Poetic Super Powers and Other Fond Memories


Megan Breazeale (left) and Hayley Hooson enjoy a break from their studies.

During “Dead Week,” while students were frantically completing their final papers and preparing for final exams, Berkeley Connect in English held a study break, to give Berkeley Connect students a chance to enjoy some refreshments and each other’s company. Between bites, some of them shared their favorite memories from the semester:

Hayley Hooson said, “Last week we had a meeting on the topic of film and literature, which happened to be related to the thesis paper I’m writing. I didn’t expect that kind of overlap!”

For Megan Breazeale, the one-on-one interactions with her mentor were a highlight. “It’s nice to have that kind of connection with someone. Also, there are things we’ve talked about in Berkeley Connect that have helped me with essays and other things in class.”

Emily Kuo echoed her sentiments, saying, “I had a close relationship with my mentor. He read my honors thesis.”

Visiting the Bancroft was a high point for Alexander Florez:

“I got to touch a spiral notebook that belonged to Seamus Heaney at the Bancroft Library. There was also poetry and some of his class syllabi from when he taught here. Since I got to leaf through one of my hero’s notebooks, maybe now I’ll get his powers.”

Touring the Bancroft was a favorite moment for Natalie Guggenheimer too: “It was really cool — we got to see the First Folio!” She also commented on how Berkeley Connect helped her build community:

“I took Berkeley Connect my first semester as a transfer student. I really liked getting to share difficulties with other transfer students. It was really good to see that other people struggle, too, and some even had solutions to offer.”

Emma Schiffer also commented on how students could provide support to one another, recalling, “One time we did a living course catalog, and I had taken every class. I liked that I got to help people with that.”

Many of the students agreed that “just talking about literature and sharing those moments with others” was a pleasure. As the study break ended and the students headed back to their books, they seemed re-energized by the opportunity to interact with their Berkeley Connect community.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant

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Hands-on in the Hearst Museum

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The public galleries of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology are closed for renovation and won’t re-open to the public until 2017, but some lucky students in Berkeley Connect Math got a chance to tour a portion of the museum’s vast collection (approximately 2.5 million objects). The students had the opportunity to view historical and anthropological material with mathematical content. The highlight of their experience was closely examining ancient Babylonian tablets.

Near Eastern Studies Professor Niek Veldhuis introduced the students to a collection of tablets, encouraging them to look at them closely under lamps. Some of the tablets were over four thousand years old. They were primarily from Babylon and Iraq, and had been collected by a predecessor of Veldhuis in the 1930s. According to Veldhuis, many of these tablets contained information related to administering labor. “People started writing these records when the metropolis began bustling,” he explained. They inscribed the tablets by writing with pieces of reed on wet clay. Veldhuis went on to explain in detail the notation these ancient Mesopotamians used.

Instead of having an alphabet like we do in English, signs instead represented specific objects, such as a single sign that stands for “sheep.” This early system of writing is called cuneiform, which dates back to 3200 BCE. As for the cuneiform system of numbers, they used a base-60 positional numeral system.

“Does cuneiform have a corresponding spoken language?” asked one student. The answer to this is Akkadian and Sumerian, two mostly extinct languages. Today, some scholars still know Sumerian. “It’s important to know it for understanding history,” explained Veldhuis. “Human life can be lived in so many different, meaningful ways, and we can look at history to find that.”

Veldhuis asked the students to try and determine which side of a tablet was up. He explained that the front is always the flatter side. Also, he explained that the tablets could never get very big, because “once you’ve taken a tablet out, you only have 1-2 hours to write on it before it dries,” he said. There are generally not more than six columns on each side.

The tablets are made out of clay, so they are almost always broken. “You can often supply what must have been there in the cracks, though,” added Veldhuis.

After examining the tablets, the students went on a walking tour to visit more of the collection, seeing artifacts ranging from a marble depiction of Plato to a collection of ancient Peruvian beer jugs. Students viewed dice games and snowshoes from native Alaskan tribes, as well as Egyptian sarcophagi and crocodile mummies. It was an amazing opportunity for students to see ancient objects that remain hidden from public view but are fueling important research into human societies and cultures.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant


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A Historian at Work

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We see them standing at the front of lecture halls, or maybe meet with them during office hours, but it’s fairly rare that we get sustained time with our professors up close, or hear them discuss how they approach their own work. At a recent Berkeley Connect History small-group discussion, distinguished historian Martin Jay spoke with the students about two of the many books he has written.

