Sincerely Yours, America!!

31 May
Exclamation point

Source: The Guardian

Hey there! By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the study that confirms what we always knew: that people who conclude their text messages with exclamation points are the most sincere people!

I’ve been saying this for years, but no one would listen to me! Oh noooo, we had to wait for big and mighty SUNY Binghamton to come up with a study telling us that if you end your texts with a period, you’re a jag-off grammar nerd who everyone hates, like that drip “King” Stannis from Game of Thrones!

Irony of ironies: you know who SUNY Binghamton’s mascot is?! Baxter the Bearcat! And we know full well what someone with a name like Baxter does: he’s the kind of guy who ends his texts with a period!

What I have to say about periods is as follows: Suck it, end stops!

The thing about periods is that they make people think of, like, Megyn Kelley with stuff coming out of her whatever! Eww!!

OK, OK, don’t get all sensitive! That’s the problem with you people! People are too sensitive these days! But do you know who has the most right to be sensitive at the present moment?! People like me: a cis, straight, white male who lives on the coast with his values! We are the most maligned people in the country right now! Everybody hates us!

Why?! Because of our sincerity!

Insincere, period-using people just don’t like it when you get real with them!

Let me pause here to enthusiastically and sincerely note that when someone told me I was a cis, I said, “No duh!” on account of I work in Computer Information Systems! But then I learned that cis just means I’m a guy who likes girls! OK, fine, I’m down with that—I’m a cis CIS man, ladies!

And how did I come to learn what cis means?! Because trans people were shouting about it, using exclamation points left and right so I could be educated! Thanks, trans people! I come in peace, and I will totally let you use my bathroom if you introduce me to some of your hot cis lady friends!

Yes, exclamations are finally having their moment! Exclamations mean sincerity and enthusiasm and shouting! Just check the comments section of any web site! (Ignore the ALL CAPS people, though! Those guys try too hard at faking it until they make it!)

Still doubt the righteousness of exclamations?! Just look at the current presidential campaigns and who has the momentum:

Donald Trump: shouting!

Bernie Sanders: shouting!

And Hillary Clinton—you know why people don’t trust her?! Not enough shouting! But when she does start shouting, man, she needs to tone it down! Sheesh, so aggressive!

(In case you’re wondering why Ted Cruz and John Kasich lost:  period users!!)

The enthusiasm of these people! It’s what America needs! All of us shouting and exclaiming at each other! No one listens to people who declare or critically question or reasonably state! If we’re going to move forward as a country, we need to use exclamation points in all areas of our discourse, public and private, and we need to do so now!

But if you continue to insist on being the type of person who no one likes, the type of person who still ends his messages with periods like the rest of the losers who can’t get with the hot cis ladies, then go ahead and pay a visit to SUNY Binghamton and trade texts with Baxter—no doubt he’ll be over there correcting King Stannis’ grammar!

Sincerely though:  Go Bearcats!

Baxter the Bearcat

Baxter the Bearcat (Source:

Students go multimodal (or is it multimedia)? Take 2…

20 Jan

As I did a year earlier, I asked students in my first-year composition course at UC Berkeley last fall to write a short essay and post it online for others (indeed, potentially anyone) to see. This was in keeping with Clive Thompson’s discussion of the effects of writing for a public audience in his book, Smarter Than You Think.


Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (9/12/13) by Clive Thompson

With some trepidation and a good degree of verve, the students tackled topics of interest to them about identity and online representation, particularly in social media.

Here are some of their pieces. I invite you to click through and read:

Tietta writes about teens’ obsession with social media, and conducts an experiment to see what her life is like when she goes without social media for five days.

Maddy considers the implications of being “Instafamous,” with her 60,000+ Instagram followers.

Do you like selfies? Diana does. Do you overshare on social media? Erika wonders whether she does.

Annie thinks we’re all just a little too consumed with seeking validation on social media.

Here are two posts in a lower profile vein:  Mia talks about being a “singularity”–someone whose online presence gets defined much more by what others write about her than by what she posts; and this student lets us know what it’s like to be an undocumented student in college.

