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Hannah Goode: So first I just have to kind of read from the script.

Ginney Fowler: Okay.

Hannah: To say a few things they want me to say.

Ginney: All right.

Hannah: So good afternoon. This is Hannah Goode, intern for VT Stories. Today is Friday, March 23, 2018 at about 12:00. We're in Shanks 313 in Dr. Virginia Fowler's office. So could you first please state your name, when you were born and where you were born?

Ginney: Sure. My name is Virginia Fowler, and I was born on March 29, 1948 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Hannah: Okay, thank you. So first, how would you describe your childhood, and what kinds of experiences stand out to you from your childhood?


Ginney: Well, my childhood was spent moving around a lot, so I moved from Kentucky when I was four years old to Texas, and lived in a variety of places in Texas. And when I was ten years old I moved to Montana. When I was 13 years old I moved back to Kentucky for a year, and then I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I lived for two years. And then I moved to Florida, and left home at the end of my junior year, and I was an early entrant into college.

Hannah: How would you describe your family life growing up?

Ginney: I had a very dysfunctional family. My parents were divorced when I was 2:00in college. They should have been divorced a lot earlier. My mother suffers from chronic depression. My father had been a minister in the Methodist church, but then left the church when he fell in love with another woman. And so I would say my family was very dysfunctional. I would say that for the most part I didn't have normal or typical experiences growing up. I have an older sister who ran off and got married when she was 17, I think, and I was...that was when we lived in Montana.

And so her elopement I think created a crisis in the family that my parents 3:00never really kind of recovered from. I would...that's how I'd describe it.

Hannah: Okay. You have your doctorate in English from the University of Pittsburgh. What drew you to wanting to study English, and how do you think your education has shaped your interests?

Ginney: Well, I started off wanting to be a philosophy major. I was a philosophy major for the first two years of college. And then the people in philosophy, the other majors, were nearly all male, and I felt pretty isolated because of that. All of the teachers were men, all the students were men, and then there was me. 4:00And so I took a philosophy minor, but majored in English. What was your question?

Hannah: How has your education shaped your interests?

Ginney: Oh. Well, I'd say my education shaped the kind of life that I ended up having. You know, my decision to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. pretty much meant that I was going to be academic. So I think to the extent that the kind of employment you have, the kind of job you do, the place you live, all of those things certainly shape your interests.

Hannah: Okay. So now I want to talk about some of the research you've done over 5:00the years. So you focused a lot on the literature of women and minorities and you extensively researched the literature of Nikki Giovanni. So why do you think it's important to study African American literature, especially women's literature?

Ginney: Well, I guess I would want to go back a little bit to say that my research interests initially were in Henry James, the fiction of Henry James, who was a 19th century American writer. And my first book was on Henry James. I became involved with several other women here on campus in the late '70s, early '80s, who wanted to create a women's studies program.

So I helped create the women's studies program that is here at Tech. And in 6:00relation to that I...or sort of related to that... My voice is terrible today.

Hannah: That's okay. Do you need to get some water or anything?

Ginney: No, I've got coffee, thank you.

Hannah: Okay.

Ginney: So then a couple of us decided to apply for a SCHEV grant to have the core curriculum be more inclusive of women and minorities, and it was a two year grant. We did summer seminars for faculty and brought in speakers and so on. So I started becoming interested in black women writers during that period.

And then I was asked by the department head, my then department head--I was 7:00associated department head--I was asked if I was interested in working up a nomination for something called the Commonwealth Visiting Professorship--I'm not sure that was it, but Commonwealth Visiting Professorship, which was a statewide initiative to draw minorities into the state institutions.

And I had heard Nikki Giovanni speak at a women's studies conference in Ohio a few years earlier, and so I thought oh, I think she would be perfect. And so I put in a...I prepared a nomination packet and everybody sort of laughed at me because they didn't think that she would ever come. But the nomination was 8:00approved all the way up to the state and we were allowed to invite her, and she accepted.

