In a previous blog (July 8th) on the documentary film The Ivory Tower (2014), I alluded to a far different kind of documentary on the same subject, the state of higher education. Andrew Rossi’s film (The Ivory Tower) explores a number of topics (declining student achievement, expanding student debt, experiments in online education) and visits more than ten different campuses (from Harvard to Arizona State to Deep Springs College). It’s standard 60 Minutes fare with a discerning interviewer, a concerned narrative voice, and a variety of talking heads. Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley (2014) is a horse of a much different color. Wiseman is a “cinema verite” documentarian. He specializes in institutions like criminal courts, ballet companies, and mental hospitals (when there were such places). He gains access to a site, earns the trust of the people who occupy it, shoots hours of film, and then, in the cutting room, trims it all down into what he believes is an appealing movie. In this case, the final product is a four-hour portrait of the complex University of California at Berkeley.
There’s a good reason why Wiseman has chosen the flagship university of the California system; it has an enduring reputation as the best public university in the country. But this investigation could be about any mid- to large-size college, not just a place many consider the best public university in the land. A film made about at Penn State or even Slippery Rock might look much the same.
Wiseman cuts rather leisurely between scenes – an administrator’s retreat; a robotics laboratory devoted to the development of prosthetic limbs; a faculty committee meeting on matching salaries for faculty “poached” by better endowed universities; a “how-to-teach” workshop for graduate students; and a Robert Reich (Clinton’s Secretary of Labor) seminar on performance evaluation in healthy organizations. Wiseman is not much interested in student life: there’s no footage inside the dormitories, or the locker-rooms, or at the on- and off-campus student workplaces.
Unlike Rossi, Wiseman provides you with no guiding hand or authoritative voice and very little context for the episodes that he records. It’s up to us to judge how the Office of Student Affairs handles a campus protest over rising tuition costs. It’s up to us to determine the value of the Maintenance Director’s revelation that he has only one mower for all the lawns on campus. It’s up to us to know whether the interludes between the extended episodes are filler or sly commentary. Is the shot of the janitor sweeping the marble steps meant to say something about the marginalization of blue-collar workers at a politically correct place like Cal or a reinforcement of the Ivory Tower image?
Two scenes in particular had me mulling things over. Both were episodes of teachers in action, English teachers in particular, one of whom was working in a small seminar classroom and the other in a mid-size (25 students) space. The focus of the small seminar, led by a middle-aged male professor, was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the record of his “experiment in living” conducted in mid-19th century America. The focus of the conventional classroom was “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” a clever and bawdy bit of rhetorical persuasion by the 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne, a poem put on the examination table by a young female professor.
I was gratified to see that Wiseman had included these two moments of humanities course instruction, even if the film time represented only 1/20th of the whole. After all, isn’t it one of the primary goals of higher education to connect today’s students with cultural history? Isn’t it crucial that students develop their cultural literacy as well as the skills that it takes to intelligently read and decode difficult works from the past? And shouldn’t an esteemed university like Cal-Berkeley be in the vanguard of honoring the humanities in the curriculum? Equally gratifying to see was the knowledge and the enthusiasm of each of the teachers. I saw a bit of myself reflected in their presence.
But what has me thinking is the way in which this film presents humanities instruction. From the start to the end of each segment all that we hear is teacher talk; it’s good talk, at times insightful talk, but it always emanates from a single source. The Thoreau professor makes an effort to tease out of the text various thematic patterns, especially ones concerned with contamination and purity. The Donne teacher selects lines for explication and endeavors to show Donne’s penchant for sexual puns, many of which would be understood by his contemporaries but not by today’s users of an English whose vocabulary is much changed. To the credit of these film subjects and Wiseman’s presentation of them, I wanted to show up at their classroom door when a new chapter or poem was being analyzed, even if I had to submit to the teacher monologue again. Nevertheless, I was hoping that Wiseman would select a scene that demonstrated a vital community of readers, one set on discovering through dialogue the meaning of the work. I was hoping that Wiseman would select a moment when students had a chance to talk about their confusion or about their delight or about some connection they were making to other course material or even to their lives.*
We are reminded repeatedly by the Chancellor that Berkeley is an outstanding university and its faculty second to none. His words of encouragement to a faculty deflated by budget cuts and reductions in force may play into what we have already assumed: that the quality of instruction at places like Berkeley is exemplary. And yet, these two examples of teachers in action didn’t exactly support the Chancellor’s boastfulness. If anything, the examples demonstrated a misuse of valuable classroom together time; there was nothing that either teacher said that could not have been placed into course notes to be read by students before arrival in the classroom. If these teachers were typical, one might conclude that instructional practice had changed little since the university’s founding in the 19th century. It’s very likely that these teachers are teaching in the ways that they had been taught. One comes away thinking that more effective teaching is taking place at schools with much less prestige than Berkeley.
Part of this apparent gap might be explained by the narrative methods that Wiseman employs. Wiseman notoriously fails to provide context for these cinematic brush-strokes of a university-at-work. We know nothing about the two English teachers – their training, their rank, their specialization, their scholarly endeavors. And we know nothing about how this 10 minute slice of instruction fits into their instructional objectives, the reading calendar, the previous class day’s activity, and the methods of evaluation. This absence of context also applies to the students whose faces, more often placid than animated, occasionally fill the screen. What are their responses to the content and to their teacher’s classroom methods?
Although Wiseman is a wise man, it’s possible that his assumptions about teaching negatively inform his presentation of teachers at work. He would not be the only one to have the narrow vision that a teacher’s work is solely what she does in the front of the classroom – solving quadratic equations, drawing supply-demand curves, demonstrating alternative musical scales, listing the major theorists of personality. Many members of the public think in these terms. And, somewhat surprisingly, so do higher education faculty who, when evaluating colleagues, place a disproportionate emphasis on public platform style, neglecting the much more difficult-to-observe private hours spend in preparation and evaluations of student performances.
I wonder if among the hours of film “on the cutting room floor” we might find a ten minute sequence in which a teacher and student pore over the student’s work- in-progress writing in the faculty office. I wonder if there is scene in which two teachers struggle to reach consensus (and a grade) on a student’s written examination.
Wiseman is long in the tooth (he’s pushing 85 and has been making documentaries for more than 50 years) and is unlikely to make another film about educational institutions (he’s made two films about High school, one in 1968 and another in 1994). But, if he was willing, I would ask him to make another film about teachers, one that does not break with his tradition of portraying human beings as flawed creatures working in imperfect institutions, but one that demonstrate that the college teacher’s world is more complete, and more complicated, than the nine or twelve hours per week spent in a classroom.
*To be fair, there is an extended episode where student voices are heard frequently. A woman of color leads a discussion that seems to have as its focus the nature of the Cal-Berkeley, the state of higher education across the nation, and the students place in these complex systems. Students are invited to talk about the experience of being a minority, the presence or absence of parental influence, their capacity to continue making tuition payments. It’s hard to know whether this is an upper-level, credit bearing class in a major like sociology or a non-credit grievance session sponsored by the Office of Student Life. Either way, the title of the endeavor might be something like “The University as a System of Oppression.”