Kate (Katharine J.) Ronald passed away unexpectedly October 27, 2020. In her 20 years at the University of Miami at Ohio, where she won the university’s highest teaching award, she was Roger and Joyce L. Howe Professor of English and Director of the Howe Writing Initiative. Before that she taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for over a decade and helped begin writing centers at both institutions. She directed over 50 dissertations and theses at Miami alone, not counting her other grad committee work as a reader or her advising at Nebraska, indicative of her generosity and reach in the field.
For those who didn’t know Kate personally, here’s just a glimpse of her essence from her lovely memorial:
Everybody who knew Kate knew what she loved and what she didn’t. She was never without an animal in her life, often several. In Miami, she kept goats and ducks and a donkey named after her niece Margaret. But it was the dogs that held her special regard. She said she was a connoisseur of the rat dog, but she loved them all. Sparky, her final canine friend, has been adopted and no doubt will continue to sport the special occasion outfits Kate delighted in his wearing.
She loved being a Southern girl, and she was a proud Kentuckian, which meant she was a superb cook and a perfect hostess. She was a rabid Cardinal fan and wouldn’t miss a basketball game. She loved red lipstick, great hats and any little inanimate object with feet. She loved justice and equality. She adored Bruce Springsteen.
As anyone who was lucky enough to know Kate can attest, it would be impossible to collect tributes that distinguish between the professional and personal, since Kate brilliantly and beautifully merged both. The tributes below come from colleagues and former graduate students who show with humor and poignancy how much so many gained about teaching, learning, and writing through her classes, her collaboration, but mostly through her friendship.
- Meredith Love and Charlotte Hogg
- Hepzibah Roskelly
- Joy Ritchie
- Connie Kendall Theado and Brenda M. Helmbrech
- Tom Pace
- Jason Palmeri
- Lisa Blankenship
- Morris Young
- Mary Jean Corbett
- Keith Rhodes
- Cristy Beemer
- LuMing Mao
- Lisa Shaver
Following the tributes, we’ve included a reprint of Lisa Shaver’s “The Making of Available Means” from Peitho (vol 20.2, 2018) that draws on interviews with Kate and Joy Ritchie about the creation of the anthology. We’ve then included a bibliography of Kate’s work, and we are grateful to Ann S. Updike for providing this information.
Meredith Love and Charlotte Hogg
A Common Heritage
We are writing this today as cousins. We are related, of course, through Joy Ritchie and the late Kate Ronald—Kate directed Meredith’s dissertation at Miami University, and her sister-in-collaboration, Joy Ritchie, directed Charlotte’s at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (with co-chair Amy Goodburn). And Kate had also been Charlotte’s teacher in an advanced composition course at University of Nebraska-Lincoln back in 1993. It was the discovery of this common heritage that made us feel comfortable with one another almost instantly when we met in 2006 on the first day of the summer WPA workshop in blazing hot Chattanooga, Tennessee. We became fast friends. This familiar connection generated an initial trust; we suspected that our lineage meant that we had similar views of teaching, a foundation in some of the same theories of writing, and an understanding of the necessity of supporting the work of other women in the field as well as a respect for the women that came before us.
Kate and I met in 1999, in the last century, as my children would say. When I began writing this piece, I thought I might focus my attention back to those days, on what she taught me about professional civility or how she shepherded me through the dissertation and interview phases of my graduate career. Instead, I find myself compelled to write about my relationship with Kate today and the relationship she has with my students through Available Means. Filled with the fitful, furious, assertive, and smart voices of women who transgressed boundaries and shocked the system, the names of the women in Available Means are often new to my undergraduate students. When I first started teaching the course, the cries to be heard, the demanding of a forum and a voice, and the calls for action made by the women in Available Means all felt past tense. It was all history. My students appreciated it and were inspired by it, but the exigencies were lost on them. My job was to help them see how these selections were consequential and how they might be useful to them.
In their “Introduction” to another book, Teaching Rhetorica, Ronald and Ritchie reflect upon the reclamation and recovery of women’s rhetorics and ask “[W]hat difference has this renaissance made in the field?” (2). They stress the importance of asking “So What?” (2) and turn to pragmatism and William James who stresses “looking toward last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (11).
So the choices made by Kate and Joy have mattered. The consequences of these choices matter for my students today.
A majority of my students come from a protestant Christian tradition, about 37% of the student body is African American, and many are first-generation college students. In 2021 my students see Available Means with different eyes. The rhetorical situations and the rhetoric employed are clearly relevant for them today and even serve as mentor texts, or mini master classes in how to discursively navigate their worlds. Here is how some of these voices have mattered.
How we are redeemed and enlarged by the mercy and grace of our sweet, kind and ever-loving mother Jesus; and of the properties of motherhood; but Jesus is our true mother…
Julian of Norwich (27)
Many of the students in my classroom are practicing Christians who have felt excluded or have been explicitly excluded by their churches. Julian of Norwich’s casting of Jesus as mother resonates in material ways for students who have walked away from institutions who wouldn’t consider them for leadership positions or for those who no longer have a place in institutions that their family has been a part of for generations. Reading and understanding the strategies of women rhetors like Julian of Norwich, Margaret Fell, and Dorothy Day are necessary for them; they amplify their own thoughts and their voices—whether spoken or unspoken.
