Kathleen Yancey Wins 2018 Exemplar Award for Composition Studies
Professor Kathleen Yancey has collected numerous awards and honors during her 30-plus years as a professor of rhetoric and composition and a sometime administrator. Her most recent achievement, however, is one she never expected nor sought to win: the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication Exemplar Award.
In fact, in 1991, she was sitting in the audience at the annual conference for the organization—commonly known as the 4Cs—and listening to the first winner of the award, Richard Lloyd-Jones, give his Exemplar Talk. At the time, she had no thoughts about standing in his place one day.
“It wouldn’t have occurred to me on my best day that, fast forward, I would be accepting the award,” Yancey says, adding that being on the same list as other winners is daunting to her. “Ann Berthoff, who won in 1997, is simply a giant in the field in terms of the way she understood thinking and composing. The idea I would win the same award as Ann Berthoff is—well, the good news is I have a sense of humor, because it’s laughable.”
The honor is a significant tribute to a person’s entire career in composition studies, and is bestowed only if a committee deems someone in the field worthy of the recognition. The honoree has had an impact on composition studies nationally and internationally and is someone who represents 4Cs with the highest ideals of scholarship, teaching, and service to the profession, according to the 4Cs website.
Professor Gary Taylor, chair of the English department, says those in academia “should all aspire to be the triple threat, as scholar, teacher, and public servant, that she exemplifies.” He points out that Yancey’s work in the English department contributed to reviving the rhetoric and composition program.
“Since Professor Yancey arrived at FSU, twelve and a half years ago, she has transformed the rhetoric and composition programs,” he says. “In part through brilliant hiring, in part through her own impassioned and creative leadership, she has brought it into the front ranks of the field.”
“FSU aspires to be in the top 25 percent of public universities,” Taylor adds. “Kathi Yancey is already in the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent.”
Yancey accepted the award on March 15 at the 4Cs convention in Kansas City, Missouri. As part of her speech, she presented two slideshows composed of quotes from past winners.
“What I said was filtered through those words as a tribute to the field,” she says. “What has happened during my lifetime in terms of the field is astonishing and is worth celebrating. I entered the field when it was hardly a field, and now it is a discipline. That’s massive.”
As Yancey reflects on her career in terms of the Exemplar Award’s three categories, she has mounds of material and achievements to discuss.
She has been the president of 4Cs, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the Council of Writing Program Administrators, her field’s major professional organizations. Her alma mater Purdue University named her one of its Distinguished Women Scholars in 2012, she has won several teaching awards, including a University Graduate Teaching Award in 2017, and she has collected numerous book and journal article prizes.
She was editor for two journals, College Composition and Communication and one she also co-founded, Assessing Writing, and is an active editorial board member for several other publications. She has served on numerous rhetoric and composition committees and she is a member of several professional organizations.
In addition, Yancey has authored two books and co-authored one book – with former FSU graduate students Liane Robertson and Kara Taczak – and edited or co-edited 12 publications, including Assembling Composition (2017), a collaboration with Dr. Stephen McElroy, a former FSU PhD student and current director of FSU’s Reading and Writing Center as well as the Digital Studio. Her list of journal articles, book chapters, and conference presentations takes up 23 pages of her curriculum vitae.
“I remember joking with another faculty member a few years ago about what more Kathi could possibly achieve,” says FSU Associate Professor of rhetoric and composition Michael Neal. “She's won all the awards and honors a person can win in our field. Well. . .almost all the awards."
“The Exemplar Award is the award in the field. It's sort of a ‘lifetime achievement award,’ and it really is the highest honor in the field, one that very few people receive. Now, she has done everything.”
Yancey began her scholarly trajectory focused on composing processes and writing assessment, especially working with portfolios. She has widened her scope through the years, giving herself a “juxtapositional intellectual” approach to her research, she says.
“I am interested in composing processes, how they are changing relative to digital technologies, and more particularly how composing outside school, which the field has paid less attention to, informs what happens inside school,” Yancey says. “Composing in everyday contexts is every bit as important as more prestigiously identified writing processes.”
