Wednesday, November 15, 2006

deb kaplan

deb kaplan, assistant professor of communication, former community journalist, and all around lovable human being, died the night before last in her sleep. i met deb about three years ago when she became a professor at university of washington in the department of communication. she was engaged: engaged about teaching, engaged with the world, engaged about suffering. she was also a bundle of fun to be around.

before going to grad school, deb worked as a journalist for nearly twenty years. she was a reporter for the detroit free press and an editor of the metro times (an alternative weekly in detroit). at some point, she went to grad school at the university of north carolina and studied mass communication and cultural studies. i know that she was heavily influenced by larry grossberg, one of key scholars of cultural studies.

in general, deb studied social inequalities and social change; in particular, she studied homelessness. for deb, studying something and making that something better were inseparable. as a journalist, a researcher, and a teacher, deb presented inequalities not as something to merely recognize and assess but also to fight and eradicate.

deb was one of the few UW professors i kept up with. the last time we spoke, she was excited about her books - the book that was almost finished and the book that she was currently researching. and she was excited about her graduate class; deb loved working with and learning from graduate students.

over the years, over coffees, over dinners, and over cigarettes, we complained about the fools who stood in our way and the fools who didn't believe in themselves. but most of all, we talked about making a difference, we talked about affecting change, we talked about believing in what you do, and we talked about teaching.

and then we would end our conversations the same way we'd begin them: with a huge bear hug. i miss you deb kaplan.


sarah said...

nicely done, david. deb would be pleased, awed, and probably in disbelief of your words.

it's a fitting and thoughtful tribute to such a warm and energetic person. deb's smile is what i remember most: lively, generous, and welcoming, all at once. she's a sweetheart and she is missed.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

So do I, and I didn't even know her. Sometimes the path to the palace of wisdom leads through some very muddy places.

Even through journalism....

Anonymous said...

...this is such sad news. Deb was one of those (few) people who made me feel hopeful about human beings...she was a deeply caring, reflective and generous person...her loss is tragic. ~Peters

Anonymous said...

Thank you, David. This encomium to Deb is so typical of your generous and caring spirit. Everyone here at NCA is in grief and shock. We will miss Deb so much and think of her family and others who loved her.

Barbara Warnick

tony chan said...


thanks for telling the world about deb. she and i had many conversations about social change and journalism.

since we were both journalists who had been in the trenches, we spoke to each other directly and always heart felt.

she was a true human spirit whose wheel of desire was to make a difference in the world, and not specifically in the academic profession.

it was a privilege to have known her and to share in her hopes and desires.

i will miss her tremendously.

Tabitha Hart said...

I had COM 500 with Deb this quarter. In the brief time that I knew her, her passion for her research and her teaching came through as clear as a bell. She had a vivid character, and the classroom will feel empty without her.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, David, for letting us join the surge of people remembering deb for her ethics, courage, and spirit. Our last debate (because deb never chatted, did she?) was about shared experiences as reporters (was wild turkey or beer the chaser?) as well as shared moments of being grad students (were we the suffering fools or just fools in general?) She is so missed... Nancy VL

Ted M. Coopman said...

Thanks David...

Deb was an inspiration, as a friend, a fellow radical, working for her as a TA, and as a teacher in what was one of the best grad classes I every had. She was supportive intellectually and emotionally, always there for a casual conversation, to process on dissertation distress or politics in general.

I'm at NCA (Austin) now, I can't imagine coming back and walking down the hall, hoping to see her open door, knowing it is forever closed.

I'm am a better scholar, a better person for having known her. She represented what was best in all of us, what we could aspire to as scholars, as people. We are rich for having shared time with her, and so very much poorer for her passing.

You have our love Deb, and we will keep you in our hearts and minds. We will miss you so very much.


Li Liu said...

I am also a Com500 student as Tabitha. I will miss Deb deeply for her engaging teaching and true passion for social change. She reminded me what a social scholar should be like. Thank you David, for sharing this memory to us.

Anonymous said...

...thank you for this about Deb. She touched so many of us. When she laughed, she really laughed. She showed her deepest passions. Her innocence reflected her wonder; her wonder reflected her wisdom. She inspired those who sat nearby. Those of us at the University of Washington will miss her dearly, as well as those around the world. - Kristin

Anonymous said...

Thank you, David, for putting this so well. I didn't get a chance to know Deb as well as you did, but I'm grateful for brief conversations and smiles we shared. What a sad way to be reminded that we dare not put off until tomorrow the opportunity to know someone better today. Sue LJ

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the blog.

I am afraid I was too far along in my studies to have worked with Deb as much as some of the others. But I had nothing but admiration for her journalism, her midlife transition to academia, her body of work, and the passions that drove all.