Let me tell you a story. Let me tell you the story that is in no part fiction, the story of the female body taught to hate itself.
Dorothy Allison (449)
The rate at which women are murdered by men is consistently high in South Carolina, usually putting us in the top 10 in the country. When we read Dorothy Allison or Andrea Dworkin in our class, we are reading the lives of many of my students. No, they didn’t all grow up in poor, rural areas, nor have they necessarily been sexually assaulted themselves. But most have felt the heat of such a threat or the fear suffered by loved ones. The raw honesty and rage of women such as these are a comfort and a relief to these readers. They give them permission to be furious.
The lawlessness here described is not confined to one locality. In the past ten years over a thousand colored men, women and children have been butchered, murdered and burnt in all parts of the South.
Ida B. Wells (197)
Ida B. Wells is a true revelation for my students, and most are shocked that they have never heard of her. When Wells unrelentingly lists the different occasions upon which people were lynched in the late 19th century, when we hear their names and the circumstances surrounding their deaths, students hear “Black Lives Matter.” Discussing connections between then and now helps them to make their own cases, and, from Wells, they learn that logic and persuasion and passion can all work together and that these means are available to them now, today.
There is so much to learn from Available Means. Students tell me that this is one of the only books they kept from their undergraduate coursework; others say that they still refer to it. This recovery work has been of consequence for my students and continues to be for me as well, as students work to uncover and discover these texts. And the texts help them to recover and form their own perspectives and courses of action as adults. They—we—are still learning the available means.
Thank you, Kate for teaching us this through these women. And, as so many will share in these pages, thank you for living this work and demonstrating to us how to use words with honesty, force, and love. On behalf of my students and many, many others, thank you for giving us this very usable past to help us with this very unstable present.
I wasn’t as close to Kate as the rest of the contributors here, and yet her impact on my life has been profound, as her presence has come at kairotic moments throughout my life. These culminated with Persuasive Acts, the follow up to Available Means I co-edited with Shari Stenberg. This text—its contents, my connection to it—is tethered to what I learned from Kate as an undergrad. When I took her Advanced Composition course in my last semester as an undergrad at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I felt a spark of bravery as a writer and, for my first time, possibility as a teacher. I have an awful memory, yet I remember the classroom in Andrews Hall, chairs in a circle, her sharing productivity gems before it was the thing to do, like how she would read while blow-drying her curly hair. She was charismatic and yet always made us feel that our writing—and the values we laid bare there—were the most important thing in the room.
I still have her syllabus and journal with her responses.
photos © Charlotte Hogg
I see in them now the feminist ethic and praxis Meredith describes from Available Means and her other scholarship. Even then, before I knew that rhet/comp was a field, I knew I wanted to be like her. I visited her office wondering what to do with my life; she told me about the field of rhetoric and composition, made a list of programs for me to apply to (this was before one could look them up online), and I applied to exactly that list and wound up at Oregon State, the perfect MA program for me.
I had begun my PhD at UNL the same year she departed for Miami and somehow ended up on a panel with her at the first Feminisms and Rhetorics conference in 1997, where her response to my talk again influenced my trajectory. Years later, drafting an article, I found just what I needed in one of her lesser-known pieces: she just kept appearing to teach me.
Then, in another serendipitous moment, she arrived on my campus as an external reviewer for our department, and I managed to nab the seat next to her at one of the dinners where we talked about teaching Available Means to undergraduates. We talked about just what Meredith describes: how the pieces can feel both dated and immediate to students and about how a new anthology could speak to Available Means. Yet my teaching context differs from Meredith; at a predominantly white institution, the immediacy didn’t always come through to some students who could distance themselves with privilege and presentism.
As Shari and I worked on Persuasive Acts, the follow up to Available Means, we knew our goal shouldn’t and couldn’t be to mimic or match Available Means but for its theories to inform us even as we worked to acknowledge that our positionalities were aligned with Kate and Joy as white feminists. Still: the more we found new, urgent texts, particularly in the wake of the 2016 election, the more Available Means held up. In 2019, I was able to teach an undergraduate course that used both Available Means and selections from Persuasive Acts together, gathering the Treaty of 1851 quilts by Gina Adams, an activist speech by Tara Houska on the Dakota Access Pipeline with Cherokee Women from Available Means. Taking care to work against a monolithic Native voice or ethic, students were also able to see what Meredith relays—an urgency pulsing through the historical trajectory. From pairings such as these, our course developed what we came to call “rhetorics of representation,” about tactics rhetors employ to draw in audiences with differing lived experiences. Students came to this by describing the persuasive power of the texts despite many coming from spaces of privilege.
I still use an adaptation of an assignment I had in Kate’s class nearly 30 years ago that centralizes student voices but asks them to contribute to a larger conversation. The introduction to Available Means is still the most definitive text I share with undergraduates and graduate students, which is not to say it can’t and shouldn’t be challenged—Kate and Joy wouldn’t want it any other way.
