Professor Alan Ross talks Political Science 179, political engagement at UC Berkeley

Photo of Gavin Newsom on stage
Alan Ross/Courtesy

On Wednesday afternoons at UC Berkeley, the auditorium in Wheeler Hall overflows with students sitting in between aisles and squatting in the back while a speaker — usually an elected official or political activist — addresses the crowd of Political Science 179.

This fall, the colloquium continues on Zoom. And far from the disaster continuing lecturer Alan Ross expected with the transition to remote learning, Ross has found students to be engaged in the class’s theme — the 2020 election — and asking more hard-hitting questions than ever.

Political Science 179, the undergraduate political science colloquium, tasks students with listening to speakers from across the political spectrum for one hour each week in exchange for a unit. In its almost 40 years of existence, the course has brought to campus speakers including Senator Kamala Harris, Cesar Chavez and Edward Teller, the inventor of the hydrogen bomb. Running the course is Ross, who, from moderating students’ questions and inviting speakers, is plugged into the political energy of UC Berkeley’s campus.

“There’s an engagement that students recognize how important this election is, more now than four years or even eight years ago,” Ross said, offering his perspective on UC Berkeley’s political scene. “It’s anecdotal, but it’s a real feeling you get.”

Ross created Political Science 179 in 1981 as an undergraduate in his junior year at UC Berkeley. Interested in a career in politics, Ross said he felt bored by the abstract focus of his classes.

“I saw all these theories, but I said, you know, I haven’t met a single politician,” Ross said.

Ross proposed a speaker series, and the chair of the political science department at the time, William Muir, got behind the idea. Muir even offered to provide him funding for each student he was able to recruit for the class, and Ross handed out flyers on Sproul Plaza to advertise. Now, class enrollment hovers at around 650. (The incentive scheme has long since ended.)

Political Science 179 has become a staple at UC Berkeley, and its reputation reaches beyond campus and as far as congressional offices in Washington. Ross said he is often able to book high-profile speakers because, when he calls their offices to request an appearance, their staffers turn out to be former students. He cited Harris as an example of an elected official originally declining to speak, only to be persuaded to attend by a former student.

One of the goals of the colloquium is to create discussion across partisan lines. When Ross invites conservative speakers, he said they often come having read articles about violence on the campus, arriving with their own security guards and leaving surprised to learn they didn’t need them. 

“(UC Berkeley) has got this reputation that it carries from the 1960s, but it’s not really a political place,” Ross said. “Half the tables at Sproul Plaza are about Jesus.” 

In addition to seeing how elected officials view UC Berkeley, hosting Political Science 179 gives Ross insight into how students feel about electoral politics. And after seeing political energy wane in 2012 and in 2016 as Barack Obama left office, Ross noted that UC Berkeley started feeling “apolitical.”

“In 2016, it was dead,” Ross said. When Bernie Sanders lost the primary, Ross remarked that “it was like all the air going out of a balloon.”

Now, Ross perceives a shift in how his students view the 2020 election — one he can even see on Zoom, with students asking hundreds of questions in the chat and staying on the call after the hour is over to see how speakers respond to their questions.

“The energy this year is incredible,” Ross said. “This could be a trend, where students now realize with climate change, and all the other issues out there, that you have to speak up. We can’t continue the way we have been with young people not voting.”

While classes are online, Ross said he is taking advantage of the opportunity to invite speakers from around the country whom he would normally be unable to fly in to attend. He said he appreciates how students seem keener to ask questions when they can send them through the Zoom chat, rather than having to raise their hands in a large auditorium. But after a semester of debating propositions and bringing in pollsters, in the spring, Ross wants to put electoral politics aside to focus on the issue-driven work of passionate activists.

Enthusiastically listing speakers he plans to invite to discuss topics ranging from physician-assisted suicide to global warming, Ross said, “I think it’s time for a positive spin… I really want positive energy after all of this ugliness for so long.” As tall an order as it is, if any of our educators can make discussion of existential threats such as these lively and fun, Ross’ track record shows he’s among them.

Contact Ruby Sutton at [email protected].