A Modest Proposition

I am a product of the State of California public education system. Attended 5th-12th grade in Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District. Undergraduate degree from UC Irvine. PhD from UCLA. I’m proud of my public education roots, and I’m grateful to the state of California for giving me opportunities and financial support.

But the hard truth is that a kid in the exact same financial situation I was in 20-30 years ago would not get today the kind of quality education that I got. Because we have absolutely gutted public education in California. K-12 schools where I grew up are going bankrupt. And universities are too expensive, faculty are overworked and overcrowded with students, and opportunities just aren’t the same. Here are a couple of examples.

In our town of Davis, we have a local bond measure on the ballot that will provide a safety-net if Proposition 30 fails. Because if we don’t come up with the extra money somehow, this district will either have to fire 55 people, or we’ll go into receivership with the state, because there is nowhere else to cut the budget. If both Proposition 30 and our bond measure fail, who knows?

Last quarter I had an undergrad in my class ask me for a letter of recommendation, and when I told her a letter might be stronger from someone who had actually employed her as a research assistant or had her in a smaller class, she said, “Professor Ching, you’re the only faculty member who actually knows my name.” Now honestly, how is that a world-class education?

We can’t go on like this. Please, California friends, vote YES on Proposition 30.

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Crisis Opportunity

In the immediate wake of 9/11, the American people were united in their patriotism and sense of charity.  Everyone gave what they could to the American Red Cross, the survivors’ fund, and even the local firemen on the street with a “fill the boot” campaign.  People everywhere were talking about how to investigate terrorist cells without a foolish knee-jerk reaction of scapegoating the Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans among us.  We were being generous, and most of us were being smart.  Everyone wanted to know what they could do to contribute to recovery.  But what was President George Bush’s answer?  He didn’t tell us to band together and focus on our common humanity.  He didn’t tell us to continue our charity and expand it beyond 9/11 victims and first responders, to take care of one another because we are all Americans and we rise and fall together.  No, he told us to go shopping. The best way forward, he told us, was to stimulate the economy, to benefit the whole by increasing our own individual pieces of it.

We’re in a similar moment at UC Davis right now.  (Please note that I’m not comparing November 18th at UC Davis to 9/11.  I’m just noticing some disconcerting similarities in the post-crisis rhetoric.)

I’ve heard the phrase “crisis opportunity” multiple times in conjunction with the pepper spray incident and the issues it brought to light around de-facto privatization of public education, students’ rights to freedom of speech and expression, and increasing militarization of campus security.  UCD faculty are lining up behind students in a “we’ve got your back” kind of way that I’ve never, ever seen before.  People are asking smart questions about just exactly why public education has gotten so expensive in recent years, and how we might fix that.  The desire for not just tweaks but sea changes is almost overwhelming.  (You know it’s huge when even the Physicists are angry.)

So I attended the Academic Senate meeting where Chancellor Katehi responded to questions about looming privatization and questions about what faculty who want to take action can do to help.  In answer, she could have asked for a faculty lobbying campaign to get back the State of California funding we’ve lost.  She could have asked for faculty to become engaged in service efforts to make the university run more cheaply and efficiently.  She could have asked for faculty to be more giving of our time to our students, so they at least feel they’re getting good value for the outrageous amount they pay.

But instead, Chancellor Katehi advised us to respond when our Deans ask for faculty to make presentations to potential endowment donors, and she asked us to bring in as much grant money as possible.  (Coincidence that this was exactly the same strategy the Chancellor advocated before November 18th?  I think not.)  Now I understand the idea behind these suggestions is that the indirect returns from both endowment and grant revenue sources could theoretically be used to provide student scholarships or offset student tuition.  But, in essence, she told us to go shopping.  We are supposed to believe that we can best help the most endangered members of our community by increasing our own individual advantages.

To use a phrase that my students probably think I’m too old to use, I call bullshit on that.

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What the heck is a “process” anyway?

