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Hey everybody, if you are a student planning on attending UC Berkeley, then this is a "MUST READ." If you are a continuing student and really like Berkeley, I really don't mind - I guess everybody's experiences are different - but don't discount mine just because you disagree with what I have to say. Here, I talk about my experiences as an undergrad student, what you can expect at Berkeley, and what things are like. You will learn some lessons that many don't learn until they have been in Berkeley for a while. I'll save you the time and the hardship of finding out the hard way. You will hear about my trials and tribulations; my opinions and heated criticisms. Most of all, you will hear about things that they don't want you to know.
All right, first off I would like to say that my experience at UC Berkeley overall was NOT positive - to say that I am dissatisfied would be a gross understatement. I know that you are probably looking at my rating and saying to yourself "what? really? this guy is just over-exaggerating and being unreasonable because he didn't like it - does anything REALLY deserve kind of rating?" I kid you not, if I had to rate UC Berkeley, I would honestly rate it 1/5 stars for the experience I had there. Why, you ask? Well sit down and I'll tell you my story and about my experiences. I'm about to give you a very detailed account about basically everything that happened - maybe the most detailed account that you have read thus far - and probably everything you need to know about Berkeley. This is a story about how I, the most level-headed, happy, optimistic person you might ever meet, was literally driven to insanity at that school by the bay.
First, let me give you a little background. I was a really smart and creative guy from a small town in a close-knit high school in Southern California. My future was looking bright. I had a 4.66GPA, a supportive family, a really cute girlfriend, tons of friends and hobbies, community involvement, lots of awards/accomplishments, and I was happy - maybe a bit naive, but still happy. I was excited to go to college. I sent out my applications like most of my classmates and decided to go to the top-ranked one that accepted me. I also chose Electronics Engineering and Computer Science as my major ("EECS" is what they call it) because I loved science and building gadgets - I was a tinkerer. For my high school senior project I built a musical tesla coil, and built things like pulse laser pistols in my garage. I did experiments for fun. I was that kind of nerdy kid, but I wasn't the kind that was socially awkward or out of shape or anything. On the day everybody got their college acceptance letters, I remember everyone was buzzing about where they got in to - back then, it was sort of a status symbol. Kids gloated or kids cried based upon where they got in - and I was at the top! I remember another one of my friends had been accepted to both UC Berkeley and UCLA - I was glad he got accepted to UC Berkeley too, and looked forward to seeing him there. When I talked to him, though, it was clear that he had other plans in mind - "are you kidding me??" He said. "What? Why wouldn't you go to Berkeley? It's ranked higher than UCLA!" I said. He replied by just saying "you will see." At the time, I just sort of brushed off whatever he said about the school - he was known to be a pretty conservative kid, after all - he probably just didn't like the fact that people in Berkeley were supposedly pretty liberal. "I can handle it! Big deal - I have an open mind and can think for myself! Besides, I'm taking like 6 AP classes - how hard can Berkeley be?" I thought to myself. Little did I know what I was up against - nothing could have prepared me for how much Berkeley screwed me over.
Hands down, out of all of the stupid things I have done in my entire life, choosing Berkeley was the WORST DECISION I HAVE EVER MADE.
I did the Berkeley overnight stay program to get to know the campus before actually going up there and stayed with a couple of guys in Bowles - the all-boys freshman dormitory that is said to look like Hogwarts from Harry Potter (and indeed it does - on the outside at least). On the inside it looked okay, just sort of plain and dungeon-like. Anyways, I went in there with a few others carrying our sleeping bags and backpacks. Whooh! What a walk! Uphill too! This was my first taste of what it would be like having to walk everywhere around Berkeley. What a pain in the ass!
I wasn't too exhausted or anything, but what really made things miserable was that it was raining. It was raining during the orientation, and now it was raining during my overnight stay experience. Coincidence? Not really. I should have gotten the hint at that point that in Northern California - at least in the "Bay Area" (they call the area around Berkeley and San Francisco the "Bay Area") it rains ALL THE TIME. Some seasons it seems like it rains like every other day. On the days that it does not rain, it is often really muggy, cold, and depressing out - quite a change from having lived in beautiful Southern California! (Or "SoCal" as they like to abbreviate it. I guess everybody up there is too lazy to say "California," lol). I remember that on the days that I visited home after attending Berkeley, the rain would actually seem to follow me to SoCal EVERY TIME. It was so uncanny - like I had brought a curse back with me. On the warmer days, I noticed that just walking around campus in the humidity made me feel all sticky and gross - perhaps I was just used to the fantastic Southern California weather, but for me, the weather in Berkeley was not something that I found to be pleasant.
