Remembering Nan Johnson: A Visionary, Mentor, and Friend
Remembering Nan Johnson: A Visionary, Mentor, and Friend
Peitho Volume 22 Issue 1 Fall/Winter 2019
Author(s): Andrea A. Lunsford
with contributions from Andrea A. Lunsford; Kathleen Ethel Welch; Jane Donawerth; Elizabeth Flynn; Lynée Lewis Gaillet; Judy Segal; Michael Harker; Melissa Goldthwaite; Rebecca Dingo, Ben McCorkle, and Tara Pauliny; Paige V. Banaji; Gavin P. Johnson; Marion Wolfe; Jonathan Buehl; and Lisa Mastrangelo and Barb L’Eplattenier
On August 31, at about 2:30 in the afternoon eastern time, Nan Johnson, Professor of English at Ohio State University, shuffled off this mortal coil, leaving so very many of us bereft and grieving. Nancy (as I never learned not to call her!) was a great teacher. A magnificent teacher.
As I flew to Ohio that day in a futile attempt to be with her, I kept thinking of that part of her identity. Like all of us, she was many things: daughter, sister, mother, partner, writer, reader, researcher, friend, gardener, artist. And more. She was all those things, along with being a magnificent teacher, as legions of her students will testify. I first met Nancy at a conference in 1980, I think, and then I had the great good fortune to be on the hiring committee that offered her a position at the University of British Columbia in 1981, where she taught until 1990. I remember her impish grin, her quick wit, the funny spin she put on almost everything. I remember her kindness, her way of being absolutely present in the moment. And I remember her passion for pedagogy and for students. Her intense attentiveness to students was a gift that kept on giving: I have seen her, patiently and quietly, draw out of students insights they wouldn’t have imagined they could have, ideas for articles and talks and dissertations that they had never dreamed of.
And she was a great friend too: in the darkest days of my life (so far!), she came to sit with me in the hospital and hold my hand, bringing me the surprise gift of a small teddy bear she had gotten when she was 11 years old and named Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas! I was bringing Thomas back to her on that flight, and he is now with Nan and Abigail’s daughter Isabel. Always unobtrusive, always quiet and calm, Nancy was also always there, and especially when I needed a friend the most. As Toni Morrison’s Sixo says of Thirty Mile Woman, “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
Somehow, in this time of near despair at a world spun out of control, hovering on the brink of disaster and presided over by a person without a shred of integrity, thinking of good teachers—of those who in Marge Piercy’s words do “the work of the world” and keep on doing it in spite of everything—lifts my spirits and touches my heart. So here’s to all those teachers and to one magnificent teacher and friend in particular: Nancy Johnson.
Understanding Women: Nan Johnson’s Scholarship on Nineteenth Century North American Women’s and Men’s Rhetorics and Writing Practices
Kathleen Ethel Welch
The achievement of Nan Johnson’s exemplary scholarship marks one of the high points in the field of rhetoric and composition studies as it has existed since 1949. Her very influential contributions from the 1980s until 2019 can be categorized in two primary ways.
Constructing New Knowledge with Feminist Principles
The first contribution treated here is her deep scholarship on nineteenth century women and men rhetors and writers in North America, particularly in her two single-authored scholarly books, Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America, published in 1991, and Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910, published in 2002, and the promulgation of that scholarship to her graduate and undergraduate teaching she did at the University of British Columbia and then at Ohio State University in the professorial ranks. (In addition, she taught as a graduate student at the University of Southern California, where she received her Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition in English). She directed numerous dissertations; and she served on many graduate student committees. Crucially, she also helped to build one of the strongest and lasting rhetoric and writing Ph.D., M.A., and B.S. programs in the United States. Many excellent programs have been established and then have gone away, but the Ohio State program has overcome many obstacles. The program-building work, led by Edward P.J. Corbett and then Andrea Lunsford and others, is a central location of her feminist influence. This work from the 1960s until about the 2000s, at Ohio State University and elsewhere through the United States, cost all the rhetoric and composition professors an enormous amount of energy and time; it cost the women who were active, like Johnson, much more as they battled entrenched sexism in the academy. The obstacles seemed to be never ending, as they now continue to be never ending but in different ways.
Putting Research into Action through the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition
The second contribution examined here has to do with Johnson’s professional service. This service Johnson participated in included complex work on the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (founded as the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition), in which she served in the intense and difficult milieu of deep sexism that seemed to exist everywhere in the academy, some of it unconscious, as it existed all over the world. To the extent that a great deal of it has been eradicated in the field, a lot of credit goes to Johnson. The Coalition was founded in August 1989, without its eventual name, in Boulder, Colorado, at 1536 Chambers Drive, in response to violence against women in a particular English department and narratives of violence in many other English departments. Its founding occurred immediately after an English department in the southwest had gone through evaluation and training by an external evaluator from the University of South Carolina Medical School. (Note the medical model.) The evaluator’s report indicated that violence against women was taking place and that the unit was the worst one she had evaluated. In a three-hour conversation with me after the “training for men” she emphasized that the greatest protection for women professors was to go not to the disciplinary level but to the subdisciplinary level. I immediately set to work forming what would become the Coalition. The women I chose for the second stage were Johnson, Winifred Bryan Horner, C. Jan Swearingen, and Marjorie Curry Woods. In this context, Johnson took forceful, difficult, brilliant actions to help women professors stand up for our rights by becoming vocal advocates for universities to get new procedures in response to sexual harassment, including violence (for example, documented assault and stalking in some English departments) and the existence in many universities of parallel criteria for women in tenure and promotion decisions, and other things. Given these circumstances, it is extraordinary that a few women in the Coalition have historicized its beginnings as a kind of picnic, a way to get together before the large convention. I continue to hold out hope that these history-as-pabulum interpretations can be left behind. The Coalition was founded largely because of violence against women and the inability of many women to achieve tenure and promotion while unfair and actionable conditions prevailed in their university departments. Johnson, like the other four women, lept into the very hard work the second part of the Coalition delved into. This five-woman group, led by me, was meant to found a feminist scholarly organization that was embedded in 1970s activism (all of us had participated in those exhilarating as well as sometimes scary activities while we were in undergraduate programs and graduate programs). All five of us had been transformed by second-wave feminism. Our feminist action was meant to go on the offensive and not merely be on the defensive, although the latter always seemed necessary. The criteria I used were two:
- Who are some of the very top scholars in the field; and
- Who answered phone calls and print letters, two of the dominant communication technologies in 1989.