So I went to the Town Hall Meeting this evening at Davis in Freeborn Hall.  The livestream is here if you’re interested in seeing a good chunk of it.  And while I won’t summarize what happened, I think it’s worth sharing an interesting contrast I kept noticing repeatedly, as students got up to ask questions, and the panelists (Chancellor Katehi, Provost Hexter, VC Fred Wood, and a representative from the UCPD) attempted to answer.  Here is the basic gist of it, with some version of this same exchange happening over, and over, and over again.

Panel:  We all feel terrible about what happened.

Student(s):  We want action/transparency.  What are your concrete plans for change/justice?

Panel:  There is a process already in place/there is an independent investigation.  This is all being reviewed.  Our findings will be made public, and we will keep the lines of communication open as we move forward.

Student(s):  That’s ridiculous administrator-speak.  You have so blatantly failed us that we can’t possibly believe your “findings,” because we don’t trust your “process.”  The only way we will trust your process is if you actually involve us in it, and if you let us shape the process, so that it becomes our process too.

Except that nobody actually said that last part.  There were all sorts of expressions of dissatisfaction from the audience with various lukewarm answers by the panel, but nobody actually pointed out the big elephant in the room:  that the top-down, top-secret, and independent ideas of process held by the panelists are clearly in direct opposition to the students’ bottom-up, grassroots, and inclusive ideas of process.

This seems like a pretty big impasse.  As my grandma would have said, “That’s a head-scratcher!”  I wish someone had asked a question about this obvious disconnect and how to handle it.  I would have liked to hear the answer to that one.

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An Open Letter to My Students and Colleagues at UC Davis

This is the piece I’ll try to share on Monday at the UC Davis Rally in the Quad, if there’s an open mic and I get a chance.  If not, then it will just be shared here.  But somebody has to say it.


An Open Letter to My Students and Colleagues at UC Davis:

A lot has been said so far about who is responsible for the horrific violence on campus last week.  A lot of blame is being passed around, and it’s all pretty accurate.  But I’d like to take a different approach, if I may, and offer our students, my students—and yes, you are all my students whether I’ve had you in class or not—an apology on behalf of the faculty.

That’s right.  An apology.  Not just because there weren’t as many of us with you on Friday, getting arrested and pepper spray down our throats, as there were at Berkeley.  But because of something bigger.

Because we left the wrong people in charge.

You see, with few exceptions, the people running this campus up in Mrak Hall think of themselves as administrators, not as educators.  Because, with few exceptions, these are people who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in years, if not decades, if ever.   These are people who don’t have you guys.  They don’t have students to remind them every single day on this campus why they are here, simply by stopping by their offices with a friendly, “Hey, Professor, I just had a question about something…”  These are people who don’t have you all to keep them humble by (to use a personal example) reminding them that they almost forgot to collect the paper that’s due in class today, or pointing out the typos on their final exams.

No, instead, what we have are people who end up thinking of you as data points and dollar signs, rather than as whole human beings, whose hearts and minds we as a faculty have the honor and privilege of shaping into the future of our state, our nation, and our world.  (And I assert that no one who thought of you as whole human beings could possibly have called in armed riot police to deal with a peaceful protest, tents or no tents.)

So how did it get this way?  Of course it’s complicated, but one answer is that, as faculty, we’re busy.  I know, you hear that a lot, right?  “We’re busy.”  But it’s true.  We expend a lot of energy on our research.  And the vast majority of us put a lot of time and effort into our teaching too.  Because we care about you.  We do.  But there’s a whole host of other things, administrative things, that go into running a university, that we as a faculty have had less and less to do with over the years.  Things like budgets.  And efficiency reports. And “Resource Management.”  And the truth is that most of us hate those things, and we’re perfectly happy to let someone else deal with all of it.

As it turns out, though, there’s a kind of power in those things.  Big power, actually.  Money power.  And in many cases that power wasn’t just taken from us, we gave it away, all too gladly.

