John Sterling Harris (1929-2013)
By Donald H Cunningham, professor Emeritus of English, Auburn University
If my memory serves me, an entry in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notebooks reads something like this: “A beam of light passing through an imperfect blind in a darkened room falls upon an open book. It might be made symbolic—of something.”
On the evening of 21 September, John Sterling Harris—teacher, poet, technical writer, and avid private airplane builder and pilot—taxied into position for takeoff, released the brakes, gunned the engine, and climbed out on his final flight. His final illness was a brief pneumonia complicated by many chronic health problems.
John was the major catalyst in the founding of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing. Of all his very broad range of interests, the foremost was teaching; hence, the name of the association and the original title of its journal. Coming from a family of educators (his father was a superintendent of schools and a coach of several state championship teams in high-school football, an uncle was president of Brigham Young University), he regarded the development of teaching skills as the mission of the association.
John worked at the rock face of life—the experience of a teacher and a scholar to be sure—but also one who experienced the western deserts and mountains, worked in a mine smelter and as a steel rigger, and served as an armaments expert and technical instructor of small arms maintenance in the U.S. Army and a missionary in the American Southwest. He built and piloted—and eventually crashed—his own 200-miles per hour experimental airplane, hunted deer, responded to the beauty of Sego Lilies and Aspen and the high western desert of Utah out toward the Nevada line, which most people would call barren.
Isaiah Berlin would have been troubled by John. John’s life was both fox-like and hedgehog-like. For him, everything was, as the saw goes, grist for the mill. He wrote of aversions to technology, love of flying, the Murphy sponge, musical tastes, nomenclature, nostalgia, social and economic change, teaching, the relationship of poetry to technical writing, and instances of literary snobbery. He wrote about aircraft design and firearms technology in specialist magazines. Most importantly, John wrote about knowing things together, that phrase made famous by the psychologist William James, the older brother of Henry. John knew the impossibility of knowing everything, but he believed we should try.
Much of John’s life was influenced by the legacies of his pioneer ancestors, his church, his generation, his teaching, and his living in the American West. Far from being restrictive influences, they formed a more or less cohesive set of perspectives from which John viewed and by which he integrated the world. What converged into the center of his life were the prizing of curiosity (he knew that knowledge is a perishable commodity), problem solving (he knew that to learn, to find information, to analyze, and to think were by far the most important attributes of humans), the vivid sense that we are constantly being challenged and tested (both by events thrust upon us and by our tendency to test our abilities), and the search for permanent values in a seemingly impermanent world.
John was a compelling, blessedly clear, insightful, entertaining, yet instructive, writer and speaker. Many of his articles appeared in theJournal of Technical Writing and Communication, including one that received an NCTE award. John’s essays (many of which appeared in publications that teachers of technical communication or English do not read) and his two books of poetry (Barbed Wire and Second Crop) track closely much of his own life. To see a coyote breaking cover, to observe the ways of ants, to feel the lift of an airplane, to know the other side of the ridge, to slant an antique framing square to read his ancestor’s markings, to test new second lieutenants in garrison drill, to make his own root-beer—these are the kinds of experiences that formed the backdrop that brings into relief John’s life.
A recognized national leader in academic technical writing, John also was in demand as a speaker on his own campus, Brigham Young University. He spoke at several honors banquets in the Spanish Department and the English Department and at College of Humanities Convocations and Commencements. He formally championed the varieties of scholarship in the humanities when he expressed his concerns over what he regarded as his university central administration’s over-emphasis on valuing certain kinds of scholarly activities in the sciences at the expense of the humanities.
John was an unmatched friend of my wife Pat and me for over forty years, during which I had the great fortune to have long conversations with him. We discussed the historical plausibility of some of Mark Twain’s observations (“tall tales”) in Roughing It; whether it was poor design, mechanical defect, or young Sartoris’ hubris that led to his fatal crash in an experimental aircraft; how much Margaret Macomber knew about the power of various rifles at her disposal and the distance between her and Francis. Back in 1969-1970, we discussed topics that we believed were not being taught sufficiently in technical writing classes at the time: whether gender should be a factor in audience analysis; acquisition and access of information, graphics and typography, audience and situation analysis, (although Tom Pearsall’s Audience Analysis for Technical Writing soon appeared); the relationship between the scientific method to technical rhetoric; and the need for usability testing. Since then, most have received standard coverage in the courses we teach.
Those extended conversations during long rambles through inner cities and challenging hikes in wilderness areas are etched in my memory, reverberating in my mind even unto this day.
John’s older brother Richard and his wife Sue predeceased him. He is survived by his three children, Steven Bradley Harris, Scott Jefferson Harris, and Polly Anne Harris, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
John and Sue chose to be cremated and scattered around the historic house they lived in for 51 years in Springville, Utah.