Seth Lunine

You Learn the Good and the Bad in Geography 50AC: California

FPF instructor, UC Berkeley AC Excellence in Teaching Award recipient Professor Seth Lunine instills pragmatic interest in issues that matter

Every spring, The American Cultures (AC) Center at UC Berkeley selects two recipients for the AC Excellence in Teaching Award.

This award recognizes “individual faculty's exemplary teaching in the American Cultures curriculum.”

In 2020, our Dr. Seth Lunine, who teaches Geography 50AC: California, was honored in a virtual award ceremony.

Why Dr. Lunine

Seth was selected for the AC Excellence in Teaching Award because his courses “enable students to participate in spaces of visibility, vulnerability, and connection that mirror and mold critical thinking and other scholarly engagement within the AC curriculum.”

In fall 2020, all 48 spots were filled for his FPF course, which explores California and its distinctive traits. His students discussed the good—its dynamism, natural wealth, and diversity of peoples—and the bad—exploitation and racial inequalities.

Art piece showing a masked face and the text "We can help"

Geography 50AC: California student Mia Cutlip created "Art of Resistance" for the ACES Program, fall 2020

He incorporates Bay Area community partners American Cultures Engaged Scholarship (ACES) Program and Creative Discovery Fellows Program in his course. Lunine's “students design and produce 'deliverables' that embody original research and substantive analysis, as well as meaningful interventions in real-world social and economic justice issues.”

Let's find out a little more about this amazing professor.

What is your educational and professional background?

I received both my B.A. and Ph.D. in geography from UC Berkeley, where I'm currently a lecturer, in addition to teaching at FPF. My professional background includes working as the program director for a private foundation that provides grants to community-based nonprofit organizations throughout the U.S. My focus at the foundation included affordable housing, education and mentorship, and economic development in central cities and Native American nations.

Why teach geography as a subject area in American Cultures? And do you always focus on California?

My interests in spatial histories of California cities, cultures, and economies engage with American Cultures curriculum. They center on theoretical and analytical issues to understand race, culture, and ethnicity in American history and society. California has, of course, long been home to significant multiracial and global populations. California is a compelling place to study overlapping and interacting African-, Asian- and European-American; Latinx; and Native Californian groups. We are constantly considering the formation and novelty of these categories.

In addition to Geography 50AC: California, I've taught classes about the San Francisco Bay Area, including:

  • Geography 72AC: The Bay Area

  • Geography 170: Bay Region Landscape

  • Geography 70AC: The Urban Experience: Race, Class and the American City

  • Geography 181: Urban Field Studies

When did you begin teaching for the Fall Program for First Semester?

Unfortunately, I was unaware of FPF before Spring 2015. I would have benefitted from this program when I was an overwhelmed first-semester undergrad.

I learned of FPF serendipitously. An FPF student assistant requested my syllabus for Geography 50AC: California, which I continue to teach. I soon learned that FPF sought to expand course offerings about California at a new FPF campus in San Francisco. I taught in San Francisco for three years. Field trips, tours and the academic “scavenger hunts” helped the classes take advantage of our location.

Could you describe a typical class day of learning in Geography 50AC last fall?

With remote learning, classes typically comprised a lecture interspersed with individual writing exercises. Students can share their ideas, insights, questions, and concerns about course topics and assigned readings.

I also introduced periodic small-group activities designed to help students synthesize course materials. They understand how their experience and knowledge shape their perceptions of California and its people, of themselves and each other. Pairs of students facilitated a weekly discussion section—primarily through developing questions and activities—and then leading conversations about assigned readings.

What was the impact of the Live Online format on your classroom?

Synchronous remote learning certainly changed the dynamics of the “classroom.” My initial challenges revolved around gauging students' comprehension of, and engagement with, course material during lectures.

At the same time, remote learning spurred teamwork. Students quickly adapted, focused on solutions, remained engaged, and treated themselves and each other with patience, if not kindness. We devised several advantageous uses of Zoom, such as individual meetings to work on course projects and asynchronous course activities.

What is the ACES project and how do you incorporate this into your course?

American Cultures Engaged Scholarship (ACES) allows students to participate in experiential learning and address social justice issues with community partners.

FPF students in Geography 50AC: California have partnered with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation. In fall 2019, several groups addressed housing insecurity, particularly among UC Berkeley students. This included the People's Park Committee and Berkeley Needs Center, among others.

Infographic showing basic needs fee expenditures

Students create an infographic for UC Berkeley's Basic Needs Center, fall 2019

Students extend, contextualize, and apply course concepts related to gentrification, racialized displacement, housing activism, and “the right to the city.” Students designed and produced deliverables, such as a resource guide for low-income Tenderloin residents, story art for the Basic Needs Center, and a short film on People's Park development debates. They also created infographics on tenants rights and Tenderloin community organizing posters written in Cantonese, English, and Spanish.

In fall 2020, Chancellor's Public Fellow and Geography Ph.D. candidate Kerby Lynch introduced students to an array of issues. These included abolition politics and activism in the midst of the global pandemic, the economic downturn, the rise of fascism, and ongoing urban rebellions. In all, students learned about the concepts and values structuring abolitionist politics and how these values related to our coursework.

Students considered pragmatic applications of abolition politics to an array of contemporary issues. This included police violence, transformative justice, immigrant rights, mass incarceration, sinophobia, and affirmative action. They designed and produced public-facing projects, such as augmented-reality galleries, experimental art work, social justice events, and policy position papers.

ACES work at FPF creates opportunities for student engagement, interaction, and learning that are impossible to replicate in the classroom. Perhaps most significant was the generative interaction between students and community partners. We had weekly meetings with affordable housing residents in the Tenderloin and community-planning sessions in People's Park. We found a few templates or models for our ACES work.

Instead, our collaborations meant experimentation and collective learning. In this sense, collaborative research with community partners has been inherently innovative, comprising face-to-face interaction, problem-solving, and learning-by-doing. This has required active listening and engendered reciprocal trust. It helped students unfamiliar with the work of community partners move to active empathy. Many students were all too familiar with issues addressed by our partners.

Yet our ACES work created opportunities for these students to recognize the significance and power of their own experiential knowledge. ACES projects have proven to be the most meaningful and consequential elements of my FPF classes for both myself and the students during our time together.

What draws you to teaching at FPF?

I cannot overstate the significance of FPF students' intellectual curiosity. It engenders engagement with course materials and with each other—especially in small FPF classes.

I truly value the diversity of FPF students, as well.

I've had students from many California cities and suburbs, as well as from the Central Valley and Sierra foothills. From Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and New York City. From Arizona, Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. From China, India, Mexico, Thailand, and more. I always admire international students' energy and effort at FPF.

Students' experiences, identities, political inclinations, religious affiliations, intended majors, and anticipated careers animate course concepts and themes. This diversity of backgrounds and perspectives certainly enhances my teaching, too.

Perhaps most significant is FPF students' serious optimism and search for solutions—last fall more than ever. Their efforts, interests, and integrity inspire me.

So that leads us to one final question. What do you hope your students will do with what they have learned in your course?

My loftiest teaching goal is to create a community of stakeholders among diverse students, regardless of backgrounds and intended majors. I hope to instill an enduring understanding and pragmatic interest in social and economic injustice that structures Geography 50AC: California. This may directly influence students' subsequent coursework and academic interests, but may also inform politics and political participation.

Moreover, I hope that all students—especially first-generation college students from groups that are underrepresented at UC Berkeley—will find their voice and footing at UC Berkeley. They will come to understand that they do not just belong at UC Berkeley, but are the university's greatest asset.

Instructor Seth Lunine