Oh, some other slang words from the area that people like to use are "hella" and "sketchy." The "Asian Ghetto" is a food court near campus. "Frat Row" is a street where most fraternities are located. "Bart" is some train thing that takes you places out of town. "Telebears" is what you use to sign up for classes online. "Ninjacourses" is what you use online to compile class schedules. When people say "Cal," they are usually referring to UC Berkeley, (initially I was confused about this) not California. "Dwinelle" is a building that is said to be like a big internal maze by "Sproul Plaza. "The Campanile" is the big clock tower. "Sather gate" is the big rustic looking gate on campus which is also by "Sproul Plaza," and "Berkeley Goggles" are, well... I'll get into that in a minute...
Anyways, back to my experience. So I roll out my sleeping bags, hoping to have a nice conversation about Berkeley with these guys that I was staying with. They were all doing homework and studying ALL NIGHT. I did some all-nighters in High School, but man, from the looks of things, Berkeley was intense! They still managed to chat a bit and give us a few pointers - they were pretty nice guys from what I could tell. The first thing they told us straight off the bat was "don't choose Bowles!" They all had girls on their minds, like any college-aged group of guys. They complained that the dating scene was pretty horrid, especially for engineers (I would soon find out myself) - choosing BOWLES the ALL GUYS dorm, no doubt, would make socializing with girls even more difficult. They warned us guys about some other things like "beware of Math 1B and skip it if possible since it was the most failed freshman class (I actually ended up taking it, and both my roommate and I failed it on our first go)" and "don't take classes with Ratner, Speliotopolous, or Hilfinger" and ranted about having "Berkeley Goggles. "What are "Berkeley Goggles?" I asked. They gave a brief explanation. Essentially, in Berkeley, one has to lower their standards due to the options available and one gradually learns that people are often not as attractive there as were in one's hometown. I have my own theories for why this phenomenon exists. Perhaps Berkeley college students are too obsessive about academics to put much effort into dating or appearance, or the weather is so dreary that they don't expose their assets, or perhaps the dorm food is too fattening, or perhaps things there are so stressful that people don't exercise as much, or perhaps the more attractive people are the ones who are less likely to be super smart and get into a top-tier school like UC Berkeley, or perhaps due to the "diversity," students there find that the ethnic group that they identify with or are most attracted to is not as prevalent as was in their hometown. Whatever the reason, I found this to ring true for me as well.
I didn't really care though. I had a cute girl back at home that I really cared about! Plus going to Berkeley would basically make me a badass, right? Well, my girlfriend and I broke up - I won't go into the details because it's not really too relevant here, but like any long-distance relationship, things were strained (plus she was emotionally needy and blamed me for not being around and even became suicidal at some points!!). I went to Berkeley for a year and during the Summer we got back together, but guess what - at the beginning of my second year, we broke up again. This means that virtually the entire time I was in Berkeley I was single. It was hard finding cute girls to get to know. I would say that most girls there aren't around to date or get to know guys - that's the last thing on their mind. They are there for academics and to make a difference in the world. That's great, but it's sort of hard to date if all you do is study and further your career (me included). Also, these aren't the type of girls that are easily impressed by guys or care too much about how they look (or perhaps don't have the luckiest genes) - they are really smart. It's sort of intimidating to be honest, and it's hard to fill the dominant male gender role that females are generally attracted to like that. Many of them tend to look down on you. In my systems and signals class, there were only like 3 or 4 girls in the class out of a lecture hall of several hundred!! The best place to meet girls would probably have to be in the dorms - but there, it's pretty hit-or-miss. There were about two or three sort of cute girls on my floor. Two had boyfriends and one was a lesbian, political extremist, and studied in the library 24/7. I know it sounds like I'm making a big deal over this little issue, but I believe that in today's society, college is a pretty important time for dating and finding that "special someone" to start life's journey with - afterwards, it becomes a bit difficult with work and it's harder to find places that adults congregate besides bars - plus, I don't want to wait until I'm like 30 or something where most of the available girls have been with like 10 guys already by that time, lol. Let me say that everyone has features that they find make people more cute or attractive - that just makes people human. Unfortunately, I would say that I'm attracted to people who are fit, artsy/creative, not too political, down to earth, family oriented, redheads, care about their appearance, and have freckles (I don't know why, just find it cute, lol). I'm not saying that I care only about appearance or that I couldn't love someone else, I'm just saying those things are like bonuses to me. Unfortunately, it was EXTREMELY hard finding someone who had any of those things!! Most of my friends in Berkeley had similar difficulties or just continued dating whoever they were dating before coming to Berkeley.
