One of the original 13: Virginia Fowler retires from the Department of English
Blacksburg seemed like the end of the earth when Virginia Fowler first started her long career at Virginia Tech. Small town or not, students wore bell bottoms, danced to disco, and questioned the establishment. It was the 1970s and the Department of English was in the throes of big change.
Today, sitting in her home office surrounded by shelves of books — some hers, others just favorites — she is content with her transition from teaching to retirement. She drinks a cup of coffee and reflects on over 40 years of memories, a mental timeline of institutional history, sometimes fraught with challenges, but often inclusive of joy.
Fowler started at Virginia Tech in 1977, shortly after she finished her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also received her master’s degree. It was a highly competitive time to become an English professor, and she often competed with 400 applicants for one position. Then at a local conference, she interviewed for an assistant professor of English track at Virginia Tech.
According to Fowler, Art Eastman, who came from Carnegie Mellon University, was serving as the new chair, enlisted to move this mainstay of the humanities from being service oriented to research driven. For the 1977 fall semester, the Virginia Tech Department of English hired 13 new professors to help complete Eastman’s goal. Fowler was in this inaugural group.
The following year, the department hired 14 more. Fowler, whose career goal was always to be a professor, worried about 30 assistant professors all vying for tenure at the same time. Eastman did not share this anxiety.
“‘Oh, don’t worry,’” she remembered him saying, “‘Some of you will get divorced and move away. Some of you will decide to go into another profession. Some of you will leave. Not to worry.’ And by the time I got to the tenure gate, several had already gone away.”
From that point, Fowler rose through the ranks to associate professor and professor, holding several leadership positions within the department. These included directorships of graduate studies, literatures and languages, and undergraduate studies. In addition, she served as the associate department head from 1986-91. She also was the author of several publications and journal articles, including four books.
Her first book, “Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas,” published in 1984, was the culmination of a decision she made when starting on her doctorate. The question was, would she become a Victorian scholar or a medievalist? Applying to Ph.D. programs in both tracks, she was first accepted into the University of Pittsburgh, where she applied for their Victorian literature track. Her work on James seems à propos considering his brother, William, was a prominent philosopher.
Prior to her graduate work, she had started her undergraduate years as a philosophy major at the University of Kentucky.
“After a couple of years of philosophy,” she said, “I was the only woman major and the rest were men. And I finally just couldn’t deal with it. English had always been my first love and so, I switched to English, and it was English forever after.”
As Fowler reminisced about frustrations of being the only female student in a major to her interest in James, her second book’s topic does not seem to be such a drastic shift as it might otherwise. That book, “Nikki Giovanni,” which published in 1992, shows a marked change in Fowler’s higher education pursuits.
When she gained tenure, she was part of a group who advocated for a women’s studies program, and although she said it was a fierce battle to get it through the curriculum committees that were less inclusive during those times, the program succeeded.
“A colleague from the women’s studies program and I,” she said, “decided it would be good if we could get people who were teaching in the core curriculum, as we called it then, to incorporate other voices into their courses.”
Through a grant, the group provided summer stipends for academics to develop courses and to bring in outside speakers to give workshops and talks. There was also a program through the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) called the Commonwealth Visiting Faculty Program designed to attract scholars and artists of many races. Fowler said the goal was to recruit them for a year and persuade them to stay.
Enter Nikki Giovanni. Fowler had heard her speak at a women’s studies conference at Ohio State. Then the poet agreed to be a keynote speaker for Virginia Tech’s Women’s Week. This was a considerable accomplishment for the women’s study program in a male dominated university.
“I was the associate head at that point,” she said, “and the department head asked if there was anyone I was interested in for the Commonwealth Visiting Faculty Program. Did I want to nominate somebody? So, I put a dossier together for Nikki Giovanni and went through the university. SCHEV then approved it. We invited her, and she agreed to come.”
According to Fowler, Giovanni decided to stay at the university. But then she applied for tenure and some colleagues expressed doubts about promoting the popular poet to a higher level of academia. Fowler worried that the university would lose Giovanni, so she interjected and went to then university president, James McComas, for help. The university granted Giovanni tenure.
“I think that she’s fearless” said Giovanni. “Ginney is willing to do what is needed, and I think she’s won most of the important fights. But she doesn’t take a lot of credit. She’s done a lot, not just for the department, but for Virginia Tech. I like this metaphor, she looks through the windshield and not the rearview mirror, and that has helped her move forward.”
Through these experiences, Fowler said she became known as the eminent Nikki Giovanni scholar. Not only did she advocate for Giovanni at Virginia Tech, but she championed her poetry and wrote her biography.
“I had already been teaching myself about African American literature,” Fowler said, “so then I decided, well, I’ll write a book about Nikki Giovanni. And maybe the problem was there wasn’t enough scholarship about her. You know, you’re not considered real in this profession until someone’s written about you. And so that was sort of how it how it happened.”
This is all part of what Fowler considers her legacy to Virginia Tech.
“I think without a question,” she said, “even though I was an important member of the group that created women’s studies — and I was even involved with the creation of Africana studies, recruiting Nikki Giovanni and the fact that she stayed is the best thing I ever did for Virginia Tech because of the impact she’s had on the university.”
But in a bit of a twist, such as Fowler’s transformation from Victorian scholarship to feminist and Black literature, she said the one of the most fulfilling experiences in her years at Virginia Tech is her advocacy and mentorship of new English faculty. Serving for several years as the chairperson of the department’s personnel committee, she wrote letters that accompanied the committee’s reports on faculty applying for tenure.
“I put a lot of myself into writing those letters,” she said. “It’s gratifying that people got tenure. Many of them would have gotten it regardless of what kind of letter I wrote. But there were several that weren’t open and shut. I felt really good about those times. I find it very fulfilling to watch somebody come in as a new assistant professor and to help them through the tenure track process until they get it.”
For all her many contributions to the university, as one of the last faculty members left from her peer group in 1977, Fowler was a force for positive change to the university.
“It’s hard to get my head around a vision of the college that does not include the indefatigable Ginney Fowler,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, “Not only did Dr. Fowler bring her knowledge and interests in literature to a fledgling department, she helped define what it would become — a place that embraces diversity and equity and upholds the scholarship of serious artists and academics. She leaves indelible legacies on the English Department, the college, and Virginia Tech.”
Fowler believes she is retiring at the right time. She said the university is changing, as it always does. And she also is pursuing another interest. She is teaching a course about Toni Morrison for the Lifelong Learning Institute at Virginia Tech, part of Continuing and Professional Education in Outreach and International Affairs. This time, she doesn’t have to worry about tests or grading, just sharing her own love of literature and hoping to inspire others.
“And that’s all you can ever really hope, is that for a few people, you have an impact that is positive,” she said.