What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades – NYTimes.com

This is an interesting argument for me to continue to use handwritten journal writing in my classes:


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2014 BCC Graduation Faculty Address

Before I started this address, I asked people to pull out their phones and to tweet using the hashtag #bccgraduates

The night before graduation, I was looking at the draft of what I had written before, and I ended up fiddling with it until 1 in the morning, which was crazy. Despite the late night in the middle of finals week, I’m happy I was asked to speak and that I did it. Isn’t that always how it is with things that are worthwhile? Some ambivalence along the way, but payoff later.


Good evening

On behalf of Berkeley City College’s faculty and staff, I would like to congratulate all of the graduates, and I would like to also welcome the families, friends, and community here to celebrate with you.

As a composition instructor, I have the privilege to meet many students on their very first day of college. I walk in that door, and no matter if they have just graduated from high school or spent the past twenty, thirty, or even forty years away from formal education, each student, no matter whether they show it or not, brings a tremendous amount of hope, and this hope that they, that you have brought, is an incredible gift. Each semester it is, as one my colleagues described it, like a rebirth, as each new set of students gives us the opportunity to try again and again to perfect our craft as teachers.

In particular, I would like to thank students from the Public and Human Services program because you have been gracious enough to share your dreams of serving your communities and families. You, and my colleagues in this program, Stephanie Sanders-Badt, Carol Collins, Stephanie Green, and others, have inspired me to see service to others as not only a social good, but something that nourishes a part of our spirit.

But let’s get back to to that first day of class. On the one hand there’s this hope, this tremendous expectation in our classrooms. Hope for the future, for success, for all of these positive things, but it is a fragile emotion that can be wiped away in an instant, and in my classes, it usually only takes one word to banish all of this hope from the room: essay.  

When I say essay, all of this hope is quickly replaced by the other emotion often present on the first day of class: fear.

This, I know, is a vast simplification of a complicated emotional process, but let’s be honest. Fear is a normal part of the first days of school, the first days of anything really, and even I find myself fearful or at least worried that students may not like me, or may find out that I’m fraud, or that I’m just plain boring. And for students, this fear of essays and writing is probably complicated by a fear of math, a fear of mistakes, of failure, or even of success. We even read a book this semester called, The College Fear Factor, which discusses how this fear impacts students beyond academics. There is the fear of not making friends, of not being smart, the fear of not being good enough. The fear of giving up. The fear of the unknown. There is the fear of disappointing your community, your family, and even yourself.

Each semester, I am fortunate to observe these two emotions, hope and fear, co-existing like two live wires inside each of my students, and these emotions, I believe, are a crucial part of learning and growing. Fear lets you know that something new, perhaps something dangerous is before you, and hope helps you to see past that fear, to imagine a life beyond it.  

So, now, in your robes and mortar boards, now approaching another first day, the first day after graduation, I am optimistic that you will feel these emotions again, hope and fear, but that you will do so with a new sense of purpose and confidence.

And I believe that my colleagues share this sentiment with me: that as teachers, as counselors, as those who have served you, we are privileged. We are privileged because from that first day of class until this day, you have entrusted us with the task of not only teaching and serving you, but of observing your struggles and sharing your accomplishments. By allowing us into your life in this way, by permitting us to bear witness to these precious moments, we are reminded of our own struggles and accomplishments, of our own journey, of our own hopes and fears.

As you cross this stage, I will watch and observe and witness with great pride and heartfelt emotion. Thank you for this great gift and congratulations!


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Intro to Fall 2008 Eng 201….

Most semesters, I try to write new introductions to my syllabi, and I decided that it’d be great to try to capture all of those little bits of writing here.  This one is from one of my first classes I taught at Berkeley City College, and I think in some ways it’s might be my best. I was trying to figure out a way to connect with students, to share my own failures, and to hopefully help them trust their own failures along the way. Enjoy!


When I was seventeen, I found out that the even the most trivial details sometimes matter more than I had originally thought. When I was applying for college, I filled out an application quickly because I just wanted to get it done. Of course, weeks later, after receiving my rejection letter, my father brought out a copy of the application to show me that I had misspelled the college’s name. He had seen it even before I sent it out. Why didn’t you tell me? I was mad. Well, It doesn’t matter, I told myself. It was an honest mistake. The truth of the matter is that the mistake might have cost me.

Even though my father didn’t say much else, he’s the silent type, the moral he wanted me to understand was that the small things, which seemed inconsequential to me at the time, mattered to others; you have to pay attention. For me, the moral is that mistakes can be turned into powerful learning moments. At the time, however, I brushed it off and pretended like I didn’t care; I wasn’t honest with myself; I didn’t learn. I was too scared and stubborn to stare down my own flaws. I remember looking at that application my father had pushed into my face and after a moment of denial, I admitted only to myself that I had never known how to spell Berkeley, that I hadn’t even cared whether or not I spelled it right. Now, I do care.


Fortunately, I am not like my father. Mistakes come with the territory. As you learn how to write, you will make mistakes. Yes, they can be painful, but they are necessary. The better you become at making mistakes and learning from them the more you will learn. The most difficult part, in my mind, is facing up to the problem honestly, learning from what doesn’t work, and understanding why. Most importantly, you must try again.


