Kathleen Yancey wins NCTE's James R. Squire Award for "unparalleled" educational career

When Professor Kathleen Yancey wins a professional or teaching award, she tends to light-heartedly downplay the achievement. “What was the award committee thinking?” is a comment she might make, along with her distinguishable laugh.

Her recent honor comes with considerably more weight, however. The National Council of Teachers of English James R. Squire Award is given only when the committee thinks a person is sufficiently influential on the profession and the discipline—a lifetime achievement award, essentially.

“This award is given by the Executive Committee in recognition of outstanding service, not only to the stature and development of NCTE and the discipline which it represents, but also to the profession of education as a whole, internationally as well as nationally,” reads the award’s overview on the NCTE website.

Yancey accepted the award November 22 at the NCTE annual convention in Baltimore, Maryland.

Douglas Hesse, professor of English at the University of Denver, was on the committee that considered and evaluated Yancey’s academic career for the award. Hesse’s professional association with Yancey goes back 20-plus years. When he was president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), she was vice president, and when Yancey was chair of the Conference on College Composition & Communication, he was associate chair.

“There were many years when we worked closely together and I saw her brilliant, passionate diligence again and again,” Hesse says.

He and the rest of the committee members came to the decision that Yancey is at the top of her field and deserved the Squire Award.

“She is unparalleled in the range of formal leadership roles she has held. She is unparalleled in her published scholarship and corpus of lectures, workshops, seminars. She is unparalleled in her contributions to three distinguished universities, establishing landmark programs, mentoring dozens of graduate students. She is unparalleled in the expert consulting she has provided to dozens of campuses and educational organizations. She is unparalleled in representing English to other disciplines, wider publics, legislators, and policy makers,” he said to the committee in a statement he delivered after their deliberations. “She has had a truly profession-wide influence, both in this country and around the world.”

When Yancey sheds her self-deprecating demeanor, she appreciates the significance of not just winning the award, but also the importance of her academic contributions.

“I think I've been fortunate in that some of my efforts—around portfolios for teaching and learning, in both print and electronic formats; around digital technologies and their impact on literacy and on epistemology; around everyday writing, the letters and postcards and diaries that mediate all of life; and around the transfer of writing knowledge and practice—have taken hold in ways none of us anticipated. They will, in a word, continue.” she says. “The recognition is thus in some ways a statement about how influential the contributions have been, so much so that they will continue after the award, after the person.”

Hesse says he and the award committee considered many of Yancey’s qualities that stood out during the evaluation process, but he says her discipline-wide impact is found in her work with portfolios and reflection.

“She was prescient over 25 years ago in recognizing the potential of having students create portfolios of their work, curating artifacts, reflecting on what they learned in producing them and what they represent as a body, and then designing these materials to present to others, including through digital modes,” Hesse says. “Portfolios represent rich and authentic ways of representing and understanding learning, and their value for assessment has been obvious to English and to higher education more broadly over the decades, with Kathi Yancey having a pioneering role in making their value clear.”

Yancey recalls that a colleague told her in 1990 that the interest in portfolios had peaked—“Apparently not,” she laughs almost 30 years later.

“They are more common now, and used in a wider range of ways, than ever, and research demonstrates that they support learners in unique ways,” Yancey adds. “In my case, I believed that portfolios could make a fundamental difference in students' lives, and toward that end, I have conducted many—many—workshops, hosted many conferences, written many articles, published several books on the topic, and worked with many wonderful colleagues, in the U.S. and around the world.

“I like to think that this work, intellectual, theoretical, and practical , has both changed education for the better and enriched the lives of others. And I might make similar claims for my other research interests.”

The entirety of Yancey’s interests takes up numerous publications, journal articles, keynote speeches, and other forms of scholarship. Luckily for her, she relies on a simple motivational tool to fuel the drive to produce substantial research—“I like to work,” she says.

“I have a lot of energy, and I am very focused. And I have such good colleagues to work with,” she adds. “I don't believe in the single genius theory of history: I believe in the moment of zeitgeist, in collective and distributed intelligence, in the learning that emerges from collaboration if we attend to it, and in the intentionality that contributes to ethical ends.”