First, Jay talked about one of his earliest books, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas, published in 1984. In this work, he wrote about the idea of totality and the “privileged way to make sense of what’s on the ground,” he explained.

For research on Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, published in 1993, Jay travelled to Paris to study people’s attitudes towards the totalizing gaze. Downcast Eyes explores the gendered differences in the way people look, among other analyses related to vision in that time period.

In relation to choosing a topic for historical research, Jay stressed the importance of incorporating a scale of history, from macro to micro. “You have to recognize what you gain and lose from each scale; it requires the recognition of limits,” Jay explained.

“How do you find the limits of what to write about?” asked one student. “It’s difficult,” answered Jay. “You begin by conceptualizing much bigger than you will actually go.” He described how when researching a subject, you discover that there’s a wealth of information available, and that you’re not the first one to write about it.

“You have to decide what aspect to focus on. What makes big books manageable is having one main thread running throughout,” Jay added. Also, he emphasized that the new material you produce should challenge what’s already been said.

Another student asked, “How did you feel when you held your book for the first time?” Jay talked about how excited he was, as one might expect. “But it’s not so exciting when you open it up and see a typo,” he joked.

“How do you feel when people criticize your book?” asked another student. “It’s always a great honor to be read,” said Jay. Obviously, he wants readers to be convinced by his book, but that’s not always the case. “Whenever you get a critical review, you have to look more carefully at what is being said and who said it,” he suggested. Some people hate Marxism regardless of what you write, for example. “Just don’t be so protective over your ideas that you can’t take criticism,” he advised.

This is Jay’s last semester teaching at UC Berkeley, so the words of wisdom he shared with these Berkeley Connect students were especially valuable. The opportunity to speak with students was valuable for Jay as well. “I will certainly miss the contact with students,” he lamented. Though he will no longer be a professor, he will still be a scholar, and now he will have more time to focus on exactly what he spoke about to these Berkeley Connect students: exploring challenging new ideas and writing about them.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant

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A Sociological Take on the 2016 Election

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Professor Irene Bloemraad speaks to Berkeley Connect students.

The 2016 presidential election is everywhere, filling every headline from Buzzfeed to the New York Times. Everyone has opinions to offer – but sometimes, it can be hard to make sense of it all. As the Spring 2016 semester drew to a close, students in Berkeley Connect in Sociology got a chance to discuss the complex forces at work in this year’s election with three sociologists with expertise in social movements, immigration issues, and income inequality.

Professor Cihan Ziya Tugal began the discussion by speaking about Donald Trump’s incitation of a new populist movement. Populism has risen here and there throughout American history, but why is it happening again now? “It’s happening due to an extreme polarization of wealth, and the resulting fall of the white middle class,” posited Tugal. Fears related to race and rising immigration are intersecting with America’s internal economic story of financialization. However, the lack of organization in Trump’s campaign is “a hodgepodge, when you compare it to other populist movements throughout history,” added Tugal. Thus, the populism Trump has encouraged has yet to rise to revolutionary or violent populism.

Professor Irene Bloemraad elaborated on the question of immigration. With white people making up less than two-thirds of the United States’ population today, and only decreasing whiteness to come in the future, the platforms of some of the candidates in this election seem baffling, from the standpoint of long-term demographic trends. Both Trump and Ted Cruz are strongly anti-immigration. “Why are they saying these things if it could be electoral death down the road?” asked Bloemraad. The reality is, while there may be a large and growing demographic representation of Latinos and Asians, these groups are not necessarily a voting power. Bloemraad explained that many of them are not registered to vote, and even fewer turn out.

Professor Kim Voss’s presentation focused on income inequality and voting patterns. “Politics shape income inequality,” she explained. Elections shape how income is taxed, which impacts how much after-tax income remains in different populations, and how much money is collected to fund government programs that assist various populations. Cruz and Trump both propose huge tax cuts, while Bernie Sanders proposes tax increases across the board, with wealthier families seeing massive tax hikes. The candidates are very polarized. However, explained Voss, “American elections are won not by the side that does the best at changing people’s minds, but by the side that does the best at getting voters to turn out.” It’s up to the people who turn out to determine the policy on what’s going to happen in the future.