My sympathies to her family and loved ones.

Kathy H.

Michele Poff said...

I too was a student in Deb's graduate seminar this quarter. I am impressed by the compassion and passion with which she approached teaching and scholarship. Deb was one of those people who touches people's lives without intending to. It's just who she was. I am certain she would be rather surprised and deeply touched by the kindness and reverence expressed by so many in her honor. My own life and scholarship are richer for her influence. Thanks Deb!

Anonymous said...

I too was inspired by Deb Kaplan’s dedication to teaching and helping others. She told me about a few key principles that guided her teaching: empowering students, disrupting the traditional top-down classroom hierarchy, and building on knowledge that students already possess.

Deb talked about how hands-on experiences she had working with Detroit’s inner city kids to produce their own youth newspaper shaped this philosophy. In this context she said it was vital to empower young people by validating their own lived experiences, their lives – and she carried this with her to her UW classes. It was years after this experience that Deb said she discovered Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and realized that her own philosophy had been informed by a similar post-Marxist perspective. In this way, in all her work, Deb rooted her understandings of great ideas and great thinkers in her own deeply held convictions and personal experiences. This is rare gift Deb was willing to share generously – with a lovable mix of humor and passion.

I was consistently amazed by Deb’s insistence on working to change the world and always to advocate for the voiceless; her gut instinct was to do nothing less.

She will be deeply missed.

Our thoughts are with her family.

Kathy said...

Thanks, David. I love the picture - it made me hear Deb's laugh.

I'm sad on many levels - Deb and Crispin and I started together at UW three years ago. I was hoping to work with her more next year because I'm teaching a class -- blogging, media and politics -- that has me interacting with the journalism faculty more than I have until now.

david silver said...

i love how so many of us remember deb's smile ("lively, generous, and welcoming, all at once" and "I'm grateful for brief conversations and smiles we shared") and her laugh ("When she laughed, she really laughed" and "I love the picture - it made me hear Deb's laugh"). her smile was something that always captured me and her laugh always knocked me out.

how great and how so very fitting it is to hear from all of us, especially the students who had the privilege and pleasure to be near deb.

DB said...

Deb was one of the few people I've known who's life paralled my own so much, and it created a special, unspoken bond between us. But I think Deb made everyone feel that way. She was one person who totally supported my interpretation of social and cultural adaptation concepts--usually after about two shared ciggies and a grande americano--but she was critically open to so much, I knew I wasn't special; she just made me feel that way. :-) Over the 3 or so years I'd known Deb, I found that we had lots of cultural similarities, despite the fact that she was a white woman from the north, and I a black woman from the south: we both grew up quite poor, in the innercity, and worked for community newspapers for years BY CHOICE, before ever thinking of grad school. It was kismet that she ended up on my advising committee. She was, and still is, a model of inspiration and transformation for me. Deb also understood the suffering and loss I went through over the past few years more than I ever gave her credit for at the time--because she had experienced so much suffering herself, as I was not aware of until later. I am so pained over the world losing someone so authentic and inspiring but, frankly, I am totally psyched that she is (my opinion) in a wonderful, non-paper grading place now and smoking as much as she likes without consequence. :-)
Love you, Kaplan

Anonymous said...

How nice to have the blog to visit David, thank you. I'm grateful for the six weeks of theory with Deb -- it was too short and I'm sure that as my studies go on I'm going to feel a hole that could have only been filled by a deep discussion with Deb about the critical view in play.

I hope that I will continued to be inspired by her -- the fact that she came back to PhD work later has helped me already.

We can only hope to make her proud in our thinking and writing and teaching.

Peg A.

Anonymous said...

Deb is a huge inspiration for me in so many ways. Many times i have been at a difficult place in my own relationship to power and my place in the academy and Deb provided me with strategies and examples of how to act critically in the world. I am truly in awe of her most recent work, the way that she cenceptualized her research as empowering and giving power to voices that have so little power in this world. I was asking her about how to integrate my own research into a broader program for social change only a week or two ago, and she said that she was interviewing people in the homeless encampments that she visited in order to help them articulate their organizational vision. She saw an amazing amount of potential in this organizational structure as a means for empowering a broader movement for the rights of homeless actors in our world, and saw herself as helping to shape that momenent - not by imposing her own ideas, but by listening to the ideas and actions of others.
Adrienne summarized a presentation that Deb gave a few weeks ago on her research here:
Deb truly embodied this approach in both her research and her teaching, and i aspire to be so reflective in my own actions.
Thank you Deb for everything that you so modestly gave me. You are a truly amazing person.

Anonymous said...

