Lecturer Cultivates Class That Was Started in 1981

Photo: Alan Ross teaches Political Science 179, a class that he started as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in 1981. The course, in its 30th year, features prominent guest lecturers each week.
Shannon Hamilton/Staff
Alan Ross teaches Political Science 179, a class that he started as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in 1981. The course, in its 30th year, features prominent guest lecturers each week.

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Faces of Berkeley: Alan Ross

Lecturer Alan Ross has been on the UC Berkeley faculty for over 20 years. He is currently teaching Political Science 179, among other courses.

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In the Vatican, in Amsterdam and in places across the world, UC Berkeley political science lecturer Alan Ross has heard shouts of "Poli Sci 179!" from former students who recognize him.

"It's going to be on my tombstone," he said, laughing as he reclined in his office chair. "It's all I've got. My obituary will be Poli Sci 179."

The course features a different guest speaker each week representing many viewpoints, including former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, civil rights activist Cesar Chavez and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who will return to speak March 30, as well Mimi Silbert, one of the founders of Delancey Street - a foundation that works to rehabilitate substance abusers and convicted criminals. The class had its beginnings in Ross' undergraduate years as a political science major at UC Berkeley.

"I was really interested in politics and wanted to be a politician," he said. "And I got here, and there were no politicians - it was all theory. I thought 'Wait, how come we don't ever get to hear what's really going on?' I want to meet some of these people."

With some nudging from the political science department, as well as some financial encouragement, Ross started what became Poli Sci 179 when he was a junior in 1981.

Before DeCals, a student starting a legitimate class was relatively unheard of. William Muir, then-chair of the department of political science, supported the idea and even offered to pay Ross for each student enrolled, prompting Ross to aggressively advertise his class.

It started out small, he said, but soon grew as long hours of flyering on Upper Sproul Plaza paid off. Now, in its 30th consecutive year of existence, the class, which fills the auditorium in Wheeler Hall, hardly needs advertising.

As Ross likes to demonstrate to his students, the path to teaching for him was far from straight. He wanted either to be a politician or a lawyer, but the role of money in political campaigns, which he worked on after graduation, disillusioned him with politics. Three years of law school at UC Davis convinced him he did not want to be a lawyer.

When a friend suggested teaching, Ross thought he - and the idea - was crazy.

"I thought to be a teacher you had to be a certain personality, which was not mine," he said. "I thought it was like the personality of most of the teachers I've had - very serious."

But past and current students have suggested that it is exactly his personality - his wit, political incorrectness and intense passion for teaching - that makes his classes so popular.

"It's not necessarily his teaching style," said Reece Soltani, a junior interdisciplinary studies major who took a business law class last semester with Ross and is taking his seminar this semester. "I think people sign up for his classes for him."

His sarcasm and wit - traits that Ross originally thought would bar him from the teaching profession - are in fact some of his most endearing qualities as an instructor, one student said.

"A lot of professors try to be funny, and some will succeed most often by accident," said Pat Hogan, a former student who graduated in 2004 with degrees in business administration and history, in an e-mail. "But Alan really knows how to weave humor into his overall narrative, and it helps his audience get through difficult material."

Richard Berwick, a junior business administration major, echoed the appreciation of humor in Ross' teaching style.

"Everyone is laughing so hard that they ache afterwards," Berkwick said in an e-mail.

Ever since Silbert first spoke to the class years ago, Ross has invited her back, but she has been unable to make it until this semester, when she is scheduled to speak in April.

"To expose students to someone like that who is doing so much with her life and to show them as a role model what you can do, because especially teaching here at Haas, most of the students go and take jobs in corporate America and they aren't aware of what else is out there," Ross said. "That's what my class does maybe more than anything."


Claire Perlman is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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