And so then I became--in putting together the package for Nikki I had become aware that although she was a very popular writer who had received many awards, academics had not been much interested in her as a subject of scholarship. And so that's what sort of motivated me to write the first book on Nikki, was to sort of get the academy and academic scholars to see this is a serious subject.

And then I did a book on Gloria Naylor, who I had read and was interested in, 9:00and I did a book on her. And then kept writing afterwards and forwards and things like that for Nikki's books, and pretty soon found myself being regarded as the authority. And so a couple of years ago I wrote another book on her which is a literary biography that I think is a pretty good book, and talks about her work as well as her life.

Why do I think it's important? I think it's important because black writers are habitually overlooked in the canon, and classrooms. They aren't taught as often. And I thought it was important to--I still think it's important for people to write about black writers. And my interest had been in women writers anyway, so 10:00black women writers was a natural kind of subject, I guess.

Hannah: In college did you have different research interests? Were you interested in women writers?

Ginney: No. When I was in college there was no such thing as a woman writer. At least in terms of coursework you would not know that there had ever been any women writing other than Flannery O'Connor and...well, the Brontës, and maybe George Eliot. But they were missing for most of the classes I took. My research interest as an undergraduate was in Victorian literature. I did an honors thesis on Robert Browning.


And when I went to select my graduate school, actually I had kind of two interests. I was interested in Medieval literature and I was interested in Victorian literature. So I applied to graduate schools that had people who were in one or the other of those fields. And because I was poor, I knew that whoever offered me money first would be the place I'd go. And it turned out the University of Pittsburgh offered me money first. If I had just been patient and waited, I ended up getting offers from several other places. But I was insecure. So that's how I ended up at Pittsburgh, because there was an important Victorian 12:00scholar there.

So I thought I was going to be continuing in studying the Victorians. And I did up until almost the end of my graduate work, when I suddenly discovered Henry James, and that made me know that's what I wanted to do my dissertation on.

Hannah: Okay. So what led you to start working at Virginia Tech? How did that process come about?

Ginney: Well, they offered me a job. And when I came out of grad school, the market for Ph.D.s in English was really terrible. I mean, you would apply for a job and there were three or four hundred other applicants. It turned out that the university, Tech, was getting a new department head, and he... [Phone rings.]


Hannah: Do you need to answer that?

Ginney: No, I can... He had...the new department head was named Art Eastman. He had been the chair of English at Carnegie Mellon University, which is just down the street from Pitt, and so at a regional MLA conference, Art Eastman and somebody from Tech interviewed candidates for jobs.

It turned out that Virginia Tech had decided to build a College of Arts & Sciences, and so the year that I came here there were, I believe, 14 other people who were also hired as assistant professors in English. And the following year we hired like 15 more.


Hannah: Wow.

Ginney: And so we did this massive hiring. And that's how the department got shaped, really, was those faculty members. Well, of the year that I came in the only people left are Nancy Metz and Tony Colaianne. The following year I think we had Peter Graham, and I can't think of anybody else.

So that's how I came to Tech, was that I just got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I should add the new department head, Art Eastman, was good friends with one of my professors, and so that helped.

Hannah: Yeah. Okay. Do you have any memories of first stepping onto Virginia 15:00Tech's campus, or some of your first memories when you first came to Virginia Tech?

Ginney: Well, initially I thought I had come to the end of the world. I had never heard of Virginia Tech, and Blacksburg was very small then, much less sophisticated than it is now. But on the other hand, I was extremely grateful to be having a job, so I was excited. And in a way it was good that they had hired so many of us at one time because it was a natural cadre of colleagues that we could party together, and, you know, these days we hire one person or two people, that's it. But if you have a cohort of 14 people, it makes for natural 16:00bonds, immediate bonds, and so that was very nice.

We were in Williams Hall. That's back when English was in Williams Hall, before it was remodeled, I might add. And I was in a little cubby with four other people, four cubbies and two to an office, so there were a lot of us living close at hand to each other. And I didn't think I would stay here. I thought this is just a first job, and I've got to go somewhere in a bigger place. But life has a way of making decisions for you, in a sense.

