Argumentation scholars around the world mourn the loss of Michael Leff, who died on February 5, 2010 after a brief illness.
At the time of his death, Leff was Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Memphis (USA). He received his doctorate in 1972 from the University of California, Los Angeles, and before going to Memphis in 2003 he held faculty positions at the University of California-Davis, Indiana University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Northwestern University.
Leff thought argumentation studies could bridge traditional divisions between dialectic and rhetoric and that argumentation also joined the disciplines of English and Communication, offering the prospect of enriched understanding of the arts of human reasoning and communication. For his many contributions to the field, he was honored with the Distinguished Research Award at the 2002 conference of the International Society for the Study of Argumentation.
Those who attended the 2002 ISSA conference will remember Leff’s keynote address, a close reading of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Leff is best known for this approach to close reading of texts, which he believed would reveal their internal dynamics and identify movement within the text. The argumentative moves that are explicit in a dialogue, he explained, were implicit within a well-crafted text. The critic’s task was to uncover them. Leff’s voluminous scholarship also focused on the rhetorical artistry of Abraham Lincoln and on Cicero’s significance within the Roman rhetorical tradition.
Mike Leff advised graduate students whose projects ranged from classical rhetoric to visual rhetoric and from public address to the rhetoric of science. He did not insist that students share his own research agenda but supported good scholarship wherever it might lead. As a teacher, Leff was demanding but gentle and encouraging. Besides undergraduate and graduate teaching, he enjoyed teaching liberal arts to adults in poorer neighborhoods in Chicago and Memphis.
Leff gave generously of his time and energy in serving professional organizations. He chaired the National Communication Association’s Research Board, edited the journal of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric, was the founding president of the American Society for the History of Rhetoric, and was the sitting president of the Rhetoric Society of America, whose 2010 conference he was planning at the time of his death. He also served on the Board of the Tennessee humanities council and the Memphis Urban Debate League.
Leff attended many conferences, enjoying presentation and discussion of papers, intellectual stimulation and professional networking, renewing old friendships and forming new ones. He could be outspoken, but he never took disagreements personally and never lost his enthusiasm for his work. He regularly presented papers at conferences in English and philosophy and at interdisciplinary conferences in rhetoric and argumentation, as well as those in his own discipline of communication. He received several awards from the National Communication Association, including selection as a Distinguished Scholar.
Mike Leff was an especially congenial colleague and good friend. His passing leaves a void but his legacy includes grateful students, admiring colleagues, dear friends, exemplary scholarship, and a deep and lasting impact on rhetorical studies of argumentation.
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Zarefsky, D. Obituary: Michael Leff (1941–2010). Argumentation 24, 403–404 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10503-010-9186-3