During the 1980s, many, many women were fired in rhetoric and composition studies because of the field (sometimes said to signal the end of western civilization; unfortunately, this is not hyperbole or a joke) and/or because of one’s gender as a woman (in the binary gender world that dominated the time and accounted for some of the difficulties). Misogyny was rampant, and I watched Johnson over and over call it out, demand retractions from those espousing sexism (and misogyny), and give 20- and 30-minute lectures to men in our field who made unconsciously sexist statements. One of these occurred in Paris after a meeting of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric. At a large dinner with ten rhetoric and composition assistant professors, one of the men stated that he was powerless to do anything if a female student flirted with him or asked him out during office hours. Johnson delivered a detailed explanation of who exactly had all the power in the situation, and that it was the man speaking. The student “could take off her clothes and sit on his lap, and he still held all the power.” She understood and conveyed persuasively and forcefully all the legal, rhetorical, ethical, and other issues in this assistant professor’s rhetorical stance about his powerlessness in that situation. It was a tour de force.
Johnson was extraordinarily generous in helping the many women who came to her about how to deal with violence in departments, being put up for tenure in ways that conflicted with the established university criteria, and so on. Most importantly, she believed the women who went to her for help; she also clearly understood the role that numerous women took in supporting sexist men (in fact, many of these men, who frequently work in cabals, rely on nonfeminist women to cover for them, to advance their agendas, and to provide protection of many kinds). Johnson realized that feminism in rhetoric and composition had a very hard time in dealing with this aspect. I think Johnson did not have time to read the indispensable 2019 book She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, but she would have liked it a lot. The Coalition will in the future come to grips with this aspect of women who strongly support predators largely because they, too, get power from that.
Johnson was tireless between August 1989 until the Conference on College Composition and Communication rollout in March 1990 where the third phase of the organization took place. There were a many meeting in person and phone meetings, too. The Group of Five had selected and then invited 20 high-powered women scholars to form a board for the organization. On the Wednesday before 4Cs (I selected that time because it was the only temporal real estate I could rely on), I went to Janice Lauer’s suite she had offered to me so that we would have adequate space to meet in. As I set up the chairs in the empty room, I still wondered if this group would work. Two of the invitees had declined to join, citing its inherent unfairness to men. But Johnson was there quickly, as were Horner, Swearingen, and Woods, to help get us through this third phase, and it worked. The suite was soon packed with amazing women scholars, and we hammered out the next steps. It was exhilarating, important, and momentous, and at the end Johnson was beaming. And then there was even more work for us to do. The five women from the second phase became the first set of five officers of the Coalition, and we met again at the end of that 4Cs meeting in my hotel room. Two or three of us met at every meeting of the Rhetoric Society of America, the ISHR, the Modern Language Association, and the Speech Communication Association, as the National Communication Association was then called.
The Coalition always fit Johnson’s research principles. Her publications will endure. For many decades, graduate students have been studying Johnson’s books in their courses, for their comprehensive examinations, and for their dissertations. These uses of her work will grow as the field continues to progress. In addition to the books, it is important to delve into Johnson’s book reviews, journal and edited volume articles, and conference papers which may be preserved through recordings. This is so because Johnson took every piece of her writing very seriously. Her capacious mind, great intellectual curiosity, and tendency to perfectionism led her to make each writing occasion an important endeavor. Open one of her books and read any page. You will find that it is deeply persuasive and amazingly articulate. She lets you see her writing activity, and that action takes the reader into her mind and reasoning for the text.
The reviews, in places such as Rhetorica, Rhetoric Review, and Rhetoric Society Quarterly, are pearls of scholarly accomplishment. Her work on ethos, for example, remains very important and appears in some of her essays and reviews as well as one of her books. Her deep understanding of ethos and its centrality to our field is rooted in her intensive training in classical rhetoric at USC and her continuing development of that field of expertise at the University of British Columbia and, crucially, at Ohio State University, where Edward P.J. Corbett and Andrea A. Lunsford continued to develop a high-powered rhetoric and composition program. Corbett and Lunsford found tenure-track lines wherever they could at Ohio State, and they adroitly expanded that way and kept advancing the strong curriculum. People flocked to that rhetoric and composition program. Corbett, Lunsford, and Johnson were all credentialed and accomplished classical rhetoricians, and it formed a basis for much of Johnson’s nineteenth century work, including untangling the brazen misogyny that drives so much of classical rhetoric and many of its receptions.
Johnson was able to redirect the dynamism of classical rhetoric into feminist rhetorical actions. She did this in the milieu of 1970s feminism she was a central part of. The movement was fuel for her, and it never left her. This contribution is a very great one, and it has led to much subsequent research. Johnson always protested some feminist stances against formal written argument, its teaching, and its need for constant correction. Why give away all that power formal argument can give women? Nan Johnson lives on in her work and in her family. She lives on in the work of her wonderful Ph.D. students and anyone who was lucky enough to take a course from her. Her publications will continue to shine and guide women and men to higher levels of rhetorical and compositional achievement. She lives on.
Enos, Theresa. Gender Roles and Faculty Lives in Rhetoric and Composition. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1996. Print.
Johnson, Nan. Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1991. Print.
—. Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2002. Print.
Kantor, Jodi, and Megan Twohey. She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. New York: Penguin Press 2019. Print.
Welch, Kathleen Ethel. A Documentary History of the Founding of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition. In progress.
I knew Nan from her scholarship first, which helped me design my history of rhetoric graduate course. But I met her in the 1990s at a Penn State Rhetoric Conference where we gave papers that took opposed tacks—Nan arguing, from her meticulous archival research, for the confining constraints on women’s speech in the nineteenth century, I arguing we must look at the women who were theorizing speech in new ways. Nan quickly saw our ideas were not in conflict, but were two parts of the whole. We met at conferences for dinner or a museum every year or two, and at the Coalition Meetings at CCCC and Feminism(s) and Rhetoric(s), which Nan had helped establish. We tested hypotheses about elocution, historical memory, women’s long history of gaining a public voice, and we shared stories about her daughter and my children. She was a brilliant speaker, often writing one paper, then talking on a different subject off the cuff. In Atlanta (CCCC? RSA?) we toured the Robert C. William Paper Museum, and here she explained her own interest in the craft. She was incredibly generous, reading manuscripts and talking about research and life in academia and out, introducing me to her students, coming to my students’ papers. She even advised me to add more contestation of her ideas in the introduction to my book, telling me that I was too easy on her! (I didn’t take all of her advice.) She was a true guru, a model.
