Longtime UCSC writing teacher Don Rothman to be remembered in campus memorial service
When Oakes College, one of the residential colleges at UC Santa Cruz, received a donated piece of art depicting European aristocracy coming to the New World, controversy ensued among students who believed in liberation movements.
Don Rothman, who was the Oakes College provost at the time, insisted on accepting the gift and creating a collective response to it, says Kimberly Lau, the current Oakes provost.
Rothman developed a class with muralist Juana Alicia to discuss the themes in the piece of art. Through their discussions, Rothman, Alicia, and the students planned and painted a mural in 1992 that can still be seen in the Oakes administration building today.
“It’s a depiction of opening up the gates to education from those imperial and racist historical sorts of forces, and really honoring the struggle of people who have made education more accessible to many people,” says Lau. “That is a great example of how Don influenced Oakes and approached things.”
Rothman, who was a lecturer emeritus in writing at UCSC, passed away in his sleep at the age of 67 on Nov. 28, 2012, leaving behind his wife Diana and his two children, Dov and Naomi. His work and legacy will be honored at a memorial service at UCSC on Saturday, Jan. 26.
Rothman’s time at UCSC began in 1973, when Herman Blake, Oakes College’s founding provost, hired him to teach writing. In his nearly 40 year career at the school, he helped create and develop the university’s writing program and was an important early figure for Oakes, where he served as the provost twice.
Lau says Rothman contributed influential ideas over the years that shaped the future and character of Oakes College.
“He was committed to the idea of democracy, education, and writing, and to those ideas about social justice and about communicating across differences, without necessarily changing people’s minds on their position,” says Lau. “To Don, it seemed like it was more about the ability to talk to each other and to learn from each other, than to convince people of an opinion. Information sharing was fundamental to his outlook, and this idea influenced what Oakes became.”
In 1977, Rothman founded the Central California Writing Project (CCWP), which remains committed to improving writing instruction for students from kindergarten to college in Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey counties. The project was just one manifestation of Rothman’s belief in the power of writing.
“At the heart of these efforts is a sense of optimism that, working together, people can transform oppression and inequality and avoid the humiliation of silence in the face of cruelty and injustice,” Rothman wrote in a statement on the CCWP webpage.
Carol Freeman, a lecturer emeritus in writing, worked with Rothman for 33 years until he retired in 2007, and remained a close friend of his until his death.
“He was endlessly interested and curious; always questing to find the very best way to help students become better writers,” says Freeman. “He saw writing as a creative way to approach critical thinking and to have a more active role in what you’re doing.”
Rothman hoped that he would be able to establish this type of critical thinking—which he called “nonviolent persuasion”—through CCWP.
“His enthusiasm and his intelligence, as well as his endless fascination and his ability to keep people asking questions, made him very influential to the writing department,” Freeman says.
Rothman’s role at the campus continued even after his retirement. He was involved with Shakespeare Santa Cruz and served on its advisory board of directors from 2007-2012. In October 2010, UCSC presented an undergraduate humanities division award in Rothman’s name, The Don Rothman Writing Award, which honors first-year students for their writing in the genres of nonfiction, analytical writing, and academic writing. Additionally, Rothman delivered the 2010 Oakes College commencement speech and gave the opening lecture for the 2012 Oakes College core course.
Leslie Lopez, a member of the Oakes College core course faculty, says Rothman was able to enact change because of his inspiring spirit.
“He had this ability to be joyful and to be open to everyone, and to dwell on the positive aspects of everything,” Lopez said. “By bringing that essence of his personality to those serious issues of race, inequality, and injustice, he was able to make change.”
She recalls an adage Rothman was known to say: “We need to teach writing as though the world depended on it.” It is important for UCSC to remain true to this motto as the school moves into the future, she adds.
“It’s important to think about what it means to write and to teach writing as a method of nonviolence,” says Lopez. “Up to now, the best years of UCSC were characterized by that idea—that writing was taught as though the world depended on it.”
The service begins at 3 p.m. in the Music Center Recital Hall on the UCSC campus. Speakers will include Rothman’s children, UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal, Lau, professor emeritus of literature Paul Skenazy, and more. Others will be invited to speak about the former writing instructor once the scheduled speakers have concluded, followed by a candlelight procession from the memorial service to Oakes College, where a reception will be held.
“We’ll all go and celebrate him,” says Freeman. “But we’ll come away surprised by the diversity and range of work that Don has done, and the people whose lives he touched.”
The memorial service for Don Rothman will take place Saturday, Jan. 26 at 3 p.m. at UCSC’s Music Center Recital Hall. The family requests that donations be made in lieu of flowers to any of the following organizations: The Dreamer’s Fund, The Don Rothman Endowed Award in the Writing Program, or Shakespeare Santa Cruz. For more information, visit news.ucsc.edu.