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UC Berkeley: Classes (Post #3)

Six weeks have passed since the start of classes. According to the school officials, 4-6 weeks is typically required to fully adjust to the university setting. I’m not sure if I’ve fully adjusted yet, but I’m definitely feeling more comfortable here. Life here is good for the most part – one of the few drawbacks is the courses I’ve enrolled in this semester. Today’s post is about my classroom experience at UC Berkeley.

My courses are as follows:
1. Soc 130AC (Social Inequalities of the United States): Mon/Wed/Fri 11:00am-12:00pm.
2. PS 164A (Political Psychology): Tues/Thurs 9:30am-11:00am.
PS 164A Discussion: Thurs 3:30pm-5:00pm
3. PS 140 (International Terrorism): Tues/Thurs 2:00pm-3:30pm.
4. PS 179 (Political Science Colloquium): Wed 4:00-5:00pm.

Before I talk about my actual classes, the budget cuts and class selection dilemma needs to be addressed. The California school system has been undergoing monetary issues, and many classes have been either cut or have a size reduction as a result. As a third year student, I was reduced to choosing four upper division Political Science courses (out of a hundred or so). Moreover, my American Cultures course (a type of class that’s a graduation requirement) choices were restricted to about 25 courses (out of a few hundred). With such limited options as a third year priority student, I can’t even begin to contemplate what problems the freshman are enduring.

Let’s start talking about my classes.

As my schedule indicates, Mondays and Fridays are relaxing days while Tuesday through Thursdays are stressful hurdles. I usually study hard four days a week (Sunday-Wednesday) and play for three (Thursday-Saturday). This habit needs to change; I’ve been playing catch up for several weeks. It’s incredibly easy to get sidetracked, and I’m still struggling with balancing work and play time. That being said, I will now discuss my four courses in the order presented above.

1. My Social Inequalities of the United States course meets three days a week. The classroom is located in Mulford Hall, a building on the northwestern part of campus. The breakdown of the class includes three essays (15% each), a midterm (25%), a final (25%), and a field trip into the city (5%). Classroom content usually entails 50 minutes of the professor lecturing from PowerPoint slides. I bring my laptop to class and copy the slides down while jotting down additional verbal information that seems pertinent. As stated in my first post, this course isn’t the most engaging and is not a part of my major; as a result, I am not very intrigued by the information and struggle to maintain focus during class time. I often find myself counting down the seconds before class session concludes.

2. My Political Psychology lecture is located in the Haas School of Business. There is a discussion section in addition to the lecture portion of the class. For those unfamiliar to university settings, discussion groups are often held in courses containing far too many students for the professor to address on a person to person basis. Therefore, Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) are employed to help address students’ questions and review lecture content.

Political Psychology isn’t much of an improvement over the former. Although the lecture hall has much more modern architecture, the seats themselves are cramped and claustrophobic.

The top section of the Haas lecture hall.

The bottom section of the lecture hall.

Contrary to the dry lecture of Soc 130AC, the professor in this course speaks far too fast. It’s not possible to follow even with a laptop in hand. Lately, the GSIs have implemented a scheme to throw a squash ball at the professor when she veers off topic, which she often does. Also, the course itself is misleading. My original expectations of the course was a heavy political science agenda with psychological aspects as a small supplement. It’s the exact opposite; the bulk of the class is about psychology, and it has led me to be somewhat discontent. The breakdown of the class includes a midterm (30%), a final (45%), a short research paper (15%), and participation in the discussion section (10%).

The discussion section has, for the most part, been a painful hour and a half. It is located in the underground of Wheeler Hall. Fun fact: Wheeler was the building in which students stampeded and took over in protest of the 2009 budget cuts. The GSI often stumbles upon his own words and clarifies himself repeatedly. Moreover, much of the discussion is irrelevant to the actual course. Attending office hours hasn’t been very rewarding as well. I may be speaking too soon, however. The past two weeks have been a much better improvement, and the GSI is playing catch up with reviewing lecture material.

3. My International Terrorism course, although the most difficult (based on  preconceived notions), is still my favorite class. It is located in Dwinelle Hall. With only 30 students in the class, it resembles many classes at Fullerton College where I am directly engaging in conversations with the professor. The professor depends on us to share our perspectives of the reading material and holds our opinions in high regard. He considers himself a lifelong scholar and us his colleagues; what’s interesting and equally rewarding is how our opinions has caused him to re-write or re-think research papers and books that he’s currently writing. The breakdown of the class includes a midterm (25%), a final (40%), classroom discussion (20%), and 15% of free points – the professor claims that his class is so difficult that a portion of the grade is already given to us. He also laughed at us and apologized because we “wouldn’t be able to answer the midterm question.”

The Facade of Dwinelle Hall.

4. Lastly, my Political Science Colloquium course is an interesting, less stressful course. The class comprises of a different guest lecturer each week that discusses any point of politics. Located inside Wheeler Hall in a 700-person auditorium, I’ve been lectured about the rise and downfall of the economy, changing the bipartisan electoral system, legalizing marijuana, and other interesting perspectives from ex-NBA players, state senators, and Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor. The breakdown of the class is a single final exam.

The facade of Wheeler Hall, with Sather Tower in the background.

As if it wasn’t completely obvious, I have not been wholly satisfied by the education system thus far. It isn’t my intentions to discourage future prospective students; I am merely stating my firsthand experiences as is. Granted, I’ve only had four classes worth of experience here at Berkeley, but the general consensus is that all research institutions have this underlying paradox: many professors focus on their field of work rather than teaching students. As a result, students must learn on their own due to sub-par teaching.

Luckily, the latter two classes have been immensely rewarding to somewhat offset my disappointment. Hopefully next semester will be better!

I’m not sure what topic will be discussed for the next blog, so stay tuned for a pleasant surprise.

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