In the US, there’s usually a pretty abysmal voter turnout. Young people in particular don’t turn out. One student wondered why this is. “It’s a lack of exposure and experience,” hypothesized another student. “We haven’t experienced multiple presidencies, so we don’t know we’ve liked or haven’t liked.”

Another student offered, “There’s a lot of distrust of the political system in our generation.”

The panel of professors urged students to care about voting, regardless of the insignificance of a single vote. Tugal explained, “You have to look at it the context of other kinds of people not voting. When disadvantaged people don’t vote, it’s because institutions are set up so they won’t vote. Some candidates actually benefit from young people voting less.”

“It’s true that one vote is kind of irrational,” added Bloemraad. “But as a collective action, voting is still important.”

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant

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Math, History, Philosophy: Exploring the Connections


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Mathematics can seem abstract, separate from the “real world,” but actually, math is tightly wound into the history of humankind. At one of the last Berkeley Connect Math small-group discussions of the semester, students considered math’s origins in the ancient world, and the role it plays in our contemporary world.

As a case study, graduate mentor Maria Guadalupe Martinez explained to students the positional notation system used by the Babylonians, which first appeared in 2000 BC. Positional notation uses the same symbol for the different orders of magnitude. The Babylonian numeral system was the first positional system to be developed, which used the number 60 as its base.

“Babylonian mathematics is very functional,” explained Martinez. Math exists on a spectrum from very pure to very functional for solving real-world problems. There are instances of math being used in ways in ways very different from the original intent. For example, math can be used to help build weapons. “What do you feel is math’s place in ethics?” Martinez asked the class. “As a mathematician, do you have a social responsibility for how your math is used?”

“I don’t think it’s different from any other field,” offered one student. “You always have to think about the consequences of what you do.” Another student suggested that while everyone has a social responsibility to protect the greater good, it’s hard to look at the bigger picture when you are financially dependent on your job.

In any case, said one student, “I don’t think math is to blame. It’s just a toolset. It’s the ones who are actually coding who have the responsibility.”

Martinez then asked the students to think about math in an even more philosophical sense. For example, if you can predict where a ball you throw is going to land using math, what is the difference between where the ball actually lands and the theorem that tells you where it will land? Where, in this case, does the math live? “Do you think math is created, or do you think it exists independent of humans?” asked Martinez.

“I think math exists in nature on its own,” suggested one student. “You can find fractals in nature. Math is our way of describing what we see in nature.”

However, another student felt differently: “Math is just man’s description of the world. It comes from our sensory experience.”

The concept of math is very wide, overlapping borders with science and even philosophy. We tend to have a narrow vision of what qualifies as math, but these different fields are often inspired and influenced by each other. “All of these things tend to blur together,” said Martinez.

Obviously, math refers to something much broader than just adding numbers together. It can hold great philosophical value. Taking time to discuss math’s importance in the context of history, as well as its relation to social concepts, only deepened Berkeley Connect students’ fascination with their field of study.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant

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My Favorite Berkeley Connect Moment: Philosophy

We invited students participating in Berkeley Connect in Spring 2016 to enter our Berkeley Connect Student Voice Contest and share with us a memorable experience they had in Berkeley Connect. The third of three winning entries was written by Myron Liu, who participated in Berkeley Connect in Philosophy.

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Myron Liu (right) with Berkeley Connect classmate Allan Hennessy.

My favorite Berkeley Connect moment was a discussion that began about philosophy, ethics and the worth of water. [My Berkeley Connect mentor] Eugene [Chislenko] had ignited the discussion by reading a thought-provoking article about the impending water crisis. Thoughts began to flow from everyone. It became a game of passing ideas back and forth like tennis rallies: a clash and union of opinions as the topics became more and more tangential from the original subject matter. Despite the myriad of ideas being passed around the discussion, I felt that it was highly productive.
The best moment was when the one of our students had brought up mortality. He said he would rather be remembered for being a good person than a rich and selfish one. There was a brief silence.  Though it was clear not all of us felt the same, in that moment it felt as though our minds were contemplating our own inevitability and how that made us feel.
I felt this really captured the essence of why philosophy is important. If our world is not entirely deterministic,  I think we are given the opportunity to dictate parts of our own lives through actively applying and thinking about philosophy.

