A colleague leaves a tenured position to join the College Writing Programs faculty: an interview with Carmen Acevedo Butcher.
WAB: Why did you leave your tenured job for an uncertain future?
This summer I taught College Writing R4A as part of the summer sessions Global Edge program, and now I teach CW R1A in Fall Program for Freshmen.
I left a full professorship at Shorter College in Georgia where I’d taught for fourteen years. Before that, Shorter was my alma mater, a highly ranked private liberal arts college in the Southeast. Scholarships and a part-time job paid my way. I loved the small-college community, respected the faculty, and was honored years later to be asked back as a professor. The undergraduate culture prized academic rigor and inclusivity even though the college had a long association with the Georgia Baptist Convention. However, over the last several decades, the Southern-Baptist-affiliated GBC morphed negatively as part of the ongoing culture wars, embracing a militancy and a fundamentalism that strained relationships with many of its associated colleges who, fearing interference with academic freedoms, moved to sever their ties with the GBC.
My decision to leave my position stemmed from a change in the school’s leadership that resulted from a Georgia Supreme Court case that the college lost by one vote to this radically conservative religious body, granting the GBC control of the membership of the school’s Board of Trustees. A rapid cultural shift and mission change sent over half of the talented college faculty, staff, and administration into exile.
This divorce was hard but clarifying. While I mourned the loss of my alma mater, I could now express how I feel about many aspects of this religious movement. Its Bible is unrecognizable to me as a manuscript on Love. Impossibly inerrant and infallible, it mangles a text best read as literature and searched for wisdom and mystery, not dogma and condemnation. Its notion of integrating biblical faith into classes does violence to intellectual freedom, and its mandatory employment statement is legalistic and cruel, excluding the LGBTQ+ community. I stand with Love is love is love is love and support everyone’s fundamental right to love and to marry the person he, she, or they love. The oppressed, marginalized, bullied, and ostracized are my people. I am one of them.
Also, ontological equality and functional difference are irreconcilable concepts, not complementary (paronomasia intended), and people ought not to have to sign a document that says they can’t drink a glass of beer or wine in public.
So there's that.
WAB: What did you find teaching at Berkeley compared to in Georgia?
In Georgia my classes had more diversity than might be expected as the college had been developing its athletic programs, creating a greater sociocultural diversity both from local and international students, so much that I returned to school to earn a 120-hour TESOL certificate, and unsurprisingly, Berkeley is even richer in this respect. Some 80% of my students are bilingual and many are trilingual in languages like Urdu, Thai, Punjabi, Dutch, Arabic, Cantonese, Spanish, Mandarin, and English; over 60% of them speak first languages other than English or two first languages; while 33% are international students. Many are first generation students, or transfer students, or underrepresented minorities, and our new administration wants to increase this diversity and make our campus even more inclusive. This vibe makes walking down Telegraph or crossing campus exhilarating.
Before this cosmic principle had a name for me, diversity was already my family. My grandfather Lorenzo Acevedo left Cuba for America as Fulgencio Batista came to power, and I grew up eating plantains, arroz con pollo, and flan, and spending summers in Miami’s Little Havana. I’ve also eaten platters of fried chicken and drunk swimming pools of sweet tea because my mother is from south Georgia. Then, when I met my British husband during a Fulbright at University College London, I learned tea could be hot and have milk in it. Our daughter has US and British passports, and we adopted our son from South Korea, where I taught years later at Sogang University, enjoying white kimchi and doenjang jjigae. My brother, an educator in Lima, is married to a Peruvian educator, and I have bilingual nine-year-old twin nieces, while my numismatist brother-in-law is married to a Swiss numismatist, and my nephew in England speaks several first languages. So diversity is home.
WAB: So your family situation points to a global orientation and a hybridized identity. What were the local pleasures you’ll miss in Georgia?
I miss my former students, though we still talk through Facebook, Instagram, and email, and they still ask me to review resumes and statements of purpose and to write letters of recommendation. I also reflect on taking students on summer study abroad to Regents College, playing Scrabble in English Club, inviting one to help edit a Georgia author’s poetry for publication, following graduates as they earn advanced degrees, stopping to chat with former students at Kroger, and discovering one night near soup cans that the student slouching in a back seat in English 1010 was a firefighter and proud father of a baby girl. During my career there I grew in my understanding that community is the most important aspect of any educational institution.
WAB: You’ve focused on your relation to your students as a “local pleasure.” What are the pleasures you’ll miss in Georgia as a locale? And how would those pleasures speak to us in a blue state?
The feeling of small town friendliness.
WAB: What are your local pleasures at Berkeley?
They are too numerous to name. I share an office with two welcoming colleagues on the mezzanine level of Wheeler Hall. I have a Mac and a desk. Before, I had a spacious office with so very many books; now I have new friends and my freedom. I travel light. I only need my satchel. When I skip up the white granite steps of Wheeler’s colonnaded piano nobile with its splendid columns and spiraling ionic capitals, I like to remember its namesake, Berkeley’s former President and philologist Benjamin Ide Wheeler, spent much time as I did walking the cobbled streets of Heidelberg while a student at that university. As the building’s infrastructure was renovated this summer and is still being finished, no matter how early I arrive, even at 7:00 AM the contractors are hammering, drilling, clumping down halls, squeezing through hidden passages, and sometimes popping out in hard hats through dark squares cut into drywall. Its buzz makes me cheerful, a sign of the invisible reconstruction of my ability to contribute to a community.