In this class we will read about issues, discuss them in-class, and write about them. Then, we will write some more. You will do two types of writing: the first is a freer form that allows you to generate new ideas (i.e., freewrites, journals, questions, responses); and the second is formal college writing. This writing will likely be unfamiliar to you. Most new college students find this new way of writing and speaking awkward and strange no matter where you come from, which means that the essays and assignments are all designed to practice and develop this new language and writing form. It will, I hope, help you read and communicate outside of the classroom, too. You will learn about punctuation and use new vocabulary, how to think critically and read thoughtfully, but most importantly I hope you will learn to communicate in a new language: the language of college.


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Fear and Learning: Why Is the First Day So Scary!: Intro to Eng 204, Spring 2014

Each semester, I write a short introduction to each of the different sections to my classes. This spring, I adopted the book The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another on the recommendation of Cleavon Smith. After reading this book, I decided that I’d tackle the issues of fear in college throughout the semester and decided to share my first day teaching at Diablo Valley College in 2007. Here’s the syllabus and below is the intro:

Fear and Learning: Why Is the First Day So Scary!

The first day of anything can be stressful. The first day of kindergarten, elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, whatever it might be can make most of us anxious.

Take my first day of teaching. During my drive from Oakland to Diablo Valley College, my hands turned clammy, my stomach churned, and my fingers quivered from too much coffee. After I arrived in the classroom at 7:50 am and sat down to wait for for students to trickle in I was a nervous wreck. When the 8 am start time rolled around, and still there wasn’t a single student, I started freaking out. I needed the class to make rent, and the empty room became a sign that told me this: it is in your fate to fail. Go back to your desk job. I became sure that the world was conspiring against me, and that I really wasn’t cut out for teaching after all. I waited for 45 minutes, conceded defeat, and walked back to the English department dejected and certain that my class had been cancelled, and that I would have to get a new job. When I returned to the office and explained what had happened, the secretary looked at my course roster and pointed out that I had been in the wrong building the entire time!

The second day of class, as I explained what had happened, this foolishness made me feel like an imposter, a fraud, someone not cut out for this work, and while the semester wasn’t horrible, each week I felt like I was walking a thin line between competence and complete failure. Eight years later, here I am still making sure I’m in the right classroom and dealing with my first-day-of-class jitters. What I’m trying to tell you is that they never completely go away, I’ve just learned to deal with them.

I share this with you because I’m certain that unless you lack a pulse, you’ll often face these agonizing feelings of insecurity. You might feel like you don’t belong, you’re not smart enough, or you don’t work hard enough. It means that as you encounter ideas that will change your perceptions of the world, meet people who have never stepped foot in your neighborhood, and experience new sensations that will change you in profound ways, you might feel overwhelmed. It means that as the work piles up and the pace quickens, you’ll start to doubt yourself. You might say that you’re bored or that things are too hard or that you want to give up. But you can and will get over this. I guarantee it. I’ve seen students struggle through this every semester, battling for their education. In the process, they learn new skills, create new habits, and grow in ways they would have never imagined. It’s inspiring and frightening all in one breath, and I feel lucky to witness these changes. This why I’ve become a teacher because I believe that those who didn’t believe they could can and that by doing so you will change your life. So, as you sense your stomach clench, feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, as you realize that some instinct is telling you that you’re on the cusp of learning something new and doing something important, I hope that you embrace all of it.

Welcome to the class!

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Can We Do College By Ourselves?: Intro to Critical Thinking, Spring 2014

Every semester, I try to write a new introduction for each course that I teach. For the longest time, I’ve been meaning to post each of them to give students a sense of who I am and how I approach the beginning of each semester. Here’s the introduction to English 5: Critical Thinking for the Spring 2014 semester. We’re going to be reading DIY-U: Edpunks, Edrepreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, and will be spending some time developing proposals to change higher education. Here’s the syllabus to the class.

When I first started teaching, students would earnestly tell me that they didn’t need a degree to be successful. “Look at Bill Gates!” they’d tell me, and while I’d listen in the back of my head, I’d think: “You have to be smart and lucky, so just in case, get the degree.” The idea that earning a degree is important to your future has been a truism that we’ve long believed, myself included, and I’m sure that many people who mentor you—teachers, counselors, parents, almost everyone—probably recites this same adage again and again: go to school, get a degree, become successful. The reality is, however, that the game is changing.

So, what’s happening?

In short, the Internet is what’s happening. Once a sloppy version of a graffiti wall for everyone, it’s become an organized treasure chest of information from all over the world, and it’s growing and changing everyday. At this particular moment, most of the knowledge you will need to know for your degree probably exists somewhere online. MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley and other prestigious schools have put their courses online in “MOOCs,” (Massive Open Online Courses), so that anyone around the world with a decent Internet connection and device can gain access to this knowledge. Other groups have started non-degree learning communities where you earn badges, and even others just post information online to help others (like Kahn Academy) learn important concepts and skills. In short, the information is there, and you probably didn’t need me to tell you this.

Even though all the information is there, I still think there a college degree still is meaningful and important, but you cannot walk blindly through each class without a plan or deep sense of commitment. What I mean is that learning is not just about putting information into your brain, but claiming it and making it yours. Rather than just going to college, I think you need to create a learning plan to do more than just attend classes, but to plan out learning for the rest of your life. By using the framework of formal critical thinking—of evaluating information, understanding and analyzing arguments, and checking the soundness of our own logic—we can begin to reimagine the future of higher education together.

Welcome to the class!

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