On Meeting Nan
The last time I saw Nan was at the memorial for Carol Berkenkotter, Theresa Enos, and Jan Swearingen at the ‘17 Fems Rhets. Most spoke about only one, but Nan spoke in her energetic, humorous, and insightful way about all three. She was able to encapsulate their careers in a few phrases. How very sad, then, that at this the ’19 Fems Rhets she herself is memorialized.
Our paths crossed many times, and we exchanged Christmas cards for a few years after she adopted Isabel. She always said meeting my daughter Kate at Young Rhetoricians when Kate was around 2 (she is now 31) inspired the adoption. The story she told many times—every time we met—was that Kate pointed to Nan’s briefcase and said she was going to have one when she grew up. Kate now has a large purse which accommodates her laptop—so very close.
Nan and my late husband John hit it off. They had met at Young Rhetoricians and at a few other conferences that John attended, and we sometimes all had dinner together. John was a part-time faculty member, and although he started out teaching writing, he mainly taught philosophy courses despite having a Ph.D. in history. It was this philosophy background that interested Nan, and they had some good discussions.
Nan was so warm, funny, and smart. How can we get on without her?
Learning from Nan Johnson: “discovery of the unexpected”
Lynée Lewis Gaillet
Nan Johnson was one of my earliest academic influences. I came to doctoral studies in the late 1980s, after having taught composition for several years at state and community colleges. I loved the classroom teaching experience and my students, but like so many scholars of my generation, I had no idea that the work I was doing had such a rich history until I took classes in classical rhetoric and modern composition theory. My dissertation was grounded in this new knowledge, connecting my interests in 18th-century studies to 21st-century composition theory, but just as I graduated, this new little yellow book emerged: Nan’s 1991 Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America…and it rocked my academic world. For the first time, I thought about the significance of this period, how odd that American scholars weren’t studying the composition history in our own backyards. Perhaps most importantly, I realized that I needed to reexamine my own assumptions about historical rhetoric and to do some digging in local archives.
I began to seek Nan out at conferences (as did so many others), to pick her brain about the possibilities within 19th-century rhetorical history, to discover ways to cast this period not as a vacuous wasteland (a result of only looking to classroom pedagogy for rhetorical history), but instead to find connections between North American cultural history (civil war, abolition, suffrage, temperance) and rhetorical scholarship. She indulged me—at 4Cs, at FemRhet, at ISHR—and eventually I wasn’t so intimidated by her (although always in awe!); we became not only teacher/student but friends. We bonded over having children the same age, the difficulties of RC folks getting tenure in traditional English departments, women’s rhetoric, and, always, archival investigation. Nan taught me the importance of ephemera, serendipity, and non-traditional rhetorical venues—“Elocution! Letter Writing! Encyclopedias! Conduct Manuals! Parlor Rhetoric!” (“Autobiography” 295). She taught me how to design and teach courses grounded in archival research methods—“all points on the wheel pointing to the center” (“Autobiography” 295-96). And perhaps most importantly, she taught me that “[c]ollecting was thinking: thinking was collecting” (“Autobiography” 295).
I am just one of so many beneficiaries of Nan’s largesse: she wrote support letters for us, mentored us officially and informally at Coalition mentoring tables, in hotel lobby bars, and between conference sessions. When we were graduate students, she treated us with kindness and lent us a listening ear along with sound advice. Then as we became the professors, she extended that graciousness to our students, fostering generations of academics in the process. Nan was quick to offer hugs and send short congratulatory emails (composed in all lowercase letters and with lots of exclamation points); to nudge others to apply for grants by thinking outside the box; to share her latest ephemera and artifact finds from the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere. For decades, she shared her wisdom on Coalition issues, challenging board members to think of creative ways to address issues.
I will miss her soft yet urgent voice, seeing her sitting in the back of a conference session waving a lovely fan, having her pass me a note during a Coalition board meeting, receiving emails that open with messages like “hi, i was JUST thinking about you…,” “too little time together at that conference which seems to have no ‘gaps’ for visiting,” and “wowsy!!!!!!!”.
Nan was the best of academic friends, always glad to see you and willing to volunteer for tasks that few others wanted to take on. She listened before delivering an opinion or offering advice, encouraged non-traditional approaches to problems while helping to reel back in ideas gone too far astray, and she invited new scholars both to join and shift ongoing conversations. I can’t imagine being at FemRhets and not seeing Nan’s knowing smile across the room or watching her point that finger as she makes a brilliant point. I will miss follow-up emails to Coalition group discussions, messages that quickly get to the point and focus conversations: “Dear Everyone: Growing pains can take unexpected turns.”
I am planning a pilgrimage to the Nan Johnson Collection on Elocution and Rhetoric at The Ohio State University Libraries to pay homage to Nan, to see again many of the items she discussed and shared with me at conferences—the materials collated along the spokes of her “wheel”—and mostly to feel her spirit in the very ideas and ephemera that brought us together in the first place. She helped shift the trajectory for historical archival research in Rhetoric and Composition through her groundbreaking works and her powerful influence upon so many followers, those of us who emulate and build upon her research. Nan was a kind and generous mentor, one who encouraged us all to be open to the unexpected.
Johnson, Nan. Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America. Southern Illinois UP, 1991.
—. “Autobiography of an Archivist.” Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Eds. Alexis Ramsey, Wendy Sharer, Barb L’Eplattenier, and Lisa Mastrangelo. Southern Illinois UP, 2010: 290-300.
Encomium for Nan
I met Nan in 1982, when she became my professor of Rhetoric; she was my mentor ever after. I was a beginning doctoral student then, but my first course with Nan was an undergraduate one: “English 306: History and Theory of Rhetoric”: Plato to Burke, pretty much. I was required to take the course as a rhetoric graduate student who knew, well, nothing about rhetorical history and theory. Rhetoric was a study I’d had a nameless hunger for as an instructor (with an M.A. in English Literature) of composition and technical writing. In that early course, Nan talked about the wonder—and the glory—of “finding” rhetoric. I found it.
– – – That was 37 years ago. This span of time is hard for me to comprehend—because, although Nan grew as a scholar and teacher and partner and mother and more, she also remained Nan, herself, continuously, until her last email to me, sent on July 29 of this year. On that day, she apologized for writing only a short (for her) message; she said she was looking at “a terrible fight,” that every day was “quiet and about endurance.” She said, from her struggle, “I wish I was more interesting.”
