Many Thanks, Thomas Burkdall

Photo by Marc Campos

“I plan to write a mystery, travel, and read whatever strikes my fancy."

Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Thomas Burkdall is retiring after 31 years at Occidental. We caught up with him at his home in Healdsburg, about 75 miles north of San Francisco.

What attracted you to Oxy? “Having both graduated from and taught courses at Pitzer, I was eager to continue being part of a small liberal arts college community. The small courses, the opportunity to work with and mentor students throughout their undergraduate years appealed to me. I also arrived at the College shortly after John Brooks Slaughter became president and looked forward to participating in the type of diversity initiatives I had taught at UCLA during my graduate work.”

What was your favorite class? “My favorite class evolved over the years—with emerging technology and its cultural transformations. What began as a course on writing and issues in cyberspace and virtual reality became one addressing how to communicate through Web 2.0. Upon our world adapting to the instantaneous, social media environment, I choose to revise the course into an exploration of visual rhetoric: considering how to argue and persuade with images, often with accompanying words. I appreciated the freedom that the College offered me to update the curriculum to our fast-changing times.”

What are your plans for retirement? “I plan to write a mystery, travel, read whatever strikes my fancy, cook, bake, and enjoy the views from our hillside home. I’ll also keep singing in a chorale, something I started at Oxy about 20 years ago.”

Alumni Tributes

Kathryn Tucker ’00: “Around 350 words” for a tribute to someone whose influence on my life has been sweeping meant I had to write out everything, then cut till what’s left are (I hope) the best parts. Luckily, that’s something Dr. Tom Burkdall taught me.

Burkdall reads a poem by 1905 graduate Robinson Jeffers in October 2009.
I met Professor Burkdall when I interviewed to become a writing adviser in what Academic Excellence). The required writing tutor training course he and Deb Martinson offered provided a solid theoretical and practical foundation for my time as a peer adviser and beyond. Thanks to Tom, I knew how to talk to writers about their writing before I taught writing as a UCLA grad student.

While Tom’s mentorship started while I was at Oxy—talking me through working with first-year and multilingual writers, wrangling my application of Bakhtin’s heteroglossia to Virgil’s Aeneid in my English honors thesis—his support continued through graduate school (there was a lot of writing) and beyond. When, Ph.D. in hand, I applied for a job at Oxy, he hired me as a faculty writing specialist, establishing me as a writing studies practitioner-scholar. He participated in my summer writing group, a mix of academics and creative writers trying to make some progress with the help of supportive readers. He prepped me for the interview that led to a tenure-track job with advice I give students today: Stop talking while you still have something to say.

Tom is a friend and colleague who has been there through successes and tragic losses. I last saw him in person in Columbus, Ohio, at a 2019 conference. Tom doesn’t really text, but we do phone calls, and we hope to see him and Lisa and their new deer friends in Healdsburg this summer.

He has given so much to Oxy’s writing culture and to students like myself who were fascinated by rhetoric before we knew there was a word for it. There are more stories I could tell—about his work with the Cultural Studies program, with colleagues using writing to teach, about cats and dogs—but I’ll stop while I still have something to say.

Tucker is the Seiter Chair of Writing and associate professor of race and ethnic studies at the University of Redlands.

Lois Brown ’01: Tom Burkdall came to my rescue when I transferred to Oxy in my junior year. I’d arrived thinking that I knew how to nail an essay. The ECLS Department soon put an end to that delusion and sent me over to the Writing Center. Thereafter, I spent several hours a week conferring over my essays with Tom, and with his co-adviser and our mutual friend, the late and wonderful Deborah Martinson.

Tom never attempted to rewrite my essays for me. He is a first-rate teacher, so he did something far more enduring; he taught me the skills I needed to become a competent, analytical writer, and to find my own voice in the written word. It wasn’t easy going; I struggled considerably during that first year at Oxy. Thank goodness for the tin of Altoids that Tom kept on his desk; if I had difficulty unclogging my writing during our tutorials, at least I could unclog my sinuses with Tom’s supply of supersonic mints!

Tom gave me much advice, but to this day, the piece of advice I use most frequently is to check my writing for any form of the verb “to be,” and wherever possible, to replace it with a more carefully considered verb. “Using ‘to be’ is, more often than not, just lazy thinking,” Tom declared. And he was right; between that and teaching me to annihilate passive voice in my essays, Tom helped me to become an adept writer.

But Tom became much more than a writing adviser. He encouraged me to go into teaching after graduation, which led to two happy and successful years at an L.A. high school, where I was able to pass on to other students the skills Tom had taught me.

Tom and I remained friends after I left Oxy, and I had the pleasure of meeting up with him and his wife, Lisa, during their trip to England a few years ago. I still have the traffic ticket, complete with a caught-in-the-act CCTV photo I received after driving us in the wrong direction down a one-way street. Now that Tom’s retired, I’m hoping that he and Lisa will visit more often, and I pledge to chauffeur them more competently next time.

With Tom’s retirement, Oxy is losing a superb professor. His gifted teaching, endless patience, and constant encouragement were abiding gifts that he offered to all students who wanted to become better writers and analysts. It is impossible to imagine Tom in retirement, but I’m certain that he will continue to be a gift to those with whom he shares his life.

Thank you, Tom. It was an honor to be your apprentice; in teaching me to craft the written word, you’ve given me a lifelong gift.

Brown is a freelance writer and artist living in Liverpool, England.