‘Mr. Teaching’ receives the campus’s highest honor

He did not want a “fuss” to mark his impending retirement, after nearly four decades promoting teaching and writing excellence at Berkeley. So it was at a smallish luncheon at a downtown Berkeley restaurant that a surprised Steve Tollefson accepted the Berkeley Citation, the campus’s highest honor, earlier this week.

Steve Tollefson

'Mr. Teaching' displays his newly minted Berkeley Citation.

The award was presented June 13 by Vice Provost Catherine Koshland and Katherine Snyder, director of the College Writing Program — who referred to Tollefson as “an irreplaceable campus gem.”

Director of the Office of Educational Development (OED), Tollefson has energetically spearheaded, developed and/or sustained what Koshland calls “an extensive and multi-faceted bundle of initiatives” to enhance the campus’s teaching mission.

He is frequently quoted in the media in conjunction with the Summer Reading List, the popular Berkeley Writers at Work (featuring intimate talks on the writing process by faculty authors) and the Distinguished Teaching Award (DTA), whose annual ceremony he meticulously orchestrates, down to “thank you” letters to campus leaders, caterers and florists.

Less widely known are numerous vital Tollefson projects to advance the craft and artistry of teaching: New Faculty Lunches (where participants work collectively to solve classroom issues), Instructional Improvement grants, the Teachnet listserv and New Faculty Newsletter, the Presidential Chair and Lecturer Teaching Fellows programs, a rich collection of teaching resources on the OED website, and one-on-one consultation with campus faculty, among others.

“I hate to say this, but it’s all been fun — all my babies,” Tollefson said when asked to identify any favorites among his many projects. “I don’t know how I ended up where I am; it just sort of happened. I’ve had this wonderful, amazing career.”

In a letter supporting his nomination, Professor Christina Maslach referred to Tollefson as “‘Mr. Teaching’ at Berkeley. He is the bedrock of the teaching enterprise at Berkeley,” she wrote.

Originally from Montana, the son and grandson of Lutheran ministers, Tollefson earned his M.A. in English at Berkeley and was studying for his Ph.D. when he was hired as a College Writing lecturer in 1973. He “quickly discovered,” as he tells it, “that I was a better teacher than a grad student.” Eventually, in 1984, his talents in the classroom would be recognized with a Distinguished Teaching Award.

Tollefson’s nomination for the Berkeley Citation was supported by dozens of campus faculty, among them many DTA recipients.

“It is clear to many of us that no single person has done more for teaching excellence and — just as importantly, teaching enjoyment — on campus during these last four decades,” wrote Kevis Goodman, a DTA winner and past chair of the Academic Senate Committee on Teaching. “His influence has shaped individuals, small groups, large groups, the Berkeley community, and even teaching institutions beyond California.”

Cynthia Schrager, assistant vice provost for teaching and learning, echoes the sentiment. “Steve has been an institution and we’re losing him,” she says. “We’re trying to be creative about how we move forward.” Schrager has been tapped to serve as OED acting director, leading a transition team that will consult broadly across campus on how to organize and foster teaching development in the post-Tollefson era.

Though he hopes to “work slightly less” following his retirement at the end of June, Tollefson says he has “no intention of leaving campus” for good. Come fall, he plans to lead a College Writing section, as well as “my dearly loved freshman seminar on poetry,” which he has taught on a volunteer basis for many years.

Tollefson is the only member of the campus community to have won both the Distinguished Teaching Award and, in 2010, a Chancellor’s Outstanding Staff Award. And now, as well, the Berkeley Citation.

Steve Tollefson and Catherine Koshland

Vice Provost Catherine Koshland and honoree Steve Tollefson