In the way that people remember where they were when they heard John F. Kennedy had been shot, I remember exactly where I was when Nan told me, in August 2008, that imaging had revealed “a spot” on her lung; this was the beginning of the metastasis that would haunt the next eleven years of her life.
In the years of her mentorship and our friendship, Nan and I both got new jobs (I got her old one); we both became mothers; we both taught and we both wrote scholarly things; we both were diagnosed with breast cancer; our parents died.
Despite some similarities of experience, one of us could do things the other one couldn’t. One of us could sing, garden, make beautiful art; that was, of course, Nan. In a 2009 email, Nan wrote to me that she found her own art “astonishing”—“like magic or something; what a surprise discovery, not what I ever expected in my life.”
In case no one else mentions it, I want to say something about Nan’s singing. 1984 was the year of the first Inkshed conference—in Fredericton, New Brunswick, hosted by Canadian rhet/comp geniuses Jim Reither and Russ Hunt. The history of Inkshed is well documented, but I want to say how lucky I was that Inkshed 1984 was my first academic conference and that I attended with Nan and with Andrea Lunsford, my other infinitely amazing academic mother. Inkshed was, and remained, a small and intimate meeting, involving writing itself: shedding ink. The Inkshed nights, though, were as memorable and as moving as the Inkshed days—and their highlight was the Talent Show. Other attendees may remember other performances in particular (the deft moves of Anthony Paré as a mime, for example, have some staying power)—but, for me, as her student, the pinnacle was Nan picking up her guitar and beginning to sing. Everything else dropped away at that moment. Is it strange that I can still see and hear her singing “Danny’s Song” in a better-than-Anne-Murray sort of way?
Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with ya honey, Everything bring a chain of love And in the morning when I rise Bring a tear of joy to my eyes And tell me every thing's gonna be all right.
– – – Like a good researcher, for the purpose of this writing, I have surrounded myself with the materials of my Nan archive. I have all the notes I took in all of her classes. I have most of her publications I have the dot-matrix print-outs of my dissertation chapters with her pencilled marginal notes in her almost-illegible handwriting. (I was, at the time of dissertation writing, teaching at the University of Waterloo; my chapters were flown to her in a brown envelope by Canada Post, and returned to me the same way.) Her final comments on drafts I had thought were pretty good almost invariably said, “Now that you’ve figured out what you want to say, start the chapter over.” This was withering to me every time and also profoundly helpful. It is advice that I have often given my own graduate students—because it’s so often exactly the right advice. I have the medal (seriously, an actual medal, engraved) that she gave me at dinner after my dissertation defense. In my archive too, I have a series of photos of our kids, Ibbi and Gabe, standing under a particular tree at the edge of Jericho Beach in Vancouver, photos taken annually, ritually (to watch them grow side by side), when Nan and Isabel would visit in the summers. How completely Nan adored Isabel; how Nan was almost hypnotized watching the kids frolic—I’d say, literally, “frolic”—at the shore. I also have a priceless box of ephemera, each item wrapped in its own plastic envelope—19th C patent-medicine ads and brochures that Nan collected for me in Columbus bookstores for years, and sent to me as surprise gifts while I composed a cumbersome essay on the rhetorical history of pharmaceutical advertising. And I have years of Nan’s emails on my computer.
The historical artifacts Nan sent me were not her only gifts over the years. There were books. In the first one (it was The Rhetorical Tradition and Modern Writing [James Murphy, ed.]) she inscribed this, from an 1886 sermon by Phillips Brooks:
Do not pray for easy lives Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers Pray for powers equal to your tasks Right.
– – – Teaching seemed to come easily to Nan, because she loved it SO MUCH—never stopped being riveted by it. And she was a consummate performer, almost transported by the drama of her pedagogy. When Nan was my professor in that first undergraduate course, she would enter the room at precisely 9 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; on many days she sported a forest green light wool sweater, with a jaunty collar: asymmetrical, just a little off to the side of where you’d expect a collar to be. And she would take eight steps to the front desk, sit down (a little ceremoniously, really) open a large black 3-ring binder that, it seemed to me, contained all the secrets of the rhetorical universe, and begin to speak. I have to say she was mesmerizing, commanding. It occurs to me only now, as I date us both retrospectively, that she was, at the time, about 30 years old.
The first essay I read of Nan’s was “Ethos and the Aims of Rhetoric” (in Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse [Robert Connors, Lisa Ede, and Andrea Lunsford, eds]). I don’t think Nan ever knew that I titled my book, Health and the Rhetoric of Medicine, after that essay, plagiarizing a syntax that I found so rhetorically fine. In her essay, Nan wrote eloquently things that she taught me and that I have forever after known simply to be true: “The particular disposition of rhetorical theory during any one period in history reflects the intellectual and philosophical climate of that particular era; consequently, historical studies in rhetoric are also studies in the history of ideas” (98). Of course. Did I already know that? No, I did not. “When we trace the status of ethos in rhetorical theories of the classical period and our own contemporary discipline, we see that variations in definitions of ethos correspond to different views of the relationship between rhetorical practice, philosophy, and ethics” (98). The principle—of course, it applies not only to ethos—guides my research and my teaching. In 1990, Nan went to join Andrea at The Ohio State University, and, in 1991, I came to work at the University of British Columbia, where I still am—and where I teach a version of English 306 every fall. I’m teaching it right now. And when, as I prepared to write this piece, I found again my notes from the class I took in 1982, I was reminded that the voice I still hear when I teach, my voice, is hers. It always will be.
An Audience of One
Those who attended the 2005 CCCC meeting in San Francisco will remember that the day-to-day operations of the conference were significantly impacted by a labor dispute that resulted in a strike. Like many others presenting on panels in concurrent sessions, my presentation was moved to the floor of the main convention center. While the curtain partitions of booths in the convention center blocked views of adjacent session, they provided little in the way of protection from noise. In some cases, presenters were literally yelling over one another as they read papers.
As a master’s student attending my first CCCC in 2005 in San Francisco, I had spent months preparing my presentation. When I arrived at my booth for my session, I remember seeing no one in the audience and three people standing at the front of the room. One person was the panel chair, another was a co-presenter identified on the program, the fourth was someone who was presenting on a related topic but was left off the program. Although I took the chaotic setting of the conference in stride, I was not prepared for the possibility that no one would show up to hear a presentation on which I had spent so much time developing.
As the start time for our session passed—and as we listened to presenters in the adjacent rooms begin their papers—we looked at each other nervously. Were we in the right place? Should we present our papers if no one shows up? If no one is present to hear a conference paper, did it really happen?