She has also researched transfer of writing knowledge and practice – the basis for the book she co-authored with former PhD students Taczak and Robertson in 2014, Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing – in part because of her previous interest in reflection, which is a component of portfolios. Yancey has written three grants to fund the work, including a recent one to support eight sites from UC-Santa Cruz to University of Massachusetts-Boston.
“One of our findings is that students learn to write both inside and outside of school,” she says. “What they learn out of school is in a reciprocal relationship with what they learn inside of school.”
Teaching students inside the classroom is “apparently something I’m known for,” Yancey says, pointing out that the 4Cs conference program includes her professional biography where one theme woven throughout is her attention to students. She has taught at middle school and high school levels, she has inspired college undergraduates, and she has guided graduate and PhD students through the requirements for their advanced degrees.
Yancey uses two anecdotes from her high school and middle school experiences to illustrate her teaching style and to explain how she accomplishes her educational goals with students.
During a summer term in 1972, she was teaching two high school classes. One class was full of high achievers, while the second class had failed using the textbook the previous teacher assigned for instruction. Her cooperating teacher asked what she planned to use instead.
“I had them read a play by Lillian Hellman,” Yancey says, laughing as she points out the class had 17 males out of the 18 total students. “Suffice it to say, this was a bad choice. The only thing that made it tolerable was that most of the students were stoned.”
She continues to laugh as she calls it “a complete and colossal, well-intentioned failure,” but she eventually adjusted her curriculum, identified more appropriate readings, and finished the semester: “I learned that you really have to figure out who the students are, where they are, and what can help them.”
Her second reference is to teaching eighth grade in a poor, rural county in Maryland. The kids did not have their own books, so they shared books while in class. The reading levels ranged from third to tenth grade, but several could not read at all. She created a class activity engaging students in sharing their expertise with classmates.
One of the students, a struggling reader and writer, was involved in the 4H program, and he brought a rabbit to class. He explained to Yancey and to his fellow students everything he knew about rabbits.
“His presentation confirmed to me that something that had for me been tacit, that students actually know a lot,” she says, “and if you spend some time with them, they’re interesting and unique from one to the next. If you learn from them what they know, you can build on that.”
Yancey says she chose to teach at the school in Maryland because she wanted to make a difference, and that is what teaching is to her. She also believes what needs to be taught changes, and a good teacher changes as well.
“The classes I teach now, by and large, were not the classes I took in graduate school,” she says. “There were no digitally focused courses, for example. And that's wonderful for research because with students you try to think about these issues as you are writing about them.”
When Yancey shifts her discussion to the service aspect of her career (a category that covers 14 pages of her curriculum vitae), she talks about two specific actions during her time as chair of 4Cs, in 2004.
The first one was her effort to establish the 4Cs Research Initiative, which provides funding for research projects and which has expanded to fund emerging and beginning scholars. The second accomplishment was to create a committee on the rhetoric and composition major.
“These are some of the efforts we put in play that are now making a huge difference to the field,” Yancey says.
She links that work with 4Cs with her 2008 role as president of the NCTE. Both organizations require the president to deliver an annual address, and both of her talks have been used to help shape many other efforts.
“Some of the issues relate to the writing process,” Yancey says. “How mobile is it and what difference does that make? Is video a form of writing? Those are issues that no legislative body or a scholarly organization can determine, but policy decisions can be made to move people forward.”
Her insights have made people look at those issues and determine how to address them: “The leadership was shared and those efforts have made a good difference to the field. I feel thrilled about that.”
“Thrilled” is an understatement to describe Yancey’s reaction when she found out she won the award. Yancey’s office is next to Neal’s, and when he heard an audible gasp coming from hers, Neal went over to make sure everything was OK.
He saw Yancey was choked up and trying to gain her composure. She then told him about the award.
