Momentum Award: Bonnie Jefferson
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
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.”