College Writing Programs lecturer Stephen Tollefson dies at 66

Steve Tollefson welcomes new transfer students to UC Berkeley in 2008.
Peg Skorpinski/Courtesy
Steve Tollefson welcomes new transfer students to UC Berkeley in 2008.

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Stephen Tollefson, a former lecturer in UC Berkeley’s College Writing Programs and director of the campus’s Office of Educational Development, died Friday. He was 66.

A member of UC Berkeley faculty and staff for about 40 years, Tollefson was the only person to have received the Distinguished Teaching Award, Chancellor’s Outstanding Staff Award and the Berkeley Citation, an award given for extraordinary service to the campus. He was known for his fiction and essays, his leadership in the College Writing Programs and his work on innovating and improving the quality of teaching on campus.

Former student Regina Kim said Tollefson brought energy to the classroom and was so involved with the students in the class that during in-class workshops, he was able to recall details from each of his about 20 students’ papers.

“Every time we talked about a reading, he would get really into the discussion — it wasn’t even like he was a teacher,” Kim said. “He had a lot of passion for his students.”

Tollefson, originally from Montana, earned his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and went to UC Berkeley for his master’s. He was hired as a lecturer in the College Writing Programs in 1973 while pursuing a doctorate at UC Berkeley. His talents as a lecturer were recognized in 1984 when he was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award.

Tollefson also advised professors on their teaching as the director of the Office of Educational Development. He created grants, planned lunch meetings and developed online teaching resources to improve the abilities of teachers across all departments. In particular, Tollefson led Berkeley Writers at Work, an annual interview with an author on campus intended to build a greater sense of community by talking about the writing process.

According to Catherine Koshland, the vice chancellor for undergraduate education, Tollefson’s projects and his passion heightened the value that UC Berkeley professors place on the craft of teaching.

“There is no single person who has done as much for teaching on the campus as he did,” said Kevis Goodman, an associate professor in the English department. “If this school is a research institution where teaching is highly regarded — and I think it is — that’s because of him.”

Tollefson published several books on grammar and writing, as well as short stories, poems and numerous articles on topics ranging from teaching introductory writing courses to the shifting trends in what his students read. His writing demonstrated his wit and wry sense of humor while discussing writing tips and his own life experiences, according to Gail Offen-Brown, a lecturer in the College Writing Programs who knew Tollefson for more than 35 years.

“He was one of the warmest people I’ve ever met,” Goodman said. “Extraordinarily accomplished but also modest — his interest was in making everyone else look their best.”

Richard Freishtat — a senior consultant at UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which used to be the Office of Educational Development — became a good friend and mentee of Tollefson after Tollefson retired and Freishtat filled his position. He said Tollefson wanted to see others improve and succeed rather than focusing on himself. Tollefson was able to be both a friend and a mentor and could have a serious conversation about work but balance the conversation with humor and charm, Freishtat said.

“Steve had an unbelievable humor and an ability to engage with anyone on campus,” Freishtat said. “His presence and things he’s done will live on for a long, long time.”

Contact Ethan Walker at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ethannwalker.

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  • H Nicole Anderson

    To think that someone with so much energy, grace and wit is gone is hard to fathom…or accept. I will miss him so much and so will countless others.