Film Micrœview #29: At Berkeley (2013)

12.13.2013 § Leave a comment

(here’s where I would include a screenshot of the poetry professor who was wearing the same wrist splint I just got from the doctor earlier this week)

Another triumph for Frederick Wiseman!

Toward the end of At Berkeley, a professor suggests that we take a moment after any meeting to ask ourselves “how did we do today?” He jokes that when faculty convene, little gets accomplished; lecturers are so used to listening to themselves talk while an audience silently and patiently nods along, and carry this mode with them into meetings. If just one of us would take the initiative to hold the group accountable for the effectiveness of their communication each time, then incrementally, we could improve our working relationships.

Throughout At Berkeley, we see over and over that lecturers are not the only folks who do a lot more rambling than they do listening. People, all of them, are just inarticulate. And myopic. And they repeat themselves. Or they use bureaucratic speak that placates all sides without truly meaning anything, simply delaying confrontation of the issues at hand.

But perhaps the most striking observance in At Berkeley is the lack of empathy between groups of people, which represents a much more profound source of failure to communicate. I was embarrassed for a lot of the people documented for this film.

So here’s the scenario:

  1. The California government has continued to further defund the university.
  2. Leadership has done their best to reduce expenses, including reduction in force, but they just can’t make it anymore without hiking student fees.
  3. This is a public university and it is meant to be free, offering equal access to all classes.
  4. Berkeley has a liberal tradition and a history of social protests.

Midway through At Berkeley, we join a meeting about relations between the Berkeley university and the Berkeley city police forces, with respect to organized student protests. We learn that while there hadn’t been many protests in decades, that last year alone there were four sit-ins which compromised buildings’ ability to serve its academic function. On the eve of the next upcoming protest, the faculty behave as if they’re empathetic. They respect the students and want them to have a voice and to give them a chance to work together to come to resolution rather than taking the less flexible approach to the law that rides outside the campus walls.

But when it comes to the protest itself, this is not the attitude the faculty take. They mock the students. One “quote end quote received” the students’ “quote end quote demands”. And the letter in response to the students’ demands is awful. It’s not sincere. It’s not on the level with them.

I can see why the faculty would feel drained, dealing with this. What ingrates these students are! Do they realize (as we do watching this film) that their teachers are being offered twice as much pay at competing private universities, yet are staying at Berkeley, only having been counter-offered 30% raise, and not in salary, but just in funding for their department? That’s heroic. One faculty member is in tears about the layoffs, wanting the pain of OE (Operational Excellence) to be properly recognized. Another notes that they’re down to one lawn mower; the room laughs heartily that “he’s doing a great job!” but SERIOUSLY GUYS HE IS, every shot thereafter of the beautiful and expansive campus lawns resonates with his labor. Wiseman is sure include plenty of footage of various workers on campus making things clean and functional.

And these kids are morons, too. They haven’t done their homework. They don’t even realize that even as funding reaches critical lows, policies the university is implementing have led to an all-time high in enrollment by students with poor backgrounds. I laughed at them making a bunch of noise in a reading room, one kid getting up and stammering out that he thinks they should come up with a goal before getting into action. Another privileged looking kid with Lenin facial hair gets up and says no logistical talk please this is a Movement. Ugh. It’s little wonder that At Berkeley is not really about these kids; they are not grown up enough yet be interesting. Glimpses into their Greek life, organized sport life, Facebook and Apple lives are about all we get here.

According to the faculty, the students’ list of demands is huge, unfocused, and even contradictory in places. Many of these leaders attended the university as students back in the 60’s, high tide for protests, and participated in them. They lament the days when protests meant something, weren’t just fads, had actual goals, and actual consequences. They refuse to recognize the times have a-changèd. The world is a lot more complex and confusing these days. Many issues are being confronted at once, intertwined. It’s not really the kids fault, at least they’re not any dumber or more prone to fads than you were. Protests were simple back in your day because a lot of terrible shit was just being ignored. It was one thing at a time, before the modern superfluity of information. The Top Dog university guy (titles are never acknowledged — he’s just the guy that most people shut up for and speaks with the most confidence throughout the movie) recalls a story where a right-wing Republican he once worked for refused to stand for his employees being let go for expressing liberal views. A real Voltaire he was, declaring “you’ll have to fire me first.” “That’s leadership,” Top Dog says of this guy.

Are you really leading well though yourself, Top Dog? You’re always smiling, sure, even as you’re berating your Deans for recommending lousy professors for tenure. And you know that you’re on the same side of this conflict as your students — there would be no conflict if the goddamn government just gave you money! The students direct their anger at you — okay, they want you to try harder to get the money for them. Maybe you should tell the students to get off their butts and go picket the State Capital instead while you figure out how to work with the money you get. Maybe you shouldn’t pat yourself on the back so much for inviting a committee of sycophantic students to confirm that the protest was bad, rather than opening an actual dialog about uniting efforts and interests. How about not writing such a vacuous response that your faculty is too afraid to put their names on it unless there are enough names on it that responsibility is totally diffused. Take this seriously.

Now don’t get me wrong — here and there we see examples of empathy. A support group of enrolled vets has a heart-to-heart — these guys are listening to each other, that’s for sure. One professor, mediating a seminar, lets her students go on and on about their own nonsense, not really responding to each others’ statements as much as taking turns not spouting their mouths; she attempts, however, to tie their thoughts together, with hope, drawing connections between them as if they truly responded. Or one kid in a club about race relations speaking truth that others are having a hard time grasping, that for a kid who’s looked different from everyone else around him all his life, it’s more complicated than simply speaking up (man, kids have a long way to go with this kind of class and race stuff in general — first grasp Thoreau, then try again). And one faculty member involved with OE concedes that when he tried to implement more refined processes, even when they benefited people, they would complain, only because they weren’t given a choice and it broke a working relationship they were comfortable with; he realized that going through the initial “Valley of Despair” from informal emergent social collaboration into scalably efficient collaboration is tough (as another meeter chimed in that it’s more like aligning relationships with processes, harkening back to what that lecturer spoke of elsewhere, the incrementalness of progress at group communication).

What there is no question about is that we need to fund schools. A cancer researcher shares her struggles and accomplishments. An awesome kid working on his PhD works with a guy who’s lost his legs in an injury, with some auto-walker technology (turns out all walking is is “flirting with falling over backwards”!) Over and over we hear that public education is one of the most important societal factors for social and economic mobility. Come on, California. Think of the future. One professor notes that in some cultures, the future is considered metaphorically “behind” and the past metaphorically “ahead”; and I think that makes a lot more sense. Are we not just flooring it in reverse, with no rear view mirror, basically just trying to guess where not to crash based on patterns in what we see flying by in our periphery?

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