Just as we were about to throw in the towel and head back to our hotel rooms, the curtains of our booth parted. Clad in black from head to toe, a shadowy figure emerged from the rear of the room and approached us earnestly.
“I’m Nan Johnson,” she said. “I’m here to listen to your papers. Pull up a chair.”
And that’s precisely what we did. Without asking any questions, we came down from the front of the room and made a semicircle around Nan. We took turns reading our papers to her. After each participant finished, Nan did what Nan is known for: she posed thoughtful but pointed questions about our arguments, offering candid, instructive, and at times, unforgettable feedback.
It’s impossible to gauge the impact of Nan’s presence as the only audience member at that CCCC session so many years ago. But I think it’s undeniable that when it came to scholarly work, Nan understood the importance of helping others feel understood. Maybe this is because Nan’s disposition and style was so often mischaracterized or misunderstood in other contexts. It’s hard to say…
Years later I asked Nan if she remembered being an audience of one for some M.A. students at CCCC in San Francisco. I’ll never forget her response. She grinned and said, “We’ll always have that moment together at CCCC, won’t we?”
Memories of Nan
My first memory of Nan is from academic year 1994/95, my first year of graduate school at The Ohio State University. At a rhet/comp gathering, Nan half-crouch-trailed behind her tiny daughter, Isabel, who was learning to walk. Nan pumped her fist and declared, “This is better than a book!” She loved books, reading and writing and teaching them. I loved being in her classes, for which she assigned just enough reading and created an open atmosphere for her students to explore their own interests. She introduced me to the music of Chris Williamson, which I’ve started listening to again after two decades. Listen to “Waterfall” from Williamson’s 1975 The Changer and the Changed. Imagine Nan singing it. She had a gorgeous voice.
Dim the House Lights: Memories of Nan Johnson
Rebecca Dingo, Ben McCorkle, and Tara Pauliny
The three of us have known Nan in many different capacities but we all share a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Nan was our teacher, our advisor, our co-conspirator, our most pointed critic, and the most dynamic and remarkable professor-performer. We can all say that none of us would have the careers we have now if not for Nan.
For Rebecca, Nan coached her and supported her in her decision to stay at OSU for her Ph.D.; when there was a search to hire a new Associate Professor, Nan slyly told Rebecca that she was keeping Rebecca’s intellectual pursuits in mind as she worked on the search committee. Even today, Rebecca frequently finds herself repeating Nan’s witty advice to her own students even metaphorically gesturing to take off one hat and put on another, as Nan did when explaining different perspectives. Nan demonstrated a grounded feminist ethic of care to Rebecca through her wise calculated advice, patience, and open ear.
For Tara, Nan was an intellectual and pedagogical inspiration. She brought a power and a presence into the classroom that Tara is still trying to emulate; when Nan sang protest songs to her feminist rhetorics graduate class, she practiced what she preached. At that moment, and in so many other ways, Nan embodied a feminist pedagogy that Tara has carried with her and continues to try to emulate—even if she can only manage it with a fraction of the intensity and panache Nan had.
For Ben, Nan was often a source of support, talking him off the ledge as he dealt with the anxiety of taking his candidacy exams (“Trust me, the room will start to feel cozy and friendly really quickly!”). Later, when Ben would go on to join the faculty at OSU, Nan was a generous, welcoming colleague, offering advice about how to make the transition from graduate student to grown-up a bit more smoothly.
But what we all have in common are deep and heartfelt memories of Nan as a performer. Nan definitely saw her background as a singer intimately connected to her persona and her performance as a teacher. She enacted performative aspects of teaching—and we know this not only because she explicitly said so, and on more than a few occasions, but also because we experienced and deeply learned from sitting in her class or office as audience members observing Nan.
Even now, as we recall Nan in her element in front of the class, we can see so vividly those iconic moves she would so often make. Pulling out her paper fan and whipping it open to make a dramatic point. The poignant way she would say “Isn’t that interesting?” to direct us to a particular discussion topic. The sly advice she offered for navigating Ph.D. exams or difficult conference or job market questions: “You know, that makes me think of…” The mock conspiratorial whisper she would adopt whenever she let us in on some non-canonical information on the history of rhetoric. The direct eye contact she made when she was giving us permission to question what a scholar took as true. The way she delivered those excited exclamations of “You have arrived!” when you reached a breakthrough on your latest draft. The figurative hats she’d perform wearing as she gave us different people’s perspectives that she was trying to show she was balancing. The sly smile, quick sip of a drink, and wink before she began singing “My Girl” on one particular occasion in a Fem Rhet conference in a hotel karaoke bar in the middle of nowhere Indiana. Her hand on our shoulder briefly checking in with us at Cs even though we were all now successfully tenured faculty.
These moves were her own version of the Chuck Berry duck walk or the Mick Jagger strut or when James Brown threw off his cape and returned to the mic after catching a second wind. She was a mentor, a scholar, an unforgettable teacher but perhaps most notably she was a rock star and we will miss her. Rest well, Nan.
Nan’s Feminist Rhetoric Seminar
Paige V. Banaji
Two of my favorite memories of Nan are from when I was a student in her graduate seminar on feminist rhetoric. It was my first semester as a Ph.D. student at Ohio State. I was coming from a smaller program and feeling intimidated by my new school. I had read Nan’s books, and I was certainly excited to be taking a graduate seminar with a scholar whose work I admired. However, I was also scared, and I was determined to demonstrate that I knew my stuff. So, I was feeling this mixture of confidence and imposter syndrome when one of my peers had the guts to interrupt the class conversation and actually ask, What is rhetoric? I felt like the game was over. You can’t ask that! I thought, She’ll think we don’t know!
Nan, pausing only for a moment, responded, “Well…” and launched into a brilliant, extemporaneous narrative on the history of the Western rhetorical tradition from the Sophists through the 20th century. We were captivated.
That Nan was able to cover so much ground and so much detail without a single note or any advance preparation was impressive. One might think that such a “sage on the stage” demonstration would only further my feelings of intimidation. However, Nan delivered her lecture with a generosity of wisdom that is hard to articulate but important to my understanding of her as a teacher and mentor. Nan spent most of her life studying this subject of rhetoric, which she loved so deeply. She was eager to share her knowledge. Moreover, I think in that moment, she remembered what it felt like when she was the novice, asking what rhetoric is. (She was always willing to share her stories of her own process of learning. For example, in “Autobiography of an Archivist,” she describes with admirable, eloquent honesty her initial, “haphazard…lurching” to find a method for her research on nineteenth-century rhetoric .)