Speaking of how others define us and the sometimes devastating effects of same, James reminds us of the stereotypical and prejudiced ways in the which the American media represents people of color, African Americans especially, and Neysa writes about recent examples of cultural appropriation which can be spread and commented on–to good and bad effect–across social media.

Kevin wonders how accurate our online profiles really are, as he considers the high incidence of suicide among young adults in his hometown of Palo Alto. Alishan writes about how the suicide of a friend helped give him the courage to be more fully and honestly himself, online and off.

Identity & The College Student

Many of the students wrote about their own identities as they are embodied by social media and other online offerings:

Marco, for instance, really likes anime and connecting with others online who share this passion.

Speaking of awareness of public audiences, Laura takes to heart the advice that you’ve got to be careful what you post online.

Irlanda wonders whether college is a time to consolidate your existing identity or to realize a new one.

Leo–“The Virtuoso”–finds that his online and offline identities are pretty much the same. Ivan keeps a low profile online, but finds evidence of his current and earlier selves in the pictures he’s posted there (including one of him getting to meet Eddie Van Halen).

And Kathy reminds us of one of social media’s central appeals:  it’s just plain fun.







Remembrance of Things Steve: a digital footprint

8 Jun
Steve Tollefson welcoming new transfer students at UC Berkeley, 2008. (Photo credit: Peg Skorpinski)

Steve Tollefson welcoming new transfer students at UC Berkeley, 2008. (Photo credit: Peg Skorpinski)


Last Friday morning, UC Berkeley lost a giant–a gentle, smart alecky, and much beloved giant–when Steve Tollefson passed away. The news came as a shock to many of us who counted him as a valued colleague, an inspiring teacher, a caring mentor, and as a dear friend over his four decades at the school.  People have begun sharing memories of him, and I wanted to collect a few of them here.

If I’m being truthful, I’m doing this primarily for myself, so I can hold on to this faint digital trace of Steve and return to it from time to time, though I hope if you look at his writing and at the memories from others that I share below, you’ll get a sense of the man he was and of how lucky we all were to know him.

Steve had a rambunctious energy and spirit, full of good humor, such that he came across at times–as one student described him in a very Tollefsonesque description that Steve would have found amusing–“a little like David Letterman’s hyperactive twin brother.” (More from that student in a moment.)

This spirit served him well in the classroom, but it also reflected the way he was outside the classroom as well.  As a teacher, a writer, a man, a friend–Steve was consistently himself. Among his innate talents was his unique way of being able, somehow, to make fun of you, make fun of himself, and to express deep empathy with you all at the same time.

In a lovely Facebook post, his friend and Cal colleague Beth Williams captures a sense of what I mean:

“I just can’t believe it about Steve passing away so suddenly, but I’m taking some comfort in the wonderful memories I have of him. I thought I would share a few here to honor this beautiful man. While I was Steve’s neighbor, he gave me and my sister a tour of his amazing house last summer, where he showed me his earthquake supply stockpile, but then told me not to rely on him if an earthquake struck (I’m laughing just remembering that!). I love that he would teasingly sing Michael Jackson’s ‘Ben’ whenever I said I was scared of the rats in Wheeler Hall, but then was willing to diligently check my office for ‘structural weaknesses’ that would make my office ‘vulnerable’ to rats, eventually declaring my office ‘safe.’ He always laughed at how I would turn around at my desk when he passed by my office while continuing to type, saying that I reminded him of a woman who played piano on a famous old TV show. And I’m remembering the perfectly ‘Steve’ way that he comforted me when I didn’t get a job I wanted, by saying that my disappointment was similar to how he felt when he wasn’t selected for jury duty the first time he was up for it: misguided. I will miss Steve terribly and am grateful for these memories and many more that I will cherish forever.”

Steve reads his short story, "Duboce Park, 1969" at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, May 19, 2013. (Photo credit: Beth Williams)

Steve reads his short story, “Duboce Park, 1969” at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, May 19, 2013. (Photo credit: Beth Williams)

Steve was a talented writer–of fiction and essays, of book reviews and articles about life, about grammar, about teaching.  (For the last bit of that list, I was going to write “about pedagogy,” but I could imagine Steve saying something like, “I was going to go teach my class today, but then I decided I was feeling pedagogical.”)