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My Favorite Berkeley Connect Moment: Sociology

We invited students participating in Berkeley Connect in Spring 2016 to enter our Berkeley Connect Student Voice Contest and share with us a memorable experience they had in Berkeley Connect. The second of three winning entries was written by Danielle Veloso, who participated in Berkeley Connect in Sociology.

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My favorite moment in Berkeley Connect for Sociology was when Professor Mora-Torres came to speak, which led to the entire class engaging in a discussion about racial labeling. I really identified with professor Mora-Torres when she shared that her current research is about racial labels for Hispanics and Asians, since I am half-Chinese/half-Argentinian and have never really identified with either. The first 3 semesters of my undergraduate had been very confusing because I hadn’t yet found a subject I was passionate about. I felt as if I was wasting the short amount of time I’ve been blessed to have at Berkeley. This moment in Berkeley Connect helped me realize that sociology is what I’m meant to study and that it is completely possible to find a promising career with a sociology degree. Being surrounded by peers who share similar interests and having very personal interactions with Berkeley staff is what makes learning from Berkeley Connect so meaningful. In this moment, as I was sitting next to one of the most brilliant sociology professors in the world, Berkeley Connect helped me feel empowered in my potential as a student and biracial individual.

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My Favorite Berkeley Connect Moment: English

We invited students participating in Berkeley Connect in Spring 2016 to enter our Berkeley Connect Student Voice Contest and share with us a memorable experience they had in Berkeley Connect. The first of three winning entries was written by Hoisum Nguyen, a junior transfer student who participated in Berkeley Connect in English.

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As a junior transfer, the feelings of “impostor syndrome” and relative incompetency compared to the entire school as a whole, were swift and merciless. During the first semester, I do not think I ever felt particularly safe in the quality of my academic knowledge, or even my experiences as an individual. In Berkeley Connect though, that was never the case. I was surrounded by individuals who not only all felt the same, but were also going through the same sort of dilemmas as me: “my writing is sub-par; I feel overwhelmed by the brilliance within the English department; I want to learn everything, and be a part of something, though I’m not sure where my skills will take me or even if they’re worth the effort.” I created friendships in my classes that were further nurtured in Berkeley Connect, and my fondest moment was when we had a heated discussion over something as singular (yet indefinitely vast) as the word “queer.”
Berkeley Connect allowed me to not only feel comfortable amongst my peers, but to also realize that my skills, intellectual curiosity, and yearning to bond with my fellow peers would be reciprocated. More so than that, they would be challenged to flourish by other brilliant writers and individuals who also all wanted to achieve the same goals and community of growth.

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Environmental Research, Environmental Action


What draws an individual to study a particular field? Or even dedicate their entire career to it? At a recent Berkeley Connect ESPM section, Professor Alastair Iles visited the class to discuss his career in environmental science with the students. Professor Iles is hearing-impaired, so he communicated with students by typing into a Word document projected onto a screen, and graduate student mentor Patrick Baur relayed the students’ replies to Iles by typing them as well.

“What entices me to the environment is the diversity of topics that I can study and work on – it’s a huge range from food, science, law, ecology, to chemistry,” Iles began. “What also matters to me is that the environment is at the heart of our societies, whether we realize it or not, and what happens to our environment will shape our lives and futures.” Iles enjoyed hiking as a child, and circled around the environmental field from a variety of perspectives before becoming a professor. First, he was a lawyer, then a policy expert, and now considers himself to be a hybrid of a social scientist and a policy maker.

Iles asked the students to share what drew them to studying the environment.

“I had a really outdoor-oriented childhood,” explained one student. “My parents raised me with environmentally-conscious morals. They feel our position in the environment is not the focus of the world, and we need to look at ourselves as animals.” This student now hopes to help the planet by becoming an environmental policy lawyer.

Iles acknowledged the rising issue of whether animals and ecosystems should have their own existence rights. He also mentioned that environmental processes are in fact at the heart of countless issues that may not seem to be directly related to ecosystems. “It’s part of your education at ESPM to see these processes at play, and to help figure out how we could find ways to prevent further degradation,” he added.

