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Abbott Wins Excellence in Teaching Award

Professor of Rhetoric Jennifer Abbott was named the 2024 winner of the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award at the College’s annual Awards Chapel.

 “I've been part of that award ceremony for so many years, and it's always someone else,” Abbott said. “You just get used to thinking ‘Who’s it going to be this year?’ and you forget to imagine it could be you.”

Professor Jennifer AbbottThe McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award honors the memories of Reid H. McLain [W1927], Clair McTurnan [W1910], and Kent Arnold [W1929], and has been given annually to a member of the faculty who has distinguished themselves by innovative and engaging teaching since 1965.

As evidenced by the standing ovation Abbott received and the applause that filled Pioneer Chapel, it is the highest teaching honor the College bestows.

“This year's recipient of the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Teaching Award is an exceptional teacher, dedicated advisor, and trusted mentor,” Dean of the College and Professor of Rhetoric Todd McDorman read in his citation.

“She cares deeply about what she does and about the men she educates and prepares for the world,” he continued. “She has taught a broad array of courses that bring challenging, sometimes contentious topics into the classroom that include politics, the news media, and most of all, gender.”

In her 21 years at Wabash, students and faculty alike have taken note of her impact, and this year, her years of effort were recognized.

“It feels affirming,” Abbott said. “You can go for a long time in your career working hard and feeling unnoticed. So it feels good to be noticed.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and her M.A. and Ph.D. in speech communication from The Pennsylvania State University, she arrived at Wabash to a totally novel environment.

“I had not anticipated coming to Indiana,” Abbott said. “I had not anticipated teaching at a college for men, but I really liked Todd McDorman and David Timmerman, who was the chair of the department at that time. I liked that I'd be in a department of three and could make an immediate impact.”

Professor Abbott receives the McClain-McTurnan-Arnold Award from long-time rhetoric colleague, Dean of the College Todd McDorman, at the 2024 Awards Chapel

Abbott’s academic interests in news media rhetoric, the relationships between rhetoric, citizenship, and democracy, and the rhetoric of gender found a fruitful home in the culture of the Wabash, where unique discussions about gender can take place.

Students often come to her classes new to such ideas, or simply unfamiliar with how to have open dialogue about them, but Abbott enjoys encouraging the students to jump into difficult discussions.

“I think it's so ubiquitous,” Abbott said. “It's so much a part of how we behave and perform moment-to-moment, often without reflection. And once you give the students the ability to see it and the vocabulary to talk about it, it's exciting.

“I had a really rewarding experience this semester in a course that addressed gender with a great group of students who were fairly new to the ideas,” she said. “It was exciting, by the end, to hear them using the theories and the concepts with accuracy and conviction. They saw it, they understood it, and they could apply it to their lives.”

Abbott wrote her dissertation on Promise Keepers, a Christian men’s organization popular in the 90s, and “their version of Christian masculinity,” but living and working in a setting where masculinity is so central to the culture was a big change.

“It was a learning curve,” Abbott said. “It was weird for a while to walk around, particularly as a younger woman and a single woman on this campus.”

Abbott’s initial discomfort led to fascination with topics of masculinity, which led her to believe that she could leverage the environment to positively impact her students.

“I didn’t have a lot of experience around a lot of men, but I navigated all that and found my footing in the classroom and among my peers,” she said. “Teaching here, if you're going to teach gender, you’ve got to lean hard into masculinity. I think it's my advantage as the woman in the room, because I can ask my students, ‘Is this adding up to your experience or not?’

Abbott is proud of her personal development that has formed her into the award-winning professor she is today, and she credits her colleagues in rhetoric and across campus for their mentorship and collaboration. Most of all, she is grateful for her husband of 20 years, Professor of Theater Michael Abbott ’85, whom she met at Wabash.

“He's a master teacher,” she said, “I yearn to teach as well as him.”

Professor Abbott with her husband, Michael Abbott '85, and daughter, Zoe

Abbott continues to strive to better herself for her students and provide a classroom setting where they feel they can openly explore new concepts.

“I’ve seen Professor Abbott develop an authentic way of listening and manner of response to student ideas that treats ideas openly and graciously,” McDorman said. “She is an expert at engaging students in ways that give genuine consideration and reconsideration of ideas that enrich class discussion. She inspires trust and builds confidence because she shows she is listening and carefully considering what people have to say.”

The McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Award is the most recent in a long list of accolades for Abbott, including being named co-recipient of the Top Paper Award from the National Communication Association Annual Convention, recipient of a Research Exchange grant from the Kettering Foundation, focusing on researching and analyzing public journalism practices, and co-recipient of a Great Lakes College Association New Directions Initiative grant, which focused on hosting an annual public lecture or debate at Wabash.

She has published eight books and papers since coming to Wabash, including “Speaking and Democratic Participation: Speech, Deliberation, and Analysis in the Civic Realm,” a book hundreds of Wabash students have used in their rhetoric courses.

Despite her long list of achievements, Abbott says her proudest moments are when she can inspire a student to change or adapt their thinking on difficult topics.

“I've learned over time how to help convince students to try out tricky ideas, especially when it comes to things like gender, race, sexuality, or class,” she said. “I'm doing better at helping students not worry about saying ‘the wrong thing.’”