Hannah: Yeah. What kind of changes have you see in the university or in the department?


Ginney: Well, in terms of the university, there are way more women now. It used to be if you were a woman on a committee at the college or university level, chances were good you would be the only woman in the room. So there are more women, and women in positions of authority, that is within the administration. So I think that that's one of the big ways the university has changed. It's also bigger. There are more students than there ever were, and the campus itself has grown a lot.

I would say the expectations for tenure and promotion are way higher now than 18:00they were when I first came. I mean, when I first came I needed the book. I had a book. You needed a book in order to get tenure. So that was okay. But these days you need a lot more than that. I would say that the expectations have incrementally increased.

I think the importance of the humanities has never been very strong in the university. I think it's less strong now than it once was, although I'm sure the university administration would disagree. But in most of the ways that the university does business, it's pretty clear that the humanities are not valued. 19:00In part because you don't get big grants in the humanities, and, you know, that's really important in today's world, I guess, but certainly in this university today.

Hannah: Why do you think that is? Why do you think there's less focus on the humanities?

Ginney: Well, because they don't seem useful. You know, the mentality of the people who run the university is different from what it was. It's never--now don't misunderstand me because I don't think the humanities have ever been greatly valued, but I think these days they feel less valued.

Hannah: What are some of your favorite memories from your time at Virginia Tech 20:00so far?

Ginney: I've been here a long time, so... Hm. I'm not sure I can answer that.

Hannah: Is there anything that comes to mind in terms of--

Ginney: There are memories that come to mind, but as to their being favorite or positive... I mean, I guess there have been, but I can't think of what they are right now.

Hannah: Okay. Do you have anything that comes to mind when you think of maybe 21:00negative memories or some challenges you've faced?

Ginney: Yeah, plenty of them. I'm not sure I want to share them.

Hannah: Okay. Have you had any mentors, either during your education or during your time at Virginia Tech, that have helped you on your path?

Ginney: No. I had a mentor in grad school who, in the middle of my graduate training, left Pitt to go to UCLA, but he was a terrific mentor. Nobody else was particularly a mentor in grad school. I mean, my dissertation advisor I don't 22:00think knew how to be a mentor. I mean, he's a very nice man, a kind man, but...

And here at Tech, I mean, they didn't have any mentoring programs at Tech when I came. I helped develop mentoring in the department and I've mentored quite a few people myself, including people who weren't in the department or who have gone on to other things. I've continued to mentor them.

But there just wasn't a mechanism and, you know, the department when I first came and was working my way up to tenure, the department was bottom heavy. That is, there were only a few full professors and there were all of us assistant 23:00professors, and a few associates, so there weren't people in a position to mentor all of us, or any of us, for that matter.

But I think we mentored each other, in a way, but we didn't really know what was up. I mean, when we met with the new department head as a group the first year I was here, or maybe the second year, I can't remember, we were all concerned because we knew you don't get 12 or 13 people tenured at the same time from the same department. It just doesn't happen. And so we wanted to know what about that, how are we all going to get through the gate.

And his response was, well, don't worry. I mean, some of you will go somewhere 24:00else, some of you will commit suicide, some of you will decide to go to law school. Don't worry. There won't be all of you here. [Laughs.] Oh, that was funny. And sure enough, I think the year I came up for tenure there were maybe only three or four of us, so, you know, a lot of people left. I don't think anybody committed suicide, but...

Hannah: Hopefully not.

Ginney: Yeah, we hope not. But no, I didn't have. If I'd had any mentoring I think my life would career would have been very different. But when you have to kind of try to figure out everything on your own, it's hard.


Hannah: Do you think that helped you, in a way, not having mentorship?

Ginney: No, I don't think it helped. I don't think so. No, I don't think so. It would have been good to have a mentor. It would have been good to have somebody who... I mean--[laughs]--there was a woman in the department who was on the promotion and tenure community the year I came up, and I guess they used to assign somebody coming up for tenure to each of the committee members.

