Chernin Program “Reads the Campus”

Over this past semester, the Chernin Mentoring Program has organized a wide array of activities designed to enrich and support the English major experience at Berkeley.  One particularly interesting activity was a new twist on the “campus tour,” an exercise in which the graduate student mentors showed the undergraduates how they can put the readings skills they learn in their English classes to work by reading the physical environment of the Berkeley campus.  In a number of different ways, the Chernin students investigated how the Berkeley campus structures their thinking in ways they do not realize and how reading the landscape and architecture can deepen their understanding of their own university experience.

Matthew Sergi, for instance, described how student pairs each found one visual text in Wheeler Hall and one visual text in Doe Library, texted their pictures to him and then reported back to the classroom to discuss what they had found — and what their findings could tell us about the Library, about Cal, and about reading in general.   The following photo, taken on the main floor of Doe Library, sparked quite a discussion:

According to Matthew, “Everyone thought that the image on the left was taken in black-and-white. It wasn’t, and after really looking hard you can see bits of color.  What was striking about this cardboard cut-out in Doe Library was its relationship to the marble that surrounds it — all colorless, or nearly colorless.  This communicates a sense of historical documentation, of things that are old, that have been around forever… but then the students touched their text.  Cardboard.  Weak cardboard against strong marble.  An apparent tribute to a woman who had an important effect on the Library, possibly a donor (one student pointed out how many elements of her photograph mark her as rich — the mink stole, the hat, the shoes) but a tribute with no name posted anywhere close enough to the cut-out to tell us who she is, or what she did.  Remembered, but forgotten. She bears some graffiti on her shoulder, has a small note on the back about where to return her, but otherwise has no explanation to her significance. Notice, too — when our Chernin students posed with her, the colors in the scene pop out: the gold shine off of the brass banister above, which has always been there, becomes more noticeable.”

Sarah Townsend directed her students in a closer examination of Wheeler Hall itself.  The students considered the messages that the building, and its placement on the campus, send to observers.  They discussed the following picture from the early days of the university when Sather Gate marked the actual border of campus.

Placed so close to the entrance, the students observed that it would have been the very first building a visitor encountered.  The fact that a building housing a department like English was foregrounded in the campus’ own self-presentation highlights the importance placed on literary study, an importance that sometimes seems to have waned in today’s climate where emphasis on the “hard sciences” often obscures the work done by the humanities.

Marisa Libbon took a more personal approach to the campus and had each of her students draw his or her own map of campus.   Interestingly – though perhaps not surprisingly – each map lacked an organizing center point and encompassed not the whole campus, but the parts that each student used most.  One student drew a specific tree and portion of Faculty Glade, or 4.0 Hill, that was not only her favorite part of campus, but also signified what Berkeley — and college more generally — was at its best or most idealistic.

After “reading” campus in this personal way, Marisa describes how she and her students spent the rest of the session thinking about the relationship between the personal accounts of the campus they had just constructed and the more “official” reading of Cal, exemplified in the “History of UC Berkeley” on the university’s website.  They noticed the way the university appropriates the idea and imagery of the California gold rush in creating “an origin story” for UC Berkeley and paid special attention to the last paragraph:

In accordance with UC’s “public” character, the university has long served talented individuals regardless of means. As early as 1897, financial aid was available for “needy and deserving” students. More than a century later, UC Berkeley combines outstanding teaching and research programs with broad access for students of all means — educating more federal Pell Grant recipients from low-income families than all eight Ivy League universities combined. Close to 30 percent of UC Berkeley freshmen are the first in their families to attend college.

The students agreed that this description resonated with the outstanding experiences they have had at Berkeley, but that it also diverged somewhat from actual reality.  One of the undergraduates – himself the first member of his family to attend college – pointed out what he saw as a quickly growing divide between the image of UC Berkeley presented here and the actual reality of the current financial situation, fee increases and increasing number of out-of-state students.  The discussion that ensued about the difficulties facing public education highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of the UC system and used the students’ skills in analysis and critical thinking to produce an appreciation of what it means to be a Berkeley student today.