teach, do it not for the money. Otherwise, be a consultant.
Thank you. The educational process is not, and neither should it be undertaken in a social and moral void.
I was actually replying to David Elliott
Well said
Jus loved it ……… Great going prof.
Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said, “The reason academic politics are so bitter is that so little is at stake.” This thread serves as a good illustration of this.
If he cared about the world at all, and minimizing the world’s growing inequalities, at all, he wouldn’t let the “man” win by taking advantage of his colleagues. Definitely a SCAB.
…and btw - for those of you supporting him, you’re all self-righteous scabs too. Enjoy your race to the bottom.
What a joke
I must say that, as someone who went through an elitist educational system on the other side of the Atlantic (explaining why I write in English, rather than American, and why some of the specific references were lost on me), I can fully concur with Professor Coward’s sentiments. I have now reached that time in life where my professional career has come to an end, and my future can be counted in a decade or two at most, whereas I look back to an extremely fulfilling career, and would not wish to change one comma in that experience. I can see that Mr. Coward is still a young man given is reference to his recent (10 year) departure from being an active student. I think his action is commendable. He has told his students what he would do during a period of strike, and more than most, has spelt out his reasons. You may or may not agree with them, but remember whose interests he had at heart when he took that decision. In my 42 years in employment, I have had to look at the decision to strike on quite a few occasions, and even more often on whether to cross a picket line. I have to say, sadly, that more often than not, I made my decision based on how it effected my own pocket. However I made a decision. Just because it is the thing to do, or my colleagues and acquaintances would call me a ‘scab’ was not part of the equation. Mr Coward’s discussion on the importance of education, and a few weeks away from final exams, is what I would consider a very sound basis for a decision, and as he has said the world has changed immensely, certainly from when I was starting my career in the 1970’s, and the three most important assets a young person can have now when starting out are: (1) an upstanding, honest, sound and solid character; (2) a capacity to understand and deduce; and finally a piece of paper confirming his or her education. Which is the most important? Easy: 1, then 2, then 3. During my youth, 3 was important, but not at the levels of quality that is now demanded. Whenever I employed someone, I always looked at 1 and 2, knowing that with these the 3 was not important, but working in the public sector, and with procurement rules put there quite rightly to insure that there was no basis to challenge the decision empirically, 3 was the easy way to base decisions, and some of my colleagues when that way. So, 3 is important -the piece of paper awarded by an educational establishment is crucial in your job-hunting and personal fulfilment - so if your professor recognises the importance of one seventh of your remaining formal educational life - don’t kick him, but understand, even if you disagree!
I have no association with UCB, nor the system of higher education in the United States (I obtained all three of my degrees elsewhere). Perhaps it is for those reasons that I fail to see how missing one day of class (in order to show personal and professional support for those with whom you work) represents any sort of educational crisis. Frankly, if these students suffer academically from taking 24 hours to support others within their community, they probably weren’t cut out for higher education in the first place.
Nail. Head
The most striking thing about this letter is the condescending tone Coward strikes toward students that are less than a decade younger than him, in most cases. Coward is himself very young, especially for a Berkeley instructor. The letter betrays his own anxiety about this. It reminds me of how the youngest TAs in my department are those most likely to refer to undergraduates (on whom they have only a few years) as “kids.” The muddled, rambling quality of Coward’s letter, the way he fails to appreciate that higher education takes place within—and is inevitably impacted by—a larger social context that involves issues of respect for labor, increasing economic stratification, high unemployment among young people, etc… . all of this points to Coward’s own callowness. Instead of lecturing to his students about their youthful ignorance, he might wonder why he, all of 31 years of age, is so sure of his own rightness and intellectual superiority. The letter also can’t help but give off fumes of self-importance, since all this verbiage is directed at students who are going to miss _one_ lecture and _one_ discussion section. They are hardly skipping out on a semester, much less the possibility of a degree. I teach undergrads, too (and I have a few years on Mr. Coward). When students ask me about missing a class I remind them that they have to make their own decisions and that they are responsible for catching up on the course material. I’m not going to make their decision easier by “allowing” them to skip, but I’m also not going to lecture them about their priorities.