That parenthetical puts me in mind of his hilarious academic conference-spoofing short story, “Strunk and White Died for Our Sins,” which you can read here:  Strunk and White and Tollefson.

For more of Steve’s writing, I encourage you to visit this compendium of writing by and about Steve put together by another friend and Cal colleague, Jane Hammons (speaking of another of UC Berkeley’s giants). I’m so grateful that she’s done this.

Steve was also an avid reader, as was reflected in part by his enthusiasm for the annual UC Berkeley Summer Reading list, which he started in 1985 as an informal welcome to incoming students, and then curated for the next 25 years. When Steve really liked something he’d read–by an author, by a student, or (if you were really lucky) by you–he’d exclaim “Oh, oh, oh!” like Horshack from “Welcome Back Kotter.” A very literary Horshack, mind you.

As the curator of the list for so long, he let others contribute suggestions rather than doing so himself, but it just so happens that on this year’s list, a few months before he suddenly took ill, he offered his first recommendation in years:  Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay. If Steve liked it, you know it must be good.

Steve got a good chuckle out of recounting how he sat in a meeting some years ago when the reading list was “very unofficial,” as he put it, and a dean of some sort said, “Who’s running this reading list!? We need to get control of that!” Steve sat there quietly, a grin on his face, and the reading list continued on unofficially until all agreed it was plenty official enough.

Finally, and most prominently in his professional capacity at UC Berkeley, Steve was known, with good reason, as “Mr. Teaching,” the only Cal employee ever to have won both the Distinguished Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Outstanding Staff Award, the latter for his work helping to train teachers as the director of the Office of Educational Development.  Many of us were the beneficiaries of that training, both formal and (because we’re talking about Steve here) informal.  If Steve spoke well of your teaching, you knew you were doing something right.

Finally, it is that teaching and the countless students he joyously and successfully taught over the last 40+ years that might be his greatest achievement. The students’ numbers are legion, the influence Steve had immeasurable. And yet, there are ways in which that influence can be expressed, and so I’ll let one of Steve’s students have the last word.

Last Friday, I sent out an email with news of Steve’s death to the last group of students he taught this past Spring semester in our department’s team-taught creative writing course.  A couple of hours later, I received a reply from one of those students, Regina Kim, a recent graduate, who had quickly and beautifully written an appreciation of Steve.  It is well-written, funny, thoughtful, and sweet–in short, a fitting tribute to Steve.

Take it away, Regina…



RIP, dear Steve.  (Photo credit: Beth Williams, Jane Hammons)

RIP, dear Steve. (Photo credit: Beth Williams, Jane Hammons)


Postscript: Steve’s obituary in The Daily Californian.

Even better postscript:  A lovely remembrance by Jane Hammons.


Digital Reading: What do we “know” and where do we go #next?

7 Apr


Wondering about the differences between traditional print reading and digital reading (or e-reading), and how it might affect not only your own reading but the way you need to teach critical reading to your students?

I was, so a UC Berkeley colleague and I did a little research and thinking about the issue, and put together the following pages for UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

(Also an earlier, brief Prezi we put together for an on-campus talk about the issue can be found here.)

Have a look, and feel free to offer suggestions. 

“Only Connect”

6 Feb

Earlier this week, I was standing at a bus stop in busy downtown Berkeley, waiting to ride home after work. An email came in on my smart phone from one of my students who had a question regarding an essay he was writing about E.M. Forster’s speculative 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops.”

E.M. Forster, by Dora Carrington (Source:

E.M. Forster, by Dora Carrington (Source:

I looked up from my phone and briefly locked eyes with a gaunt, ragged-looking man who was walking past. He had all the markers of the hardcore homeless who, sadly, are all too familiar in Berkeley:  matted hair, torn clothing, dirt covering him from head to toe. Given his appearance, I assumed he was likely drug-addicted or schizophrenic, or both.

An extended gaze exchanged with someone like this rarely goes well; I looked back down at my phone to consider my student’s email.