I’ll confess that I’m drawn to the full circle story of being an undergrad of Kate’s and now a co-editor of Persuasive Acts, not because of its tidiness—I learned from Kate that tidy conclusions can say a whole lot of nothing—but because of the so what. I’ve always been a somewhat reluctant academic, but at every key moment in my trajectory Kate modeled an alternative through embodying the she theorized: unpretentious but whip smart, generous with guidance without taking over, and witty as hell. She’ll remain unmatched in these qualities but still made me—and, as you’ll see, so many others—strive to be the best teachers, researchers, and people we can be, which is what made her such an exemplar.
Kate’s favorite movie line of all time, she would tell you, was from one of her favorite movies, The Godfather. “It’s not personal,” Michael Corleone says to his brother as he gets ready to murder the men responsible for wounding their father. “It’s strictly business.” The line and variations of it become a refrain in the movie. Even when a member of the “family” is taken away to be murdered for his betrayal of the Corleones, he acknowledges the code. “Tell Michael it was just business.”
The delicious irony of the line appealed to Kate’s sense of humor. If anything is, dying is personal. But the deeper truth of this Godfather theme struck her even more than its humor. It became a cornerstone of her thinking about her teaching and writing life. The attempt to divorce the personal from the professional is ludicrous and not only when someone’s life is literally at stake. People’s lives, the quality of them, truly are at stake when we teach reading and writing. Kate understood better than anybody I know that it was personal, this business of teaching and learning.
I suspect that most of the writers who are contributing reflections to this issue will tell a Kate story or two as they describe her influence on them, both as professionals and as people. It’s hard to talk about her impact without talking about her persona: her liveliness, her genuine funniness, her generosity, her honesty. All those qualities were in evidence in nearly every lecture or presentation she gave, in much of her writing, and in all her dealings with colleagues in her universities and in the field at large.
She would like that. I think she’d see it as a mark of professional accomplishment—that her constant attempt to elevate and sustain experience and the individual in a culture that has often denied or disparaged both—has blossomed in the work of those she has touched. She used her self to teach and was rewarded by watching her students become stronger writers, braver speakers and more imaginative thinkers under her care. She knew them, she made them laugh, and she invited them to tell the truth because she told it.
It was the same with colleagues like me. A lot of years ago Kate and I stood together on a podium at CCCC to give our first talk as members of the profession, new assistant professors. We spoke about our work in the University of Louisville’s Writing Center. I’m sure it was her idea to share the podium and talk together like the friends we were. We interrupted each other and laughed while we spoke of the value of teaching challenging literature to beginning writers. As I remember it, most of the questions afterward, in fact, were about us rather than our topic. I might have thought that a weakness. But not Kate. She knew the personal was part of our topic and part of what she wanted to say to the profession.
Kate taught us—and continues to in the work of so many who’ve been influenced by her—to value experience and to use the personal in professional life. She always valued the human, and the humans she collaborated with and taught. She never forgot her own human-ness—foibles, strengths and beauties together—and she never forgot ours. We will always love her for it.
So What? What Difference Does It Make?
When I heard that Kate had died I was driving from the Oregon Coast to my home in Portland, and I remembered an afternoon that Kate and I had spent at the coast after the first Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference organized by Lisa Ede at Oregon State. As we walked on the beach that September afternoon, pants’ legs rolled up to walk in the surf, then bought earrings at a little shop, we were also working on the proposal for Available Means. While mourning the loss of my friend, I am also reminded of the excitement and just plain fun that I experienced working with Kate, whether as coordinators of composition at the University of Nebraska, planning curriculum for first year writing and graduate seminars or, after she moved to Miami, sitting together at the computer in Oxford, taking breaks to feed her goats and mule or play with one of her scruffy dogs, all while writing the introduction to Available Means.
Kate stood out as a presence in any room. She radiated enthusiasm and commitment. She was the smartest, wittiest, most engaging storyteller, always with the right turn of phrase. Unafraid to push boundaries, she spoke back to authority. You could always expect an honest response from Kate. But when she delivered the truth it was with generosity and humility. I knew her as a rigorous teacher, caring mentor, and colleague. I watched undergraduate students light up as she encouraged them to try out a new approach to a text or reconsider their own writing from a new perspective. Over the past few weeks I’ve heard many of her former graduate students describe how Kate inspired them as scholars and as teachers while she also recognized the interwoven circumstances of their personal and academic lives. She pushed them beyond impasses in their dissertations and supported them as they faced illness or other crises.
Although it’s not possible to summarize or categorize Kate’s contributions, for me several constants are woven through all of them. Her holistic approach to teaching is not surprising because she understood her work as praxis, the interconnections among our teaching, research, academic, and personal lives. They coexist without the hierarchy that can undermine the vitality of our activities. She acted on her belief that theory and practice are reciprocal. We enact theory in our practice and our practice performs our theory. This understanding of praxis was connected to her feminist belief in collaboration, which she encouraged in research, teaching, and program leadership. Early in her time at the University of Nebraska as coordinator of composition and the writing center she created collaborative structures that allowed Ph.D. students to alternate as co-coordinators. She helped to initiate a monthly faculty and graduate student writing group and advocated for collaborative teaching. Kate understood the energy that develops through the sense of community that collaboration makes possible.
