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Will Borger: Remembering Chris Konzelman

Man facing away from camera with wings and birds coming from his back.

Professor Chris Konzelman

With gratitude to professor and writer Will Borger for sharing this remembrance of Professor Chris Konzelman, who taught College Writing at Purchase from 2015 until his passing in April of 2022. 

Chris Konzelman changed my life. If we’re being honest, he probably saved it, too. That might sound like an exaggeration, but there’s no hyperbole here. Just the truth.

I met Chris through the Peer Mentor program at Purchase College, and I got to observe his classroom (and help out) for a semester. We became good friends and started meeting for drinks once the semester ended. I enjoyed working for Chris so much that I came back to Purchase for a second semester, even though the peer mentor program is only supposed to be a one-semester gig. I intended to work with Chris again, but he suggested I learn from someone with a different teaching style. He was right, of course; the experience was just as fulfilling, though very different. I owe Chris so much: he recommended me as a professor in Purchase College’s College Writing department, advocated for me throughout the hiring process, and was a constant resource for me as I learned to teach. My syllabus is based on his. The way I deal with a classroom is based on what I learned from him. He taught me almost everything I know about teaching.

What he didn’t know at the time was that he saved my life. I was struggling mentally and financially when I finished grad school. That job – my colleagues, my students, and most importantly, Chris himself – saved my life. It gave me purpose in an incredibly dark time and surrounded me with wonderful people. I wouldn’t be here today without it. And it wouldn’t have happened without Chris.

He was incredibly generous with his time. If I ever needed advice or materials for a class, he provided it. If I ever had a problem I didn’t know how to deal with, I knew I could count on his counsel. We regularly traded pieces of our syllabi, and while I definitely took more from him than he did from me, I was always happy when one of my readings or lessons ended up on his syllabus.

But that generosity wasn’t reserved for me. Chris gave as much as he could to everyone. He cared deeply about his students and his colleagues, and everyone who knew him or took his class knew how hard he worked to gather and make class material, prepare his lessons, give feedback, and conference with his students. His tireless dedication both impressed and amazed me. I gave my students my all, but by the end of a given semester, I was exhausted. Chris did more work and taught more students, and he never complained. More impressively, he did it while always managing to find time for himself and his friends. I still can’t fathom how he did it.

His students knew how much they meant to him. It’s no secret that my class became something of a recruiting ground for his Advanced Critical Writing Course, but all of Chris’s current and former students – whether they came from my class, were former students of his, incoming freshmen, or kids from his days teaching high school in California – they all knew how much he cared about them. They respected that. They loved and respected him. He changed hundreds of lives and touched thousands more.

When I told a former student who took both my College Writing class and Chris’s Advanced Critical Writing that Chris had passed, he was stunned. We talked about Chris for a while after that, and, a few days later, he texted me a photo of the title page of his senior project. He had dedicated it to Chris. That was the kind of impact Chris had on his students.

Chris and I weren’t always colleagues, but we remained good friends regardless. Meeting with Chris for drinks was the highlight of any given week. He was kind, considerate, honest, generous, knowledgeable, ferociously intelligent, and willing to engage with you about anything. Chris knew everything, or at least it seemed like he did. Religion, philosophy, history, art, psychology – if he had an interest in it, he read about it, and Chris was incredibly well-read.

Every time I talked to him, I left with something to read or watch, a new place to go, and something to research. It was easy to be intimidated by Chris’s knowledge, but he never lorded it over people. He just wanted to share what he knew with you and was equally excited to get your opinion and listen to what you had to say. Most importantly, he deeply believed in meeting folks where they were, helping other people as much as he could, and looking for the good in everyone. Even when he vehemently disagreed with someone, Chris wanted to make sure he was treating them fairly, and his generosity towards others was inspiring. I’m still working to be as generous as he was. Maybe someday I’ll get there.

He regularly told me that he didn’t understand why I tolerated him, and I felt the same way. Why would someone this smart and kinda put up with somebody like me? But he did. “I connect with my students here,” he once told me, pointing to his forehead. “But you connect with them here.” That time, he pointed to his heart. Chris had a way of seeing people – really seeing them, and understanding who they were on a fundamental level. I only knew Chris for a relatively short time, but I valued his presence in my life more than I can express, and I am grateful for every moment we got to spend together over the six years I knew him.

I saw him less than two weeks before he passed. He gave me a fierce hug goodbye. I would never have imagined that would be the last time I’d see him.

I hope he knew how much he meant to me, to all of the people lucky enough to sit in his classroom and know him personally. I think he did. His life impacted too many people for him not to. I know it changed mine.

The world is lesser for his absence, and I will miss him more than I can say.

Chris once told me that he didn’t believe in death. He said he knew that something happened to us, but that death wasn’t one of those things. I’m holding on to that idea as I type this. I hope he was right, and whatever comes next is as grand as he thought it was.

Thanks for everything, Chris. I’ll meet you at the bar.