My first year I stayed in one of the UNITS. The Units are big concrete tower structures scattered around the campus perimeter. I made the monumental mistake of picking a three-person room. The room was way too small even for two people! It really was ridiculous - I felt like a sardine in a sardine can. There was no privacy, and to make matters worse, both of my roommates went to the same high school and were best friends! Talk about awkward - it was a classic case of third-wheeling. When I say small, I'm not just complaining or have high standards like some sort of Beverley Hills diva. I visited many other college campuses besides Berkeley, and let me tell you, Berkeley's dorm rooms are small compared to other colleges'. It's almost like the folks down in Berkeley just don't give a **** and were like "all right, let's just cram 'em all in there." I tried applying for a 1-person room and even got a doctor's note detailing a specific need to have one, but it's nearly IMPOSSIBLE to get one, and they wouldn't accommodate. They say that in general, the units are more social while the other dorms are not as social. Horse-**** in my opinion! The only difference in socialization I saw was that in the units, the floors were segregated by gender, whereas in the other dorms, there was no segregation, and when you try to sleep and you are living in the units, you will often be annoyed by the sound of drunk frat boys yelling outside in the streets. There is always construction going on around campus too, so if the noise of that annoys you, good luck! I was also woken up by the sound of an annoying-ass truck (not related to the construction) that made a really loud beeping sound every morning extra early - you know, that same beeping sound sometimes made by forklifts or some vehicles that are backing up? Why the **** would that be acceptable?? That's really inconsiderate to do that really loud right outside of the windows of a dorm full of sleep-deprived college kids. Do yourself a favor and invest in some heavy-duty ear plugs. Again, I'm not over-exaggerating or being too sensitive here - a lot of people I know had similar experiences and bought ear plugs too.
My second year, I stayed in Foothill, which, in my opinion, was a much more pleasant experience. Engineering classes were very close by (class was a long uphill hike from the units), it was more quiet, it was co-ed, it was more lush and beautiful, the workout room didn't JUST have cardio equipment, and the dorm food seemed to be of higher quality. Almost all of my friends complained about the dorm food, said that it was dull, and some seemed offended that some ethnic dishes that were made were "insults" or "not made right." I, however, thought that the dorm food was really great and a nice change from the food that I was used to at home. My second year, I was smart and only chose to have one other roommate instead of two. Problems still arose though (like there was no privacy for phone calls or when needing some "alone time," and one time my roommate came home drunk carried by two frat brothers. I told him that if he was going to puke, to puke into the trash or something, just not on my side of the room, and then he went and puked all over my side of the room anyways almost purposefully!). My roommate loved to stay up late and turn on lights before sleeping and always let his alarm go on and on so that sleeping in was always impossible. I guess you risk that sort of thing any time you have a roommate though, and I can't really say that it is Berkeley's fault, but I'm sort of ****ed that they didn't really have many one-person rooms, and the ones that they did have weren't too affordable. I decided to invest in a face mask as well as the ear plugs at that point - and heavy-duty sound-cancelling earmuffs.
Often times, especially during midterm season, and especially in the units, some ******* will decide to pull the fire alarm really early in the morning (like 4am) just to **** everybody off. Everybody will know that it is just a prank, but you will be FORCED to leave the building IMMEDIATELY and if you don't, you will be severely punished. If you are taking a shower, tough **** - you had better wrap yourself up with your towel and walk yourself out into the cold for 45 minutes (actually happened) while everybody waits for the firemen to arrive who are the only ones who have the key to turn the alarm off and who are able to give the "all clear." This often isn't just a one-time occurence either - it often happens multiple times.