“What difference does it make?” This was an overarching question that Kate posed as she guided both students’ undergraduate writing or dissertations. It also guided our explorations of women’s rhetorics and raised questions and unexpected possibilities about the expanded dimensions and fluidity of women’s rhetorics, including the urgency that often sparked women’s speaking and writing, and the innovative rhetorical methods and forms they employed. Her question, “What difference does it make?” also demands that we examine the uses we make of the emerging canon of women’s rhetoric beyond academic scholarship and professional advancement. And always, Kate asked herself as well as us how the question should guide our own writing, reading, pedagogy and civic action. Now, as we remember and honor Kate, we know without question that her dynamic presence enriched us, expanded our perspectives, and made an immense difference to us her friends, her colleagues, students, and to the institutions and society she served.
Connie Kendall Theado and Brenda M. Helmbrech
“We have begun this book many times,” Hepsie and Kate declare in the first line of the preface to their book Reason to Believe (1998, p. xi). “But its true beginning,” they write, “came in an attic” (p. xi). Fifteen words in and you’re hooked.
The two friends go on to tell the story of inscriptions purportedly written on a wall of the attic in the Old Manse, Emerson’s family home, and of a tour they’d taken before but decided to take one more time on a “magical Sunday” in Concord, Massachusetts (p. xi). This time, a kind guide, undoubtedly charmed by the pair, led them privately up the stairs to glimpse the attic wall where several inscriptions were indeed revealed, including one written by Emerson himself.
I visited this room and read the inscription of the souls gone before. RWE.
We have begun this book many times, they tell us. Not just a memorable lead sentence, it turns out, but insight on how life itself works.
Kate lived her life as the pragmatic romantic rhetorician she was, in a “spirit of readiness” (1998, p. 87) ever willing to rethink, reimagine, reevaluate, and revise. In other words, a disposition to begin again or, as William James might have put it, to keep the quest open. And as Kate so often showed us, if we’re very lucky, we can begin again in partnership with others who make our own life stories all the richer.
Gathering. A recurrent image in Joy and Kate’s introduction to their anthology Available Means; “always a woman’s metaphor,” they remind us (2001, p. xvi). These two friends taught us how to look for, listen for, women’s voices in familiar yet unseen places: “the kitchen, parlor, and nursery;” they write, “the garden; the church; the body” (p. xvii). As scholars following in Kate’s steps, we have been seeking out and gathering women’s voices ever since. Women speaking, women listening, women writing.
Aspasia, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Wollstonecraft, Adrienne Rich, Paula Allen Gunn, Audre Lorde, Ruth Bader Ginsberg: so many women who were left out of our early education (but of course they were quietly there; women always are). We are stronger because Kate and Joy did the hard work of bringing these voices into our consciousness, reacquainting us with our own history by teaching the work of strong and savvy women rhetoricians who, by now, we just need to call rhetoricians. Kate insisted on that.
Kate also taught us that our roles as women in the academy were not always a given, so we’ve been making sure to (re)claim our voices in as many academic and public spaces as we can. Naming and knowing. Squaring our beliefs with our actions. In full awareness that the actions we take as feminist scholars and researchers and teachers—as rhetoricians—always speak back to and with the women who came before, a gathering of women’s voices, experiences, words, and ideas, speaking with a thunderous timbre to effect change in the world.
As we make space for women’s voices in department meetings, present our ideas at conferences, sit in circles with our students, and draw triangles on chalkboards, we channel Kate’s energy and force. Our ability and willingness to reflect—to simultaneously unsettle past assumptions and reimagine a future—makes this work possible.
It’s been months since we got the call. One dear friend, Brenda, gently delivering the impossible news of Kate’s passing to the other, Connie. Writing partners for this piece. As the early days and weeks passed, the circle of friends who received similar calls from their dear friends gently delivering the impossible news grew, like concentric circles made by a stone skipping over a lake’s surface.
Circles of different sizes but with a common center. Kate.
From one late afternoon phone call to a series of Zoom calls unfolding almost weekly. First, the smallest circle, our two closest graduate school pals, then a bit larger circle, ten former Howe Writing Initiative women, and finally the largest circle consisting of dozens of faculty, graduate students, friends, and family members from far and near.
Skipping stones: Louisville; Lincoln; Oxford; writing classrooms; writing centers; seminar rooms; conference daises; back to Louisville again. Concentric circles made exponential by all who learned from Kate and were carried forward, outward, on one of the many waves she inevitably created—same center, different radii.
There’s no such thing as a false start, Kate used to tell us, as we were restarting a dissertation chapter from scratch for the third time. All experience counts—in writing and in life. All text is useable text. Maybe not for this writing project but you never know. Save it. One day these words will find their use. And then, well then darlin’, she’d wink, you’ll be ready.
For now, just keep moving.
- Ritchie, J., & Ronald, K. (Eds.). (2001). Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s). University of Pittsburgh Press.
- Roskelly, H., & Ronald, K. (1998). Reason to Believe: Romanticism, Pragmatism, and the Teaching of Writing. SUNY Press.