And this woman was a...she was crazy as a loon. And--[laughs]--so she called herself mentoring me. But she would call me every night and say, well, so-and-so had this to say about you in the committee meeting today, but I'm going to try 26:00to get you through. That's what she did. Which was not helpful.

So I think the mentoring programs that the university has helped develop, the faculty have actually, we've developed, have been very good for junior people. They've got somebody to come to when they have questions. They don't have to operate in the dark. They have somebody who will read their stuff, make suggestions to them about where to place it, things like that.

Hannah: Okay. Would you like to talk more about your personal role as a mentor, and maybe how this made you feel or how it's affected your life?

Ginney: Well, I guess there's no denying that it makes you feel good about 27:00yourself that you have some institutional history and memory. I mean, I've chaired the personnel committee for years. I don't know how many years now, but off and on. I've always worked on the personnel committee. And so I know a lot about what a good dossier looks like and how to put it together.

And so sure, I mean, I think that's's gratifying to be able to help other people in little, even just small ways like that. It makes you feel as though the knowledge you've gained is not for nothing, that you can actually be 28:00of help. And it allows you to makes you get interested in things you're not necessarily interested in, you know, from reading what people in other fields, their scholarship. And it gives you a sense of better understanding of the faculty, the English faculty, and what they offer, what they bring to the world.

Hannah: What is your current position with the university, and how did you get to that position?

Ginney: Well, I'm a professor. I'm a full professor. And I'm the director of undergraduate studies in the department. And I chair the personnel committee. 29:00How did I get there? I've done a lot of administrative jobs in the department within English.

And I enjoy working in personnel and I enjoy working with the curriculum, which, the director of undergraduate studies is dealing with curriculum, essentially, and all of the various requirements for the degree, the policies we set up. I enjoy working with curriculum because I think the kind of curriculum we offer has an impact on our students.


And so I guess I got here because, where I am just by virtue of being interested and being willing to work hard. I'm a hard worker. I enjoy problem-solving. And yeah.

Hannah: How do you balance the roles of working with curriculum and being a professor, doing research, all that?

Ginney: With great difficulty. And right now pretty much there's not any time for research, or very little time for research. I think what I balance the most right now is my teaching with all of these other things that I'm doing.

I mean, I'll say to myself, okay, I'm going to grade papers today, and then some 31:00kind of crisis comes in, and it gets my time and attention first. It's that kind of thing, I guess. I mean, the teaching is what keeps me sane. I really, really enjoy teaching. And I like the students. I enjoy the students. But I find that other things, the other aspects of my job often get in the way.

Hannah: Do you want to talk more about your role as a professor, like some of your favorite parts? I know you said you like the students.

Ginney: I do. And I've enjoyed my research. I'm pretty close to retirement now, 32:00and so I don't know that I have another research project that I'm dying to do. I have some possible articles on Toni Morrison that I would probably enjoy doing if I had the time. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy all of it. What do I enjoy least? I don't know what I enjoy least. I pretty much enjoy my job. I like it. I'm still...when I first got the job here I was stunned that people were going to pay me to do what I like to do.

And I'm still stunned, in a way. I feel very privileged because I think most 33:00people don't get to be paid to do what they really like to do. And so I really recognize that as a privilege. And I'm still amazed by it sometimes, that things worked out that way for me. So, you know, I enjoy my job. Even though it has tensions and, you know, like any other job.

All jobs are going to have problems and tensions and, you know, that kind of stuff goes with the territory. And yet still I'm very fortunate to have it, and to be paid to do what I do. That's lovely. It's what I always hope for every 34:00student, is that they can end up doing what they like to do, what they want to do, and be paid for it.

Hannah: That's the goal.

Ginney: [Laughs.] It's little more difficult these days. The world has changed a lot, you know, from when I came into the academic world. I mean, it's changed a whole lot, the outside world. There are more pressures on universities. You know, just like we...I don't think the universities, not just Tech, but universities generally devote very little time to pure research in the sciences.

