UC Berkeley English Department

I was reading the UC Berkeley English department newsletter and was extremely proud to learn that the department boasts the highest number of professors to receive the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

“It is the highest teaching honor given by the university, and the selection process is rigorous: nominated candidates must pass through a meticulous review of student evaluations, course histories, grade distributions, statements from former students, and teaching philosophies. Finally, the candidates who emerge from these rings of fire are visited in class by members of the Academic Senate-appointed selection committee, who in turn debate the relative merits of each candidate before selecting the few deserving recipients. As a result of this stringent selection procedure, in the fifty or so years the award has been given, only about 240 teachers have won the thing. And among those 240 are 25 English professors. To put that figure in context, 25 is the same number of times that the second and third most awarded departments – Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and Law – have won the award combined.”

I read through the list of 25 and recognized 5 names. I took classes from 4; I noted the class I took next to their names. And I was advised to major in English by the passionate Julian Boyd. I will forever be grateful to him as I think majoring in English was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.

1980 Anne Middleton – Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

1986 Janet Adelman – Literature in English

1993 Julian Boyd – advisor

2002 Jeffrey Knapp – Shakespeare

2009 Mitchell Breitwieser – American Novel

It’s so easy to dismiss English as a fluffy major, even at a prestigious school where the program is ranked #1 nationwide. At the time, I too, did not give the major the attention it deserved, splitting my time by double-majoring in a more analytical subject. And that, is probably one of my biggest regrets.

“The best English teachers are able to provide remarkably new insights into the most familiar materials…this mixture of enlightenment and estrangement may be unique to teaching literature. Reviewing the teaching philosophies of past DTA winners, a trend quickly emerges: English professors repeatedly stress the importance of questioning, uncertainty, and paradoxes as roads to insight. By contrast, faculty from other departments overwhelmingly emphasize the importance of having a firm grasp on the topic – thoroughly understanding the issue before attempting to communicate it to students. Of course, there’s nothing incompatible about a thorough understanding and an eye for complication. But unlike those subjects in which a teacher’s ability to explicate means the difference between success and failure, in English, explanation alone is insufficient.”

The Drunk Double Major

The first time I got drunk was my third year of college. Pretty good considering I’d started drinking even before my teens, playing spin the bottle with sugary wine coolers—Seagram’s Tahitian Sunset—kiddie alcohol.

But by the time I finished freshman year of college, I’d built up a fierce tolerance to mixed drinks and straight alcohol. So much so that the bragging rights came spewing. “I can drink you under the table,” I’d challenge to anyone who’d listen. I meant it, too. Bright-eyed and mentally-capable, I could spend the night drinking, then split open a textbook on molecular science for an hour of late night reading. I considered that light reading, lighter than a Shakespeare comedy. The periodic table I got, iambic pentameter—not so much.

All that changed the night we walked up toward the Berkeley hills to a fraternity party. Friends from the dorm days had rushed, joined, and were now part of a good group of guys who welcomed old and new friends into their home. They threw festive parties with bars setup in rooms all over the house with hip hop echoing from boom boxes and more alcohol changing hands than a week of transactions at your local BevMo.

It was Goldschlager night. The drinking games had already commenced by the time we arrived. I muscled my way into the action and warmed up with a shot. The volume of alcohol I consumed always caused concern, which I dismissed. “I don’t get drunk.” Wuh? “I said, I don’t get drunk!”

The guys must have thought, who is this Napoleonette?

The night deteriorated into a frenzy of shots. I found it laughable how much more I could stock away in my 100 pound frame than these burly men. I felt invincible and proud. Gawd, I just don’t get drunk do I? I must have had exactly 10 shots give or take a couple.

Back at home, in my jammies, I fluffed up my pillow and lay down for a restful sleep.

My eyes opened immediately. Why is everything spinning? I felt sick sitting in bed. I ran to the bathroom where I spent the rest of the night, cheek pressed against the cool toilet seat. Please God, make it stop. I promise I won’t ever drink again. The mental bragging rights came crumbling as I spewed obscenities in-between puke.

Until now I thought it was the alcohol, but really hubris had been the problem all along. That’s a sobering insight learned 15 years later. I should have stayed focused on Shakespeare and Greek tragedies instead of mucking around with those damn chemical reactions.