Obituary for Dr. James W. Chesebro

David McMahan

It is with tremendous sadness that I report the passing of Dr. James W. Chesebro (Ph.D., University of Minnesota), Past President of the National Communication Association (NCA). He is survived by his loving husband, Donald G. Bonsall, with whom he had shared his life since 1981.

With Jim’s passing, the discipline of communication has lost one of its giants. He dedicated himself to the promotion and development of the discipline through his scholarship, through his extraordinary record of service, and through the countless number of students and colleagues who continue to be influenced by his exceptional teaching and guidance.

Among numerous additional awards for scholarship, service, and teaching, Jim was the recipient of the National Communication Association Golden Anniversary Monograph Award, the Samuel L. Becker Distinguished Service Award, the Robert J. Kibler Memorial Award, the Donald H. Ecroyd Award for Outstanding Teaching in Higher Education, the Wallace A. Bacon Lifetime Teaching Excellence Award, the Everett Lee Hunt Award, the Eastern Communication Association Distinguished Research Fellows Award, the Eastern Communication Association Distinguished Teaching Fellows Award, the Kenneth Burke Society Distinguished Service Award, the Kenneth Burke Society Lifetime Achievement Award, the Speech Communication Association of Puerto Rico Distinguished Service Award, and the Speech Communication Association of Puerto Rico Outstanding Career in Research Award.

The James W. Chesebro Award for Scholarly Distinction in Sexuality Research is presented in his honor by the Central States Communication Association to scholars who have made significant contributions to the study of gender, sexuality, and sexual identity.

With particular focus given to dramatism and to the study of media as symbolic and cognitive systems, Jim’s scholarship spanned the discipline of communication, resulting in significant contributions to multiple areas of study and sometimes actually forging new areas of study. His numerous books include Gayspeak (1981), Computer-Mediated Communication (1989), Methods of Rhetorical Criticism (1990), Extensions of the Burkeian System (1993), Analyzing Media (1996), Communicating Power and Gender (2011), Internet Communication (2014), and Introduction to Communication Criticism (2017), in addition to other titles. He published well over 100 journal articles and book chapters. And, he took part in over 350 convention panels, including the presentation of nearly 200 convention papers. His sustained and extensive level of scholarship places him as one of the most active scholars in the history of the discipline.

The revolutionary and visionary spirit of his scholarship was also evident in his prolific service and leadership. Dedicated to enhancing the discipline of communication and expanding the scope of its influence, he held over 200 service roles throughout his career. He served as President of the National Communication Association in 1996 and served on the Executive Committee and Legislative Assembly over a sixteen-year period of time. He chaired the Publications Council from 1986 through 1988 and was Director of Education Services for NCA from 1989 through 1992. He had earlier served as President of the Eastern Communication Association and had co-founded the Speech Communication Association of Puerto Rico. He also served as editor of Communication Quarterly, Critical Studies in Media Communication, and Review of Communication at various points throughout his career.

Among his countless service contributions, Jim’s perhaps most significant and personally important were changing the name of the national association from the Speech Communication Association to the National Communication Association and his commitment to cultural diversity and inclusion.

Maintaining that the association’s name should encompass the intellectual diversity of its members and properly promote public understanding of the association, Jim wrote a President’s column in the May 1996 issue of Spectra entitled “SCA Should Change its Name—But to What?” In what he later admitted was perhaps not the most subtle move, the page facing his column included a piece reporting focus group and survey results indicating that 78% of members favored a name change, 14% opposed a name change, and 8% percent were undecided. His November 1996 Spectra column argued for the change to the National Communication Association.

Jim moved the discipline on more than one occasion, and his commitment to cultural diversity and inclusion was central to his vision for the discipline. He was driven to make the discipline one that was open to all voices. At all levels and in all his capacities, he worked tirelessly to make his vision of the discipline a reality. He frequently encountered opposition, but a true leader, he never gave up and never compromised fighting for what was right.

Isolating even a few instances or initiatives would not do justice to all that Jim achieved, but his words might convey the core of his convictions. In his 1996 Presidential Address, employing the power and essence of the NCA caucuses as his point of departure, he noted how multiculturalism affects NCA and all of its members. He focused specifically on

"how multiculturalism affects each of us as individual scholars within the discipline of communication, how multiculturalism affects our sense of organization and the sense of unity and division that goes with such organizational schemes, how multiculturalism affects the policies and actions of NCA, and finally how multiculturalism affects the definition of NCA as a moral, ethical, and political professional education association"

He ended by his address by stating:

"In all, our dialogue needs to encourage and to respect the voices of all NCA members, not in spite of their cultural orientation, but because of their cultural identities. The mix of diverse cultures in NCA, the respect NCA members show for these diverse cultures, and the rich scholarship and research that NCA sponsors in understanding these culture-based communication systems, all can constitute the foundation for the unity that makes NCA a community of scholars."

Reflecting on his time as President in a 2006 piece published in the Review of Communication, he later noted:

"I continue to believe—more strongly than ever—that the strength, creativity, and development of the National Communication Association will, must, and should be shaped by its commitment to multiculturalism and diversity in its governing philosophies, theories, methods, applications, and performances. … In my view, multiculturalism and diversity are no longer options when we deal with communication; multiculturalism and diversity are now essential perspectives if we are to account for what happens during virtually all communicative processes and outcomes."

In so many ways, Jim was a trailblazer and a giant on whose shoulders we stand as we strive to continue and expand upon his vision for the discipline.

For all that Jim gave to the discipline through his scholarship and service, his work as an educator was especially meaningful. First and foremost, he was a teacher. He was a teacher whose influence in the lives and careers of his students is immeasurable and continues to this day.

Jim impacted countless students through his teaching and guidance. Having taught courses at a number of institutions, including Ball State University, Indiana State University, North Dakota State University, George Mason University, Queens College of the City University of New York, University of Puerto Rico, Temple University, University of Minnesota, and Concordia College, he taught a total of 61 different courses, including 20 graduate courses and 41 undergraduate courses. Of these courses, he taught approximately 200 different sections. Perhaps most remarkable, as with his scholarship, these courses spanned the entire discipline of communication.

Just prior to his retirement from the classroom, his most recent courses had been “Foundations of Digital Storytelling” and “Digital Message Analysis and Design.” He was once again forging a new path for the discipline of communication like he had done so often in the past. At a time when most people were just beginning to recognize the term, Jim had already established one of the nation’s first master’s programs in Digital Storytelling.

Jim’s dedication to teaching and academic success and the excitement with which he approached learning were inspirational to each student who entered his classroom. He demonstrated genuine respect for all of his students and viewed them as scholars and colleagues. He wanted his students to not only develop an understanding of communication but also contribute to its advancement through their own scholarship, service, and teaching. Through his own example, he taught them how to be scholars, and above all else, being a scholar meant working to make the discipline better.

Words cannot adequately convey the importance and scope of Jim’s influence on the discipline of communication and in the lives of so many people both directly and indirectly. Quite simply, his groundbreaking scholarship, visionary leadership, and passion for teaching and learning did make the discipline better. Ultimately, James W. Chesebro made the world better.