The dorms are good places to meet people. You will need friends to get by, let me tell you. In spite of this, I still found the dorms to be a bit isolating. People are studying all the time, and most of the guys spend their non-study time playing popular computer games like LoL or WoW or whatever. I feel like there is a lot of immaturity and snobbery among Berkeley students there (worse in the frats). Oh, and even if you are 21, you will be treated as if you were a high school student. NO ALCOHOL IN THE DORMS. I'm not a drinker besides maybe a bit socially, but who are they to infringe on my personal choices? A few RA's actually spend their Friday and weekend nights TRYING to bust people for partying and things like that. I had a string of LED christmas lights that I hung over my bed - one of the RAs actually looked through my window from way across in another dorm building, came over, and busted me for it citing it as a "fire hazard!!" They also make a big deal about piracy and take it way too seriously. There have been instances where kids have gotten into huge trouble downloading things "illegally" through their internet connection in the dorms. In my opinion, this is a big violation of privacy. Their job should be to house me and give me what I'm paying for, not snoop around and bust my ass for downloading some music videos! IT'S NOT THEIR JOB. Why they feel so compelled to target poor college kids who are already stressed out and struggling is beyond me. If it's really just some self-righteous campaign against theft or something, go after the host, not the user as I would say. Who really knows what is legal or illegal to download online these days, and really, who cares? For what people pay to stay in the dorms, they should be treated as adults and with respect. Not only are students ripped off paying for the dorms, but the whole meal-point system (which I believe at first is obligatory) is rigged to make students pay way more than they should for food and groceries.
All right, I'm done bashing the dorms for now. Let me talk about the surrounding area. Crime is a really big issue in Berkeley, probably because it is next to Oakland. People know that Berkeley students are vulnerable, so they continually take advantage of them. If you bring a bike to school, you can bet your ass that unless you have a really good bike lock and make sure to lock both the body of your bike and the front and back wheels, you might as well kiss the bike goodbye. It actually happened that a friend of mine had his bike stolen because he failed to follow these instructions exactly. Hey, at least they gave him the courtesy of leaving his bike's back wheel right? What *******s. They have no mercy; if you leave one wheel unchained they will take the wheel and leave the rest of the bike. If you just walk around campus it is not uncommon to see bikes chained to the bike holder things missing parts. If you walk into the dorms, sometimes there are recent crime reports posted on the wall - TONS of unsettling things like "woman assaulted," or "robbery." Don't think it could happen to you? I was walking back to Foothill one night, and I actually saw a guy get robbed with a shotgun. I heard stories of friends having miscellaneous things stolen like laptops or bags or books. During my short time at Berkeley there was also a shooting and a bomb threat. The shooting was during a protest that I will talk about later, and I'll talk about the bomb threat a bit later too. Don't think that crime is restricted to being out in the city streets! A friend told me a story of how a naked homeless man (Berkeley has a HUGE homeless population) got into the dorms and was lying on one of the couches. I have also had a lot of clothes stolen from the washers and driers in the dorms (which, by the way SUCK - often times you need to dry a load like 3 times! In the units there is also a major design flaw. Whoever designed the driers decided that it would be okay to dump all the steam from one of the driers in use into the drier(s) above it, making whoever's clothes are in there damp and in need of being dried AGAIN!! Washers and driers went out of order all the time. Maybe the engineer who designed them went to UC Berkeley, lol).
Someone needs to take initiative and clean up this town! It sort of makes me wonder what the police are doing all day?? Actually, let me tell you what they do. They are mostly there to keep students in line. They crash private frat parties and during peaceful protests they... beat students! I'm dead serious - this isn't just during the 60's either, it happened while I was at Berkeley, too. Before I get into that, though, let me finish talking about the area.