Kate’s Impact on Style
Kate always encouraged us as her students to remember that our first job as writing teachers was, above all, to teach writing. I think that is why she found style to be an important part of the writing process and an important consideration for teachers. The teaching of writing, Kate insisted, was the gravitational pull for what we did; no matter how far away from that gravitational center we got, she reminded us, we should always bring it back to the teaching of writing. In her essay, “Style: The Hidden Agenda,” an essay written with both students and teachers firmly in mind, Kate reminded us that, like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, we judge student writing by its style. And, the worst part? We’re not telling them about this agenda, she declares, nor are we teaching students how to improve their style. In true Kate form, she then explains clearly and succinctly how and why writing teachers often neglect style and shows her student readers concrete, practical strategies for improving their writing style.
I love this essay. Over 20 years after first reading it as a PhD student at Miami, I often require my GAs to read it in the composition pedagogy seminar I teach, and I often ask my first-year writing students to read it, as well. Few essays exist that I ask both first-year students and graduate students to read; this is one of them. It is clear and accessible enough for beginning college writers to learn from, and it is relevant and complex enough for graduate teaching assistants to find useful for their classroom.
The study of style has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. Since about the mid-2000s, scholars such as Paul Butler, T.R. Johnson, Star Medzarian Vanguri, Brian Ray, and others have reminded the field that style, to paraphrase a recent book on the subject, should be the center of the writing classroom. Interestingly, not many of us have formally cited Kate’s essay as an early first step toward that renaissance. But, every scholar in style I have talked with over the last decade or so has told me the importance of that essay in their early understanding of style. In 2017, at the Tampa CCCC, Paul Butler and I were having a drink at the hotel bar, when Kate strode over to say hello to me. I introduced her to Paul, an important voice in the recent style revival. Kate was absolutely delighted to meet Paul, and Paul was in awe of meeting Kate. After he learned of Kate’s passing, Paul emailed me to say, “Her scholarship was an inspiration to all of us who work on issues of style.” And he’s right. All of us who work in style and think about issues surrounding it are forever in her debt.
The Rhetorical Abundance of Kate Ronald
I remember once sitting on the patio of a local pub with Kate Ronald. At some point, I opined to Kate that I focused my attention on “higher-order concerns” in writing rather than on the mere “sentence-level.” Kate stopped me, took a long drag on her cigarette, and then said something like this: “Of course, higher-order concerns are important, but darlin…I do not know what we are teaching if we are not teaching the writing of sentences…if we are not teaching the choosing of words. We need to always be asking Berthoff’s question, ‘How does it change the meaning if I put it this way?’ We need to always be practicing Erasmus’ copia—inventing endless variations of sentences so that we can choose just the right one.” Kate changed me as a writing teacher that day. She helped me see that whether I was guiding students to consider a change of a single word or a more global shift of argument, I should always be inviting them to play with language — inspiring them to generate a copious collection of possible words and then choose the most persuasive and delightful ones for the kairotic moment.
For Kate, copia was more than a stylistic exercise. I think Kate loved the idea of copia because it encapsulated her radically inclusive and abundant way of living as a teacher, as a scholar, as a human being. For Kate, inventing new words was a profoundly feminist act. If the patriarchy had been built through words, then we damn well needed to invent a new language to defeat it. And, it was this search for a new language that drew Kate to the history of women’s rhetoric. When Kate first entered the field of rhetoric, she was confronted by an abundance of texts by men and a paucity of texts by women. The last time I visited Kate in Louisville she had recently unearthed her PhD candidacy exam in her files, and we talked about how few women had been on her list (I counted six). I realized then more than ever what a gift Kate had given us all when she chose to dedicate her scholarly and teaching career to recovering and amplifying the voices of women rhetors across time so that no other woman in the field would ever have to face such a patriarchal, exclusionary list again. With her transformative research and generous mentoring, Kate made the field of rhetoric more open, more joyful, more abundant.
Kate truly was copia incarnate. She didn’t just teach rhetorical abundance…she lived it. Kate always chose the perfect shoes for the occasion from her copious collection of footwear; she always offered her Derby party guests an elaborate selection of elegant hats to borrow (along with generous servings of Derby pie); she always knew how to choose just the right Springsteen track to get everyone dancing and singing along. And, as all her family, friends, students, and mentees know so well, Kate always chose just the right words to say whenever we passed a new milestone, whenever we faced a new challenge, whenever we felt like we just couldn’t go on. Kate Ronald—the wise, funny, and good woman speaking well—will live on through her powerful words that have transformed how so many of us teach, research, and live our lives
Ronald: Debriefing on a Life Well Lived
photo © Mike Peters, at my wedding on October 5, 2019
On October 11, 2020, my fiftieth birthday, Kate Ronald wrote me the last words I’d receive from her, inside her own book, Reason to Believe. I’d given her my own dog-eared copy ten years before, when I studied with her in the doctoral program at Miami University of Ohio, and asked if she’d consider giving it back to me, signed, one day. I had no idea when I got a package in the mail from her that day, only two weeks before she left us, how meaningful that note, and her act of returning the book, would be. She congratulated me on having recently earned tenure, and, in the most Kate-like of phrases, referred to me, as she had so many of her protégées over the years, as a “scholar/teacher.”
