Blacksburg seemed like the end of the world when Virginia Fowler began her long career at Virginia Tech. Small town or not, students wore bell bottoms, danced disco and quizzed the establishment. It was the 1970s and the English department was going through big changes.
Today, sitting in her home office surrounded by shelves of books – some her own, some 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 full of challenges, but often full of joy.
Fowler started at Virginia Tech in 1977, shortly after completing her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also earned her master’s degree. It was a very competitive time to become an English teacher, and she often competed against 400 applicants for a position. Then at a local conference, she interviewed an assistant English track professor at Virginia Tech.
According to Fowler, Art Eastman, who hailed from Carnegie Mellon University, served as the new president, enlisted to move this pillar of the humanities from being service-oriented to research-oriented. For the fall 1977 semester, the Virginia Tech English Department hired 13 new faculty to help achieve Eastman’s goal. Fowler was part of this inaugural group.
The following year, the department hired 14 more. Fowler, whose career goal has always been to be a professor, worries about 30 assistant professors who are all vying for tenure at the same time. Eastman did not share this concern.
“’Oh, don’t worry,’ she recalled telling him, ‘Some of you are going to get divorced and move on. Some of you will decide to go into another profession. Some of you will leave. Do not worry.’ And by the time I got to the tenure gate, several had already left.
From then on, Fowler rose through the ranks to associate professor and professor, holding several leadership positions within the department. These included directions of graduate studies, literatures and languages, and undergraduate studies. Additionally, she served as associate department head from 1986 to 1991. She is also 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 at the start of her doctorate. The question was, would she become a Victorian scholar or a medievalist? Doctoral application. programs in both tracks, she was first accepted to the University of Pittsburgh, where she applied for their Victorian Literature track. His work on James seems apt given that his brother, William, was a leading philosopher.
Prior to grad school, she began her undergraduate years as a philosophy major at the University of Kentucky.
“After a few years of philosophy,” she said, “I was the only adult woman and the rest were men. And I finally couldn’t do without it. English was always my first love and so I switched to English, and it was English forever.
While Fowler reminisced about the frustrations of being the only student in a major to her interest in James, the subject of her second book doesn’t appear to be as drastic a shift as it otherwise might be. This book, “Nikki Giovanni”, published in 1992, shows a marked change in Fowler’s higher education activities.
When she took tenure, she was part of a group that advocated for a women’s studies curriculum, and although she said it was an uphill battle to get it through curriculum committees that were less inclusive at the time, the program succeeded.
“A colleague from the women’s studies program and I decided that it would be good if we could make the people who teach in the basic program, as we called it, so, integrate other voices into their lessons.
Through a grant, the group provided summer stipends to scholars to develop courses and bring in outside speakers to give workshops and lectures. There was also a program through the Virginia State Board of Higher Education (SCHEV) called the Commonwealth Visiting Professor Program designed to attract scholars and artists from 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 in Ohio State. Then the poet agreed to be a keynote speaker for Virginia Tech Women’s Week. This is a significant achievement for the women’s studies program at a male-dominated university.
“I was the associate director at the time,” she said, “and the head of the department asked if there was anyone I was interested in for the Commonwealth Visiting Professorship scheme. Did I want to nominate someone? So I made a case for Nikki Giovanni and went to college. SCHEV then approved it. We invited her and she agreed to come.
According to Fowler, Giovanni decided to stay in college. But then she asked for a tenure, and some colleagues expressed doubts about promoting the popular poet to a higher level of academia. Fowler was worried that the university might lose Giovanni, so she stepped in and approached then-university president James McComas for help. The university granted tenure to Giovanni.
“I don’t think she’s afraid of anything,” Giovanni said. “Ginney is willing to do what’s necessary, and I think she’s won most of the big fights. But she doesn’t take much credit. She did a lot, not just for the department, but for Virginia Tech. I like this metaphor, she’s looking through the windshield and not the rear view mirror, and that helped her move forward.
Through these experiences, Fowler said she became the prominent scholar of Nikki Giovanni. Not only did she champion Giovanni at Virginia Tech, she championed his poetry and wrote his biography.
“I had already taught myself African-American literature,” Fowler said, “so I decided, well, I’ll write a book about Nikki Giovanni. And maybe the problem was that he there wasn’t enough scholarship about him. You know, you’re not considered real in this profession until someone writes about you. And that’s sort of how it happened.
It’s all part of what Fowler considers his legacy at Virginia Tech.
“I think without question,” she said, “even though I was an important member of the group that created women’s studies – and I was even involved in the creation of women’s studies. “Africana, recruiting Nikki Giovanni and having her stay is the best thing I have ever done for Virginia Tech because of the impact she has had on the university.
But in a bit of a twist, like Fowler’s transformation from Victorian scholarship to feminist and black literature, she said one of the most rewarding experiences of her years at Virginia Tech is her advocacy and mentorship of the new faculty of English. As chair of the department’s personnel committee for several years, she wrote letters that accompanied the committee’s reports on faculty applying for tenure.
“I put a lot of myself into writing these letters,” she said. “It’s gratifying that people got tenure. Many of them would have gotten it no matter what type of letter I wrote. But there were several that were not open and closed. I felt really good at those times. I find it very rewarding to see someone come in as a new assistant professor and help them through the tenure process until they get it.
Despite all of his many contributions to the university, as one of the last faculty members to leave his peer group in 1977, Fowler was a force for positive change for the university.
“It’s hard to get a sense of the college that doesn’t 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 supports the scholarship of serious artists and scholars.She leaves an indelible legacy on the department of English, college and Virginia Tech.
Fowler thinks she’s retiring at the right time. She said the university is changing, as it always does. And she also pursues another interest. She teaches a course on Toni Morrison for the Lifelong Learning Institute at Virginia Tech, as part of continuing and professional education in outreach and international affairs. This time, she doesn’t have to worry about tests or grades, just sharing her own love of literature and hoping to inspire others.
“And that’s all you can really hope for is that for a few people, you have a positive impact,” she said.