Suddenly, a grimy palm was thrust between me and the phone, inches from my face. A faint scent of decaying garbage.

I recoiled, and there the man was, almost shoulder to shoulder with me as I leaned against a brick wall. The wild eyes seeing me, or not. He was muttering. I waited.  

“Can I tell you something?” he finally asked in a faint voice.


He muttered again, almost as if praying. What I could hear sounded like gibberish. I waited.

Then, with a violent motion, he chopped his hand against my phone and sent it clattering to the sidewalk.

“Turn it off!” he shouted, and then continued in unintelligible fashion, only now more loudly and inches from my face.

“OK, OK,” I said as calmly as I could, then bent to pick up my phone and started walking up the street away from the bus stop. Away from him.

“You will be executed!” he offered as benediction and then stalked off.

I circled back to the bus stop, wondering how many of the people there had watched and heard this exchange. It was hard to tell:  none of them looked at me. Most of them were looking at their phones.

Kuno Comes to Berkeley

In “The Machine Stops,” Forster’s narrator tells of a futuristic world in which the people are willingly in the grip of an all-controlling Machine that was created by humankind generations before. Each person now lives alone underground in windowless rooms that are honeycombed together “like the cell[s] of a bee.” Physical touch between people is considered repellent, in-person meetings rare. People are entirely disconnected from Nature and from each other, communicating via screens, delivering empty lectures, having things brought to them by the Machine, their minds and muscles atrophying. When the main character, Vashti, is first introduced to us, it is not as a woman but as a “swaddled lump of flesh…with a face as white as a fungus.”

My students frequently make connections to movies like Wall-E and The Matrix, and it’s also an easy leap to see the way Forster imagined us all a century later Skyping and Facebooking and You Tubing and ordering packages from Amazon by drone, as in this description of Vashti’s small room:

“Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”

The only one in the story who resists The Machine and its dictates is Vashti’s son, Kuno. He begs his mother to journey across the earth to see him so he can speak to her and see her face-to-face and “not through the wearisome Machine.” He thinks and asks questions. He longs to visit the forbidden surface of the Earth and to exercise his body and to look at the sky and wonder at the stars, all of which he does before The Machine violently tugs him back beneath the ground. Kuno is the only one who foresees The Machine society’s cataclysmic end.

Kuno is the voice of reason in the story, the only one to resist the absurdity and tyranny of The Machine. Kuno’s is Forster’s voice, and ours.

And for this, Kuno and his like–the rational, the physical, the emotional, the sensual, the non-mechanical people, the ones who can see the truth–are outcasts in the society of The Machine, flung to the surface of the Earth to die, and assigned the status most feared by Vashti and her “friends”:


I boarded the bus for home and looked down at my phone, its screen streaked with oil from the man’s hand, from mine. I wondered if I had dared not to avert my eyes from him to look at my phone but instead had held his gaze and smiled or given a friendly nod whether his response would have been different. Or perhaps he would have raved at me regardless.

How many people must shun this man, minute by minute, every single day of his life? Imagine the cumulative effect of that loneliness and that rejection by one’s fellow human beings.

In his own way, whatever the biochemistry of his brain was doing to thwart his efforts, the man was looking to make contact, and I had instead responded in a way that was perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable in polite society (“perfectly mechanical,” Vashti would say), and instead had turned to my phone. I had, as the characters in the story do, “isolated” myself.

His enraged madman’s response to me was, in the end, perfectly rational. It’s a less-polite version of the same lament so many of us regularly have about others and, if we’re being honest, about ourselves, even as we can’t resist the pull of the flashing notifications, the desire to see what the web, Forster’s evolved Machine, has delivered to us.

Indeed, the man’s screaming was a crazed echo of another of Forster’s creations, Margaret Schlegel of Howard’s End who wants to implore the rigid, unemotional Henry Wilcox with one of Forster’s most famous entreaties, one that rings down the decades, louder and more urgently now than ever, if we’ll stop long enough to hear it:

“Only connect!”


Monument to E.M. Forster in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.

Monument to E.M. Forster in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.






