Paul Signorelli on Civility Serving as a Foundation of Discourse

Paul Signorelli on Civility Serving as a Foundation of Discourse

An interview with Paul Signorelli from The Write Stuff series:

Paul Signorelli is a San Francisco-based writer-trainer-presenter-consultant. He focuses on innovations in lifelong learning, community partnerships and activism/advocacy, and educational technology. His most recent book, Change the World Using Social Media(published by Rowman & Littlefield, January 2021), is a narrative-driven exploration of how people use social media to foster small-, medium-, and large-scale change within their onsite and online communities. Paul is also one of three Storytellers in Residence writing for the Arizona State University ShapingEDU community blog. He also blogs at Building Creative Bridges, and can be reached at

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I write—to tell transformational stories and inspire positive change, as I have tried to do in Change the World Using Social Media. I facilitate successful/creative learner-centric learning opportunities face-to-face and online. I help people identify and pursue opportunities to make positive changes within the communities they/we serve. I read. (Lots.) I drink (too much) coffee and eat (too much) dessert, and then take long walks to work that coffee and dessert out of my system (so I can have more). I listen to what people are saying so I can spot and work with ideas I’m not smart enough to come up with on my own. And I jump at every opportunity that comes my way to collaborate with people who are brighter and far more creative than I am ever going to be.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

Finding time to do everything I want to do and stay in touch with the wonderful friends and colleagues I have. I’m very lucky to be a member of several dynamic communities that function well onsite as well as online, and to have a steady flow of new projects coming my way, so the combination of work and play I have is a wonderful challenge/struggle centered on time management—and knowing when and how to say “no” occasionally.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Be open to new opportunities without losing sight of what you already have that is well worth cultivating/maintaining. (It’s worth noting that Change the World Using Social Media wasn’t my idea; Marta Deyrup, an acquisitions editor who came across a social media course I was teaching online, reached out to me and introduced me to Charles Harmon, a senior editor at Rowman & Littlefield; the three of us had a 30-minute conversation online a few days later, and the initial shape of the book came out of that conversation, with Charles providing a title before I began writing.) Be ready to work a lot while also carving out personal time to consistently rejuvenate yourself. And make a strong commitment to lifelong learning so you lay the foundations for new opportunities to come your way.

What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?

They have both been—and remain—equally important to me—perhaps because I see education/lifelong learning as an integral part of the real world. Returning to formal education on a fairly regular basis to upgrade my skills and open me up to new areas of work and study keeps the juices flowing; engaging in informal learning at some level on an almost daily basis keeps my batteries charged between those longer, more focused returns to formal learning environments. And carrying the learning into my work and play (where I try to immediately apply what I have learned), and carrying work and play into the learning I do (so I can better focus on what I need to learn), creates a sense of integration between work and writing. A simple example: while earning a Master of Information and Library Science degree, I did semester-long independent-study projects under the supervision of a couple of wonderful mentors; the academic papers I wrote were easily edited into publishable pieces. And much of what I learned through a massive open online course–#etmooc, the Educational Technology & Media MOOC that Alec Couros designed and facilitated—served me well in the writing of Change the World Using Social Media.

If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be?

Don’t bother growing up. It’s overrated. Oh, and by the way: learn to become comfortable writing with a fountain pen now; you’re going to love what it does for you in terms of making the writing you do a tactile experience as well as one grounded in what is swirling around in your mind. And technology? Stop fighting it, you dope: the trick is to have it support what you do rather than making you its slave.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

That’s a lovely question for any of us involved in training-teaching-learning, where you begin the process by defining what you your learners want/need to accomplish, then develop a pathway to help them reach those goals, then develop an assessment tool to show whether they actually achieved those goals. Because my personal definition of success includes writing, facilitating creative, effective learner-centric learning opportunities face-to-face and online, helping people identify and pursue opportunities to make positive changes within the communities they/we serve, and seeking/accepting opportunities to collaborate with people who are brighter and far more creative than I am ever going to be, I do actually consider myself successful within that perversely personal definition of success.

Why do you get up every morning?