Kate often referred to conversations about the latest political story or an event you’d both attended as “debriefings,” usually prolonged affairs involving multiple cigarettes and glasses of Sauvignon Blanc at her kitchen table, a local bar in Oxford, Ohio, or, after she retired, over the phone. I take this opportunity to debrief for a moment about Kate as a mentor, a friend, and a consummate rhetorician who reminds us never to separate theory from practice, our beliefs from our actions (and vice versa), or our scholarship from our teaching, and that, last but not least, every good thing and turn of phrase comes in threes, a nod to Aristotle.
I’m not sure how even to begin to capture the force that is Katharine Ronald in a short statement like this. The things she loved so much in life—words—fall so very short right now. I have only a few names in my speed dial list on my phone: my spouse, my parents, my brother, and Kate—and I don’t know when or if I’ll be able to remove her. She was one of the most impressive minds I’ve known, the most brilliant person in most every room she was in, but to me she also was like family, someone who’d been there for me in the darkest moment of my life during the sudden death of my partner when I was her doctoral student. She knew the pain of losing a spouse; her husband Dennis had died several years earlier after a prolonged battle with leukemia. I’m numbed and hollowed out by her leaving us. It hardly seems possible that the events we’ll experience from now on will be moments she’ll miss and moments none of us can debrief with her about. It hardly seems possible this is a world without Kate in it.
Whether she was leading a graduate seminar, teaching first-year writing, or recalling the day’s news with you on the phone, she was, first and foremost, a student of rhetoric. Her love of learning, her razor-sharp wit, her joy-tinged-with-heartache were contagious; she made all of us smarter and the field much richer by being in our lives. In her own scholarly work, in her life as a teacher, and in her relationships, she embodied the romantic/pragmatic rhetoric she and Hepsie Roskelly espoused.
She gave us reason to believe.
Providing the Available Means: Teacher, Mentor, Friend
While I enjoyed the benefit of many great teachers in my life, including teachers of rhetoric and writing, I learned more from Kate Ronald about the history, teaching, and uses of rhetoric than I could imagine in the time we were colleagues at Miami University. But more than rhetoric, I learned from Kate how love, compassion, and strength shape our lives as scholars, teachers, and human beings.
In 1997, when I began my new position as an assistant professor at Miami University, I was probably too big for my britches as Kate might say. Michigan this, Michigan that. Ann Arbor this, Ann Arbor that. But I’m sure Kate knew that I was terrified as I had to navigate working with graduate students, needing to publish, and in general just feeling as if I was out of place in small-town, rural Ohio. Every now and then she’d give me a good poke to make sure I actually did the work rather than think I had it made. And then just as quickly, she’d flash that smile and let me know how important the work I was doing was and that I needed to be here.
Kate was not only an influence for who I became as a teacher and scholar but also provided the means for me to do so. When I had a question about my teaching (or more likely a problem), she was always there to talk through ideas, offer suggestions for activities, or to just tell me I was wrong and unreasonable or to assure me that the students were actually being a pain. But she also showed me how and why to develop relationships with students and colleagues to create the foundation for a lifetime of learning, collaboration, and conversation. Her scholarly partnerships with Joy Ritchie and Hephzibah Roskelly provided a model for LuMing Mao and me when we began our own project on Asian American rhetoric.
As a mentor, she helped me to understand the way institutions worked, especially in reaching out across disciplines and departments. I often watched in admiration as she talked easily with a faculty member from the School of Business, or laughed with the dean, or stood toe-to-toe with the provost. At conferences, I’d see her deliver a talk or ask a question, while always commanding the room but inviting the audience to join her in talking about ideas. And on all of these occasions, I saw a generosity of spirit, a razor-sharp mind, and an ability to bring people along in order to move toward a common cause, whether that was the pursuit of knowledge, the education of students, or helping people do their best work.
And as a friend she created a sense of community welcoming me not only as part of the Miami family but also the Oxford family. I remember fondly the Derby parties, the occasional fine dinner when we were both in Oxford during the holidays, and our time together in the English department among the best faculty and friends I have known. It’s been 14 years since I left Miami for Wisconsin, and several years since I last saw Kate, but I think about her often as I work with my own students, welcome new faculty to our department, and appreciate the importance of teachers, mentors, and friends in our lives. Kate believed in me and so many others, and I know that we do our best to live up to that belief, trust, and love to be the scholar-teachers she saw in all of us.
Mary Jean Corbett
21 December 2020
It seems fitting to be writing this on the morning of the winter solstice, the day that dawns latest and darkens earliest, as every day has felt a little darker to me since Kate Ronald left this world. For 20 years or more, Kate has been my colleague and friend, and even after her retirement from Miami in 2016, we maintained weekly contact by phone and traveled together to warm, sunny places where the days were long and time stretched out before us. I never thought for a moment there wouldn’t be more trips, more time, more talks, more friendship ahead.