“I've worked with her for almost 12 years at FSU and for four years at Clemson, and I've never seen her react like this to any professional news,” Neal says. “I'm glad I was in the office at that incredibly moving moment. I couldn't be more pleased for her, and I don't know anyone in our field as deserving of this highest honor.”
Some of the winners over the award’s 27-year span have come out of retirement to accept the honor, while others are still teaching, conducting research, and actively serving the discipline. Yancey falls squarely in the latter category and says she stays energized through interaction with her “brain trust,” the group of people around her.
“I have very smart, very insightful, provocative colleagues who are doing really interesting work, and I am around students, especially graduate students, who have wonderful ideas and help me see new things,” she says.
Neal witnesses Yancey’s collaborative nature in person, and says he is amazed at how her mind works.
“Kathi has tremendous energy and a Rolodex memory,” he says, adding that her connections with the people and initiatives in the field make her a fount of ideas. “I've seen countless times in the moment a student or colleague asks a question and without pause she jumps into a string of information, knowledge, relationships, etc. that all relate back to the question along with wise advice about how the person might move an idea forward.”
Even though for herself Yancey says, “ideas I have, but they need some quality control! Right now I could lay out five new projects I’d like to get to. Whether I’ll get to them is a different issue.” She is currently enjoying the projects she is working on, including a continuation of her study into art and assemblage, which she will focus on during her 2018 sabbatical. Her work on transfer will continue because of the eight sites funded by her grant. And she enjoys her nonfiction writing and research on everyday writing.
An area of research that especially intrigues Yancey focuses on what it means that some writing is done by nonhumans. She discusses examples such as sports stories and corporate reports written by software and says she wonders what that means for how we understand composing and for the significance we assign to composing. These are important questions for her field of study, and not many scholars are attempting to answer them yet.
“The pen won’t be mightier than the sword, perhaps, if the pen is wielded by a bot,” she says. “I’m not suggesting a bot can create the poetry of a Romantic poet, but I am suggesting that the role we have assigned to composing in intellectual history, the role we have assigned to composing in establishing and sustaining democracy, that is, I think, going to come under duress.”
As for the future of the field, Yancey says she is always available for consultation and advice, but she knows that future is in the hands of the graduate students she is working with today.
“My practice as a past leader of any organization is to let the new leadership to do what they need to do,” she says. “In my Exemplar Talk, the overall theme is ‘I believe in the cause.’ Initially the cause was working with students in a writing classroom, but the cause over time has widened to include the field.”
Yancey hopes the field expands beyond the pedagogical space, and she talks about how fellow scholar Charles Bazerman of the University of California at Santa Barbara is addressing the concept of lifelong writing. The goal, she anticipates, is to gather scholars from different fields to articulate the principles that would guide the research.
“I’m also interested in lifewide writing – technical writing, workplace writing, civic writing, and we need to have everyday writing as well,” she says.”The classroom is important, of course, but if we don’t research those other spaces where writing occurs, the models of writing and the theories of writing we have will be impoverished because they have not accounted for all of the occasions, all of the opportunities, all the materials people write with.”
“That is basically what I hope the discipline will continue to support--lifelong and lifewide writing. My own work on assemblage is divided into three areas modeling this: theory, school, and the world. That’s a pretty good model.”
Neal appreciates how generous his next-door colleague is with her time, resources, and energy. He says he often hears her say she thinks “programmatically,” which he understands having worked with Yancey in different programs and settings. He adds he has seen how much of her work is in the interest of other people and for their benefit.
“I've personally been the beneficiary of her generosity as have so many others who work in or have come through our rhetoric and composition program here at FSU,” he says. “I don't understand how someone can be so generous with her time and resources and still be so productive as a scholar.”
As Yancey ‘s day in the spotlight drew near, she recalled last year’s winner Deborah Brandt saying during her speech that “she never tried to be an exemplar, she just did her job.”
Standing at the podium at the 4Cs conference, accepting the Exemplar Award and giving her speech, might be the last place Yancey thought she would be one day. The respect she has garnered from her colleagues and her distinguished career in rhetoric and composition studies proved otherwise.