Berkeley has that. Here I’ve found the small-liberal-arts kind of community I’ve experienced wherever I’ve been, whether at Shorter College, The University of Georgia, or Sogang University in Seoul. Recently, a theology professor and former dean at the Graduate Theological Union invited me to lunch at the Faculty Club, where I met him and a superlative GTU graduate student, and for a good hour away from the hubbub, we talked of Bede, ladders of divine ascent, The Cloud of Unknowing, spiritual senses, and flan. Having met this Bede scholar fourteen years ago at a Sewanee Medieval Colloquium, it was rejuvenating to reconnect with him and meet his doctoral student in such a peaceful place.
I also appreciate the freedom of Berkeley’s “Principles of Community”: “We recognize the intrinsic relationship between diversity and excellence in all our endeavors.” Yes. “We affirm the dignity of all individuals and strive to uphold a just community in which discrimination and hate are not tolerated.” Yes. “We are committed to ensuring freedom of expression and dialogue that elicits the full spectrum of views held by our varied communities.” Yes. “We respect the differences as well as the commonalities that bring us together and call for civility and respect in our personal interactions.” Yes. “We believe that active participation and leadership in addressing the most pressing issues facing our local and global communities are central to our educational mission.” Yes. “We embrace open and equitable access to opportunities for learning and development as our obligation and goal.” Yes.
Supporting open and equitable access is exciting. I meet students some mornings in Wheeler, walking from the BART station past dark green redwoods, along Strawberry Creek, through fragrant eucalyptus groves, and up Campanile Way. When I hold office hours in a room reserved one day a week for my students and me in the building where I teach across from People’s Park, I walk from Wheeler over Strawberry Creek, through Sather Gate, past Sproul Plaza, across Bancroft, and smiling down psychedelic Telegraph Avenue—passing BIG AL’S, Mars Retro City Fashions, Rasputin Music, Mezzo, Mad Monk Center for Anachronistic Media, Moe’s Books, and Peet’s. All other days, I head to a bustling café on Telegraph known for delicious pour overs and aromatic green tea served by my friends Dino, Vilson, Terry, and Yolanda; and students meet me there for several hours before class.
And then there are the books, some 4.5 million volumes in the Doe Library’s research collection, of which 2.3 million are in the Main Stacks, and I’ve wandered blissfully among the skylit books on Level D in search of my old friends, the OEDs, readily accessible from anywhere online, but so majestic on the actual shelf.
My colleagues are also a delight. Avid researchers into best pedagogical practices, they volunteer extra mentoring for students, and my officemate bought a comfy chair at a second-hand store in Santa Cruz for students to sit in during conferences. After a helpful pre-semester all-day faculty meeting, we gathered at Bear’s Lair on campus, drank, and talked. I’ve also participated in an electronic accessibility workshop in Dwinelle, welcomed a rainbow of eager students sweeping up the steps of Haas Pavilion for their first convocation, listened to linguist Robin Lakoff at University Press Books, attended the Chinese People Union Karaoke Contest and the Women in Science and Engineering faculty dinner when students invited me, and received emails from my summer Global Edge students now studying in London who indeed visited room 41 in the British Museum as the Old English scholar in me suggested and their Instagram photos attest.
I’m grateful Berkeley exists. Teaching in the chemistry building Latimer Hall this summer, I’d hike past the blue “Reserved for Nobel Laureate” parking spaces, happily carrying a text I was teaching, The Buddha of Suburbia, a work with dynamic style, engaging characters, and relevant themes that won Hanif Kureishi the Whitbread Award for best first novel, and that, it occurred to me one day, would be censured at my previous school. Then in late summer, walking up Campanile Way with a school newspaper in one hand and my satchel in the other, I read of the death of the 1960s paradigm-shattering discoverer of the brain’s plasticity, professor emerita of integrative biology Dr. Marian Cleeves Diamond, and the article described her walking to anatomy class carrying a flowered hat box containing a preserved human brain. I like to imagine that. What one carries proudly matters. I also value being on a campus where researchers have a $21.6 million grant to use a cortical modem to create a window into the brain that may, as project leader Ehud Isacoff says, “allow the blind to see or the paralyzed to feel touch.”
Then one quiet Monday at noon, between the din surrounding Ben Shapiro’s Thursday talk and Free Speech Week not long after, I joined an annual campuswide memorial service where we honor and hear the names of all university members who died in the last year and the Chancellor spoke of how grief tears a hole in the heart. When the last song and reading had concluded, I signed the memorial service book, feeling a sense of belonging. I told my students about this special service and predicted it would not make national news. That weekend, on a signature sunny, indigo-sky Saturday with USC in town, I was running up the steps of Wheeler to help score AWPE essays, when a brassy music and a percussive booming dazzled me, and turning, I saw the blue-and-golds marching to the stadium.
This wonderful energy of past contributions to humanity and of both present and future possibilities accompanies me to meet my amazing students who represent the “excellence and access” that is the Berkeley community. I am fortunate to work with them as they prepare to be the world’s finest human rights lawyers, immigration lawyers, marine biologists, journalists, linguists, psychologists, politicians, authors, physicists, mathematicians, AI experts, data scientists, physicians, surgeons, economists, business leaders, non-profit entrepreneurs, and professors.
This public institution is a treasure.