Judith Yaross Lee

Dr. Judith Yaross Lee during her Fulbright trip in Europe.

Photo courtesy of: Judith Yaross Lee

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Meet 2016 Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies Judith Yaross Lee


Judith Yaross Lee, Charles E. Zumkehr Professor of Speech Communication and Director of Honors Tutorials in the School of Communications Studies at Ohio University, is one of the world’s leading experts on American literary humor and an eminent scholar of Mark Twain. In addition to having written 60 articles and scholarly essays, she has won more than $1.3 million in humanities research grants.

Dr. Lee has served as president of the American Humor Studies Association and the Research Society for American Periodicals, and executive director of the Society for Literature and Science. She has edited a number of essay collections, including Studies in American Humor and Explorations in Media Ecology.

On Monday, Feb. 20, Ohio University will honor Dr. Lee’s achievements with the Distinguished Professor Award Reception and Lecture. The reception will begin at 6:30 p.m. Immediately following at 7 p.m., Dr. Lee will deliver her lecture, “Sociable Sam: Mark Twain among Friends,” with which she hopes to deliver insight and intrigue on the people with whom Twain acquainted himself, including friends, family, editors and others.

Compass sat down with Dr. Lee to learn more about her academic career, her passion for Mark Twain and why she chooses to call Ohio University home.

How does it feel to be named a Distinguished Professor?

It feels great! I think it’s a welcome recognition from my colleagues both here at Ohio University and around the world. I’m grateful.

What can people expect from your upcoming lecture, and why do you feel it is important for people to attend?

There are a couple things I hope people will take away from it. One was that Samuel Clemens -- Mark Twain -- began his career as a journalist, and never stopped using real life experiences and individuals to shape what became fictions. I hope people will enjoy learning about the various people and experiences that figured into his imagination. The second is I hope [people] will be entertained. [Clemens] is very witty, and I try to incorporate examples of that.

What inspired you to study Mark Twain?

I had the great good fortune, my very first quarter in graduate school, to study with one of the world’s most eminent scholars of Mark Twain. He introduced us, during that time, to the amazing archival resources that provide a window on the creative process of somebody who was really quite remarkable. 
Reading Twain’s both unpublished, and sometimes intimate, thoughts in relation to world events, and the people he met, and the ideas he was struggling with, and seeing the ways in which Mark Twain scholars drew on a very wide range of historical, biographical, social, and media developments made me feel that Mark Twain studies were not only a window on a mind, but really a window on America, and on America’s changing and developing place in the world in the years during and after the Civil War, right up until World War I.

Can you talk about some of the research you’re currently working on?

I’m working on a number of projects actually. More than I can really keep up with! Right now I’m trying to tie off a study of Mark Twain and his relationship to Henry Morton Stanley, the African explorer. 
From the sublime to the ridiculous, I am working on a collection of essays about Mad Magazine. I’m also editing with a different colleague a collection of essays on postmodern satire on TV and the Internet and print; that’s mostly very contemporary stuff. 

I’m [also] working on a larger project. I think it will probably turn into a book that I’ll call American Humor and Matters of Empire. I want to theorize what I see as the three major strands of the way in which American comic traditions democratized the heritage of British humor and satire, on one hand. On the other hand, they retained a certain continuity with that imperial heritage, having been a colony of the British Empire. And then, beginning in the 1840s, but continuing way up until the present, they developed a series of satiric views of American empire. And we can see that most recently in a movie like The Interview. 

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

I think my Fulbright [trip to teach in Europe] was just wonderful. It was all humor, all the time. I taught two courses on American humor: an undergraduate seminar on American satire and a graduate course on humor and imperialism. 

I [also] had the opportunity to travel and give lectures on American humor in many places in Europe. The liberty to have my scholarship be at the center of what I was teaching, at the same time as I was continuing to develop it, and use what I was learning from the people around me to move it forward, was a great privilege.

What is something unique or unusual that most people don’t know about you?

I spent nine years as an adjunct faculty member teaching freshman composition, being paid one course at a time, sometimes as little as 600 dollars a semester. No benefits, no health insurance, no money in my pension. I spent nine years doing that. 

I think that most people assume that someone who ends up with the honors that I’ve received has had a kind of charmed career, but since I had finally reached the tenure track at CUNY when Ohio University offered my husband a position, it took several months, and interviews in three departments, before the dean could put together a job that I was willing to take.”

What do you love about working at Ohio University?

I love the opportunities I’ve had here to learn and grow. I’ve been really blessed by colleagues who haven’t second-guessed my choices of scholarly topic; nobody sneers at me for studying Mad Magazine. So I’ve been very, very grateful for that. 

At the same time, when I get up in the morning, I can get on my bike and ride 20 miles, especially in the summer. Then, when I’m done, I can come home and jump in Dow Lake. The opportunity to have the life of the mind, and all the supports of a major university, and then to still have the pleasures of living in a beautiful spot, has just been really great.

About the Distinguished Professor Award

The Distinguished Professor Award recognizes outstanding scholarly and creative accomplishments and is the highest permanent recognition attainable by faculty at Ohio University. Recipients must have attained tenure and completed a minimum of five years of service at Ohio University.

Among the privileges granted to Distinguished Professors is the honor of annually naming an undergraduate student to receive a year's full-tuition scholarship, lifetime designation title of Distinguished Professor, a one-quarter paid research leave, stipend, and travel support.

The award, first given in 1959, is supported by an endowment provided by Edwin and Ruth Kennedy to the Baker Fund.