Thursday, October 29, 2009

UCI English Professor: "I got to class today and there was no chalk!"

By Charisma Madarang

Interview with Arlene R. Keizer, Associate Professor of English. Our conversation took place in her office at HIB. Although we were assigned to do one interview, after my conversation with Patricia Pierson I became interested on seeking the viewpoint of a Professor on campus, as they would have firsthand accounts of the affects of the cuts on a classroom level. I also wanted to hear an English professor’s opinion on how the financial crisis has threatened the value of the Humanities.

Q: How have the recent UC budget cuts affected the English department?

A: Classes have gotten larger because we no longer have the number of lecturers we had before and because TA-ships have been reduced significantly—there isn’t enough money to pay for TA’s –and finally because there have been faculty who have left the university who can’t be replaced. For all of those reasons all of us now have bigger classes and more students and more grading to do, etc. So it’s a huge impact.

At this point I asked by approximately how much her class sizes had increased. Professor Keizer replied that she wasn’t exactly sure and referred me to Andrea Henderson, the Director of Undergraduate Studies. She explained that if I needed exact numbers Professor Henderson would be the one to find. Again, I noted this for future reference.

Q: Seeing as the class sizes have gotten bigger, has this affected your teaching in anyway?

A: Up to this moment I can’t say that I am doing things differently. I mean, my classes are pretty much organized the same way but when I get to the point of grading for a really large class, a 60-person class, that will be a really difficult moment. Typically it would be possible to have a grader who is doing at least half of that work. So it then becomes difficult for any faculty person to give a significant amount of feedback to all of the student work that they’re receiving.

Q: You also mentioned that there has been faculty who have left. Where exactly have they gone?

A: Two of them left for Berkeley, one of them went to Loyola Marymount University, and one went to Boston University— partly because the university was not able to offer his wife a job. So one of the things that allowed the university and many individual departments to grow as much as they did within the previous 10 or 15 years is that there was money available to hire partners, spouses, etc. And that money is one of the things that’s dried up in the budget crisis…That was one way of attracting faculty because people want to be with their spouses (laughs.)

Q: So when professors leave for other schools, how do the professors remaining feel about this change?

A: Most people feel a sense of loss. When professors leave and can’t be replaced you get gaps in the kinds of things that can be taught in that department. So the two faculty that went to Berkeley both work in American Literature, mostly 19th/ early 20th century literature. So it means that at a certain point we had enormous strength in that area and now two people who were rising stars in that field are no longer here. So there’s a gap that opens up there that has to be filled in some way, and can’t be filled until there’s money again.

We then began to digress on the subject of how she came from UC Berkeley and I commented on how Berkeley is very different from Irvine. She told me that she has had a lot of jobs in between since coming to Irvine and used to work at the University of Michigan…

It’s interesting to think about a place like the University of Michigan in relationship to the University of California because its seems like U of M started raising money from private donors at an earlier point. So while we’re having this enormous budget crisis, the U of M has quite a lot of money and isn’t experiencing the same kind of crisis. It’s worth thinking about it. They’re a public school and in a state that has incredibly high unemployment. It’s something to think about.

Q: How have these budget cuts influenced the spirit among the English department?

A: Well that’s probably where they’ve done the most damage. I think there’s a level of demoralization that you can feel. For instance, not long before the quarter started we got a message from the humanities dean that even with the furlough there would still have to be layoffs within the school of humanities. Which means staff would have to be cut. So more than 20 staff people will be laid off within the school of humanities and for faculty 1) it makes our jobs harder to do when there aren’t staff people to support that work and 2) we’re losing the people with whom we work. It is a very serious loss and I think all of the faculty within the humanities feel really sympathetic towards people who are losing their jobs at this terrible moment.
One more thing I will say (laughs) is just about the materials available for doing our jobs. This is something I complain about all the time: I got to class today and there was no chalk!

Q: Chalk?

A: Chalk! There is a set of chalkboards in the front of the room. There used to be chalk. There is now no chalk. And it’s things like that where at the beginning of class I can’t walk back up to the department and pick up some chalk. I shouldn’t have to carry chalk around with me in my bag.

At this point we both fall in a small fit of laughter.

That is a sign of decline! ... Things like maintenance. The trash used to be picked up in our offices once a week if not twice a week. Now that will be picked up very infrequently. So mostly we have to throw our trash out in the larger trashcans outside or in the bathrooms because those get picked up everyday. So they cut maintenance workers and that’s what it means and it’s painful to see those signs of decline in an institution that used to be great. I mean I don’t have any problem throwing my trash out wherever I need to throw it out, it’s just that that’s a mark of a loss of prestige and resources.

Q: How do you think this “decline” will affect the future of the Humanities?

A: I think one of the problems with cuts like these is that the university is being asked to place a value on all of the things that it does. So how valuable is an education in the sciences? How valuable is an education in humanities? How valuable is teaching people how to write? So for instance, we have more small classes in the humanities because many of them are writing classes or many of them are classes in which we’re closely looking at texts, and its hard to do that once you get above a certain number. But the cuts make it harder to maintain small class size and to me that’s one of the ways the university needs to think about how valuable the humanities are. So can they spend the money to make sure students can learn to write with no more than 20 other classmates? Can they spend the money to make sure that classes in Creative Writing or Drama, etc. are small enough that people are really able to hone their skills? And that’s a question of whether people feel the humanities are valuable enough within this society that they want to support them. We need the arts. We need the humanities. We can’t survive without them.


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