The city is pretty dumpy and dirty - covered in concrete. In Berkeley, there is almost nowhere to park unless you pay someone a ton of money, so you shouldn't count on bringing a car, which, in my case, would have probably just been used as a way to get out of Berkeley as frequently as possible to try to preserve my sanity. For those who do drive in Berkeley, you can expect to see a lot of ******* drivers. Think I'm exaggerating again? I was actually crossing the street from the unit I was staying at with some friends to "Crossroads" (the mess hall across the street). Instead of slowing down, the car that was approaching actually SPED UP as if to try to hit us or something! On a different day, I was crossing the crosswalk as usual, and a car almost hit me, screeching to a halt halfway across the crosswalk! I guess the drivers are used to submissive study-all-day Berkeley kids not having the balls to keep walking down the crosswalk and taking their right-of-way when they see a car approaching. I'm not the only one to notice this either, others have commented on this, and I wouldn't be surprised if there was an accident sometime in the near future. One thing I find interesting is the campus's strong dedication for keeping small businesses alive. I sort of appreciate that, but people in Berkeley tend to take political ideas a bit too far at times... For a college town, it would have been nice to have a big chain supermarket really close by instead of having like 5 smoke shops back-to-back. I suspect that whoever was doing the city planning wanted to subtly give off the vibe that it is better to do drugs than to eat (maybe he or she graduated from UC Berkeley?). I think that a few years ago they wanted to put a "Panda Express" in Berkeley near campus, but for some reason there was a big protest against it and they were forced to build elsewhere. That's sort of hypocritical, seeing as there is a SUBWAY in Berkeley already, and they serve crappy orange chicken in the dorms anyways, so why would Panda Express be much different? I guess it's too "capitalistic" or something for Berkeley's intensely rigid leftist political atmosphere. There is a CVS or something like that, but the prices there are often a bit high, and, like a lot of other nearby shops, they aren't a "full store" (they are a mini store with restricted merchandise). Students can spend "meal points" at Peet's Coffee, but for some reason that isn't a "full store" either. They have gift cards there, but you can't buy them if you are using meal points. WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE IF I SPEND MY HARD EARNED MONEY IN THIS SHOP, BUY A GIFT CARD, THEN SPEND THE SAME AMOUNT AT ANOTHER PEET'S COFFEE???? I think that it might be because they are trying to rip students off by charging more at the Peet's in Berkeley or want you to have a bunch of unspent meal points at the end of the semester that you can't redeem. Let's see... What else can I say about Berkeley itself? Well, I was once walking around Berkeley, and I kid you not, I saw a giant rock statue of a *****. I guess it's a public monument and supposed to be art or something, haha. It made me laugh at least, but it's sort of inappropriate I think. Just another example of how people in Berkeley often take things too far and why the city/campus is sometimes referred to as "Bezerkeley."
Having access to San Francisco is pretty cool - I visited there a few times. After visiting San Francisco, I can sort of see why Berkeley is so crazy - a lot of the crazy people come from San Francisco!! The first time I visited, I was greeted by a mob of naked men nonchalantly walking down the street with signs to vote for someone for mayor (I'm not gonna vote for him now!). As I continued walking, a homeless man popped out from behind a fake bush and tried scaring me! (apparently he does this over and over to tourists for money). As I approached the beach, I have to say, it was not anywhere as beautiful as the beaches in Southern California. In "SoCal," they have the sense to not build RIGHT ON THE SHORE and leave the beautiful sandy beaches in their natural state for tourism - not so in San Francisco! They have AMAZING chowder though - definitely check that out. On my walk back, I had the privilege of visiting a robotic public bathroom stall that made me feel like I was in Star Trek or something (if you have been to SF, you know what I'm talking about).
Berkeley is full of crazy people, and you will find this out quickly. Often times you will find yourself walking down a street and all of the sudden you will see a homeless person YELLING obscenities at the TOP OF HIS/HER LUNGS, obviously in a violent stupor. It isn't the same person every time either. This has happened many, many times. I was once walking down the street wearing a normal button-up shirt (the same shirt that Marty Mcfly from "Back to the Future" wore under his puff vest in the movie) like a week before Halloween, and I started to notice that I was getting all these weird looks - like I was an alien or something. Out of nowhere, this homeless man comes up to me and says; "HEY! What, are you tryin' to be a rich boy or somethin?!" I was beginning to understand why I was getting all of those weird looks. A button-up shirt was clearly offensive because it gives off the vibe that I am a "successful rich white male" which the Berkeley populace tends to revile as some sort of oppressor. I explained to him that it was just part of my Halloween costume that I was trying on, and chatted with him a while. He claimed that his name was "Rainbow" and I proceeded to take him out to lunch. Afterwards, he offered to smoke weed with me sometime and disappeared. On a different occassion, I was walking through campus when I spotted a booth for a communist organization. I decided to chat with them just because I find the extremist views that some people endorse fascinating. I listened to them try to explain their ideology to me for a while, and after they were done, it sounded to me like they were a terrorist organization! They spoke of the need for a violent revolution, the elimination of the police force and prisons, and society that operates on (forced) goodwill. Clearly, the utopian society that they were describing to me was not feasible. I politely went on my way, my mind once again blown by how far some people in Berkeley take things. One of my professors was even an ardent communist!
