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Pictured is 2016 Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies Judith Yaross Lee’s official Distinguished Professor portrait.

Pictured is 2016 Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies Judith Yaross Lee’s official Distinguished Professor portrait.

Photographer: Ben Siegel

Interim Ohio University President David Descutner presents the Distinguished Professor Award to Judith Yaross Lee, the 2016 Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies, on Feb. 20.

Interim Ohio University President David Descutner presents the Distinguished Professor Award to Judith Yaross Lee, the 2016 Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies, on Feb. 20.

Photographer: Daniel Owen

(From left) 2016 Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies Judith Yaross Lee, Interim President David Descutner and 2013 Distinguished Professor of Classics Tom Carpenter unveil Dr. Lee’s official Distinguished Professor portrait.

(From left) 2016 Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies Judith Yaross Lee, Interim President David Descutner and 2013 Distinguished Professor of Classics Tom Carpenter unveil Dr. Lee’s official Distinguished Professor portrait.

Photographer: Daniel Owen

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OHIO community celebrates Distinguished Professor Judith Yaross Lee


Members of the Ohio University community gathered in the Baker University Center Ballroom the evening of Feb. 20 to honor two faculty members whose outstanding scholarly and creative accomplishments have earned them the esteemed title of Distinguished Professor.

The 2016 Distinguished Professor Awards were bestowed upon Alexander Govorov, professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Judith Yaross Lee, the Charles E. Zumkehr Professor and director of honors tutorials in the Scripps College of Communication’s School of Communication Studies. 

Created in 1959 through an endowment from Edwin and Ruth Kennedy to the Baker Fund, the Distinguished Professor Award is Ohio University’s highest academic honor. Among the privileges granted to Distinguished Professors is the honor of annually naming an undergraduate student to receive the Distinguished Professor Scholarship; a semester of paid research leave, stipend and travel support; and a unique opportunity to share their professional passions and research during the annual Distinguished Professor Lecture. 

In welcoming members of the OHIO community and distinguished guests to this year’s lecture, Interim President David Descutner noted that the evening was an opportunity “to celebrate two faculty members who embody the kind of outstanding scholarship and research that is the hallmark of Ohio University’s faculty.”

The evening kicked off with video tributes to Dr. Govorov and Dr. Lee, produced by University Communications and Marketing, and the unveiling of this year’s Distinguished Professor portraits. Taken by Ohio University Photography Supervisor Ben Siegel, the portraits will join the Distinguished Professor portraits that adorn the third floor of OHIO’s Alden Library.

Tom Carpenter, 2013 Distinguished Professor of Classics, the Charles J. Ping Professor of Humanities and director of OHIO’s Ping Institute for the Teaching of the Humanities, had the honor of introducing 2016 Distinguished Professor of Communications Studies Judith Yaross Lee.

Only the fourth woman inducted into Ohio University’s Society of Distinguished Professors, Dr. Lee is one of the world’s leading experts on American literary humor and an eminent scholar of Mark Twain. Dr. Lee joined the faculty at OHIO’s Scripps College of Communication in 1990. Her many professional achievements include authoring three books and dozens of essays featured in scholarly journals and books, co-editing two volumes, leading three learned journals as editor, and earning a Fulbright Scholar Award that allowed her to teach and conduct research in The Netherlands as the 2016 Senior Professor of American Culture.  She has won more than $1.3 million in research funding, an exceptional sum for a humanities scholar, including major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to establish OHIO’s Central Region Humanities Center, which she directs.

In introducing Dr. Lee, Dr. Carpenter noted the many scholars in the United States and abroad who have praised her work.

“One wrote that, ‘There is no scholar in American humor who is active today who is thought of more highly than she is.’ He calls her work on Mark Twain ‘truly groundbreaking,’” Dr. Carpenter said. “Another writes that ‘she helps us to navigate the role of humor in creating, attaining and changing our public culture. In so doing, she works at the intersection of media, social and intellectual history.’ Yet another writes that ‘she fully embraces American studies in all its layered interdisciplinary forms. She is at the top of her profession and at the top of her field.’”

In her lecture, titled “Sociable Sam: Mark Twain among Friends,” Dr. Lee provided the audience a glimpse into an American writer and humorist who, she noted, was touted in his day as “known to everyone and liked by all.”

Her lecture explored the experiences, social interactions, and partnerships – with both famous and everyday individuals – that helped to shape the creative process and products of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain. 

“He knew just about everyone famous between the Civil War and World War I,” Dr. Lee explained, adding, “Sociable Sam Clemens was more than just a famous guy who knew other famous folks. From the start of his career, many of his works grew from and through interaction with others … and drove his work as Mark Twain.”

Drawing on Twain’s archives, Dr. Lee shared details on the family, friends, colleagues and “chance acquaintances” behind Twain’s body of work – from “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog”  and “Sociable Jimmy” to the classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” – and how his writings continue to serve as a window on America, its history, its culture and its place in the world.

Dr. Lee noted that her lecture “shows how the study of Mark Twain begins with his writing for the pleasure of a good laugh or delight in rhetorical effects but extends well beyond these satisfactions because the archives, some 32,000 letters and hundreds of manuscripts and notes, document the mental and social activity that gave it life.”

Dr. Lee’s lecture both informed and entertained the audience as she shared examples of how the enduring power of his work stems from Twain’s wit (including a fondness for off-color jokes) and his ability to deploy colloquial voices for social critique. 

Twain’s work, she said, serves as proof that “storytelling can reveal truth, alter values, upend power and reshape communities as a social act.”

But at the heart of all his writings was an audience – an essential part, Dr. Lee explained, of Twain’s creative process.

“His imagination thrived on sociability, turning life into texts and giving texts their life,” Dr. Lee said. “He remains present, relevant. He seems to belong to everyone, not just to scholars, Americans or even American culture more broadly.”

Dr. Lee ended her lecture, saying that she hoped her insights into Twain’s personnel correspondence, articles and other written works had inspired those in attendance to count themselves among those who both know and like “Sociable Sam.”

To hear Dr. Lee’s complete Distinguished Professor lecture, click here