Chernin Program Kicks Off

One of the most exciting things about the beginning of the semester this Fall is the launch of a new opportunity in the English Department for undergraduates: the Peter and Megan Chernin Mentorship Program.  Announced last year and funded by a generous gift from Peter and Megan Chernin, the program seeks to build stronger connections among undergraduate majors, prospective English majors, undergraduates already in the department, graduate students and faculty.  It is designed to help undergraduates make the most of their experience in the Berkeley English Department in two ways: by building intellectual communities for discussion, support, and debate, and by making available to students the extraordinary resources of the department and the university.

Professor Maura Nolan is the Director of the new program; she is joined by two other faculty members of the Chernin Committee, Professors Kathleen Donegan and Eric Falci.  Six advanced graduate students will serve as mentors for the undergraduates: Ruth Baldwin, Jesse Constantino, Marisa Libbon, Jocelyn Rodal, Matthew Sergi and Sarah Townsend.  Together, these graduate students and faculty are holding biweekly meetings with students to discuss different aspects of the English major and the campus experience, as well as to engage such activities as visits to the library and the Bancroft and a career panel with Berkeley alumni. The faculty and the mentors are also available for one-on-one consultation in an office hours setting.

Kicking off with a big group meeting on September 2, the program will consist of mostly smaller group meetings.  Each mentor is responsible for two groups of around 20 students.  Each group is comprised of students at roughly the same point in their Berkeley experience, since new freshmen will have different questions than new Junior transfers, who will have different questions than senior English majors.  Though not a regular course, the program does have a syllabus that outlines the various activities that will occur over the semester (and students who participate in the program earn one credit as an independent study).

The groups begin by discussing what an English major is all about and what “reading” means.  The mentors will pose questions about the academic endeavor of studying literature: its history, why a student might choose the English major, what the major offers to students at Berkeley and beyond, and what kinds of tools students need in order to succeed. From here, groups will move into an exploration of the library and research tactics. They will learn how to access and use the complex resources available in Doe Library.  Shortly thereafter, students will meet with their mentors one-on-one for advice on choosing English classes. The mentors are prepared to discuss a student’s academic interests and to recommend courses that speak to those interests and help to further each student’s goals.  This part of the program is not about making sure the students have satisfied the requirements of the English major, but rather about crafting a coherent and engaging course of study from the department’s rich course offerings.

This more academic focus finds a complement as the semester goes on, starting with a foray onto the campus to learn how and why Berkeley was organized and built over the years.  Discussions of the campus’ architectural history and development will help students learn how to “read their built environment” in a critical and thoughtful way, as well as to engage with literary descriptions and accounts of places and spaces.  The Chernin program has also organized an opportunity for students to visit the Rare Books department in the Bancroft Library.  Students will be able to see pages from the Shakespeare Folio, letters by James Joyce and other treasures from the Bancroft’s holdings in small groups accompanied by a librarian.  The semester moves toward its end with a discussion of “key terms” for English majors, an in-depth lesson in the vocabulary of the discipline with which some students might not be familiar but which occur again and again in discussions of and lectures on literature.  Finally, there will be a panel on “What Can I Do with my English Major?” in which alumni come back to campus to discuss how they used their English major to forge diverse careers in many different fields.

The program extends into the spring semester with a host of other activities, which will be announced later in the year. Looking at the schedule for the fall, the array of activities, discussions and opportunities that Professors Nolan, Donegan and Falci have put together promises to enrich the Berkeley English experience for the over 200 student participants. Above all, the Chernin Program will create intellectual communities among students and faculty by providing a space for interaction, support, and growth. In her opening address to the program, Prof. Nolan described it as a form of “serious play” — as a series of activities that bring intellectual pleasure even as they address the serious questions that literature provokes. “Serious play” is the goal of the Chernin Program, and we think it is a goal worth striving for at Berkeley and beyond.