Hesse echoes his colleague’s comments.

“Kathi has a true ethic of service, of making her ideas useful to others in their own situations,” he says. “Rather than being a cloistered scholar or entrepreneur, she makes herself generously available in a rare combination of authority and practical humility.”

The Award details section of the NCTE website points out that scholars under consideration should have contributions to “the profession of education as a whole, internationally as well as nationally.” For Yancey’s role in that regard, she and her colleague Barbara Cambridge founded the National Coalition for ePortfolio Research. During the process of recruiting researchers to document the benefits of ePortolios to students, they realized that interest extended beyond the U.S. They required researchers to join for a three-year period, and scholars from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia reached out to join the project.

“As it turned out, very interesting work in ePortfolios—different in several ways from that going on here, in part because the contexts and the cultures of higher education are so different, but also incredibly instructive—was taking place in other countries,” Yancey says. “We thus widened our scope and became the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research; we had one cohort that was based exclusively in the UK—and it was fun to be the only U.S. person at some of those meetings.”

The Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research also partnered on a European Union grant including several countries—Spain, Germany, and France among them—fostering ePortfolio development, Yancey adds.

“So, our impact was really a function of collaboration, and of course they impacted our efforts as well,” she says.

Mazzochi says she felt overwhelmed during the first class, as she considered her professor’s knowledge and the class workload. Being a non-native English speaker and choosing a Rhetoric and Composition class in her first semester, “felt like making a crazy jump into a black and deep hole,” Mazzochi says.

“However, Dr. Yancey made me overcome my fears: she is clearly an experienced professor who cares about her students’ opinions and creates in class a safe environment for learning,” Mazzochi says. “Her approach to teaching—'if the class is fun, you would want to come to class!’ she says—puts you, as a student, in the position of giving 150 percent so as not to disappoint her both as a professor and as a human being.”

Mazzochi’s anxiety turned to relief and appreciation as the semester continued, and she enjoyed Yancey’s “rich and diversified reading selection for class” as well as additional literature resources she provided to students. The individualized attention Yancey gave to students also facilitated a better learning environment for Mazzochi.

In fact, Yancey helped Mazzochi improve her writing as a non-native English speaker and she gave her in-depth feedback on the class final project, even agreeing to record her voice for Mazzochi’s video segment. Mazzochi’s project focused on research in digital culture, specifically the transformation of a paper product into a digital version, and accessibility for visual and hearing disabilities.

“Her appreciation for individual interests—digital humanities applied to accessibility, in my case –is just lovely,” Mazzochi says. “She pushes both the intellectual side of the production and the creative portion, helping you to create a final product as closest as possible to your interest.

“She is tough in what she expects from her students but extremely caring in the way she delivers information, teaches class, and enriches our scholar minds. I am sure of having made the best choice when I decided to take her class.”

Hesse says he distinctly remembers meeting Yancey in person at a WPA conference in Bellingham, Washington, in July 1995.  As an assistant professor at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Yancey  gave a plenary talk on portfolios, reflection, and learning.  Hesse says afterwards, he was sitting with her and a small group on a patio and he thought, “This is someone worth following more closely.”

“Turns out I was right,” he says now. “Already then, Kathi had the practice I’ve seen in dozens of situations over the decades of beginning some remarks by enumerating what she was going to say: ‘I want to make three—or two or five—points.’ I was never sure if she’d already quickly analyzed the topic and generated her points or if, rather, she was presenting a heuristic challenge to herself—she would, by golly, come up with X points. It has been remarkable over and over through the years to watch her keen intellect in deft performance.”

When Yancey reflects on her career, she says she still looks ahead.

"In my remarks when I received the award, I found myself looking backward, which makes sense, but there's still a forward—though it somehow seems inappropriate to say so,” Yancey says, before ending with one her signature light-hearted comments. “Sort of like Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character Emily Litella: ‘Never mind!’”