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Anti-Viral Treatment: Critics rebut Cal lecturer’s email about crossing picket line

December 5, 2013
by Ben Christopher
Photo of protesters during a one-day strike on compas This photo of the Nov. 20 one-day strike at UC Berkeley, taken by Kristopher Skinner of Bay Area News Group, is featured on the web site of AFSCME Local 3299.

As some 500,000 of you may have noticed, two weeks ago we ran a web article that attracted a little more attention than we’re used to. Maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised. The email that Berkeley lecturer Alexander Coward wrote to his students to justify why he would be teaching his math courses despite the university employee strike had that combination of political hot button pushing and designed-to-inspire prose that sets social media’s palpitating heart aflutter.

Needless to say, the response was enormous—and varied, too. Comments on Coward’s 2,000-word missive ranged from laudatory (“What a wonderfully caring, thoughtful professor”) to disparaging (“What a self-righteous, self-centered, hypocritical scab”) to tangential (including a fierce etymological squabble about the phrase “struck a chord,” or “struck a cord”—please let’s not go there again.)

From where we stand at CALIFORNIA Online, the fact that we were able to provoke such a lengthy, in-depth, and passionate conversation about a topic as weighty as the importance of higher education and the role of organized labor in society was an absolute thrill. Our only regret is that we weren’t able to continue that conversation by running a follow-up post in response to Coward’s email. And for that, the party most deserving of blame is obvious: it’s you.

Why? Because you’re the ones who sent such a splendid onslaught of online traffic that our newly launched site—the online complement to  general-interest California magazine—seized up on us and then continued to struggle under record demand.

Now that readership of that initial article has slowed to the relative trickle of about 1,000 people an hour—and in the spirit of late still being better than never—we would like to highlight some of the more compelling responses to Alexander Coward’s viral email (and our decision to publish it).

One of the earliest and most popular rebuttals came from Michal Olszewski, a graduate student instructor in molecular and cell biology, who published an open letter to Coward on the UC Berkeley Student-Workers Union web site. Here it is in its entirety:

In your recent letter, you mentioned that you have been on the wrong side of political judgments before, unfortunately I am afraid that this might be the case again. Education is a process that also happens outside of classrooms. It is communal, it is complicated and it is impossible to achieve when we isolate ourselves and ignore what is going on with the rest of our society.

Your letter though extensive in length, does not contain any logic. From what I can gather, your argument is that we live in a world of developing technology and as students at UCB are part of an elite and exceptional group; therefore we don’t have to worry about the society we live in. I cannot condone this argument. In fact, I find it extremely disturbing that as a professor you are encouraging your students to embrace egoism and to focus on their own education and merit rather than be socially conscious human beings. Education and social justice are not mutually exclusive. Disturbingly, throughout the entirety of your long and disjointed tirade, you do not once mention any of the reasons behind Wednesday’s strike, which makes me believe that you have already made a choice to focus purely on what you refer to as the “technological life”.

I too believe that the education of young people is important, which is exactly why I went on strike yesterday. Unfortunately, I doubt if you are aware that your students have a right to a public education because others were fighting and striking for it in the past. I wonder if you or your students know that the AFSCME workers including custodians, cafeteria workers, gardeners etc. were striking with the GSIs to prevent the 81% tuition fee hikes on undergrads back in 2011. The same people standing in the pouring rain Wednesday protesting the University’s unfair labor practices are part of the reason why students, including your particular math class, are able to “be *obsessed* with (their) education”.

It is sad that many UC Berkeley students and professors have forgotten what has happened at the steps of Sproul Plaza decades ago. Yes, social issues are complicated, but that does not mean they should be ignored! In the not so distant past, students were arrested and beaten by police because they wanted to make their voices heard. Our right to engage in political discourse on campus has literally been paid for with the blood UCB alumni.

I am a graduate student in the Sciences, however unlike so many others in our field, I refuse to solely focus on just my own career and education. Students and universities are not isolated entities outside of the realm of society. The fact that we have had a chance to access higher education does not make us better or more deserving than those who have been deprived of this opportunity. We are the lucky ones. Our success doesn’t mean that we can turn our back on those who are less fortunate. We have a duty to pull others up alongside us.

That education is something that takes place both in and outside the classroom was a theme picked up on by many respondents. Jos Truitt, an executive director at the feminist blog Feministing, summed up her take with a post titled, “UC Berkeley professor’s anti-union letter is anti-education.” An excerpt:

I learned way more from being a campus organizer than I did from my classes. I learned how to work well with others. I learned how to follow direction and how to lead. I learned complex problem solving in real world situations, which is much more challenging than problem solving in a controlled classroom setting. I was a scholarship kid, but prioritizing organizing absolutely wasn’t throwing away the education I fought so hard for; the jobs I’ve had since college have been a result of my organizing work—connections I made and skills I learned—and not my time in the classroom.

I’m not saying classes don’t matter, not at all. A lively classroom debate is one of my favorite things in the world. I so appreciate the opportunity to step back from immediate issues and look at the broader picture. While my organizing experience got me into positions like writing at Feministing, my time in the classroom helped me develop intellectual skills and learn information that’s served me as a writer here. But this wasn’t independent of my organizing experience, either—rabble rousing helped me make those ideas real, gave me an opportunity to test them and most importantly, put them into action. Which I kinda thought was the point.

Coward recognizes that education is about developing a generation that can solve real world problems, but misses the reality of how this happens in a learning community that involves much more than just classroom education. A crucial part of learning to address serious problems is developing an ethic. College organizing is an amazing opportunity to work through this process, one I’m very grateful for. Hell yes, I think it’s worth missing a class to spend time supporting striking service workers. Education isn’t just for the future—you’re not just supposed to make the world better when you’re done with school. We learn best through practice, after all.

But not all the backlash was aimed at Coward himself. Some readers presumed that our coverage of Coward’s email was evidence that the Cal Alumni Association—sponsor of California magazine and CALIFORNIA Online—was taking a position on the labor dispute. The Chicago-based progressive publication In These Times reported the following:

Asked for comment on the letter, Amanda Armstrong, a UC Berkeley graduate student and recording secretary for UAW 2865, the graduate student workers’ union, told In These Times via e-mail:“I think it’s interesting to consider why his letter has gone viral, and what about it was appealing or interesting to so many.  Partly, I think it’s just that, in the University today, there are very few spaces or times where people who occupy different roles in the University can talk together about what they are doing here and why.  Professor Coward’s letter, particularly the second half of the letter, tries to talk to those in his class about what it means to be a student at this historical moment, and what the experience of being a student feels like. I think people desire these conversations, and his letter is a contribution to conversations about learning and and the University today.”

She said she objected, however, to the fact that the letter was being circulated by the university, including on the UC Alumni Facebook page, in conjunction with the strike. “The UC Public Relations wing is trying to turn Professor Coward into a national hero for having crossed a picket line,” she says.

While we’re all for spirited discussion over here, we do want to stress that CALIFORNIA Online operates with editorial independence from UC Berkeley as well as from the non-profit and also independent Cal Alumni Association, which regularly provides Facebook links to our articles. Our writers and editors exercise their own news judgment in determining what we cover. And in writing about Coward’s letter and opting to publish it, we were not endorsing its content (in fact, we aren’t really in the political endorsement game). The reason—and it is the sole reason—that we decided to publish the email in the first place is because it was newsworthy.

And we thought it would generate reader interest and a lively debate about important stuff. It did.

Amid all the zany-kitty memes and botched-Botox celebrity pix on the web, we find that oddly reassuring. Please carry on.

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