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Tumbling the Ivory Tower

At UC Berkeley, one radically engaged academic program could finally force the school to own up to its mission as a public university — if the administration agrees to fund it.



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The class that Kadir ultimately developed is "Engineering, the Environment, and Society," an American Cultures course hosted by the College of Engineering with an optional ACES component. The class asks many of the questions that Kadir didn't confront until he was attending graduate school: "What are the politics of engineering? What are the ways in which engineers depoliticize problems — how they draw a box around a thing to exclude questions of power and inequality and just deal with the technical aspects? And how does that reinforce those structures [of inequality]?" Students who take the course's ACES supplement collaborate with local organizations such as Urban Tilth in Richmond to do research and develop engineering models that they need.

But despite his initial enthusiasm, Kadir admitted: "If I had known what I was going to have to go through for that course up front, I wouldn't have done it." The development was laborious, the approval process was a fight, and the reaction from his academic peers was "ugly," he said. "I'm happy I did, but that process was painful."

Plus, committing to the course was a huge career risk. Kadir dropped one of his usual classes to take on the ACES course, but the latter wasn't actually approved by the College of Engineering until the opportunity to teach his usual course was long gone. If the class hadn't been approved, Kadir's full-time job would have become part-time that semester. It's a risk that repeats itself, because Kadir's course doesn't represent any kind of core requirement for the engineering major, so it must be reapproved each semester. Although Cal students are required to take an AC course to graduate, there is no mandate that any specific department, including engineering, offer such a course. "This is a bastard stepchild of the college of engineering — just hanging out," Kadir said of his course.

But according to Kadir, the resistance from other engineering professors was even worse than the lack of job security. While courses that incorporate social justice-oriented perspectives into the curriculum have become welcome in the humanities, Kadir found that in the technical sciences they are still seen as a threat to the objectivity of the rest of the coursework. In the undergraduate engineering department, Kadir's is the only one that diverts students from the high-school-to-tech career pipeline by posing ethical questions. That type of questioning isn't generally welcomed in departments like engineering.

Khalid Kadir teaches a rare engineering course concerned with social and environmental justice. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Khalid Kadir teaches a rare engineering course concerned with social and environmental justice.

Kadir said that many people assume all engineers are only interested in working at Google, when, in actuality, lots of technical students yearn for the kinds of challenges presented by courses that explore human quandaries. However, the students just don't have the time to take such courses. Engineering and computer science are notoriously rigorous undergraduate majors at UC Berkeley, often taking over the lives of those who wish to succeed within them. "That's not fair because what happens is — guess what? — those students aren't engaged in campus activities," said Kadir. "They aren't engaged in activism. They aren't engaged in taking control of their education because they don't have the fucking time — because they're gonna fail their classes if they do." It also means that one of the disciplines with the most potential to produce innovative solutions for community issues puts out the least.

ACES classes require extra work for the teachers as well. Kadir spends time not only maintaining his partnerships, but also staying late in the lab to help students with projects that differ from the problem sets they're used to. Lappas is essentially teaching two classes for the price of one. And Burns said that there's no way that he could facilitate the myriad community partnerships his class requires if he hadn't spent years building and maintaining those relationships. The problem is that ACES requires a different kind of work — a kind that university doesn't acknowledge.

"The American Cultures classroom is built around the complexities of culture-making, past, present, and future — particularly around the complications of race," said Robinson. "That means it's heavy intellectually and heavy emotionally, so those two things together — heavy and busy — mean that these classes are really far more than a regular class." Bureaucratically, however, they're equivalent.

Teaching an ACES class can be an especially difficult decision if an instructor is vying for tenure. If that's the case, then the teacher should be spending all of his or her extra time doing research — and not collaborative research. The distinction between research and service can be blurry, but the former helps your career a lot more than the latter. ACES work usually falls under service. "The reality is that so many of these courses are taught by lecturers precisely because of some of the demands and politics around what is valued as research," said Burns, adding that it doesn't make sense for tenure-track instructors to do it. "The people who only teach are the ones pushing the pedagogical envelope at Cal." Yet those people are the university's disposable employees, excluded from its faculty pipeline.

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