Skip to main content

In Memoriam: Jan Oaks

A Tribute to Jan Oaks (May 3, 2015):

I am so very glad that we have this opportunity to come together to remember and celebrate the life and work of Jan Oaks who has touched us all in so many ways and leaves us with many treasured memories. Jan taught at UK for 31 years and her generous imagination, creativity, and presence warmed so many of us who took her classes, sat in long laborious meetings with her to build GWS and the WWC, and most of all, the informal chats and lunches that Jan always made time for. Jan indeed was brimming with generosity, zest, and passion. She loved to talk about feminism, poetics, students, movies, felines, novels, detectives, crime, sports, madness… Despite a heavy teaching load as a senior lecturer, Jan was always a muse for her students. In the recent weeks, I have heard numerous stories of how Jan opened up to her students new ways of seeing, being, and changing their life worlds.

Jan as a beloved teacher, friend and colleague leaves us with so many legacies and wisdoms. When I think of Jan I think of Tenderness, Tenacity, and Temporality as her gifts to us. The increasingly corporatized university demands that we do more, write more, and, as a result, too often we rush through our days. We are on time clocks not of our own making. From Jan, I learned that we can refuse such a pace and take joy in the moment and the impromptu conversations that can sustain us all. My fondest memories of Jan include sitting with her in Michelle Del Toro’s office. Between sipping Diet Cokes and crunching salads, Jan would creatively dissect popular culture, movies, politics, food, and fiction. I also think of my visits to Jan’s office where she was likely to be surrounded by mounds of student papers but she would always make space and time for a conversation.  Jan was truly interested in people and that tenderness was especially brought home to me in one very vivid conversation with her. For many of us, monthly faculty meetings can be onerous. One day, Jan came to my office visibility upset, saying she had a conflict and could not attend our next faculty meeting. I made a joke saying that I wished I did not have to go since we were to discuss some dreadful policy matters and assessments. Jan looked at me in confusion and said, “But Karen I love faculty meetings, I like to hear what people are doing, saying, and feeling.” For me, this moment helps me rethink the tempo of our academic lives and how we can practice small refusals of university demands that can hamper our time, space, and care for ourselves and our relationships.  Finally, I want to say that I deeply admire Jan’s tenacity.  Jan was bold and outspoken about her politics and principles. She was not shy but always courageous in speaking her mind about feminism, pedagogies and fostering creativity and imagination, honoring women poets and writers, university and political cruelties, marriage, and so many other things. Her tender tenacity is a loving legacy that we all can share and practice. ~Karen Tice

More memories from faculty, students, and friends:
"Jan was always giving and gracious. When I first came to UK, she relinquished her corner office where I now work. We joked about how Breckinridge Hall was obviously a former dormitory. Couldn’t we imagine being roommates in one of these tiny rooms? So from the beginning, I knew Jan as a friendly face who was kind to the new kid on the block. No wonder all the students gravitated toward her. It’s a deep shame that she left without the send-off she deserved, without our publicly acknowledging her decades of devotion and thanking her for her warmth, humor, and generosity. The department serves as a home base for a lot of students, and her classes were often what made it seem like home. Nobody can do exactly what Jan did for them, for us, for the university" ~ Carol Mason

"What I remember about Jan is her upbeat personality. You could always feel her presence in a room – she radiated good spirit, a bouncy good spirit that was quite contagious. Her beaming smile could lift anyone out of the doldrums. I’m sure she had her low moments, as we all do, but she never showed them to us.

For many years we served together on the Women’s Studies Steering Committee before GWS became a department. That is where I met Jan, over twenty years ago. We were not close friends, nevertheless she was a fountain of information on the latest new female detective novels for which I was most grateful. 

As a program, WS did not have faculty so we all chipped in our time in addition to our home department duties. That was more difficult for Jan since she was teaching double the course load that regular faculty had but she worked just as hard for WS as anyone. We weathered many highs and lows on that committee, but Jan always seemed to be able to look on the bright side no matter what. I know she continued to be that light for GWS when the department was formed.

We will all miss that fantastic smile and optimism." ~Francie Chassen-Lopez

"I don’t have a single memory of Jan in which she was not passionate. Either as an advocate of her students or of the causes she believed in and worked hard to support. She was a person who lived life fully and deeply as we all should. I will never forget her kindness, wonderful sense of humor, and compassion. She will be missed." ~ Emily Dotson

"To me, Dr. Oaks represented the true meaning of a teacher: passionate about what she taught, treated all students fairly, respected all viewpoints, and was remarkably wise, kind, and inspirational.  She went beyond even that though: she gave her students a voice.  Her classes felt like empowering, feminist havens – where students could feel safe in voicing their opinions and have an honest discourse about the issues they cared about.  Her passion for literature, equality, cinema, and theory was evident in every aspect of her being.  She greatly impacted my feminist journey and my love of fiction – I am so grateful to her for that.  I can honestly say I don’t think I ever smiled, laughed, and bonded so much as I did in Dr. Oaks’ classes.  She truly made students feel like they mattered and inspired them to go out into the world and make a difference.  

 She was always there for me at the important moments in my time at UK, in and out of the classroom – she was there when I needed a mentor; she was there cheering me on when I received the Kate Black Scholar and Activist Award before graduation; she was there just to have a pleasant chat with when I worked in the GWS Department office; and she was even there each year when I returned for my annual visit to the GWS Dept.  I feel so grateful to have conversed with her one last time in November – she was the same supportive, delightful, and fascinating person I always admired.  

 I feel lucky to have called her teacher and I feel luckier to have caller her friend.  She was a bright light in this sometimes patriarchal-depressing society, with a quirky sense of humor and a quick wit that didn’t let anyone get away with speaking injustice.  In the end, I will remember her not only as my favorite teacher at UK, but also as an amazing and just extraordinary human being.  Rest in peace, Dear Jan, knowing that though your life may have been cut abruptly short, your legacy and influence will live on for generations to come in the lives of your students and all those that knew you." ~Brittany Moore

"If Jan were here as I write this tribute to her life, she would likely tell me “Allie, you should write something creative. I always enjoyed your poetry.”

Yet the verses seem lost to me, each lonesome word wandering the corridors of my mind attempting to find one another.  They run parallel but never meet.  However, let me say this:

Jan Oaks was the quintessential professor in the sense that she devoted her life to opening hearts and minds though her classes.  But she was so much more: a mother, a colleague, a sister, a friend. 

Jan Oaks is one of the reasons that many UK students, who never expected to become feminists, became feminists by the time they graduated.  Her classes were safe spaces where we shared our pain, our secrets, and occasionally our madness, and through this approach to teaching and learning through one another’s perspectives we gained a deeper understanding and context about gender in our lives.

Though in an Intro class she may have seemed to some like a rather gentle, reserved woman, a few more classes or conversations with her would reveal a woman who relished the provocative and the transgressive.  She had a love for ambiguity—all kinds.  I think she enjoyed the many possibilities that ambiguity can bring, adding layers and layers open to interpretation.  We shared a deep appreciation for those things, and I felt a close bond with her.  She is one of the greatest women I have ever known and I cherish every memory I have with her. 

I fondly recall the way, during class discussions about a (usually dark and twisted) theme in our reading material, she would simply grin and say “Isn’t that just wild?” Jan Oaks was a wild woman, a renegade in red coke bottle glasses, a joyfully subversive spirit.  The earth is missing one of the finest humans to have walked it.

Jan’s memory lives on in each one of us: may she never be forgotten." ~ Allie Huddleston