Initially, because we have a cat that insists on being fed on her schedule, not ours. But, to be a bit more serious: because I love what I do and I look forward to seeing what new things are going to come my way each day while I try to keep up with what I’ve already promised to do. (I’m reminded of someone I was lucky enough to interview fairly early in my career: trying to take hand-written notes in addition to recording that face-to-face, one-hour conversation, I asked him if he would mind speaking just a bit more slowly so I could keep up. “There’s no time,” he responded with a broad smile on his face. “There’s so much to say!”)

What’s wrong with society today?

Plenty, including a terrible lack of civility in our face-to-face and online discourse. But as much as I’m aware of and often overwhelmed by what’s wrong, I’m driven to pay more attention to working with people who want to find and implement the solutions to the problems and challenges we face, and share success stories with others—which is one of the many reasons why I jumped at the chance to write Change the World Using Social Media. It’s really a tribute to those who refuse to stay stuck in long discussions about what’s wrong with society and prefer, instead, to do what they can do make it better.

Where do you go to find sanctuary?

Bookstores. Museums. Parks. Recital halls. Wilderness areas, including Pt. Reyes, Big Basin, and Mount Diablo. Labyrinths—particularly the two at Grace Cathedral, here in San Francisco. My own backyard, where gardening offers a chance to let my mind wander. And, ultimately, back within myself to see what needs attention and nurturing.

What is your fondest memory?

Literally hundreds of equally fond memories come to mind immediately, but since we’re talking about writing, I’d say they need to include listening to my mother read to me when I was a child (and encouraging me to read books we borrowed from our local library); the community college instructor (Floyd Ohler) who returned a paper I had written with one short, completely unexpected comment: “sell it.” (I hadn’t, until that moment, considered the possibility that I could be paid to write); meeting and interviewing writers I very much admired (David Halberstam and Hunter Thompson) while I was working for my university newspaper); and being offered a Storyteller in Residence position with ShapingEDU from July 2020 through June 2021).

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

Civility serving as a foundation of discourse; collaboration serving as a foundation for much of what we do together; and empathy being held up as essential element of all we do.

What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?

I’m currently working on a variety of interconnected endeavors: beginning to develop a proposal for a book that tells the stories of people and organizations making a positive difference in their communities through the use of civility; creating a library-advocacy training program for people working in libraries throughout California; through a ShapingEDU initiative, fostering efforts to create universal broadband access throughout the United States for work and learning; and, of course, doing everything I can to draw attention to Change the World Using Social Media so I can get it into the hands of people who want to make a positive difference in their onsite and online communities.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

Can’t imagine how we can do this, but I’d want to substantially reduce the ridiculously high cost of living that is chasing away large numbers of Bay Area residents who have contributed to making this a wonderful area to live. Their absence diminishes us all.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

In non-pandemic times, a night on the town to me includes being with a few people I adore; having dinner together in a fairly quiet, comfortable setting; attending an event together (an author reading, a concert, a play); spending time together talking about what made that event great, average, not-so-great, or a complete disaster; and then letting the conversation drift wherever it takes us. (And, of course, finding a way, as soon as possible, to incorporate something out of that evening into whatever writing I’m doing!)

Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

The “ghosts” I see on a regular basis are the memories and sensations left by friends long gone. It very much feels as if many of them are still somehow a part of my daily life and a source of comfort and inspiration.

What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned? Or: what was your last moment of awe?

Most important life lesson: there never was and never is going to be enough time to do everything I want to do, so do something every day—Every. Day.—that provides some level of satisfaction, and take advantage of whatever time I do have.

What are some of your favorite smells?

I love the smell of the ocean. I love the smell of plants and trees in the wilderness areas where I (occasionally) hike. I love the smells of the small shops—vegetable stores, delis, coffee houses, diners—that are such an important part of San Francisco.

What are you unable to live without?

Friends and colleagues; writing; reading; music; long, meandering walks; learning; dessert, with an occasional meal to cut through all the sweetness.

If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I’d spend at least a year outside of the United States again in a place where I could comfortably explore familiar and unfamiliar sights with my wife, be studying/speaking a language other than English to stimulate that side of our minds, and incorporate that into a book I haven’t even begun to yet imagine.

If you could live in your ideal society, what would your average day be like?

Probably not all that different from what I have now: time to write, time to do other projects, time to be with family/friends/colleagues, time for reflection, time to walk through areas wherever I am living, and time to take the small steps needed to produce large, long-term positive changes in our communities. Everything else is icing on the cake.