You know, it wasn’t malicious.  We thought it would be fine, better even.  We’d handle the teaching and the research, and we’d have administrators in charge of administrative things.  But it’s not fine.  It’s so completely not fine.  There’s a sickening sort of clarity that comes from seeing, on the chemically burned faces of our students, how obviously it’s not fine.

So, to all of you, my students, I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry we didn’t protect you.  And I’m sorry we left the wrong people in charge.

And to my colleagues, I ask you, no, I implore you, to join with me in rolling up our sleeves, gritting our teeth, and getting back to the business of running this place the way it ought to be run.  Because while our students have been bravely chanting for a while now that it’s their university (and they’re right), it’s also ours.  It’s our university.   And as such, let’s make sure that the inhuman brutality that occurred on this campus last Friday can never happen again.  Not to our studentsAnd not at our university.

Cynthia Carter Ching

Associate Professor of Learning and Mind Sciences

Director of Undergraduate Programs, School of Education

University of California, Davis

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Very Important People

So the other day my husband and I are driving, and we stop at a crosswalk to let some pedestrians cross.  These people take their sweet time, yakking it up and ambling slowly across the road in front of our Prius, as we roll our eyes and do the impatient-finger-tap on the steering wheel.  But then when a new Mercedes Benz pulls up in the next lane, they look sheepish and hurry to get to the other side of the road and out of its way.

Now normally I wouldn’t read too much into this occurrence, but given the recent federal budget situation in which tax cuts for the wealthy were just extended during the worst recession since the 1930s, and given a recent dispute on facebook with a friend who actually seemed to believe that the wealthy are more hard-working and self-reliant than the rest of us, it makes me pause.

What could possibly be the motivation for hurrying to get out of the way of a new Mercedes Benz (but not a Prius), other than the belief (conscious or not) that the driver of the more expensive vehicle must be a Very Special Person with Big Things to do with his/her time and somehow More Important than the rest of us?  It’s one thing for the wealthy to believe that they are better than everyone else; that’s just basic self-psychology and cognitive dissonance.  But for other people to believe it too?  That’s downright dangerous.

You’ve heard of internalized racism of course.  But this is internalized classism.  No wonder we have so many conservatives calling for a return to pre-New Deal social policies, and so many people willing to buy in to the rhetoric that the majority of poor people really aren’t “deserving” of the aid they receive.

That’s hardly American.  It’s downright Dickensian.  Get ready.  Gilded Age, here we come.  Again.

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Veteran’s Day

I keep seeing borrowed status updates on facebook today that thank our veterans for their service.  And, sure, who am I to disagree with that?  But thanks doesn’t cost anything.  Words are not enough.

Let’s thank our veterans for their service by giving them the full measure of what they’ve earned and need when their service is over:  health care, mental health care, tuition grants, and housing benefits.  Would this mean I’d have to pay higher taxes?  Probably.  Bring it on.  Some things are worth paying for.

Once upon a time military service in this country could be a vault into the middle class.  It certainly was for my grandfather, who served in the Pacific during WWII and later graduated from UCLA with a degree in Business on the government’s dime.  His Naval service (he enlisted) and the benefits that came from it represented a turning point in our family history, moving from generations of farm folks struggling to put food on the table, to a successful legacy wherein all his kids and grandkids went to college (and then some!) and hold white-collar jobs.

I always think of Grandpa when I pass the guy on the corner in my town with a sign saying, “Iraq Veteran. Will work for food.”  How I wish I could give this guy more than a few dollars and my thanks for his service.  I wish I could give him the kind of thanks my grandfather got.  And I wish I could give him a government that cared.

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We all need to be reminded of our better selves

Lots of people have been asking me over the past two days about the meeting with my son’s kindergarten teacher late last week.   She’s a veteran teacher, and she runs a very organized classroom, where everything is designed to further the goals of not just increased literacy and numeracy, but getting children used to the schedule, routine, behavioral control, and increased attention span required of formal schooling.  She’s not mean about it at all, but the expectations are high.  All this is fine, or it would be if I actually believed that children need to sit still and be quiet in order to learn best (but that’s a different story), and I admit that there are plenty of children in the class who seem to be thriving on the structure (mostly girls, but again, that’s a different story).  But it just isn’t working for my kid.

