In Memoriam: Remembering Professor Brenda L. Dervin

February 15, 2023

In Memoriam: Remembering Professor Brenda L. Dervin

Brenda Dervin

The School of Communication expresses its sincere sorrow upon the death on Dec. 31, 2022, of our former colleague, Brenda L. Dervin, Professor Emeritus of Communication. Professor Dervin was a Chair of the former Department of Communication.

Professor Dervin received her Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and home economics and a minor in philosophy of religion from Cornell University in 1960. She followed with a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in communication research from Michigan State University in 1971. Her first academic position was in the School of Library and Information Sciences at Syracuse University, which began her lifelong interest in library and information sciences before she moved on to the School of Communication at the University of Washington in 1977. Her conversations with Richard Carter helped her to develop what has come to be known as Sense-Making Theory and Methodology. In 1986, Professor Dervin arrived at The Ohio State University where she chaired what was then the Department of Communication before returning to research and teaching.

Professor Dervin’s scholarship focused on the role of sense-making in dialogue and information behavior. She was an international leader in developing Sense-Making Theory and Methodology, a philosophically derived approach for studying communication as communication. The methodology has been widely used, as Professor Dervin noted “in studies of the needs, interests, and uses of media/information/communication systems and messages by their users, audiences, clients, and citizens.”

The methodology has been particularly used by researchers in library and information sciences. Professor Dervin’s intellectual contribution to both communication and library and information science disciplines was substantial. She published 124 journal articles and book chapters, co-edited or authored 23 books, and serves as an editor of Progress in Communication Sciences for the first 14 years of its publication. The American Society for Information Science and Technology has recognized Professor Dervin’s contributions, with Barbara Wildemuth, Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writing, “Brenda was one of the first to push the field of information behavior research toward a more user-centered perspective and so had a profound on the entire discipline of information science. Her development of Sensemaking Theory and Methodology provided the tools needed for many of us to pursue studies of people's information-related thinking and behaviors. We would not be where we are today without her contributions.” 

Professor Dervin also oversaw funded research that included a million-dollar grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Studies about college students’ information needs. Other funded grants were on topics such as meeting the information needs of Hispanics in Southern California, citizen communication needs regarding toxic waste sites and communicating risk perceptions regarding Ohio air quality. She was frequently cited, with more than 17,000 citations to her work. In 2000 Professor Dervin was awarded an honorary doctorate in the social sciences for her contributions by the University of Helsinki. That honor came with a sword.

Professor Dervin was well-recognized in the communication and information science fields. She was elected a Fellow of the International Communication Association and served as its first female president from 1985 to 1987. Professor Dervin received a Joan H. Huber fellowship from the College of Arts of Sciences at The Ohio State University in 2004; in 2006 she received the American Society for Information Science and Technology’s top award for outstanding contribution to information behavior research. She also served as that organization's first keynote plenary speaker in 1996 in Finland, and then again in 2006 in Australia, which was followed by her election as a Fellow in 2009.

Professor Dervin lectured extensively about sense-making throughout her career and provided extensive workshops and training about alternative communication practices and designs in 19 countries. She also provided applied communication training and communication system design consultations to over 45 organizations, which included corporations, federal and state agencies, public and government library systems, and school systems. Following Professor Dervin’s retirement in 2012 she relocated back to Seattle, Washington but remained in contact with former students and colleagues.


Professor Dervin’s Students

Professor Dervin mentored many students throughout her career. At the undergraduate level, Professor Dervin taught courses on the communication impacts on popular and elite culture, untangling relationships between communication, power and knowledge, and an interviewing course on her sense-making methodology.

At Ohio State University Professor Dervin supervised 17 doctoral dissertations and 3 masters’ theses; she supervised another 5 doctoral dissertations and 10 masters’ theses at the University of Washington.

Her advisees have gone on to have meaningful careers. Many have pursued academic careers that have included administrative achievements. For example:

· Vikki Shields, Provost and Executive Vice President, Nevada State College

· Andrew Calabrese, Professor & Faculty Director of Faculty Research Development, College of Media, Communication, and Information, University of Colorado

· Lois Forman-Wernet, Professor and Chair of Media, Capital University

· Dave Schaefer, Professor and Chair, Communication Arts, Franciscan University

· CarrieLynn Rinehard, Professor and Chair, Communication Arts and Sciences, Dominican University

· Jamie Newmeyer Litty, Professor and Chair, Department of Mass Communication, University of North Carolina-Pembroke.

