Literature Prof Praised for Engaging Approach
Outstanding Teaching Honoree Draws Praise from Students as Well as Peers
Aug. 16, 2010
Dr. Theresa Towner felt as if she were living in someone else’s story when she first learned that she had received a Regents’ Outstanding Teacher Award from The University of Texas System.
“I’m still letting the news sink in,” the professor of literary studies in the School of Arts and Humanities said soon after hearing the news. She is one of two UT Dallas winners of the award for 2010.
Regents’ nominees are selected through a rigorous process that starts with deans and department chairs, who rely heavily on student and peer faculty evaluations. The nominations advance through the university until they receive a recommendation from the campus president. The UT System selection committee then weighs annual reviews, evidence of continuous improvement, commitment to high-quality undergraduate education and other factors.
Dr. Dennis Kratz, dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, said the honor was well-deserved. “Theresa Towner is one of the very finest teachers of literature and the humanities I have ever encountered,” Kratz said. “She has been consistently highly regarded by her students and by her colleagues.”
Dr. R. David Edmunds, the Anne and Chester Watson Professor of American History at UT Dallas, is also an admirer. “She is a very engaging instructor in leading small groups of students in discussions of literary materials, but in my opinion she is even more effective in presenting relatively difficult materials to large survey classes,” Edmunds said.
“As all instructors are aware, lecturing to large survey classes filled with undergraduates is a challenging task, and Towner is able to mesmerize them on a routine basis while lecturing on the merits of poetry.”
In fact, Towner won the UT Dallas Chancellor’s Council Outstanding Teaching Award in 2002. “She could win it every year, so sustained is the excellence of her performance as a teacher,” Kratz said.
Towner, a Faulkner scholar — who also teaches courses in African-American literature, the Western literary tradition, American literature after 1850, and the literature of fantasy in Oz, Narnia, and Harry Potter, among others — has been with The University of Texas at Dallas for more than 15 years. Towner’s students hope she stays for many more.
“Words … were not enough to express my gratitude toward your insightfulness, dedication and enthusiasm about the class,” ATEC graduate Felipe Ruiz wrote to Dr. Towner after taking Exploration of the Humanities (HUMA 1301), a required course for all undergraduates. “The lectures were always really inspiring; from the first to the last, there were no dips in quality.”
Eric Kildebeck, a 2001 Eugene McDermott Scholar who received his BS in biology, said Towner’s teaching “earns recognition not simply because it is the work of a talented teacher, but because it is the work of someone who sees clearly the beauty of awakening students to their potential. It has been said that talent hits a target no one else can hit, but genius hits a target no one else can see.”
Towner’s impact extends beyond the classroom, as she sits on a broad list of UT Dallas committees and boards. These include the Faculty Advisory Board, Eugene McDermott Scholars Program; the Athletic Advisory Board; the Commencement Committee; the Committee on Qualifications; the Core Committee on Women and Minorities; and the Committee on Educational Policy.
Far more notable than her service to the University, however, is her ongoing and highly productive scholarship. “My writing leads me ‘higher up and further in’ to intellectual subjects,” she says, “and that knowledge leads to new materials for and approaches to teaching. In turn, teaching makes me eager to learn more myself, so I always have incentive to write.” She has published numerous articles and three books, Faulkner on the Color Line: The Later Novels, Reading Faulkner: Collected Stories (with James B. Carothers), and The Cambridge Introduction to William Faulkner.
Towner’s course Imagined Worlds: Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts (LIT 311) is one of the more popular courses in the School of Arts and Humanities. In her syllabus, she explains, “The century that would end with the ubiquitous Harry Potter books, films, websites and fanzines began with a similarly popular, multimedia development of a magical world for children [The Wonderful Wizard of Oz]. In between, C.S. Lewis invented Narnia. This course uses these three invented spaces as metaphors for the operation of the human imagination. All three initiate readers into coherent cultural systems that both parallel and challenge our own.”
Towner, who earned her PhD in English from the University of Virginia, said she is more grateful for the Regents’ recognition than for the award money. “I tell students,” she says, “that there are, at base, only two questions: ‘What is?’ and ‘What if?’ We must understand the world as we find it, and we must imagine what we might make of it. Literature is the record of both efforts, and as a teacher I have the privilege of introducing students to diverse worlds—from Yoknapatawpha County to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—and encouraging them to take up residence.”
Dr. Theresa Towner’s course titled Imagined Worlds: Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts (LIT 311) is one of the most popular classes in the School of Arts and Humanities. (Photo courtesy of Theresa Towner)
The 2010 Regents’ Awards