I remember the first time I ran into Yoshua. Who is this interesting character who stands outside on Sproul Plaza shouting at students every day? Well I don't know who he is, but he sure as hell scared the **** out of me! Apparently he is trying to be Nostradamus and thinks he knows when the end of the world is, even though he's been wrong multiple times already! He just stands out there shouting at everyone with a chalkboard that has a big number written on it, presumably the number of days "we have left." He tries to use the Bible as a reference, but his calculations are completely baseless and he basically just multiplies random numbers together to arrive at whatever date he feels like should be the end of the world. Everyone in Berkeley knows this character. I can't believe that he is actually serious.
Things really started to get out of hand when the school announced that they were going to enact MORE tuition hikes, sparking a campuswide protest (seriously? and at the time they spent SO MUCH MONEY on a stupid new football stadium??). Now THIS was a cause that I really DID feel strongly about, especially since it is crucial for people to go to college in today's society to get decent jobs, and putting so much pressure on students and their families just prolongs the time that they are without a job and hinders economic recovery while also discouraging people from finishing or starting school in the first place. I joined the protest. Helicopters were buzzing around everywhere - reporters were in the streets. Students marched up and down - classes were canceled; there were demonstrations and mobs. The protest was peaceful, however. I joined in the protest, blaring the Beatles' song "Revolution" through my megaphone at the forefront of one march down the streets. I think that this was about the time that the whole "Occupy" movement was happening as well. Then, as I mentioned earlier, the police came. They pushed students back, beat them with batons, claimed that the use of megaphones was forbidden, and that there was no loitering allowed on Sproul. Without respect, the police kicked down the tents of students camping outside of Sproul Hall and said that it was not allowed either. It was sort of funny, though, some students noted that the officers said that encampments were not allowed on the grounds around Sproul or something, and decided to fill a bunch of tents with helium and let them float over the grounds instead (pretty funny). During this time, the Chancellor was on vacation somewhere far away like China while his school was falling apart. At first, the Chancellor derided students and defended the officers' behavior stating that the students should not have provoked the officers, but later changed his mind (probably to cover his own ass and try to remedy some of his growing unpopularity) after the incident got on the Colbert Report. One other thing that sort of annoyed me was that the ringleaders of the protest started using the protest as a springboard to push their own unrelated agenda, assuming that everyone else agreed with their opinions (such as keeping affirmative action in place and instating communist ideas into practice). Look, I'm not a bigot or anything, but I just don't really agree with the premise behind affirmative action, and you shouldn't assume that there is only one side to the issue and that everybody agrees with you. Oh, and don't think that I'm a Republican. I'm not a Republican or a Democrat - I prefer not to think along party lines and I like to take everything case-by-case and objectively. There was another instance where the Republican club on campus had a satirical "bake sale" to make a point about affirmative action - adjusting prices based on ethnicity and gender. This made national headlines and the ringleaders involved got into BIG TROUBLE. Berkeley took a political stance (even though it is supposed to be an unbaised institution) and punished the students. I'm sorry, but no matter what you believe in - affirmative action or not, you, as an academic institution, should not punish students for their beliefs - especially when you have people spreading way crazier beliefs around campus than the belief that people should not be judged based partially on gender/race to get into a school (I believe that socioeconomic status should be considered directly instead rather than assuming that just because you are of a certain race, you are worse off. In my opinion, THAT is racist!).
Let's talk about the classes. I would caution anyone coming to Berkeley not to take too many units per semester; especially during one's first semester. If your course load is heavy in the math and sciences, I wouldn't suggest taking more than 12 units per semester. Math and science classes are DAMN hard (for engineers anyways), and expect to spend more time in lab-based classes than regular classes. In Berkeley, classes are divided into lectures and discussion sections. Lectures are usually lessons taught by the big-dog professors themselves in lecture halls of several hundred students, whereas discussion sections are taught by graduate students as a requirement for them to graduate (forced labor). The teaching ability of your assigned graduate student instructor (GSI) or professor is highly variable - some will be okay or good, and others will be complete ****. Some GSIs/professors will teach in such way that it is hard to follow what they are doing, do not provide thorough explanations of how to approach all the types of problems you are required to understand (or any of them), or will leave you with more questions than you started out with. Often times, I found it more efficient to just skip class and go straight to 1-on-1 tutoring where I could be taught only what I needed to know directly by "A" students who have already taken the class. HKN honor society's tutoring services were FANTASTIC and they really helped me pass my classes (plus it's free!).