Another student shared a specific interest in the environment, saying, “I don’t think it always has to be society against environment. I think there are ways to integrate them to make a more sustainable world.” Iles agreed, offering suggestions on possible careers that involve integrating society into the environment. His suggestions included doing scientific research, becoming a local activist, and developing policies to stimulate industry into adopting better practices.

“The environment can feel overwhelming and vast – we have so many problems surfacing now, that we may not know where to start, or whether our individual actions will matter,” Iles explained. “It’s a collective action challenge.” Iles prompted the students to discuss how they might overcome this collective problem.

Several students emphasized the importance of better education and better policy. With greater awareness comes greater improvement. “Also, taking individual responsibility instead of assuming it’s up to someone else (who might not act at all) is important,” added Iles.

Although the issues with the environment might seem too vast to tackle for just one person, big change starts with the actions of a few. And the more individuals who take action to help save the environment, the greater total effort will be going towards these vital issues. The passion of these Berkeley students for the environment is a great source of hope for the future of our planet. The future is in the hands of the young people, after all – it is up to them to make a change.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant

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Filed under Berkeley Connect in ESPM, Small Group Discussions

In Search of a Career


Being in college is not easy: studying around the clock, keeping up with extracurricular activities, and maybe even working a job on the side to help pay tuition. But the prospect of finding employment after graduation can be even more stressful and scary. Fortunately, Berkeley Connect recently held a career workshop to help students navigate this seemingly overwhelming process.

“One of the best things you can do for students is show them alums who have careers,” said Professor Maura Nolan, the director of Berkeley Connect, acknowledging the anxiety about the future that so many students share. She proceeded to introduce two successful Berkeley alumnae, starting with Rachael Myrow.

Myrow is an award-winning radio journalist who currently covers arts and culture for KQED and does freelance reporting for NPR. Upon graduating from UC Berkeley with an undergraduate degree in English, Myrow admitted she initially didn’t have the foggiest clue what she was going to do next. “Inspired by NPR blasting on the home stereo every weekend when I was growing up and having three newspapers a day on the kitchen table, I decided to go back to school for journalism,” she explained. From her experiences in this competitive field, Myrow had quite a few tips to offer students.

First of all, she said, “Be willing to travel the world or the clock.” She suggested finding the job other people don’t want to do, and applying for that one. She also stressed the importance of networking. You have to be a familiar name and face to stand out in an endless sea of applicants. Myrow also suggested researching the job, knowing before you walk in the door what salary range you should be negotiating for, and realizing that sometimes you may have to leave a job in order to learn and grow.

“Your industry will change over the course of your career, but it’s also true that you will change,” were Myrow’s final words of advice. She reminded students that their ambitions may evolve, and that they shouldn’t feel stuck on whatever career path they initially select. “Keep researching, and keep your options open,” she suggested, “Because the ultimate goal is fulfillment – and paying the rent, of course.”

The second speaker was Madonna Bolano, currently the Group Vice President of Human Resources for Applied Materials, Inc. At UC Berkeley, she got her undergraduate degree in Sociology. Bolano emphasized the importance of Cal’s name in finding employment. “The first two jobs I got offered straight out of college were from Cal alums,” she explained. “Anywhere I go, I still use my Cal degree as a way to meet people, even around the world.”

Aside from leveraging the Cal brand, Bolano advised students, “Know what you’re good at, and be able to highlight that. Also know what you need to develop in.” She also told students to be willing to start at the entry level. “Don’t forget that all of us have to start somewhere,” she said. “But look for the opportunities and don’t sell yourself short.”

The evening closed with a presentation by counselors from the Career Center, followed by a reception where students got a chance to network with the speakers and get some one-on-one advice. Janet White, one of the Career Center counselors, advised students to imagine their careers unfolding not as a straight path or a ladder, but as a unique path they create. For now, she suggested, “Focus on your next step, and not on your entire life or career.”

With this advice, and lots of practical tips from all the speakers, the process of searching for post-graduation employment may seem a little less daunting for Berkeley Connect students. Success is possible, as demonstrated by Myrow and Bolano’s impressive careers. Students can take a deep breath and dive into the job search a little more fearlessly, knowing that a winding path marked by some uphill climbs, detours, and changes of direction can still lead them where they want to go.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant

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