Nan’s impromptu lecture taught me a lot about the history of rhetoric, but the moment also taught me that it’s okay to ask questions and took the edge off of my imposter syndrome. We were all there to learn, and we had a generous teacher who was willing to tell us what she knew.
She was also willing to work alongside us to develop knowledge together. The lecture was a move that was out of character for the feminist scholar whose pedagogical practices were usually more student-centered. Indeed, it was the only time in that class that I remember her giving a lecture. The other moment that sticks out to me about that seminar on feminist rhetoric is one that demonstrates a very different pedagogy. At mid-term, after having read the significant packet of material she had prepared for us, Nan announced that we, the students, would be determining the rest of the readings for the term. We created a collaborative reading packet, each student contributing one reading that represented their particular interests in relation to feminist rhetoric. The result was a collection that demonstrated the class’s collaborative understanding of feminist rhetoric and became a foundation for my own understanding. The collection also fondly reminds me of Nan and of each member of that class. I still have those readings in a magenta three-ring binder in my office, and I plan to keep them forever.
These two memories—of the lecture and of the collaborative reading packet—reveal two seemingly opposing qualities that Nan held in balance as a teacher and mentor. On the one hand, she was such a brilliant, knowledgeable scholar. On the other hand, she promoted a feminist, collaborative spirit of inquiry.
Johnson, Nan. “Autobiography of an Archivist.” Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Eds. Alexis Ramsey, Wendy Sharer, Barb L’Eplattenier, and Lisa Mastrangelo. Southern Illinois UP, 2010: 290-300.
Nan Johnson Walked into a Bar…
Gavin P. Johnson
I first met Nan in 2015 at CCCC in Tampa at, of all places, a bar. I was being recruited for Ph.D. programs, and Scott DeWitt invited me to the annual Ohio State party. That evening I was star struck—meeting Cindy Selfe, Andrea Lunsford, Cheryl Glenn, and Jonathan Alexander. It was a bit overwhelming, and I needed a drink. As I waited at the bar for my drink, Nan approached me and introduced herself. THE Nan Johnson was shaking my hand and telling me how much she enjoyed my writing sample in a bar in Tampa…I could have died from excitement. As we talked, and as she cracked jokes, we discussed my concerns about joining the Ohio State program, particularly that there was no faculty with a vested interest in Queer Rhetorics. Nan looked at me and plainly said, “I’ll do that for you. We’ll do it together. Trust me.” And then she turned and walked away.
And trust her I did. After surviving my first semester of the Ph.D. program, I met with Nan in her office—an office that looked exactly as one would expect the office of a historian to look like: mounds of books, dusty pictures, stacks of 19th century rhetoric texts—and nervously brought up the possibility of an independent study. I asked, “Nan, do you remember when you told me we’d study Queer Rhetorics together?” She responded, “Yes. Are you ready now?” I nodded, “yes,” and, with a smile, she said, “Let’s go! It’ll be so much fun!” I spent the next semester meeting with Nan as we worked together to understand the ways Feminist and Queer Rhetorics intersect and diverge, especially when researching rhetorical histories. I emphasize that we worked together because it was a learning experience for the both of us: Nan had the Feminism covered and I brought the Queer Rhetorics to the party. We helped each other understand how issues of gender, sexuality, race, social justice, immigration, archives, and academic disciplinary politics become intermeshed to inform critical methodologies that can offer rhetoric and composition scholars distinct affordances and constraints. We had a grand ole time.
As I write these memories, I keep smiling and thinking about all the moments I could mention. I could talk about how Nan carefully reviewed my writing and asked pointed questions while wearing the sternest look I could imagine until I explained the issue to her satisfaction and a sly smile crossed her face; I could talk about how I often left her office in slight pain from laughing at her unique and dry sense of humor; but what I want to conclude with is a rather quiet moment. About mid-way through my program, I was very upset with the future of my research and felt like I might not be able to accomplish my goals since my research agenda didn’t really look like what my colleagues were working on. In essence, I wasn’t sure if I would have the support I needed. As I told Nan this she leaned forward, looked me in the eyes, and told me, “I will always support your research. That’s why I approached you back in Tampa. I wanted to be part of the work you are going to create. I wholly support you.” Years later, just a week before her passing, Nan echoed this earlier declaration through email. She signed off, “Always on your team, Nan.”
I will always be on Nan’s team.
“I can see your book right there next to all the others”: Nan as Scholarly Mentor
As a first-year Ph.D. student at Ohio State, I met with my advisor, Nan Johnson, to discuss ideas for my dissertation. At the time, I only had three words: women, Christianity, rhetoric. I’d written several seminar papers on women preachers and women’s use of Biblical rhetoric, but I didn’t have a clear direction or focus for a dissertation-length project. Nan’s response was indicative of her approach as an advisor and a mentor: she took my abstract ideas and turned them into concrete, pragmatic action steps that showed a great deal of trust in my abilities as a scholar. She told me three things:
- focus on the early 20th century because the 19th century has been done (most notably by her in Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life—I was relieved to not have to compete with that seminal text),
- do American, rather than British, so you have access to original primary sources without having to travel internationally on a graduate student budget, and
- pick a denomination and a social movement and find out what they were writing/publishing.
With that practical advice in hand, I went out to explore the archives to see what I could find.
In her “Autobiography of an Archivist,” Nan describes her “high regard for the discovery of the unexpected” (291, emphasis in original) and as my mentor, she pushed me to undertake my own journey of discovery. Through following my own curiosity within Nan’s helpful parameters, I first discovered the strangely titled Methodist periodical Heathen Woman’s Friend, which led me to the existence of an entire movement that had not yet been written about by scholars of feminist rhetoric: Protestant women’s foreign missionary societies. Although Nan had no knowledge of such groups beforehand, and her own scholarly expertise was not in the rhetoric of religion, I would not have discovered these sources without her guidance. And then, once I had figured out my topic, she searched her own personal archive and generously loaned me several 19th century texts that made mention of American women’s missionary work, texts that would later provide important evidence for my argument that these societies were well-known and well-respected in their time, in spite of being later forgotten.
My article that appears in this Peitho issue is based on a chapter from the dissertation project that Nan directed. In spite of her excellent mentorship, the process of writing it was not always smooth. When I brought Nan my first draft of my first chapter, which didn’t seem to be coming together in the way I had hoped, she said simply, “Often the first chapter doesn’t work.” As devastating as that comment was at the time, she was right—the chapter as I had originally planned it didn’t work at all. I ended up throwing out my initial draft and starting over, but taking that pause allowed me to rethink my entire dissertation project in a way that was productive and, ultimately, essential. The texts that I originally thought I’d address only in that one chapter (the United Study series of textbooks) eventually became the focus of the entire dissertation.