See above ^ for clarity/genius.
Josh Anderson, judging from her first name I would suspect that Lori Behrhorst is an alumna (f), not an alumnus (m). Maybe you should emphasize modesty (as well as English grammar) instead of condescension.
Bill Quirk, “… the world’s most brilliant students” indeed. If you believe that, you ought to spend a few days in a Caltech physics class or perhaps contribute to the design of a Caltech/JPL spacecraft that can accurately be “steered” to and between Saturn’s rings from a world away.
Get a life, you troll. People misspell junk all the time; get over it — or just go on correcting others to make yourself feel better. Good heavens.
Grammar NAZIS are irrelevant on every level
I find your comment interesting… and the one that followed it! Thinking is absolutely messy — but so wonderful! The Professor has obvious passion: yours is equally obvious: calling someone an “idiot” though, doesn’t qualify. Passion and intelligence both require that education serve our mutual liberation: leaving no one out. Abdicating responsibility under the guise of “education” is a misunderstanding of education. If the millions of students and others hadn’t taken to the streets, Nixon may very well have nuked Hanoi. Students willing to “rescue” humanity is the fruit of a wise use of both passion and intelligence: there are times in which the streets become the real University.
How is her tone condescending? All I see is a nice complement. You are the haughty one.
I agree with you - when I read Coward’s letter, I didn’t take it as a way of forcing his opinions on me either. If anything, he makes it clear that decisions and problems in this life are very important and yet complicated. We cannot run from those hard decisions and expect others to make them for us, but we should seriously consider how our decisions affect others. Everyone keeps misquoting everything that Coward is saying by not quoting the full paragraph to get the whole context… one example: “In order for you to navigate the increasing complexity of the 21st century you need a world-class education, and thankfully you have an opportunity to get one. I don’t just mean the education you get in class, but I mean the education you get in everything you do, every book you read, every conversation you have, every thought you think. You need to optimize your life for learning.” I keep seeing people only quoting the first part and listing all their student loans but completely missing the second part. Education is important - not only with schooling but learning everyday with the experiences that we face. Thank you for your post.
One professor with too much time on his hands. One group of students and academicians without a shred of honest work, but with the misplaced gumption to talk about moral fibre. A terrible netizen community that needs something seemingly wise to share on their feeds just to sound smart. God save the world.
I wish I had heard such words when I was attending CAL. There were many times when I wondered if I belonged there. Just to appreciate the enormous task and necessity of being an educated citizen is of the utmost importance. When we are young, we are so unaware of the the impact our “complex” decisions with have on our families and on the world at large. He took the time to share an opinion and his passion and purpose for teaching. I am grateful
Sounded sincere to me.
If he cared at all in a responsible manner about education, he would not side against students in the name of students. Coward chose to accept scab pay (multiplied by additional classes scabbed for) in exchange for long-term socio-economic harm to those he claims to care for. I do not doubt Coward’s sincerity, but sincerity is not morality and he has acted dispicably to undermine his colleagues and students in this matter. When people leave comments that celebrate Coward because they love and believe in education, they’re failing to recognize the cognitive dissonance that such a stance entails. A love of education and freedom would lead one to support the strike and other efforts to create positive systemic change. Those in opposition are only supporting class and wage warfare and using these students as fodder for their selfish, short-sighted ignorance.
Ugh, the degree of condescension and quantity of moralizing platitudes (“You youngsters are just so inexperienced!”) made his email difficult to read. That’s tangential to my criticism, however. By not participating in the strike, Professor Coward is ironically harming rather than helping students in the long run. Does he not care for the goals and purpose of the strike? Wage cuts to the already-low salaries of professors; cutbacks in equipment and library books; the continual inflation of tuition; the dismantling of various student programs and services — all of these things are what is being protested against. It seems to me Professor Coward sought to have his 15 minutes of fame by trying to appear “oh-so-special” or “iconoclastic” to the neglect of actually thinking through the consequences of his behavior. Well, what a pity he only considered the short-term side of things. Doubtless, large-scale issues like overworked professors, unaffordable tuition, and equipment budget cuts will negatively affect students MUCH more so than merely missing one or two classes. Contrary to what he proclaims, Professor Coward, by siding for such aforementioned budget cuts and other issues, is indeed committing insidious harm to students everywhere.
