Momentum Award: Bonnie Jefferson

Retirement.

The very word has a stigma too it. We think of old age, of the slow-moving, of the culmination of careers. Retirement, we think, is the end of an era.

The moment you walk into retiring professor Bonnie Jefferson’s office, however, you realize how very wrong you were.

The 64-year-old is about as jolly and exuberant as they come. Surrounded by pictures of her grandchildren, tacky political paraphernalia (think a Lyndon Johnson bottle opener, a Sarah Palin Christmas ornament, and an Obama hand puppet) and a life-sized cutout of John Wayne wrapped in chili pepper lights, Jefferson welcomes everyone into her communication abode like they were old friends. She’ll chat about her daily coffee run, her latest trip to a communication conference, her children, really just about anything.

With this kind of cheeriness, it comes as no surprise that Jefferson is friends with almost everyone. When talking with one of her oldest friends, Rita Rosenthal, a professor in the communication department, she gave over 10 names of close confidants in the department that should be contacted. It seems that everyone loves Bonnie.

And, to be certain, Bonnie loves everyone. Part of the reason she loves teaching at a university is that she gets to interact with people of all ages, which, she says, keeps her young.

“A lot of my friends who are my age who aren’t academics live in these communities where everyone around them is 65 and all their friends are the same age,” she said. “I have friends that are 20 years younger than me that I go drinking with.”

One could guess her joyful and open demeanor is partially a product of her small-town charm. A native of Waverly, W. Va. (population as of 2010: 395), Jefferson says that she’s “from the smallest town of anyone I’ve ever met.” She attended high school and then went to Marshall University, where she studied elementary education, speech, and theater. After a brief stint teaching the fifth grade, Jefferson went to Ohio University to get her master’s and then the rhetoric program at University of Pittsburgh to get her Ph.D.

It was at the University of Pittsburgh that Jefferson met Ted Windt, who would be a main source of inspiration for her energetic teaching style at BC. Whint taught a class for 500 students about the presidency that was so well-loved that, Jefferson said, people would bring their friends.

“He was extremely dramatic, and he taught this class with all these people before there was the ability to use any film clips … he taught completely on the power of his own personality,” she said. “He was really dynamic, but he was also very structured. So any time I thought about teaching in terms of large classes, he was always the person I thought of. I think there is an assumption that large classes have to be bad. They can be good. It just takes some thought, and he taught me that.”

And, as any student of Jefferson could tell you, her classes definitely have a lot of thought. Winner of the Boston College Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award in 2010, the BC Teaching with New Media Award in 2007, and the Donald H. Ecroyd and Caroline Drummond Ecroyd Teaching Excellence Award in 2006, Jefferson has received universal praise for her teaching of Rhetorical Tradition, American Public Address (Jefferson is a self-proclaimed political geek), and Communication Criticism. Jefferson says she has a deep love for all her courses.

“They’re all things that I love to teach and love to talk about,” she said. “I get to teach all these things I think are just a hoot.”

Jefferson’s largest class, Rhetorical Tradition, has charmed students since she first began teaching it 15 years ago. Filled with film clips and even some personal demonstrations (in one class, she makes her TAs try on a dress sold on an infomercial), Jefferson is renowned for her ability to keep every student entertained and focused for the duration of class.

“Her enthusiasm about her class and the Boston College communication department is inspiring,” said Page Hamilton, a former student of Jefferson’s and A&S ’14. “A lot of times, you can lose focus in a lecture class, but you really don’t in Jefferson’s.”

Most impressive, however, is how Jefferson effortlessly connects with her students even if she does not have the ability to talk to them one-on-one. Jefferson, who says that she loves all her students, makes an effort to share personal anecdotes and stories to connect with her students.

“Students are tons of fun,” she said. “It’s very rare that you have a student that is a true pain in the ass. Students that are your best students, students that are struggling-there is always something you like about that student.”

“I love Bonnie because she loves sharing details about her family and hometown,” said Jasmine Wang, A&S ’14. “She is so open and honest, and it makes you feel like you have such a personal relationship with her even though you’re in a huge lecture classroom with at least a hundred or so other students.”

No doubt this is the reason Jefferson has been selected to represent the communication department at Admitted Eagle Days.

“I love Accepted Baby Eagles Day. I think they’re fun and you see students that are so excited to start their academic careers,” she said.

Tara Alvarez, A&S ’14, said that Jefferson’s class on Admitted Eagle Day is what made her decide to be a communication major.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study at BC, but when I heard Bonnie speak, I knew that’s the major I should be,” Alvarez said. “If it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure what I would have chosen.”

These accolades even extend far beyond the students. Donald Fishman, assistant chairperson of the communication department, first hired Jefferson to teach at the University and said she is a “master teacher.”

“In the Rhetorical Tradition course, one of the hardest units to teach deals with Kenneth Burke, one of the most challenging theorists in communication,” he said. “Bonnie’s summary of Kenneth Burke is superb, and she shows an excerpt from the film Lion King to explain the concept of ‘rebirth.’ Ten years after the course, students forget the technical details of Burkeian theory, but they invariably remember the day that The Lion King was shown in class.”

Fishman also said Jefferson shines in American Public Address when discussing rhetoric in the Cold War, the topic of her Ph.D dissertation. “No one in our department has every handled the Cold War with more passion and insight than Bonnie Jefferson,” he said.

Jefferson also teaches more than just her students. For many younger professors in the communication department, she has helped them adjust to the BC community and also been a mentor.

“When I moved here, she painted old dressers to give my kids when we were new and needed furniture,” said Ashley Duggan, a professor in the communication department. “I have delighted in enjoying her summer garden, trips to the beach, conference trips, lots of great meals and glasses of wine with Bonnie. I am touched by the ways she shares her life with students far beyond the classroom as well. She is a friend and mentor who touches our souls.”

Pamela Lannutti, a professor in the communication department, also said that Jefferson was vital in her first few years at BC.

“I started at BC 10 years ago, straight out of grad school, and Dr. Jefferson took me under her wing,” she said. “She is a wonderful mentor to the students and professors alike. She is the best example of what teaching college is all about.”

Rosenthal said Jefferson is “the wise one.”

“Bonnie is the one person who everyone in the group looks to as the ‘wise one.’ She is amazing at planning and scheduling any event of any size,” she said, citing a trip to the Louvre in France that Jefferson had planned. “Bonnie has been a wonderful ‘wise one’ and guide to so many students, faculty, and friends, and she will be missed by so many.”

So what is the next step for this forever-young wise one? Time, and a lot of time, with her daughters and grandchildren. She may move to be closer with family, or build on her father’s chicken farm in West Virginia. Wherever she, and John Wayne, end up, it is clear that she will never be forgotten.