Nan’s pointed criticisms and brusque honesty could hurt (for some of her advisees, myself included, breaking down into tears in her office was a sort of rite-of-passage), but I quickly learned that she criticized because she truly cared. My scholarship, writing, and thinking vastly improved under her tutelage. She could also say just the right thing at the right moment to encourage a frustrated, overwhelmed graduate student. In our first conversation about my dissertation, before I even had a solid topic, Nan pointed at her bookshelf (where she had the entire series of “Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms” along with other classics in the field) and said, “I can see your book right there next to all the others.” Knowing that she had such confidence in my abilities gave me the courage to explore, experiment, and struggle through when this project seemed impossible.
I was one of Nan’s final three advisees who defended in the semester before she retired, and she was determined to stick around until all of us had finished. The last email I sent to Nan was to tell her that my article would be published in an upcoming issue of Peitho, and I’m humbled that the work she was so influential in encouraging and supporting can now be published alongside remembrances of her. I’m heartbroken that my book will never sit on her office shelf, but I’m incredibly grateful for the time I did have with such a great scholar and mentor.
Nan Johnson: A Mentor
The following remarks were delivered by Jonathan Buehl on October 25, 2019, at the Faculty Club of the Ohio State University during a celebration of Nan Johnson’s life and career.1
In a 2009 essay titled “Autobiography of an Archivist,” Nan reflected on her career as a scholar and historian of rhetoric. After describing how a key artifact2 had shaped her thinking for her book Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910, Nan wrote “This has become my guiding question: What does this everyday artifact tell us about how rhetorical genres and values are put in place and upheld?”3
To highlight and honor Nan’s many contributions both to the Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies program at Ohio State and to the field at large, I’ll take up a similar question with a few everyday artifacts from my own archives: What might these artifacts reveal—and what do they not reveal—about Nan as a friend, colleague, mentor, and legendary scholar of Rhetoric and Composition?
Exhibit 1 is an email from 2007, which was sent to the faculty and graduate students at the University of Maryland—my graduate alma mater—inviting “all interested in Rhetoric and Composition and American Culture” to a pair of events scheduled back-to-back that were to be my first encounter with Nan—a lecture on “The Cultural Power of the Gettysburg Address” and a graduate student workshop titled “Tracking Covert Pedagogies: Rhetoric and Gender Roles.”4 This invitation to a Nan Johnson doubleheader tells us much that everyone here already knows. Only top scholars get invited to deliver workshops and talks at major research institutions, and in 2007 Nan had long been the kind of rock star scholar that could expect and did receive many such invitations. From her participation in the original Octalog to her ground-breaking books—Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America and Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910—Nan was a leader in that generation of scholars that changed what it meant to do rhetorical history, both through her scholarship and through her collaboration and mentoring through the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition.
But what this short invitation did not even begin to hint at was that three and half hours of Nan Johnson holding forth is really something to behold—her laser focus, her wry smile, her frank and well-supported arguments that left you utterly convinced and wiser for having heard them. In the workshop, Nan engaged with students in that moment but she also made more durable connections with their ideas and with them. Afterward, I never expected to hear from Nan, but she struck up an email exchange with this graduate student she barely knew, offering to mine her collection of 19th-century encyclopedias for sources that might help with my work. As I would later learn, such generosity was just characteristic Nan. She loved the work of this profession and truly enjoyed mentoring others as they joined it.
Exhibits 2 and 3
Exhibits 2 and 3: A spreadsheet and a diagram. This spreadsheet generated by Ohio State’s GradForms portal captures—in four pages of tiny rows of tiny font—the dozens of graduate students Nan worked with on dissertations, theses, and exams during her time at Ohio State, from the first exam committee she joined in 1990 to her last advisees of 2018.5 Although this artifact documents her popularity and dedication as a graduate mentor, it lists no dissertation or thesis titles and therefore does not capture the diverse interests of the students she mentored. Nan’s students wrote on topics across the history of rhetoric—from the Sophists to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and everything in between. And although most people (Nan included) would not think of her as a digital media scholar, she guided many of the graduate students who would go on to become award-winning leaders in that field as they brought rhetorical history and theory to bear on an emerging digital landscape.
Nor does this simple list capture the frenetic energy, candid demeanor, and deep caring that Nan brought to her role as a graduate advisor—which is why I’ll turn to Exhibit 3.6 This diagram—with all its arrows, rings, and multiple colors—probably only ever made sense to me, Nan, and one other person in this world. But I recall vividly when Nan burst into my office after meeting with one of our advisees. Conflicting teaching schedules kept us all from meeting at the same time to discuss a series of epiphanies the student had about her argument, which were going to mean a radical restructuring of her dissertation.
“She’s really had a breakthrough” Nan said with a grin, before going over her take—the diagram—of where the student’s project was now and where it might be headed. “This is it, she’s got it. Don’t you think.” And, indeed, I agreed. How could I not. It was all right there in the diagram.
Such enthusiasm and engagement in mentoring was just typical for Nan. In the days after Nan passed and the weeks since, many of her students have posted online or written to me in private about how much they valued those sometimes intense meetings with Nan—how they could tell by her eyes and her smile (or lack of smile) that you were either on the right path or wandering in the weeds.
And such mentoring was not limited to students and faculty here at Ohio State. In the introduction to their collection, Rhetoric, History, and Women’s Oratorical Education, David Gold and Catherine Hobbs describe the significance of a chance encounter with Nan:
At the 2010 Rhetoric Society of American Conference, we remarked to Nan Johnson that given this renewed interest in elocution, perhaps it was time to put together an edited collection, imagining that she would take on the task and, perhaps, invite us to contribute. Her response was immediate: “Great idea, I think you should do it.” Her imprimatur quite literally gave us the courage to move forward.7
Exhibit 4: Five years’ worth of RCL Faculty Scheduling Templates from 2013 through 2018—the year that Nan retired.8 These documents can tell us something about Nan’s teaching toward the end of her career. In that five-year span, she taught graduate and undergraduate surveys on rhetoric as well some of the first sections of the new methods course for the then-new major concentration in Writing, Rhetoric, and Literacy. But Nan also taught 10 sections of composition—a section of First-Year Writing and a section of Second-Year Writing every year for those five years.