These academics and other students have contributed substantially to the communication discipline and/or to their communities as activists, or to their corporations. For example:

· Hay, Kellie (with Rebekah Farrugia, 2020). Women rapping revolution: Hip hop and community building in Detroit. Univ. of California Press.

· Reinhard, C. D., Largent, J. & Bertha, C. (Eds.) (2020). Eating fandom: Intersections between fans and food cultures. Routledge.

· Reinhard, C. D. & Olson, C. J. (2020). The greatest cult TV shows of all time. Lexington Books.

· Sackey, E., Clark, K. D., & Lin, Y. (2017). Participatory communication versus communication strategies of a transnational NGO: Implementing the indoor residual spraying project in the Northern Region, Ghana. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 46(3), 227-246.

· Huesca, Rob. Retired professor of Communication, Department of Communication, Trinity University. 2017 Award: Distinguished professional, community, and University service.

· Huesca, R. (2006). Conceptual contributions of new social movements to development communication research. Communication Theory 11(4), 415-433

· Higgins, John. Retired adjunct professor of communication, Department of Media Studies, University of San Francisco. Community media.


Remembering Brenda Dervin, from her students

From John Higgins, San Francisco:

“Brenda and SMM help connect theories and practices from a multitude of perspectives, for me primarily Paulo Freire, into practical methods of discussion and research that aid communication and understanding among participating people. To me, it's primarily about listening deeply and developing connections to others within a group. Starting in 2004, I fused SMM with "deep listening" group processes pioneered by Berkeley's StoryCenter (formerly the Center for Digital Storytelling) in reflective "digital storytelling."

I've used processes I learned from Brenda when teaching undergraduates and workshops around the world; leading discussions while serving on civil society boards (Board Member and President of the San Francisco Community TV Corporation 2000-2006, the non-profit running public access TV services for the city and county; President of the USF Part-Time Faculty Association 2016-2020, an AFT-associated trade union); and in my projects in Cyprus as a Fulbright Scholar in 2010, using SMM, community media, and digital storytelling for peace-building between Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities. The projects in Cyprus continued in 2011 and 2013 with assistance from the Cyprus Fulbright Commission, the UN Development Programme, and the US Embassy, Nicosia.

Brenda and SMM were focused on understanding and healing people in a troubled world. I'm grateful to her for enlisting me in the effort, helping provide the tools, and sharing the path.”

- Higgins


From David J. Schaefer, Ph.D., Professor, Chair, and Fulbright Program Adviser, Department of Communication Arts at Franciscan University of Steubenville:

“It was with great sadness that I received the news that Dr. Brenda Dervin had passed away on New Year’s Eve. She was an amazing professor, researcher, scholar and humanitarian who cared deeply for the success of her students –both undergraduate and graduate alike – which I witnessed time and again during my nearly decade-long career as her doctoral student at The Ohio State University. Her pioneering, hybridized approach to communication research, combining laser-sharp statistical acumen with soul-searching qualitative insight, served as an endless source of inspiration to us students, whom she would regularly assemble in her meticulously appointed north-end Columbus bungalow for snacks and Sense-Making-Methodology workshops. It was at these gatherings – outside of OSU’s bustling confines of High, Lane and 11th Avenues – that we plumbed the depths of Sense-Making theory, interrogating the processes – or verbings – of communication in myriad forms. Dr. Dervin was an amazing muse who encouraged us to continually seek answers along our own, varied paths. For that, I will always be grateful!

In today’s world, I’m reminded just how important and salient Brenda’s work was…. and is. If there ever was a time that we need Sense-Making Methodology, it is now. The candle of Professor Dervin’s scholarship is burning bright, ready to inspire the next generation of communication scholars. Thank you, Dr. Dervin, for your kindness, patience, fortitude, and inspiration. You will be missed, but not forgotten.”