I’ve come to realize since her death that Kate was a mentor to me, as to so many others, although not in any formal way. Despite the fact that we worked in different fields and had different scholarly interests, and that we sometimes disagreed about who to hire or what to argue, Kate modeled for me how to work across such barriers. In her own practice—as a teacher, a graduate mentor, a rhetorician, an administrator—she emphasized finding common ground whenever possible, and she put the greater good, collaboratively agreed upon, ahead of any individual or programmatic interest. She was always warm and forgiving and generous, able to put slights or losses aside, not because she didn’t feel them acutely, but because holding on to them didn’t solve anything. She advocated and practiced forbearance.
In the longer run, what many of us will remember Kate for, though, is her style. From the perfect skirts to the fabulous shoes to the enormous collection of Derby hats, Kate was always dressy. (Among many other things large and small, she lamented the declining relevance of lipstick during the pandemic.) She could set a perfect table and turn out a perfect meal for any occasion. She picked out lovely presents and sent appropriate cards. These are perhaps old-school virtues that have fallen out of favor among those of a younger generation, like myself, and they may seem trivial, too trivial, to mention. But they help to define Kate’s style of being in the world, which was to be of the world—engaged by it, appreciative of it, eager to make it more just, more beautiful, more of a home for us all. Her love for language, literature, and rhetoric, and her belief in their saving power, rested on that same foundation.
Sometimes It Felt I Could Fly
Some of my favorite memories of Kate Ronald surround our greatest failure. While she was directing my dissertation at U of Nebraska, several of our Thursday afternoon talks lit on our shared interest in the idea of the sublime, and the often unspoken role sublime experience plays in pivotal moments in our thoughts, careers, and lives. As a returning adult student, I focused on making it through the program as quickly as possible, so we did nothing more about the Sublime then. But once I had my first full-time job, as a Writing Program Administrator (something I slowly realized Kate had also been, but in a way that transcended the term—of course), we decided to give it a run.
These were the early days of email and such—I was still mainly doing email and Telnet on a VAX terminal—so we actually sent drafts by mail. But once we felt that we were on track, we needed to arrange working together in person. I made the familiar 2-hour drive up to Lincoln for a long weekend with Kate and Dennis at their quaint, unique home. Kate and I worked together as intensely as we could manage, swallowing aspirin like candy to fend off the eye, head, and neck strain and compensate for sleeping so little.
I now recall few of the details of what we wrote, other than that we were using a pragmatist frame to make more sensible some of what we thought postmodern views of the Sublime had made needlessly opaque. It was rejected in that classic split: Reader 1 loved it, Reader 2 hated it (since Reader 2 was exactly the kind of postmodernist we wanted to reach, clearly we didn’t manage it—alas). I mostly recall marveling at how quickly and deeply Kate could read, watching her burn through what little of the material I had brought to her attention that she hadn’t already read. And it dawned on me that her fabulous mind was very much a part of that prodigious ability to read anything, of any difficulty, with a speed and a penetrating ease that entirely humbled someone who also had thought he was smart.
Along the way, we spun out examples of things that seemed sublime to us, eventually mostly landing on music. So in some sense to memorialize that work session, which remains one of the intellectual highlights of my life, I made a mixtape (yes, actually on cassette tape) of songs that I had found sublime in the ways we discussed. Again, memory fails, though I assume it was long on Joni Mitchell and October Project. To my surprise, she made one for me, too. It broke long before my tapedeck did, and I didn’t have the sense to keep the case as a record of the playlist. But when I heard she had died, in her memory I played, now on YouTube, the surprise hit of them all: Randy Travis’ “Look Heart. No Hands.” And my heart ached.
I need to share what I’m sure Kate would have wanted me to say: Kate Ronald was gorgeous, sexy, had great pins, and everyone loved her. She was a relentless flirt, a talented storyteller, and the most fiercely loyal friend you could ever have.
I shall deliberately avoid all awkward and untrue mothering metaphors in respect to our feminist scholarship in a field that has certainly suffered from “feminization,” as Kate, along with her lifelong friend and writing partner, Hephzibah Roskelly, wrote about. Kate even balked when someone would refer to her as her dog’s mother. “I am not her mother; she’s my girlfriend,” Kate would beam as she snuggled Ranger or Sparky. Kate was not a mother figure to me, but she gave me my life. She showed me what a life in this field looks like, and how to navigate it with generosity and grace.
Kate said, “When you take on a grad student, you take them on for life.” She meant, of course, that she would always be there to advise—that mentoring doesn’t stop on graduation day. More than lifelong career advice, Kate’s deeper meaning was that a good mentor is there for her students’ lives, and all that entails, not just their careers.
Back in 2011, when I called Kate to tell her that I had breast cancer, it was a hard call. Only a handful of years prior, Kate bravely faced her beloved husband Dennis’ leukemia. I could hear her pause, take a long drag of her Salem Light on the other end of the phone and then grouse in her Kentucky way, “Damn, Cristy. Now you’re a member of the damn cancer community.” I was hurtling head-first into the steepest learning curve I would ever experience, and there was Kate to make me laugh and see it for what it was. Through her “affectionate interpretation,” Jane Addams’ term that Kate embraced in her work, I was able to see that I was entering a unique rhetorical space that deserved my attention and study. The very next thing Kate uttered was, “Immediately stop your tenure clock.” That was Kate—understanding, pragmatic, and always vigilantly and protectively advising me—not just in the work, but in my life.