They devote time to applied research because that's what brings in money. Doing 35:00pure research, theoretical research is, you know, is not paid as well. People don't pay or give you grants for doing... Everybody wants to know, you know, what is its use. So, you know, that's different from when I first started college, when I thought everything was about truth and beauty. [Laughs.] I don't think that anymore.

Hannah: Do you have any advice for students, maybe specifically English students, for how to kind of find a job that they feel passionate about?

Ginney: Well, I think it's important for students to give themselves time. I 36:00don't think that you always know what you feel passionate about. I think that can take time. I mean, time beyond college. I don't think that the education you get these days is structured to help you know that, and so I think it's very difficult for students.

And I think a lot of students today think in terms of how can I make a living, how can I make a living that will allow me to continue living at the same level that my parents did. And, you know, for the most part that's not going to happen. But I think students should give themselves time to decide and expose themselves to as many experiences as they can so that they might be able to 37:00discover what they're passionate about.

I'm a big believer in volunteerism and in taking on a volunteer position that isn't paying you anything, not only from what you can learn from it, but it often will lead to a paid position. And it will help you discover is this something I feel passionate about.

So mostly I think students have a lot of pressure on them and they put a lot of pressure on themselves because there's this, especially as they reach the senior years, there's this urgency to figure out what am I going to do with the rest of my life. And sometimes you have to take a pissy job while you figure that out.


Of course I'm a great believer in education, so if there's anything you might be interested in doing in grad school, I encourage students to continue with their education because although students often tell me well, I'm going to take a year or two off and then come back, I think that can be... It can be good for some people, you know, like if you're a writer, if you're a creative writer it can be good to develop a portfolio that will let you into an MFA program. But if you're in English literature and you think you might want to go to grad school, you should give it serious thought.


Education is one thing that can't be taken away from you. So, you know, you're poor as a student. You may as well be poor as a graduate student has always been my... [Laughs.] You know, I don't really recommend Ph.D.s that often, Ph.D.s in English, because the jobs aren't there. There are so few jobs. Unless you train yourself in something that there aren't as many jobs in--I mean, that there are more jobs in. I said that backwards.

But as for advice, general advice, I don't have much general advice except that it's important not to do something because you think somebody else wants you to do it. I think it's important to do what you think you would like to do. That can be very hard.

Hannah: That got me thinking about how do you feel about a liberal education? Do 40:00you think students should take a variety of classes in different subjects?

Ginney: Yeah, I do. I feel--well, I'm a great believer in a liberal education. And you can get one at Tech, even though Tech is a big university. You can, if you want to, you can get a good liberal education. Absolutely. I think English majors should be taking classes in history and religion, philosophy, if you feel like it, and things that perhaps seem to have no bearing on English at all. I think the more you learn about other things, the greater your insight into the things you study in the major. What kind of major are you?

Hannah: I'm a professional technical writing major, so it's still English, but 41:00not as much literature.

Ginney: Right. So you know that that's sort of what you want to be or do?

Hannah: Yeah, well, now I'm getting more into, like, editing and copy editing.

Ginney: Mm-hmm. Okay, that's--a great need in the world for people who can do that well.

Hannah: Yeah. So I don't know exactly what I want to do after I graduate.

Ginney: Well, take other courses if you have time. What year are you?

Hannah: I'm graduating next semester.

Ginney: Oh, in the fall.

Hannah: In December, yeah.

Ginney: Okay, in the fall.

Hannah: But I'm still, I'm trying to figure out what classes to take next semester because I'll have finished everything in my major at the end of this semester.

Ginney: What are you interested in?

Hannah: Well, right now I'm kind of interested in linguistics.

Ginney: That would be great.

Hannah: Yeah.

Ginney: I mean, taking some linguistics would be a know, it will 42:00help you in your professional and technical writing to understand--well, to understand the language is just so important for everybody. So that's a great idea.

Hannah: Okay.

Ginney: I mean, I don't know what linguistics course or courses you were thinking about, but any linguistics courses are going to be better than none.

