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Remembering Carol Berkenkotter

November 4, 2016

On Monday, October 3, 2016, our field lost one of its luminaries. It was with deep sadness that we learned of the death of our colleague Professor Carol Berkenkotter. Carol passed away while at the Mayo Clinic, after a long and spirited battle with cancer.

Carol was internationally recognized for her groundbreaking research on genre theory. She also had deep expertise in discourse analysis, narrative theory, and medical rhetoric. She shared this knowledge generously with students, colleagues, and readers throughout her long career.

Carol received her PhD in English from the University of Iowa in 1978, and then accepted a position as an assistant professor at Michigan Technological University. She continued her career at Michigan Tech until 2001, when she joined the Department of Rhetoric (which later became the Department of Writing Studies) at the University of Minnesota. She remained on the faculty at Minnesota until her passing, continuing to teach and serve on committees up to the last week of her life.

Besides her two primary faculty positions, she also took time to study and teach at other institutions. In 1984, she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete research at Carnegie Mellon University. Later, in 1998, she collaborated with Professor Debra Journet in teaching research methods at the University of Louisville.

Her 1995 book Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication (with Thomas Huckin; published by Erlbaum) quickly became the classic work on genre theory, offering an important sociocognitive perspective. Besides its obvious use to genre specialists, this work was immensely valuable to rhetoricians of science for its clear explanation of how genres contribute to the construction of scientific knowledge. More broadly, researchers in writing studies have found benefit from the methods used in the study of a doctoral student, later revealed to be John Ackerman. This quantitative discourse analysis led to innovations in our understanding of how newcomers to a genre carry over their conceptions of previous genres. It also helped scholars understand how we could examine the subject in the first place.

A later book, Patient Tales: Case Histories and the Uses of Narrative in Psychiatry (University of South Carolina Press, 2008) was acknowledged in her own field as well in other disciplines; it was reviewed widely including in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Journal of Advanced Composition, and the American Journal of Psychiatry.

This work especially exemplifies the strength of Carol’s scientific and medical writing. She drew on both linguistic and rhetorical methods in her research; while she conducted fine-grained linguistic analyses, she grounded that approach in a broader, rhetorical consideration of context, a consideration she advocated in multiple publications, calling it a “wide-angle lens” approach to genre. In Patient Tales, she wrote that “This kind of text/context approach is needed… to capture the complex interactions between socio-historical, technological, and epistemological factors, especially in disciplines such as psychiatry, a profession that traverses the boundaries between the natural and human sciences.”

Carol is being honored in a forthcoming special issue of Written Communication, titled “Narrative and Writing Research: A Special Issue in Honor of Carol Berkenkotter.” This issue’s Call for Proposals received a remarkable response from the journal’s editorial board and from the field.

Carol’s import in the field is also evident in her service commitments. She served on the editorial boards of several reputable journals and on grant review committees for the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and National Science Foundations.

Carol’s work continues to be influential to students and scholars at all levels. In 2011, one of her former graduate students, Elizabeth Wardle, became co-author (with Doug Downs) of a book called Writing about Writing. It included Carol’s 1983 piece, “Decisions and Revisions: The Planning Strategies of a Publishing Writer,” in which she interviewed Donald Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, about his writing processes. The book is widely used by undergraduate writing students, for whom Carol’s work is often the first example they see of how to do effective research in writing studies.

Carol’s students, of course, were able to see many such examples firsthand. At the University of Minnesota, her doctoral advisees include Tori Sadler (with Mary Schuster), Paula Lentz, Brenda Hudson, Erin Wais-Hennen (with Arthur Walzer), and J. Thomas Wright. All of them have gone on to successful careers. Her work with another student, Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, led to a number of collaborations.

Over her full career, Carol interacted with thousands of students and was remarkable for her ability to make time for them. On an undergraduate level, Carol taught courses such as “Writing on Issues of Science and Technology” and “Communication Modes and Methods.” For the graduate program, Carol taught courses on research methods and in her areas of specialty (“Rhetoric of Science;” “Emergent Genres in the Internet”).

Even students who were not currently taking classes with Carol often found her amazingly helpful—always willing to listen and generous with sharing ideas. As one former graduate student, Brian Larson, explained:

Of course, Carol had an encyclopedic knowledge of her field and the respect of colleagues I've met all over the country and world, including many graduate students using her work who thought I was lucky to be able to study with her. She was all those things as a member of my dissertation committee, too. But mostly, I loved her because she was kind, and I'm sad because the world has a little less kindness in it without her.


Another of her graduate students, Tom Wright, explained what it was like to work with her on Patient Tales:

After I took a class from her in the rhetoric of science, she hired me to help her wrap up a book she was working on. The book had been written; all she needed was a copy editor. But we spent many hours and many lunches going over the content, talking about what to leave in and what to take out. These talks were far more for my benefit than hers. She already knew what she wanted to say. She also knew I needed training in that kind of thinking. She was paying me to give me private lessons on how to write an academic book.


T. Kenny Fountain, also a PhD alumnus, summed it up nicely:

If you were one of Carol’s students, you cared what she thought about your work. She knew how to balance enthusiastic praise with very pointed criticism, and she could be very funny. Carol was a thoughtful mentor and a kind person. And I’m honored to have known her and learned from her.


Carol will be missed by all who knew her—not only as a groundbreaking scholar and attentive teacher but also as someone with personal connections to so many.