I’d bet that during demonstrations to desegregate a school or strikes against massive layoffs, this non-intellectual “academic” would be teaching his math because politics “is too complicated”, because there are no clear sides to issues of exploitation and racism. It is this professor who has no moral clarity with all his nauseating righteousness. He sets a perfect example on how a “great education” occurs outside academia.
Isn’t it amazing that your kind message recognized the “risk” of such thinking in higher education—a professor believing in every student? I retired early from Vanderbilt University after being threatened with dismissal—after 16 years of exemplary teaching—for sharing the same attitude with my students.
You are wrong. I was a student at Cal during the Free Speech Movement. I carried a sign (Long Live Democratic Protest/Strike Classes), but I attended my Mathematical Logic class because it wasn’t cancelled. I was at the University to learn. Changing the world is important, but takes a lifetime. My absence from the march obviously didn’t prevent the success of the Free Speech Movement, which was carried largely by the genius of Mario Savio. Obviously, my professor (John Addison) also didn’t strike. I respect his decision. He was a great teacher, and went on to become the Chair of the Math Department. BOTH Alex and the strikers did the right thing. Life isn’t just black and white.
I believe that there is another point not being addressed in many of the arguments presented here. Without the presence of professors in the classroom, the students have no option whether or not to go to class. The professor’s actions, conscious of the strike, allowed others to have a choice. Irregardless of if he supported the strike or not, he allowed the students the option to further their education or to participate in the strike. I personally am a UC Davis graduate who has openly opposed and challenged strike leaders on the basis of their actions being disruptive of my ability to learn. This was my choice, just as it was their choice to strike, and I had a very civil conversation with the strike leaders afterwards. I believe that this professor made the correct decision, not only in his actions but in his message as well.
When my employer faced a union strike, the non-striking workers were no longer allowed to work from home during the duration of the strike. Pretending to work from home is a good way to keep the money flowing in while withholding labor. Unfortunately, management was smart and you had to be physically present at work or you don’t get paid. The next thing to do was to go to the doctor and fake a migraine so I had a doctor’s note. Management plays hardball, so I will too. There were guards to protect the scabs since there were concerns about potential violence. Once the strike was over, you could work from home again. You cannot believe how damaging it was for students and professors to physically go onto campus and cross the picket line. Mr. Coward was too green to understand how damaging being a scab was even in his vulnerable position as a lecturer with no job security. Ironic he’s getting canned now. Tenure looks nice now. Now he needs labor union help. What Mr. Coward should have done was to put the lecture on Youtube so the students are not denied an education and then hold discussion section/office hours on skype or some other online platform. It’s not ideal, but students can choose to learn without crossing the picket line. The lecture and discussion material during the strike should be optional enrichment and not count towards the final grade for students who support the strike. The lecture/discussion during the strike are just for the honest pursuit of learning so no grades. Finally, he should have kept the emails a secret so that the university did not benefit. The world is not black and white anymore. Today’s world is a lot more complex. Unions, workers, and bystanders have to evolve. For example, strikes are often replaced with sickouts so withholding of labor still occurs while keeping the paycheck flowing in. Professors and students may not know when a sickout will occur. On the other hand, youtube and skype can work. It’s admirable that Mr. Coward is dedicated to learning, but he didn’t do it the right way. Too much black and white. I hope he is successful at getting his job back at UCB’s math department that doesn’t seem to care about undergrad students taking 1st year math courses to earn a non-math degree.
Sickouts are dishonest. Dishonesty begets dishonesty.

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