Thanks David,

Today I picked up my exam questions and seeing Deb's question really hit me hard, knowing that I am answering a question that I know I will never truly know the answer to fills me with a sense of loss that words cannot fully describe. However, I take heart that during our meetings Deb let me know in the only way Deb could that I was heading down the right path, that my scholarship and my life have been influenced tremendously by her.

Anonymous said...

Thanks David.

Deb co-taught Com 500 last year when I was a student in the class. Several times that quarter and that year...and this year, I have felt an acute sense of discomfort about academia and my place within it. Listening to Deb, witnessing her verve, her passion, her theory and her practice, however, always helped center me in ways that I do not completely understand yet.

The last time I spoke to her she told me that graduate school and academics in general need not feel like a Dickension house of horrors. It was possible to imagine other spaces. I am so so sorry that she will not be here to help me imagine.

I am going to miss those snatches of conversation and her energetic smile.


Anonymous said...

I will miss Deb dearly. A group of non-smokers had a ritual here at NCA this week where we all lit cigarettes in a circle and smoked joyously for Deb.

Like many have said, Deb's delightful mixture of intensity of intellect and ability for a quick deep laugh will stay in my heart always.

Deb is/was a key person on my PhD committee -- her commitment to social change for the betterment of the voiceless is/was a flame that she has shared with all of us she has touched. A paper I wrote in her course on Social Resistance, inspired by the brilliant theories she introduced us to, won top paper in the environmental communication division at NCA last night, an award that would not have happened if she had not touched my life and work, and that I very humbly dedicate to her continued flame in us all.

You will be missed by so many, Deb.
In loving memory -

david silver said...

there's something so beautiful reading through our memories of deb and something so sad knowing that so few of us had the opportunity to tell deb directly how we felt about her, how we admired her, and how we grew as a result of her.

amoshaun - thanks for providing the excellent link to probably one of the last recordings of deb's work, written up elegantly by adrienne. amoshaun, your description of what deb was currently working on - "she said that she was interviewing people in the homeless encampments that she visited in order to help them articulate their organizational vision. She saw an amazing amount of potential in this organizational structure as a means for empowering a broader movement for the rights of homeless actors in our world, and saw herself as helping to shape that momenent - not by imposing her own ideas, but by listening to the ideas and actions of others" - sums up what she was up to and she was PSYCHED about this project: excited about finding a way to make a difference, excited about finding a way to fuse academia and activism, and (especially) excited to see the homeless actors taking charge, organizing, and being very creative and strategic in their efforts.

madhavi - few academics live within academia without some sort of discomfort and those who do have no soul. perhaps the best tribute you can make - and we can make - for deb is to continue to imagine other worlds.

Anonymous said...

As a student in her current COMM 500 class, I only knew Deb for a few weeks. I was surprised by the depth of sadness I felt when I learned of her death. I think my emotion is a testament to Deb's humanity and compassion, which was evident in her presence and her teaching style.

i said...

My favorite memories of Deb are the times when we went to play racquetball at the IMA. There was always a fun conversation, interesting ideas unraveling as we walked down to the gym. In the court, Deb kicked my butt immediately. She was patient and kind when she showed me how to hold the racquet and how to anticipate the shot. After the game we would buy healthy smoothies and then go out for a smoke and more talk. These casual conversations were an ideal of academia for me. Deb and I were two people, having fun thinking through difficult problems, bouncing ideas, disagreeing, bitching and trying to understand each other. I agree with what Barbara Warnick wrote and about Deb, “she was the real thing.”


Anonymous said...

Deb was one of my favorite comrads
in the doctoral program at UNC. She
was so down to earth to really
interested in people and ideas. She was quick to smile and laugh. I never
knew when I would run in to her at school or after we both left Chapel Hill, but I also enjoyed those occations very much. I am smiling just
thinking about her. Thanks for the memories, Deb. -Jonathan Lillie

Terry Adams said...

Deb spent the better part of the doctoral program at UNC agonizing over how to make her sociological interests fit into the journalistic system. I don't think she ever quite felt she was doing it right, but what she didn't realize was that she doing it better than most of us. We had many many happy hour and dinner conversations about the "perfect" dissertation and the "done" dissertation. I always told her to just get the damn thing done. Whether it was stubbornness, cluelessness, or just an absolute commitment to doing it the right way, she tortured herself for (I think) two extra years slogging away at the silly thing. But guess what--she's the one with the book contract. I hope it gets finished and I hope it gets published because she most definitely deserves that recognition.

I was supposed to meet Deb for dinner at NCA. I couldn't reach her at her hotel...figured she changed her plans or I got the info wrong or something. Of course, now I know what happened. I knew you weren't looking forward to the conference rigamarole, but Deb, there are better ways to get out of playing politics! Missed you for dinner and I'll miss you, period. Terry Adams

david silver said...

from irina, i learned about a story about deb kaplan in the seattle pi.

my favorite part: "She slept in tents on the street to write about the homeless, worked in the fields to write about migrant workers and sat through countless meetings of patriot groups to write about their politics."


