Devoted 26 years to UW Comm, Barbara Warnick valued for commitment to students, field of rhetoric

Barbara WarnickNo matter who you talk to, three things ring true about Barbara Warnick: her undying commitment to her students, the field of rhetoric, and the UW Department of Communication for 26 years of her career in academia.

Warnick joined the faculty at the UW in 1980, after spending three years teaching at Tulane University. The jump stemmed from her desire to work with graduate students – an opportunity Tulane didn’t offer at the time. She received her own Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1977, and helped so many others achieve this goal.

“Barbara is one of the two most important mentors in my life, as far as my professional career goes,” said Michael Bruner, Professor of Rhetoric and Politics at Georgia State University who earned his Ph.D. in 1997 with Warnick as his advisor. “She got me teaching argumentation, helped me get published twice as a grad student which in turn got me a great job – it wasn’t just that she helped me professionally, but I always felt like she had my back.”

Warnick often had her students over to her house to help them figure out problems intellectually and encouraged them to be entrepreneurial in their studies.

“She would never discourage us from blending different fields together to come up with new ideas,” Bruner said. “For example, I was in comparative literature and taking a philosophy class – and she literally signed up for the graduate course and sat in on seminars because she got intrigued after speaking with me about the class. Barbara was constantly learning and expanding the ways in which she thought about rhetoric.”

Michael Bruner and Barbara Warnick

Michael Bruner and Barbara Warnick

In addition to teaching, Warnick became Editor of the Quarterly Journal of Speech (QJS) and later that year agreed to be Chair of the UW Department of Speech Communication. In an autobiographical piece for QJS, she wrote that she felt “humbled by the realization that I had an opportunity to serve the discipline in this way,” and that being Editor and Chair at the same time was a difficult task considering the Department was targeted for elimination in 1994 due to a budgetary crisis.

“After an impressive campaign to save ourselves and with the support of colleagues throughout the discipline and people in the Seattle community, we survived,” she wrote.

“Barbara was a real champion for our Department – as Chair and before,” said Professor Valerie Manusov, who came up for tenure during Warnick’s chairship and also worked with her on a study. “She came in at a most difficult time for the Department of Speech Communication and provided a type of positive and pragmatic leadership that helped us look to the future. She really set us up well for success.”

Manusov noted Warnick’s incredible energy, intelligence, and own brand of kindness and compassion that sometimes came off as blunt.

“She took on my promotion with great zeal and dedication, working with me at length to make sure we did it all well,” Manusov said. “She was so honest, but I could always count on her and that her word meant everything – her honesty meant that I could trust her completely.”

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Barbara Warnick with her husband Michael O’Connell

In 2006, Warnick made the difficult decision to accept an offer by the University of Pittsburgh where she saw an opportunity to support and improve an academic program in need of leadership. She became Chair, and in 2010 was elected a Fellow of the Rhetoric Society of America (RSA). She had served on the board for RSA from 2007 to 2009, along with being a member and serving in various positions in the National Communication Association, the Western States Communication Association, the International Society for the History of Rhetoric, and the American Society for the History of Rhetoric.

In 1986, Warnick met her husband Michael O’Connell, who saw firsthand her commitment to higher education seven days a week. He said she not only served the Department, but also the university – serving on hiring committees, aiding in building two branch campuses in Tacoma and Bothell, and trailblazing for women in rhetoric.

“It was stunning to watch someone who worked that hard and had that attitude,” he said. “Not everyone in academics thinks that way. She was not out for personal glory or recognition – she just got in the trenches and she worked.”

At the conclusion of Warnick’s autobiographical article for QJS, she wrote: “As someone whose career has been devoted to the teaching and study of public argument, I hope that our discipline’s contribution to the study of communication’s vital role in society will continue to be cultivated and developed… Whether it relates to the quality of our research and teaching or to institutional politics, we should, I think, all work to preserve and extend our discipline’s work in the 21st century. I hope I have made some small contribution to that effort.”

While today Warnick suffers from dementia, her contributions to the study of rhetoric for the past four decades are apparent and abundant – including teaching the next generation of rhetoricians how to teach generations to come.

“It’s a fine balance between being tough and professionalizing people, and being compassionate and really caring about them as individuals and giving them the freedom to develop their own talents and their own ideas,” Bruner said. “I feel like it took me 15 years to develop some of the lessons that Barbara tried to teach me, but they wouldn’t have been there to sink in if it weren’t for people like Barbara.”

To support the Barbara Warnick Endowed Fellowship, which provides financial assistance to graduate students in the Department of Communication, click here. Warnick is also featured on a legacy page that honors former faculty and staff who have made a significant impact on the Department of Communication.