He’s a brilliant child, but he’s extraordinarily strong-willed, and so in order to get him to do what we want at home, we typically have to cajole him, reason with him, give him incentives, or offer him some small amount of choice in the situation so he feels in control.  I explained all this to his teacher the very first week when she wondered what he thought he was doing walking away from “circle time” and trying to get out a puzzle instead.  I explained that this was an option at his preschool, and it will just take him a while to get used to the new set of expectations.

But it’s been two months now, and despite the fact that he doesn’t just leave an activity he finds boring anymore, she still is unsatisfied with his behavior, saying something about how it takes up too much of her time to have to give him directions three times before he complies.  (Yeah, it takes up a lot of our time too.)  She’s already figured out that punishing him or forcing him makes things worse.  (Yeah, we figured that out when he was three.)  At first she thought he wasn’t ready for kindergarten, until she discovered that he already knows all his letters and the sounds, that he not only knows all his numbers but he can add and subtract already, and that he speaks in sentences longer than most 3rd graders. But in terms of his behavior, she was “at the end of my rope,” hence this meeting.

I came to the meeting prepared.  Seriously, I think I had more notes with me than I used for my undergrad class on “Motivation” two days before (there’s some synergy for you, right?).  I talked about what being a strong-willed child means, I talked about the value of giving him some small measure of autonomy or choice and how well this works at home, I talked about the importance of picking your battles strategically and only working on a few behaviors at a time.  But she just wouldn’t budge, until I gave her an example of what happens when she meets each student at the door with a “good morning!” and a handshake.  The conversation went something like this.

Me:  So, for example, when he shows up in the morning, everyone is supposed to shake hands.  But sometimes he gives you a hug instead, or yesterday he was carrying his library book, so he put out his other hand.  And you correct him!  After he hugs you, you then make him shake hands.  Or yesterday you actually told him that he should shake with his other hand.  So from the very minute he walks in the door, he has already done something wrong.

Her:  Oh, I don’t think that’s right.  I’m always happy to have a hug from a child.

Me:  Sure, but then you tell him that he still has to shake hands.  So his face just falls.  And I think when I watch this, “Really?”

Her:  Oh, well, I don’t know.  Um…..

Me:  I’m sure you don’t do it on purpose.  You usher in 25 kids every morning.  But I think you’ve unconsciously pegged [my kid] as the one who needs to be corrected all the time.  It’s just heartbreaking.

Her:  [silent for a while]  Does he think I don’t like him?

Me:  You know, I asked him that the other day, and he said, “She likes when I’m good.”

Her:  Oh dear.

And from that moment, the conversation changed dramatically.  All the suggestions I had made about how to help my son, which she had seen only minutes before as impositions on her tried-and-true method, suddenly seemed reasonable and like things we could try and see if they help.

So the next day when I picked him up from school, he waved at me with a big smile from behind the kindergarten fence, proudly holding up his Halloween-themed art project, and as he passed the teacher on the way out, he asked her, “I had a good day, right?”  She smiled at him broadly, rubbed his back, and said, “You had a great day.  Have a fun weekend!”  It was all I could do to say “hi, sweetie,” hug my son, and ask him about the bats on his poster, rather than break down into tears of relief.

I don’t think this will solve everything.  There’s still a pretty bad fit between my son’s tendency toward chaos and self-determination and his teacher’s extreme need for order, routine, and compliance.  But maybe it will be better, such that he can meet enough of her expectations so that they can get along.  I just find it fascinating that playing the expertise card was only helpful in the sense of being able to provide concrete suggestions and explanations of why they work.  But in order to get her to accept those suggestions, I had to appeal to her sense of identity, to show her that, with my child in particular, she wasn’t being the warm and nurturing teacher she wants to be.  I guess we all need to be reminded of our better selves sometimes.

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