What these tables don’t explain is that teaching writing was not a chore for Nan. She enjoyed it; it was a vocation she valued and embraced. I vividly recall a lunch conversation with Nan in this very room in which she talked about experiences, early in her career, teaching writing at night for a community college.9 She described how eager her developmental writing students were to learn, how they struggled, and how pleased they were when they could finally write a paragraph to be proud enough of to share with others. Nan knew how important writing could be, and that knowledge informed all of her teaching.
These tables also don’t communicate Nan’s genuine zeal for teaching. When I started at Ohio State, my office was just two doors down from Nan’s, we generally taught on similar schedules, and so we’d often chat about our classes as we crossed paths. Whether she was teaching first-year writing or a graduate seminar, her responses to the “How are your classes going?” question were always something like “It’s just a blast” or “Well, we’re doing Burke this week, but they’re going to love it,” or “Oh, we are having so – much – fun!”
And that sense of fun was not one-sided. Her students at all levels really responded to Nan’s genuine enthusiasm for teaching as well as her no-nonsense approach to leading discussion. As one undergraduate wrote in a course evaluation “She is an incredible instructor with a palpable enthusiasm for teaching, not only the course material but communicating the nuances of each rhetorical form and its functions. Our discussions were informative, well led, and she didn’t let anyone drone on once a key point was made.”
Now I could read off similar glowing praise from page after page after page of student comments.10 Instead, I’ll conclude by reading just one more. It is brief and direct, but I think it might capture how many people here are feeling today:
Dr. Johnson is one of those teachers you know you won’t forget. I’ve learned and grown so much from her teaching and will miss her.
Endnotes and Delivery Cues
- Jonathan Buehl became Nan’s colleague when he joined the Department of English at Ohio State in 2008. He is currently the Vice Chair of Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies—a position Nan held from 2000 to 2005.
- Johnson, Nan. “Autobiography of an Archivist.” Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Eds. Alexis Ramsey, Wendy Sharer, Barb L’Eplattenier, and Lisa Mastrangelo. Southern Illinois UP, 2010: 290-300.
- [Cue] Held aloft: “Dear Millie,” Shelby Dry Goods Herald, 1883 (Figure 19 of Working in the Archives). Nan described the significance of this artifact in “Autobiography of an Archivist”: “In Gender and Rhetorical Space, I used several illustrations to convey the embodied rhetorical limitations that nineteenth-century middle-class women were encouraged to see as virtues. Prominent among these illustrations was ‘Dear Millie,’ a drawing from the front cover of a nineteenth-century advertising circular that would become the featured visual in the chapter on letter writing. More important, ‘Dear Millie’ became the prototype for the kind of artifact of material culture that would become increasingly important to my research and to the configuration of the archive” (297).
- [Cue] Held aloft: A printed copy of an email from 2007 inviting faculty and students at the University of Maryland to a lecture and workshop by Professor Nan Johnson.
- [Cue] Held aloft and ruffled for emphasis: A four-page spreadsheet listing graduate students who Nan officially mentored in some way—as a dissertation director, dissertation committee member, candidacy exam chair, candidacy exam committee member, master’s exam chair or member, etc.
- [Cue] Held aloft: A sheet of white, blue-lined paper torn from a perforated writing pad. In pencil: Two sets of coffee-mug sized circles labeled with smudged descriptions (in Nan’s handwriting) of dissertation chapters written next to or inside the circles. Arrows (in pencil, with some over-written with green ink) demonstrate how concepts from a set of circles at the top half of the page map to a different arrangement of the same content in the bottom half of the page.
- Gold, David, and Catherine L. Hobbs, eds. Rhetoric, History, and Women’s Oratorical Education: American Women Learn to Speak. Routledge, 2013. xi.
- [Cue] Held aloft and paged through for emphasis: A stapled packet of scheduling templates of various designs for academic years 2013-2014 through 2017-2018. Each document lists the courses to be taught by Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies faculty for a given academic year.
- The celebration of Nan’s life and career took place in Colleagues, the lower-level casual dining space of Ohio State’s Faculty Club. Nan was a long-time member of the club and would often take graduate students and junior faculty to lunch at Colleagues.
- [Cue] Held aloft and paged through for emphasis: Student evaluations from one section of an undergraduate rhetoric course taught by Nan Johnson.
The Impact of Nan Johnson
Lisa Mastrangelo and Barb L’Eplattenier
It’s hard to describe Nan and the massive impact she had on our lives in a small space. We realized, after her death, that we’d spent far less time in her presence than you would think, given how much she impacted us. Nan’s mentorship resonated with us in so many ways, from advice on manuscripts to advice on careers and relationships. She had an amazing generosity of spirit, a fabulous sense of humor, an ability to say just the thing you needed to hear, and an ability to challenge you to do better when you needed it.
Nan, for her giant stature, was amazingly humble. When we created the first set of awards from the Coalition—the book award and the article award—Nan served on the committee. Nan left our pre-announcement meeting early, and in a flash of inspiration, in less than 30 minutes, we conceived and created the Nan Johnson Outstanding Graduate Student Travel Award. One of us ran to make flyers that night, and the rest of us giggled in excitement. The next day, Barb had the pleasure of announcing the new awards and the look on Nan’s face will remain with us forever. She had no idea and was overwhelmed. It was a great moment and one that we are proud to have had a small part in.
Part of knowing Nan was also knowing and loving her quirkiness. She survived menopause with the help of a lovely red fan that she often whipped out at meetings and presentations. She had the habit of returning emails to only one of us—which one varied without rhyme or reason.
Throughout her career, Nan remained committed both to the creation and support of history and historiography and the Coalition itself. Attendance at her mentoring group went up and down, but Nan was always there, supporting scholars in their work to bring women and women’s work to others’ awareness. It is through that group that we met—Lisa reminded Barb last year that we’d known each other 20 years thanks to Nan and her mentoring group—we met in one of her mentoring groups at the Coalition Wednesday night meeting. As the only people in the group who were researching the Progressive Era, we immediately clicked. The rest is, as they say, history. So, to celebrate our 20 years together, we sent her a lovely bouquet of flowers to thank her.
Above all, Nan reminded us that there are lots of ways to support people, lots of ways to move the discipline forward.
We turned to Nan when we needed mentoring or reassurance or just a good dose of loving and reality and a giant, heartfelt hug. It’s so hard to write this because it’s impossible to capture a person such as Nan Johnson. Her presence was a soft backdrop against our professional lives. It’s hard to imagine going forward without her.
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