Kate always pushed her students to answer the “So what?” question in their writing. It can be hard to hear “So what?” in response to one’s work, but Kate was a truth-teller. If you’ve been on the receiving end of a well-deserved “So what?” you probably also heard shortly after, “Darlin, are you mad at me?” Kate’s particularly charming, self-effacing rhetorical style always carried the burden and graciously gave the spotlight to another, and was just one of her most readily available means of persuasion. She asked the tough questions, but never shamed anyone. And under her mentorship, I found the answer to the “So what?” question in my work and my life—love. She loved us for life, and I will love her for the rest of mine.
Memories of a Dear Friend
Since the sudden passing of Kate Ronald, I have been both feeling my loss and counting my blessings. I have lost a dear friend, someone I have known for two decades. Meanwhile, I have also been pinching myself for my good fortune to have known Kate, to have learned from her, and to have been able to turn to her for support, advice, and love. I very much want to celebrate this good fortune and what Kate means to me and to all those whose lives she has touched.
Kate was a teacher in every sense of the word. She taught us feminist rhetoric and American pragmatism through a rhetorical lens. She modeled for us what it means to be a teacher of writing and to have a student-centered classroom. She mentored every graduate student whom she met. The moving and inspiring stories about her mentorship were legion, and as the inaugural Howe Professor of Writing from her arrival at Miami until her retirement in Spring 2016, her leadership for and contributions to the teaching of writing across the university and beyond legendary.
Kate was one of my closest friends and trusted advisors. Whenever I ran into any difficulties, big or small, Kate was among the first individuals I would turn to for advice and support. She never failed to tell me what she thought to be the right course of action to take, often punctuated with some of her more colorful witticisms that I came to enjoy and even imitate. As our friendship grew, I would sometimes find an excuse to either seek her out in person or get on the phone with her just in order to listen to her, to hear her optimism for the future or her disdain for pettiness or demagoguery. Her phronesis, her warmth, her ethic of care were both inspiring and instrumental to me. What I came to appreciate the most, over time, was how Kate taught me, on both the professional and personal front, to branch out, to think outside the box, and to explore the fullest potential life can offer. Thanks to Kate, I am now a better thinker, a decent dancer, and a more discerning shopper in selecting shoes to put on or clothes to wear, outfits appropriate for different occasions and befitting a heterosexual Chinese American.
In one sense, Kate has left me—much too early, much too soon. But in another sense, I know Kate will never leave me. Her friendship and her wise counsel over the years will forever serve as my font of inspiration and as my source for care, compassion, and community. I will always cherish her unwavering commitment to and boundless generosity for others, especially those who are less privileged and underrepresented. Kate lives on both in our memories and in the lives we lead on this Planet Earth.
So Much Passion, So Much Love
“Where is the love?” That was one of the first written comments I received from Kate Ronald when I was a graduate student. Eighteen years later, I cannot remember the writing or text to which it was directed, but I still remember that comment. Even then, I think Kate was trying to tell me that academia is a passion-filled pursuit, or at least it should be. In that regard, those words encapsulate Kate Ronald as a teacher, scholar, mentor, and friend.
One of many wonderful Kateisms is, “When you agree to direct a graduate student’s dissertation, you take them on for life,” and she did. She counseled me through my exams, my dissertation, my job search, and my first book. She also encouraged me through the ups and downs of academic life. Indeed, I am occasionally reminded of another Kateism, “Academia will break your heart.” Like Kate, if you are willing to put your heart out there, if you are passionate about your teaching, students, and colleagues; if you are passionate about our discipline, the beauty of words, the facility to use words, and the justice words can bring about, your heart will be broken. But it will also be filled.
When I was about to begin my first tenure-track job, I asked Kate if she had any advice. Without hesitating, she said, “Love your students.” Kate believed that students do their best writing when they write about subjects they are passionate about, for someone who cares. I am especially reminded of these words amid the pandemic when kindness, understanding, and truly seeing our students as individuals with lives and struggles, may be our most important pedagogy.
In writing, “The Making of Available Means,” I drew on interviews with Kate and Joy Ritchie to share the story behind their foundational anthology of women’s rhetorics. At one point, I refer to the anthology as a “labor of love.” Beyond countless hours of their time, Kate and Joy spent their own money, and Kate even recruited her late husband Dennis to read drafts out loud as part of the proofreading process. Kate and Joy ardently believed that our field needed an accessible anthology of women’s rhetorics. The result was a text that has informed so many of us and our students about our rich, diverse, rhetorical legacy, as well as foundational questions that continue to guide our research and our own labors of love.
Shortly after Kate died, I listened again to a phone message she left me in the spring. “I’m so damn proud of you,” she said after I was promoted to full professor. In recent years, our conversations had shifted away from academia to politics, travel, basketball, and dogs. And every conversation ended with Kate saying, “I love you, darlin.” As a teacher, mentor, and friend, Kate did take me on for life, and throughout her life she showed me the answer to that initial question, where is the love.