Alumni Spotlight: Nan Johnson

Title page for the 1975 M.A. thesis submitted by Nan Johnson, located by Wendy Matlock.


“Bernard Malamud’s heritage has created a problem for the literary critic,” begins an M.A. thesis from 1975, titled The Theme of Intimacy in Three Works by Bernard Malamud: “Intimacy is not always comfortable; it is often unexpected, undeserved, and tumultuous. However, for Malamud, it is always necessary.”

Today, we celebrate an alumna whom we just recently learned was part of our department’s history: Nancy (Nan) Johnson (B.A. ’73, M.A. ’75).

Listed without contact information in our Alumni Association’s database (and with a graduation date of 1972 for her B.A.), Nan spent at least six years at Kansas State, as her obituary reveals: “After being posted to Taiwan and several U.S. Army bases, the family settled at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where Nan graduated from the local high school and later received a BA and MA from Kansas State University.”

Three of our faculty members – Wendy Matlock, Abby Knoblauch, and Lisa Tatonetti – have known Nan for years, though, thanks to her celebrated contributions to the field of Rhetoric and Composition and to her award-winning teaching as a professor of English, especially at the Ohio State University.  Below are their reflections on Nan and her influence on their lives.

Karin Westman, Department Head


The syllabus for English 879 “Studies in Rhetoric — Medieval Rhetoric” at the Ohio State University (Winter 1998).

Winter 1998, my second quarter as a doctoral student at Ohio State, I took English 879 “Studies in Rhetoric – Medieval Rhetoric,” a course team taught by two extraordinary full professors: Nicholas Howe, author of Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England, stood for the medieval; and Nan Johnson, author of Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America, represented rhetoric. I was there for the time period, not aware how important rhetoric would be for my career. As a result of the ideas introduced in that class, I went on to write a dissertation and then articles and now a book about Middle English debate poetry, popular works deeply invested in the power and danger of persuasive argumentation.

At the time, I remember mostly feeling intimidated as the two experts engaged students in truly ambitious conversations. My notes record the written equivalent of a crowd watching grand slam champions volley across a tennis court. On the first day, for example, Nick pointed out that rhetoric was part of the trivium, one of the three liberal arts (along with grammar and logic) that roughly correspond to today’s undergraduate curriculum, and Nan observed that the trivium gives us the word trivial, reminding us that academic work must be purposeful. Taking pleasure in their own interactions, both were completely invested in student success, mentoring us in and out of the classroom. Every assignment submitted received substantial feedback from both professors. Nan’s was always encouraging. Her single-spaced written response to my final paper hyperbolically calls the topic “a major idea” and then asks challenging questions, advising me to “keep going.” I strive to emulate Nan’s formidable yet generous persona in my own teaching.

When I learned that Nan had passed away, I sought out her obituary and discovered that she grew up in a military family and earned her B.A. and M.A. from Kansas State, a path similar to that of students I teach here now. I saw her in a new light, not as an established expert possessed of a fearsome intellect but as a developing scholar who wrote a master’s thesis on the novels of Bernard Malamud before discovering her own passion for rhetoric. I usually divide my life as an academic into two distinct stages: student time and faculty time. Recalling Nan’s influence and learning about her life pulls the two strands together. Nick died in 2006 and now Nan is gone, too. Humanity and the humanities are diminished by their deaths.

Wendy Matlock, Associate Professor


I’m sad to say that I didn’t know Nan personally, but I was lucky enough to meet her, years ago, at 4Cs – the Conference on College Composition and Communication. As many of us congregated in the nearby coffee shop, Nan stopped to say hello to my dissertation chair, who promptly introduced me. “Abby,” said Jess, “this is Nan Johnson.” I was immediately star-struck. Nan, even decades ago, was a legend. A rockstar. A force of nature. And she was shaking my hand and saying hello. She chatted with us for a few minutes, and when Jess told her that I was a young feminist rhetorician, Nan looked me square in the eyes, unflinching, and said, “Good. You’re exactly who we need.” She had no way of knowing if that was true, but she did know the kind of encouragement that young academics so badly need. I’ve never forgotten that moment of kindness, of generosity. None of us will ever forget the impact Nan made on the field.

Abby Knoblauch, Associate Professor


Like so many Ohio State alum, I can say the news of Nan’s passing was hard to hear. On Tuesday, we were on a several-hour long group text where friends shared stories, both funny and inspirational about her. For me, Nan was a fabulous professor whose voice, some twenty years later, still echoes in my head. Nan had an incredible knack for listening to and supporting students. But more than that, she made so many of us feel highly valued. I still remember her pulling me aside to praise some writing I’d turned in. She told me I had the ability to see things in a unique and insightful way. She told me I was smart. For a non-traditional student who often felt out of place and unprepared, who suffered, as most academics do, with a more-than-healthy dose of imposter syndrome, Nan’s words held such weight. I have kept them, and her memory, like a small treasure that I pull out when I need it, that I hold close and return to. I later discovered that I was neither the first nor the last graduate student Nan said such things to. That discovery warmed my heart. Her talent was to leave so many of us feeling a little smarter, a little better, a little more whole for knowing her.

Thank you, Nan. You will be deeply missed, but your gift – alive and transformative  – remains with, and ripples out from, all of us.

Lisa Tatonetti, Professor

Nan Johnson (photo credit)



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