February 12, 2004

SIUC will honor Jo Ann Boydston with degree

by K.C. Jaehnig

EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. -- Jo Ann Boydston, an internationally renowned expert on American philosopher John Dewey and longtime director of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Center for Dewey Studies, will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the SIUC College of Liberal Arts Friday, May 7, during college commencement exercises.

The SIU Board of Trustees approved the award, which honors outstanding scholarship or accomplishments benefiting society, during its regular meeting today (Feb. 12).

Boydston, who signed on with SIUC's new Dewey research project in 1961, became director five years later of the fledgling Center for Dewey Studies and helped turn it into the world's top repository of books, articles and other source materials for the study of America's best-known philosopher.

"One of the things that people in the humanities know about SIUC is that the Dewey papers are here," said Larry A. Hickman, who succeeded Boydston as center director in 1993.

"We have visitors from all over the world come here to do research and visit our special collections. And Jo Ann Boydston really was the person who did this. Without her editorial project, the papers would not have come here."

Over the course of her 33-year association with the center, Boydston oversaw the publication of a major critical work, 37 volumes containing all of Dewey's major philosophical pieces and an index. "The Collected Works of John Dewey," produced at the rate of more than one volume each year, was the first such collection of writings by a classical American philosopher, the first to use the principles and procedures of modern textual criticism, and one of the first to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This work had a huge scholarly impact.

"There was a period, shortly before his death and afterwards, during which the work and ideas of John Dewey went into eclipse," Hickman said.

"'The Collected Works of John Dewey' focused the interest that remained and was the source of the survival of that interest. It served as a springboard for all kinds of scholarship, and now that there are more people interested in pragmatism, it's become even more important."

While the "Collected Works" served as the definitive edition of Dewey's published papers, Boydston saw the need for related study materials and put together a guide to his work, a tally of its translations, a list of the contents of his personal and professional libraries, and a collection of his poems (which had been retrieved, undated and unsigned, from his wastebasket).

"There was some question about whether or not the poems were actually Dewey's," Hickman said. "We have Dewey's typewriter here in special collections, so what Jo Ann did was examine all the typefaces -- each typewriter has keys with letters that may be cracked or chipped, so it's almost like a fingerprint -- and she was able to match up the typed characters in the poems with the typewriter."

Shortly before her retirement in 1990, Boydston received a $165,000 federal grant to publish his letters and other correspondence. The final volume is due out at the end of this year.

"We have 22,000 items, a documentary history of his life and work that offers a much more intimate look than other published records," Hickman said.

"While she didn't actually work on this project, Jo Ann was instrumental in setting up some of the standards and techniques that we used."

In addition to her scholarly work, Boydston played a key role in the wider academic community throughout her career. A founding member of the Association for Documentary Editing, she later served as its president. She also headed the Society for Textual Scholarship and the John Dewey Society and chaired the Modern Language Association's Committee on Scholarly Editions. She lent her talents as a consultant to numerous groups, published dozens of articles and regularly spoke to local, regional and national audiences.

Previous honors include a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Indiana University for innovative work that has contributed significantly to scholarly learning and the Association for Documentary Editing's highest accolade, the Julian P. Boyd award, given every three years to a senior scholar in honor of a distinguished contribution to the study of American history and culture.

Boydston received bachelor's and master's degrees from Oklahoma State University in 1944 and 1947 respectively. She earned her doctoral degree from Columbia University in 1950.