by Dickran Kouymjian

What was it like to teach at Berkeley? I have been asked that many times since returning to Fresno. Not much different than teaching at Fresno State. The best students in my classes at the University of California were about the same as the best students at Fresno State, except that there were proportionately more of them in an average class up there.

The teaching load is more merciful at Berkeley, usually two courses instead of the four at Fresno. But each course is four credits instead of the three here and meets four hours a week, so it is eight hours of lectures versus twelve at CSUF. Classes are on the whole bigger and so is the campus and the student body, twice the size. The greatest difference seems to be the general seriousness of purpose one feels at UCB, and I suppose at any UC campus, because they are universities which are considered research institutions awarding the doctorate in nearly every discipline. Thus, even on the undergraduate level the competition is clearly felt. Students want their money’s worth (tuition is several times higher than at Fresno State) and insist on getting it.

At the beginning of the semester the average student shops around attending up to ten courses in the first two or three weeks or multiple sections of the same course before finally deciding which one offers the best instruction. I was warned by staff and faculty that class size in the first weeks can be inflated by as much as 50% and was even discouraged from taking attendance and reporting absences.

Student attitudes toward work and grading are both similar to Fresno State and different. There was the same complaining about grades. On the other hand written assignments were handed in remarkably promptly, with students demanding precision about due dates. Students also made much more use of office hours, to such a point that I had to schedule a sign up sheet some weeks. Some students came back over and again setting up a barely disguised private tutorial.

This seriousness seemed to be a reflection of students as interested in getting an education as getting their degrees. I was pleasantly surprised during my first weeks on campus in August and September to have been asked by secretarial and administrative staff, “Is there anything else we can do for you to make sure you are giving our students the best education they can get?” This is a literal quotation that was repeated three times to me from three different sectors of the campus and I wondered if it was in the policy manual, a kind of greeting like grocery store clerks who say hello to each customary at the cash register. I discovered it was a genuine concern.

Berkeley has its problems, for sure. I was told that it has the lowest graduation rate in the UC system and that probably many fewer freshman finally end up with their degrees than Fresno State students.

My specific experiences involved my duties as the second William Saroyan Visiting Professor of Armenian Studies. This endowed chair program has been trying for a decade to raise sufficient private funds to establish a regular fulltime position at UC Berkeley, similar to the ones at UCLA and Fresno State. In 1995 they had enough of an endowment to invite a professor for one semester, thus creating a visiting position until such time as the endowment allowed for a regular professor. Administratively I was in four different sections of the university with four separate mailboxes! The Saroyan Chair is housed in the Slavic and East European Studies Program, which in turn is part of International and Area Studies. I taught an upper division English Department course on William Saroyan (only appropriate concerning the clever naming of the chair) and a second course on Armenian Cinema in the Film Studies Program, part of the Department of Rhetoric. Each department integrated me wholly and offered me office space, a mailbox, an e-mail address, but unfortunately a computer only with great difficulty.

Among the rewards of the experience was teaching William Saroyan to English majors, a rare occurrence for the Saroyan course which at Fresno State is listed only under Armenian Studies. I was not surprised that some English majors had never read Saroyan, but I was disturbed that several confessed that they had never heard of him. Of my 24 students, mostly English majors, only four were Armenian. Encouraged by their enthusiasm for the subject and the quality of their writing and thinking, I decided to organize a Saroyan conference to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the author’s death. With class help, one student handled the publicity, another the conference program, we were able to invite the world’s leading Saroyan scholars for a conference entitled “Saroyan Plus Fifteen” held on campus on November 15.

Since the conference has been widely reported on, even in Hye Sharzhoom, I wish only to relate that aspect of it that was the most interesting to me. At first I thought, some of these students could present papers on Saroyan as good as those of the professors being invited so why not extend the conference one day to have a student session? Class participation was optional and extra credit. Five students (all upper division English majors) were willing to try it. Eventually, only two stuck it out, Michael Kovacs and Michael Kloster, but they were joined by a third student, Micah Jendian from San Diego State, who had taken my Saroyan course in Fresno. In the end, I judged it would be segregation to put the three on a separate student panel and insisted that their papers be integrated into regular sessions of the conference.

Certainly this was one of the most positive experiences during my Berkeley stay. All the students were behind their classmates, who, apprehensive about being on the same platform with the very experts whose books they were quoting, wrote and rewrote their essays. They had a dry run in class with heavy questioning and criticism. I assured them continually that the work they were doing was as good as the experts and that the level of their own preparation would be on a par with that of the scholars present. In fact the three students, two undergraduates from Berkeley and one graduate from San Diego, gave what were recognized by everyone as three of the best papers in the conference. A member of Berkeley’s own English Department also read a paper on Saroyan and the conference raised the conscience of English literature specialists, especially a new crop of them, toward the merits of Saroyan’s craft.

The experience in the film course was somewhat different, but equally surprising. A weekly showing and lecture in a large audio visual auditorium on Monday nights attracted 40 to 50 students, including in this course a large number of Armenian community auditors. The regular students were almost all film majors, 15 out of 25, only five of them Armenians. Obviously, film majors just look at movies differently than non- film majors. Thus, when discussing a film like Queen Christina directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Greta Garbo, they found Armenian connections that I never saw myself in the direction. Mamoulian never made a single film with Armenian content in it, yet the non-Armenian students especially continued to develop themes that turned around exile and Diaspora. This happened time and again with other films.

On the other hand, some Armenian auditors always wanted to turn discussion of Armenian language films or even films by Atom Egoyan or William Saroyan toward its Armenian nationalist content; thus, on more than one occasion I was forced to move the post-discussion toward the cinematographic qualities of a film. In a film course with determined film majors the quality of filming, scripting, acting, and overall cohesiveness is primary, and political or national messages secondary. The auditors hopefully learned something from the extraordinary input of young film specialists who had never previously seen a film by or about Armenians.

Ultimately the most valuable part of such a teaching experience is to once again leave your home institution, your own students, to see how things are done elsewhere. It affords new perspectives and fires one up with new energies.

In mid-December I discovered I had a fifth mailbox in the Program on undergraduate studies, and even though I found my first three pay vouchers two months late in my fourth mailbox, I just didn’t have the courage to go across campus to empty one more. Who knows what I missed?