- Schaefer


From CarrieLynn D. Reinhard, PhD, Professor, Communication Arts and Sciences at Dominican University:

“I once referred to Brenda Dervin - always and forever Dr. D - as Yoda to my Luke Skywalker. I think she really liked the comparison, perhaps because of the sincerity behind it. I came from a working-class family in rural Wisconsin. Even after attending college at UW-Madison, a summer internship at Nickelodeon in New York City, and working in Hollywood, I still felt like the awkward outsider when attending graduate school at OSU. Dr. D helped me feel welcome. Moreso, she made me feel like I could actually be an academic.

Working for the IMLS grant provided me with the best learning opportunity during my PhD years. She helped me understand how to conduct Sense-Making Methodology interviews, how to develop and apply content analytical coding schemes, and how to play with statistical procedures. More importantly, I learned how to manage a research team while remembering the humanity of your fellows. The Christmas parties with epic White Elephant games and the bottomless supply of Jelly Belly candies built a camaraderie that respected everyone's needs to not just be paid or receive academic accolades for their work, but also that we all need to have fun and recognition of our human needs. Dr. D didn't just want to teach us to be academics; she wanted us to be good people as well.

I hope I have lived up to both of these lessons. To never be the elitist academic who looks down on others. To always want to talk with people, not at people. To study humans, not subjects. To do, not try, to be the change I want to see in the world.”

- Reinhard


From Kathleen Clark, Professor, School of Communication at the University of Akron:

“It’s hard to find adequate words to say about the importance of Brenda Dervin as my academic mentor. I first met her as a senior in communication at the University of Washington where something clicked in a content analysis class. Something in me rose to meet her conceptually, and I was a better student than I’d ever been before. After graduating I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer but when I returned to the US, I found a lack of focus. Finally, I thought, I liked how much my brain stretched when I worked with Brenda Dervin, so I applied for the master’s program where Brenda was my thesis adviser for my MA, then followed her to The Ohio State University to continue stretching my brain and finding that something in me continued to rise to meet her conceptually.

At the point she looked at a draft of my dissertation and said, “my dear, you are soaring!” I knew I’d finally grown into the scholar I’d hoped to become. The Sense-Making Methodology she was developing during that time also deeply formed my approach to the study of communication, particularly intercultural communication, and the spiritual communication within contemplative conversations. I’ve used it to help students reflect in public speaking classes, and to develop a set of reflective prompts to unpack a contemplative conversation. Thank you, Brenda, for your enduring support and the brilliant mind that sparked my own and so many other students. Thank you for your enduring legacy of Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology.”

- Clark


Sense-making Interviewing: A Sense-Making Tribute to Brenda Dervin An excerpt from Lois Foreman-Wernet, Professor at Capital University:

1. WHAT AGE: I was well into adulthood when I first had contact with Dr. Brenda Dervin. At the time I was already married, the mother of an elementary school daughter, working full time in public relations at Ohio State, and beginning the doctoral program in communication.

2. # YEARS: Dr. Dervin has impacted or facilitated my thinking now for almost 25 years – a quarter century!

3. WHAT LED TO: I was accepted into the doctoral program in 1995, and, along with my cohort class, took Comm 800 (Research and Teaching) with Dr. Mary Garrett during fall quarter. As part of that class, we read a journal article by each of the faculty members in the department. Dr. Dervin’s article in this compilation was “Information ßà Democracy.” I didn’t understand it, but I instinctively knew that it was brilliant and important. That was when she first appeared on my radar. I was subsequently able to take a class with her, which confirmed my earlier impressions – that both she and her writing were brilliant and important.

4. KIND OF MODEL: She was an incredibly positive role model for me.

THEN: From the beginning, she helped me to understand what good scholarship is all about.

NOW: To the end, she remained my mentor, and I looked to her for advice, guidance, and collaboration on an ongoing basis.


THEN: Wow, she is brilliant, and she is philosophically oriented. I want to work with her.

NOW: 1. I still think she was brilliant, and I feel so blessed to have been able to work with her all these years.

2. The Sense-Making Methodology provided me with a critical foundation, and it is sufficiently rich that I can continue coming back to it again and again for guidance in my research and scholarship, no matter the specific question or problem.