Army vs. Berkeley: A Study of Classroom Differences

I’ve spent half a career in Army classrooms ranging from the formality of TRADOC to the casualness of company EO/SHARP training.  When you do something long enough, doing it any other way is a strange experience, and you can’t help but notice every little difference.  That’s how it’s been for me in grad school at the University of California, Berkeley.

I’d like to share some of those differences with you.

Of course, there are key factors that explain some of these differences, not least of which is the fact that students in one classroom are paying for a masters-level education and those in the other have raised their right hand to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to sit through required AR 350-1 training” (or something like that).

But for the sake of simplified fun, here are a few of my observations:

Levels of Strictness

Army instructors have no problem telling you to have “asses in seats by 0900.”  And if yours isn’t, there may be hell to pay.  My classes at Berkeley aren’t so strict.  First of all, classes run on “Berkeley time,” wherein an 8am class starts between 8:10 and 8:15.  And, for the most part, being late just means you get a crappy seat.  Sure there’s a stern warning to be on time during the course overview on day one, but I have yet to see it enforced.

That same lack of strictness manifests when professors try to quiet a rowdy class by attempting to raise their voice over the cacophony, clapping, or simply waiting with a perturbed look, as if to say “hey, it’s your money you’re wasting.”

In an Army classroom, an NCO will usually holler “AT EASE!” Failing that, a good ol’ “Hey! Shut the hell up!” usually works.  As a last resort, there’s always the option to call the room to attention, give the command “Front Leaning Rest Position, MOVE,” and laugh as a full classroom of soldiers scrambles to find space to do pushups.

Language Differences

Lately I’m told how things would “behoove me” far less frequently, and the number of “caveats” and “piggybacks” has plummeted.  Getting some more “fidelity” on my coursework is up to me—no one tells me to “deep dive” like they used to.

The professors frequently pause to ask if the class is following his or her lecture and to encourage questions.  That usually amounts to more than just saying: “Everyone tracking? If not, see me offline.”

When class is over at Berkeley, we don’t “pop smoke” and “cut sling load.”  In fact, many students hang around to legitimately engage the professor in further educational discussion rather than getting as far away as possible before someone snatches you up and asks you “hey, what are you working on right now?” (I’ve used that last line many times myself as a commander.)

Best of all, the professors and students can have informal conversations aside from the lectures without prefacing it with “Fall out and fall in in a horseshoe formation around me.”

“Listen up! On the command of fall out, fall out. Fall out!”  (via Hawaiian Military Weekly)

Along those same lines, I observed another difference in language last week when I overheard a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) say he had an impression of one of our professors.  I like jokes.  I wanna hear it.  He refused to do the impression.

The appropriate response in an Army classroom would’ve been “NO BALLS!”  But I held my tongue.  You gotta know your audience.

The Scene

Imagine you’re sitting in an Army classroom.  Another round of SHARP training is on tap, this time to tell you what “dirty emojis” you’re not allowed to use anymore.

SHARP emojis
100% not joking. This is a thing. (via U.S Army W.T.F! moments)

Looking around, it’s a pretty typical scene.  Every other soldier in the class has a “spit bottle”—a repurposed water, soda, or Gatorade bottle to spit into while dipping.

Dip Spit Bottles

You’re likely sitting in a dilapidated old room with an unidentifiable dark spot on the ceiling panel in the corner that looks suspiciously like black mold.  Or maybe you’re lucky enough to be in a brand new, state-of-the art building with tricked-out AV capabilities.  Either way, the instructor can’t figure out how the hell to work the projector and wastes what was supposed to be the first 10 minutes of class looking for someone from S6.  Don’t worry, though.  You’ll make up the time by driving on through the scheduled break.

As far as I can tell at Berkeley, no one dips.  Those are replaced by mason jars repurposed to hold everything from coffee to oatmeal (and plenty of other stuff I haven’t been able to identify).  In this way, spit bottles and mason jars are perfect examples of reusing or repurposing something that would’ve otherwise went straight into the trash, so I guess there are some parallels between an Army and Berkeley classroom.

And although some of the lectures have been a trial in slideshow perseverance, AV issues never hold up class.  Don’t worry, though.  The professors will use every scheduled minute of your time.

Taking Notes

The typical Berkeley student takes notes on either their laptop (usually an Apple) or in a five-star style notebook.  In the Army, ain’t nobody got time for that.

The go-getters will have everyone’s favorite Green Notebook, oftentimes decorated with drawings from all the other boring classes and briefings they’ve attended.  Others will have smaller, shoulder-pocket-sized pads, either the “Memoranda” kind from supply or the high-speed Rite-in-the-Rain pads bought at Clothing Sales.

Your note-taking options. (via

Then there’s That Guy.  The one who never carries paper, even though Sarnt told him to.  He’s the same one who doesn’t have a pen, even though his uniform has convenient pockets to hold multiple writing utensils.  That Guy probably works in a shop that requires him to have a pen all the time.  That Guy bummed a small scrap of paper ripped out of his squared-away buddy’s pad and has it on the desk, all by itself, in front of him like we can’t tell he doesn’t give a shit.

All joking aside, a variety of experiences is what improves us as people and leaders, and I value my opportunity to come out to sunny California and earn a masters degree.  I’m nostalgic for the Army stuff, but I still have the second half of this career (God willing) to enjoy all the uniform has to offer.

Until then, I guess I’ll go buy some Birkenstocks or something and enjoy the ride.

Views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the US Army or the Department of Defense.


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