“The Grinning Boy”

29 Jan

The IRA, the Boston Irish mob wars, a bully, and a boy caught between a series of bad choices:  my new short story, “The Grinning Boy,” appears in the current issue of The Missouri View.  Gorgeous issue, with lots of great reading.  Check the Table of Contents here.

The Missouri Review, Winter 2014

The Missouri Review, Winter 2014

Students going multimodal

15 Dec

In my first-year reading and composition course at UC Berkeley this semester (“Writing in Public:  Identity and the Digital You”), my students read a series of pieces that asked them to think about digital technologies and the ways they are affecting our lives.

Among the things they read and wrote about: 

*It’s Complicated:  The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by danah boyd

*The PBS Frontline documentary, “Generation Like”

*Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter Than You Think:  How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

*Philip K. Dick’s famous futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

They wrote in the traditional modes of freshman composition–rhetorical and literary analyses, persuasive papers and summaries, reader responses and the like. Then, after they read Thompson’s descriptions of students who had experienced the beneficial effects of writing online for an audience of more than one (the teacher), I asked them at the end of the term to write a short, multimodal essay and to post it online so that anyone–possibly you–could see it.

The class issued a collective gulp.

Exhausted after a long semester but game for the challenge of writing in a way almost none of them had tried before, they wrote and shared their essays via WordPress, Tumblr, and Prezi. I’ve linked below to some of them, organized loosely into two categories. I hope you’ll take the time to explore a few of them.

Social media and its (dis?) contents

Starting with a little historical context, Inger draws comparisons between Facebook profiles and illuminated texts from the Middle Ages.

Alex argues social media might help us bridge the gaps between our intrinsic and perceived identities, and Sierra tells us about how social media provides her with a “second home” as she moves from Korea to Canada to the Philippines and then on to the U.S. 

Exposing part of social media’s less savory side, one student looks at how it pressures people to change their appearance, while another, Chantelle, explores in particular the way this affects girls’ and women’s sense of what counts as beautiful.

Perhaps Shelby’s examination of why people tend to present only their ideal selves online accounts for some of how those pressures create a vicious cycle of self-presentation.  Maybe this is part of why people behave so aggressively online, a subject that Justin explores.

Much of the pressure comes from the prominent place of the visual in online spaces.  Katie discusses the rise of digital photography, and another student asks her friends to describe why they use Instagram the way they do.

Speaking of photography, Keshlee clearly enjoys taking selfies, and she’s glad to tell you how to up your selfie game.

Who Am I Online (and Off)?

This student asks whether it’s possible for people, including himself, to be authentic on social media. Dorothee feels like one of her favorite musicians, Ben Howard, can. (Especially if one mostly ignores social media and simply listens to his music.)  

Meanwhile, Austen finds expression by flying high above our heads. Want to learn how to do so yourself? There’s a De-Cal for that.

Lily–lover of food, reading, and golf–asks whether she’s the same person online and off, as does Stephane, who may one day win Wimbledon or improve your eyesight, or both.

This student, employing the evocative metaphor of the silhouette, debates whether we are knowable online, and demonstrates why some, including herself, often choose to represent themselves with avatars.

Kevin wonders whether he’s just being a lemming by joining social media (he says, with good cheer, that the answer is pretty much yes), while Kim lays out the virtues of the most popular networks, and Jocelyne considers the ways in which people interact on Tumblr.

Vanessa makes clear that it’s all about the audience for her, even if the audience–paradoxically for social media–is sometimes just herself, while Danxin reminds us that in the global reach of the Internet era, one’s audience (and one’s online self) can sometimes shift as it crosses borders.

My thanks to my students. (That wasn’t so painful, was it?) I hope you, the public audience, enjoyed their pieces as much as I did.

Postscript:  As I posted these essays here, I sent out the following tweet with a link to this page, and soon thereafter got the following responses from one member of the broader public audience.  

If the students above had even a fraction of Clive Thompson’s 25,000+ Twitter followers take a look at their essays, that will be an audience that is considerably larger and more public than the one they’re used to. Nice to have one of the authors we read cement the point for us.

A Public Audience 1

A Public Audience 2