I want to talk a bit about the last two math classes that I took in Berkeley - math 53 and math 54. In my math 53 class, I had a pretty decent professor (Auroux), and in my math 54 class, I had the BEST GSI OF ALL TIME (Peyam Tabrizian). I SWEAR this GSI was AMAZING!!!! The math 54 material was reasonably difficult, but Peyam taught us what we needed to know in a systematic and simple manner; going beyond his call to duty by keeping our attention with lighthearted humor, cake, cookies, and Legend of Zelda references. Peyam busted his ass and clearly cared about his students - compiling "cheat sheets" and having way more study sessions than were required for him to hold for students. The professor decided to throw a curve ball exam and put information that we weren't even told to know (I ended up with a 4% on the final), but Peyam, being the student advocate that he was, noted that the whole class bombed it and convinced the professor to curve it - and I passed the class! Why the professor felt the need to psych all the kids out like that doesn't make much sense to me - I guess that a lot of professors enjoy watching their students panic. In most math of science classes, you won't be as lucky as I was and have such an amazing GSI. Many classes are so hard that you will be doing work for them CONSTANTLY, and your dorm room will begin to resemble that of John Nash while you sit huddled up in the fetal position in the corner of your dorm room rocking back and forth chanting mathematical mantras. One kid in my math 53 class had a mental breakdown during the final exam. I remember it clearly - it was held in the RSF gym. Things were dead quiet as they often are during big exams as students stare at their papers diligently trying to make sense of the problems - then out of nowhere, there was a loud sound - a sound that resembled that of a screaming elephant! One of the kids in the room lost it, and the professor was sent to immediately try to calm him down. By this time, everybody in the room knew what was going on because the kid was REALLY LOUD in a room that was previously so quiet that the two-hundred or so kids in the room could have all easily heard a pen drop. After several minutes, the kid calmed down and stopped screaming, but later during the exam he did it again!
Sometimes I feel like Berkeley classes are all designed to be some way of weeding out students or professors feel obligated to make material unnecessarily difficult in order to live up to the Berkeley name. I could and have learned the EXACT same material from Berkeley at a community college, but in community college, things were much easier to understand I guess because professors in Berkeley assume that their students will understand anything. A lot of professors did not seem to have an effective teaching style. Let me explain EXACTLY what I mean. Students don't usually readily admit to it, but asking many in person, I often find that students were confused after examples are done or after class (even some of the smartest kids I know). Personally, I do not find many of the concepts very difficult, however, the problem is really in understanding the abstractions. Abstractions are used to communicate, and if students don't fully understand the nature of the abstractions, they wont understand what is meant to be communicated. In other words, the most difficulty is not inability to understand concepts or lack of effort, but the abstractions used to describe them. Looking up at the board many students see an abstraction that has been described possibly once or twice (and often the abstraction's full nature is not described- is it a constant or a variable? can I manipulate it like this and this? what are the properties that it has? etc.), but it makes many times for a student to develop a cognitive association with the abstraction and the concept behind it. The abstractions themselves are meaningless conventions; delta, tau, theta, arrows, lollipops, series symbols, diagrams, etc. It is the struggle to understand what they are meant to convey in class while the instructor continues on through the problem, often causing them to fall behind and inevitably creating confusion that is the issue. Looking at videos such as PatrickMJT tutorials or KhanAcademy on youtube, complex concepts are taught in such a way that is accessible. Ideas are conveyed in a way that students have an easy cognitive connection between the abstractions/analogies and the concept. For example, it would be more efficient to initially explain to the average adult the concept of interference by making an analogy to ripples in a pond than to use trigonometry (though once the concept is understood, trigonometry can be employed to prove it) because pond ripples are a part of everyday experience and interaction. Oh, and while explaining it using trigonometry, reiterate the relation between the math and the concept at each step. The question is, then: what can be done to combat this? Most GSIs/Professors suggest asking questions whenever students do not understand something to have it clarified and thus eliminate the problem. Asking questions is always good, however, even with this open, students continue to struggle. It is a problem that persists and everybody knows it, even the professors (some professors notice this and to prove it, at the first class have a discussion about asking questions in class, encouraging students not to feel shy asking them, even if they are perceived as "stupid" or "dumb"). The greatest problem is, however, that most of the time, the question is on something that was covered less than five minutes ago or has been mentioned before. Why is this? It takes time to develop mental connections. Perhaps, also, students feel intimidated, and have had several