Hannah: Yeah, there is a grammar course next semester that I was thinking about taking.

Ginney: That can be very helpful, the grammar course. Dr. Eska, I think, is teaching it.

Hannah: I have him this semester, too.

Ginney: Oh, do you?

Hannah: Yeah.

Ginney: What are you taking?

Hannah: I'm taking syntax.

Ginney: Has it been helpful?

Hannah: I think so

Ginney: Yeah. He's a good teacher.

Hannah: Yeah, he is.

Ginney: And he is a nice person, Dr. Eska.


Hannah: Mm-hmm. Okay. How would you describe your connect to Virginia Tech, and what does Virginia Tech mean to you?

Ginney: What is my connection?

Hannah: Yeah, like emotional connection.

Ginney: Well, I've spent my whole career here, so I guess I have an affection for it. And my partner and I have given a, what do they call, a...I don't know, a gift to the university. When we die the university gets a fair amount of money. I give to the English department regularly in my paychecks, and have been 44:00doing that for a while, to help the literature program.

I feel to put this? I feel a little bit more alienated from the university than I did before Dr. Sands came, and the provost who is no longer with us. I felt more of a connection to the university when Dr. Steger was the president. So, you know, these things happen. You get new presidents and things change, and not always the way you want them to.


Hannah: Yeah.

Ginney: But that's how I feel. But that's the connection I feel right now. I'm still connected, but I feel less... I feel alienated from the university, actually, right now. Not from the department, but from the university, for sure. I just feel like it's spinning off in a direction that I can't go, or don't want to go, or whatever.

Hannah: Do you think that's partly because of like less focus on the humanities?

Ginney: Oh, I'm sure that has a lot to do with it. But it also has to do with... It feels more like I'm working in a big business, in a corporation. And although 46:00it's been going that way for years, not just Tech, but other universities, I really feel it now in ways that I didn't used to.

Hannah: Do you think that's because there's more focus on getting jobs rather than more the creative aspects?

Ginney: Well, no. I think it's important to have a focus on people getting jobs. But I think learning is not just about jobs. I mean, if it's a job you want, go to a community college or go to a vocational school and train yourself to get a job.

I think that what is missed when we don't pay attention to the humanities is that I think the humanities, more than anybody else, helps prepare students for 47:00the many kinds of jobs they're going to have in a lifetime. Nobody's, I mean, just about every student is going to switch careers in their lifetime, in their working lifetime, and so we need to be preparing students who are able to, who are flexible and who have gotten the skills that they can transfer to a number of different working conditions.

Hannah: Yeah. So what kind of specific skills do you think students gain from the humanities?

Ginney: Analytical thinking skills. The ability to do critical analysis. The 48:00ability to speak well, to write well, and to think well, to examine problems from a variety of perspectives. I think literature in particular allows students to see situations that play out in fiction, for example, that may play out in their own lives.

And so I think literature, to me, is the most important thing in the humanities. Of course I think that. Or narrative, if you want to put it, narrative. Which is pretty essential to religion and history as well, because they are writing or studying narratives about what happened, or narratives of religious...religions, 49:00I guess you would say. Yeah.

Hannah: Okay. On the flip side of that, do you think there's any skills that students who are studying the humanities can learn from studying the sciences?

Ginney: Absolutely. Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think understanding and being able to work with an empirical approach to the world, the whole notion of gathering data, observing and recording. I think it's important for all of us to be able to see the world as, say, a physicist sees it, or a chemist, or a biologist. I 50:00mean, the way each of those disciplines looks at the world and defines the world is very different from how we in the humanities might. So yeah, I think it's very important to take courses in the sciences.

Hannah: Okay. I think that's everything I wanted to ask you. So is there anything else that I haven't asked that you want to add?

Ginney: No. I think you have asked good questions, and I think you're a thoughtful and good listener, so I appreciate that.

Hannah: Thank you.

Ginney: You're welcome.

Hannah: Thank you so much.

Ginney: Yeah, you're welcome. So now we turn it off?