I just learned that Michael Leff, the president of RSA and chair of the communication department at the University of Memphis, died this morning. I knew he had been recently hospitalized, but it’s still a shock.
I first met Dr. Leff when I took his graduate seminar in classical Greek rhetoric. I think it was 2006. I didn’t really know at first what I was getting into; I knew the Communication Department had an unusual relationship with the English Department in that all the rhetoric courses were cross-listed, but it took me awhile to realize what a fantastic opportunity I had stumbled upon, where I could get a firm grip on both the rhetcomp side of rhetoric and the communication studies side.
He refused to give grades to graduate students, and didn’t even assign a seminar paper – and I learned so much in that first class that I felt like my brain has been stuffed with theoretical gunpowder. I took rhetorical criticism from him next, which opened another door, and I managed to audit one more from him on argumentation theory, which kicked open another. He was, quite probably, the best teacher I’ve ever seen. I found it almost impossible to stump him – he had read everything worth reading on rhetoric and written a fair amount of the same.
In 2007 he invited me to teach the composition course in a four-class learning community focused on the civil rights movement in Memphis, with him teaching the freshman seminar, and that was an absolutely fantastic experience. He also ultimately agreed to be on my dissertation committee in 2008, proceeded to ask all the tough questions that I figured he would, and adroitly pointed out a key problem in my second chapter. His positive judgment of the resulting manuscript went a long, long way toward my self-image as a scholar.
The last time I saw him was late last spring before I moved to Houston; I dropped by his office to ask his advice on a new article I was writing, and as usual, he knew precisely where I needed to go. I figured I would talk with him again by May’s RSA in Minneapolis, but that won’t happen now. I imagine there will be a fitting tribute to him at the conference. He was a great teacher, scholar, and human being.