instances where they ask a question and several classmates answer, thus making the student feel as though he/she is not as smart as his/her peers and is looked down upon, or the GSI/Professor simply tells the student "see me later," causing everything that builds upon the misunderstanding to not be communicated. Is this an inevitable problem arising from limited time and complicated material? I do not think so. Reviewing several of PatrickMJT's and KhanAcademy's videos on youtube I quickly realized why so many people watched them; what they were doing differently; how they explained things that many of my GSI's tried to explain in class but in only 10 minutes. The secret is nurturing mental connections between abstractions and concepts while also giving a clear, generalized procedure for approaching all problem types. In both video collections, during each step the teachers re-connected/grounded the students back to reality/everyday experience/easier concepts. There was no ambiguity or guesswork. They reiterated things, and did not just present abstractions, but always said things like "in other words ___" afterwards. Repetition, reiteration, and generalization of procedure. Of course, one cannot expect to go over how to do every single problem, but if students really fully understand the nature of conventions and a general procedure for manipulating/approaching them, there should be no problem. Often times, GSIs/professors do random exercises or problems during class time, which is good, but often times do not give full insight on how to do other problems of the same type (understanding the possible nuances are important). An example of ambiguity stemmed from misunderstood conventions/abstractions would be this: during my math 54 class we learned R notation for spanning space. Now if we have 3 vectors that create a plane, what is R? Most students put R^2. This did not arise from a misunderstanding of concepts, lack of effort, or ability. It really is not hard to understand dimensionality, intersecting planes, and vector spaces. R^N was presented to represent how many dimensions a space had in class. Using that information, it would not be unreasonable to have put R^2 because, indeed, a plane falls under that category. However, the answer was R^3. The convention is that the plane was just a subspace of R^3. If one read about subspaces, perhaps, one would have understood, and indeed they were briefly mentioned, but still the majority of students arrived at the wrong answer. My GSI Peyam was smart enough to anticipate that this misunderstanding could arise, so the full nature of the abstraction R was then understood!! I hope there is a better understanding of where I am coming from, because when I tried to explain this to most teachers/GSIs I often get things like "there simply isnt enough time" or "well that's just the nature of the material" or "you can't teach every single nuance," etc. It happens all too often, and many professors/GSIs just do not understand why their students are not doing well. It isn't as much applications of the material, it is presenting the material that can be more easily understood by the students through a connection to more familiar topics or simple procedures rather than just a jumble of math (the math is important, but in each step the abstraction must be grounded, otherwise students will be lost, and reminders must be given at each step "in other words, ____" or "this is like." No ambiguity, no skipping of explanation of steps. Instead of that (that is, ambiguity and assumption that a connection has been made), one should say "do this, which basically means ____." On the online forum that some classes in Berkeley use, Piazza, I frequently saw other students posting questions such as "can you give an intuitive definition for ____" etc. The problem, again, relates to the fact that the student(s) have not made an intuitive connection between the abstraction ____ and the concept that it is meant to communicate.
Now that I have that out of my system, let me talk a bit about exams. In Berkeley, midterms and finals are a big deal. The first time I heard the word "midterm" I though to myself "oh! I know what that is! It's the one other exam besides the final that you take right in the middle of the semester! That's why it's called 'mid' - 'term!'" Sounds self-explanatory right? Well it wasn't long before I realized that most classes had like three different "midterms" and then a final! What the hell?? Some students prefer having more exams instead of one exam in the middle of the term and then one final, but the word "midterm" is sort of misleading and in Berkeley is generally used to refer to any sort of exam of significant importance. I found that everyone in Berkeley was almost always studying for some "big test" that they had in a class. Try to remember back to a time when you had a really big psyched-up exam for a class that you needed to crunch for - now imagine having to be in that anxious stressed-out state all the time, realizing that you have some "big exam" like every two weeks! I remember before my breakup early in the semester, my ex visited me in Berkeley, and I wanted to make sure that she had a nice Halloween. I found that it was impossible to find anything to do on Halloween!! EVERYBODY was studying for finals and virtually nobody had costumes or parties of any sort - there weren't any major decorations outside of the dorms! (not to mention I had to bring her back to my 3 person dorm room, which was not fun). Some exams are more straight-forward than others, but many professors like to be tricky. I remember that during the campus-wide "bomb-threat," many professors were so hardcore that they didn't cancel their exam that day, putting their students in possible danger.