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Molly Wertheimer: Blazing new trails at Penn State Hazleton

From her teaching that centered on connecting to students, her study of rhetoric and women’s political speech, and her work to help other faculty to succeed, Molly Wertheimer has been called a trailblazer at Penn State Hazleton.

By Alan Janesch

Dr. Molly Wertheimer, a professor emerita of communication arts and sciences and women’s studies at Penn State Hazleton, has been called a trailblazer at Penn State. Her trailblazing efforts have included research on the study of rhetoric and of women’s political speech, administrative work on helping other faculty to succeed, and online teaching that centered on connecting to students.

When Wertheimer joined the Penn State Hazleton faculty in 1983, her central interests were the history, philosophy and theory of rhetoric.

“I had to figure out a way to get my abstract theories out of the academic mold and relate them to students, and I did it through popular culture,” she said. “I became an avid TV and film watcher, and pulled in all kinds of examples that students could relate to.“

Wertheimer is proud of the fact that for both her face-to-face classroom teaching and her online teaching, students gave her high ratings for teaching effectiveness. This was no accident.

“I really studied how to do online courses,” she said. “Having a background in communications, I knew it was important how I communicated with the students, so over time I kept developing my tools.“

In her online courses, Wertheimer would provide a significant amount of reading material, give two to three writing assignments a week, and provide detailed feedback on the students’ writing.

“And I think that’s what students liked,” Wertheimer said. “Because they were getting more personalized feedback in those online courses than they got in face-to-face classes.”

And because they were responding in writing, the students would be more inclined to share stories from their out-of-classroom lives. Wertheimer encouraged that, because she wanted students to choose concepts from the reading assignments that were meaningful to them and illustrate them with something from their personal experiences.

Wertheimer believes her most important accomplishment for students was to help them learn methods to organize their thoughts effectively in oral and written communication.  

“It’s basically going back to Aristotle — when you want to communicate an idea, you state your case and you prove it. So I would give them different organizational patterns to use,” she said. “You ask a question, you get all the materials together, and you communicate your findings in a way that others can follow. And finding or inventing the pattern for ideas — that’s the hardest thing.”  

Blazing a trail

Speaking at a December 2022 campus event, Chancellor Elizabeth J. Wright said that Wertheimer’s accomplishments include chairing the University-wide Commission for Women; doing important research on the autobiographies of America’s First Ladies; and serving as a founding member of a professional group dedicated to studying the evolving roles and history of First Ladies.

Wertheimer also created a listserv to help link scholars, researchers, biographers, journalists and others writing about First Ladies; mentored faculty at many Penn State campuses as “discipline coordinator” for arts and humanities; and was among the first to create and teach online courses at Penn State Hazleton.

“With each of these efforts, she blazed a trail for others like me to follow,” Wright said. “Molly was indeed a trailblazer at this University.“

Until her retirement in December 2022, Wertheimer served as both a professor of communication arts and sciences and an affiliate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. The research and teaching interests that drove Wertheimer’s career, she said, were sparked originally by her investigation of college textbooks on rhetoric.  

'Listening to Their Voices'

Soon after starting at Penn State Hazleton, Wertheimer was given an opportunity to teach an introductory course on the history of rhetoric.

Molly Wertheimer

“I got the books for it, and I noticed that there were no women in them,” she recalled. “In all of this selected reading, you’d get an excerpt from Aristotle, an excerpt from Cicero, an excerpt from St. Augustine, through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, all the way up. And I noticed that in none of those thick books were women mentioned. That’s when I got the idea, I’m going to supplement this with my own book.”  

That book was "Listening to Their Voices," edited by and with an introduction by Wertheimer. Published in 1997 by the University of South Carolina Press, it was an in-depth look at the rhetorical activities of historical women.   

In the book’s introduction, Wertheimer traced the male-focused nature of traditional rhetorical theories as well as the ongoing debate about how best to write women into rhetoric's historical record.  

Its 19 essays, covering a wide range of rhetorical pursuits and historical eras, looked closely at topics such as the speech of ancient Egyptian women, the rhetorical genres of mother's manuals and women's commercial writings in the Middle Ages, the sexual stereotyping of prose style in rhetorical theory of the Enlightenment, and exhortations for racial uplift by 19th-century African American women.  

'The world reacts back to us'

Wertheimer described her research and teaching interests as centered squarely on the history, philosophy and theory of rhetoric. But her first degree was in psychology.

“When I was a psychology major, I figured out early that our identities, who we are, depend on how we interact with the world,” Wertheimer said. "We act and we send out messages verbally and non-verbally, and the world reacts back to us."

When Wertheimer started working on her advanced degrees, she shifted her focus to communication, zeroing in on studying rhetoric. Finding that the speech department and the philosophy department were on the same floor of the Sparks Building, on the University Park campus, she began to study with faculty from both departments.

“I ended up somehow finding a hole in our field where we didn’t have much research done, which was listening," she said. "I took some of the classical theories on rhetoric, imaginatively crawling back into those theories and figuring out what they assumed about listening. Because when you tell a speaker to [use specific rhetorical practices], you’re assuming that listening occurs in a certain way.”

Years later, while rooting around a dollar store to find a prop for her son’s school project, by chance she found a remaindered copy of Barbara Bush’s 1994 memoir. That sparked her interest in the rhetoric of motherhood and eventually in the rhetoric of America’s First Ladies.

“Sometimes the universe throws you something and you don’t know what it is, but you know there’s something there," she said.

Looking towards the future

Currently, Wertheimer is working on a book about First Lady autobiographies, with an anticipated publication date in the summer or fall of 2024. It will focus on 14 First Ladies who wrote autobiographies after their years in the White House — from Louisa Catherine Adams (wife of John Quincy Adams) to Michelle Obama.

Wertheimer describes these autobiographies as rhetorical tools designed to perform political work, with political and personal goals.

“It’s like an extended speech, Wertheimer said. “A First Lady wants her audience to see things her way.”

For instance, she could use her autobiography to outline accomplishments, set the record straight, manage her own legacy (and her husband’s), and provide a backstory for historical events.

In addition to doing research and teaching, Wertheimer served from 2010-12 as interim director of Academic Affairs at Penn State Scranton and for many years both before and after that as the discipline coordinator for arts and humanities faculty at 14 Penn State campuses.

In those two roles, her many activities included strategic and academic planning; recruiting and hiring faculty; promoting innovative teaching; and helping faculty be successful. Wertheimer said she’s proud of her efforts to suggest and help implement a mentoring program for faculty and to bring campus-based arts and humanities faculty to University Park once a year to meet with colleagues.