Galia Kaplan said...

Thank you all for your kind words. I new Deb in a different way, she was my Aunt, my real life Lois Lane. My fearless, funny and so very very clever friend! I will miss her too.

Anonymous said...

Intensely curious, bright, warm, genuine, outgoing, a survivor. This is how I will always remember my friend Deb Kaplan. An in-the- streets reporter, then a fortysomething college student and later a driven graduate student, and finally a well-loved professor. She did a lot in the time she was here.

Deb never wanted to just get by, and she had no use for artifice: She held herself to the highest standard available: She wanted to really know and understand social life, and she wanted to transform the world to make it a better, more just place. Her life was amazing.

It's so, so sad knowing that she's no longer with us. It's uplifting and inspiring, though, to read how she touched so many of our lives as a teacher, student, journalist, activist, colleague, and researcher. She died far too young, yes, but she left a big imprint.

Rest in peace, Deb Kaplan. You were loved, and you will be missed.

-- Tara Kachgal

david silver said...

there's a nice story in the daily, UW's student newspaper, about deb kaplan today. it also mentions today's campus memorial service (4 pm @ the simpson center).

nice line from karen rathe:

"She had a remarkable vision regarding American journalism and what she wanted to offer the students here as far as really getting close to your subjects, the way she did with her coverage of homelessness," said Karen Rathe, a lecturer in the communication department. "She took those literary journalism techniques of the ’60s and really applied them to the social problems of today."

david silver said...

another nice piece in the daily, titled professor remembered for activism and spark.

as my good buddy and colleague crispin thurlow notes,

"She was lovely, she was smart and she was inspiring," said Kaplan's friend and colleague Crispin Thurlow. "Part of this was that she would never let us tell her she was inspiring. It's not just that we will miss Deb; we actually need Deb."

Crispin said...

Several weeks later and I still find myself deeply affected by the loss of Deb in my life here at the UW. I've been toying with whether to add this - it's how I felt about Deb and what I said about Deb at the very special memorial gathering we had for her here last week. It was such a privilege to see Deb's brother Gordon again and to meet Galia and Antoine. Anyway, here's my two pence's worth...

Along with Kathy Gill, Deb and I joined the Department of Communication at the same time – just over three years ago. On the surface of it, two more different people you couldn’t find. And yet the more time we spent together the more we kept discovering we had in common. Ultimatetly, both of us, I think, found ourselves cultural outsiders in this large all-American research university – albeit for difference reasons.

Universities are strange places: to the outsider they seem like such vibrant social, embracing places and for the most part they are – certainly for undergrads. The life of the professor, however, is surprisingly and disconcertingly antisocial. Burrowed away in our offices, beavering away at our papers, bouncing from classroom to classroom. There’s seldom much time and space for the kind of intellectual musings and conversational idlings which outsiders assume make up our working lives. It’s why I came to really value the fact that Deb and I managed to become frolleagues – both friends and a colleagues.

We’d get together from time to time for a meal after work – which typically ended up as an exchange of vices: Deb trying to keep up with my glasses of wine and me bumming cigarettes off her. During these informal meetings of “Cultural Outsiders Anonymous” we’d spend most of the meal trying to work out what the hell was going on around us, wondering if were we getting it right, if we thought our colleagues and students thought we were odd – and did we really care anyway. These were our little gatherings of the paranoid mind and we’d joke about which of us was the more overly concerned, the more debilitating sensitive! (For all sorts of reasons, I think we usually ended up agreeing that it was Deb!)

The last time we got together – about four weeks ago now – the tone of our gathering was really different. I seemed as if, after three years, Deb was beginning to feel like she was getting somewhere with the whole academic thing – working out her niche, her style, her variation on the theme of professor. I think, part of this, was because she’d simply begun to hear enough voices – and not just my own – telling her that she was lovely, that she was smart, that she was inspiring.

And part of what made Deb so inspiring to us was precisely the fact that she would never believe us anyway. Deb was a truly modest – too modest perhaps – person. And this is what was clearly keeping her such a kind, committed scholar. Deb made me think – I mean think really hard – about things. If she were here today she’d definitely be making me think about the fact that the trivial inconvenience of my journey to work in this miserable weather bears little comparison to the biting misery of being homeless again tonight.

It’s not just that we will miss Deb – we needed Deb.

david silver said...

from the detroit free press:

"Deborah Kaplan: Journalist turned to teaching" by Joe Rossiter
November 28, 2006