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Furies and Graces: A Retirement Celebration

Remarks from retiring professors Shirley Garner and Madelon Sprengnether
June 12, 2017

Professors Madelon Sprengnether and Shirley Garner

Professors Madelon Sprengnether and Shirley Garner
Professors Madelon Sprengnether and Shirley Garner, who retired this spring

On May 5, 2017, faculty, administration, family, and friends gathered to celebrate Professor Shirley Garner and Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether for their dedicated and significant service to the Department of English, the College of Liberal Arts, and the University of Minnesota. Below are their remarks, along with those of their long-time collaborator and friend Professor Emerita Toni McNaron, who opened the program. 

Address from Professor Emerita Toni McNaron

Professor Emerita Toni McNaron
Professor Emerita Toni McNaron

I was in the English department for five years before the faculty had the good sense to hire Shirley in 1970. Then, in 1971, they repeated themselves and hired Mimi. So we were three women, all in Renaissance literature, in an otherwise male department. We became fast friends fast, able to talk about writers along with our personal lives. We came to think of ourselves as the Three Graces, though some of our colleagues believed we were the three Furies. I looked up the Graces to be sure I remembered what qualities they embodied. I’m not sure I qualify for all three, but among us we certainly do. They are: charm, beauty, and creativity.

One of our most significant accomplishments was the formation and maintenance of a subfield in feminist studies in literature. After a very long meeting in which the faculty debated the idea of forming subfields for faculty and graduate students in all the major divisions of literary study, Shirley and Mimi and I went for a drink. We had noticed that there was no mention of including a subfield in the quickly emerging area of feminist studies. By the end of our conversation, we had decided on a plan of action. Instead of asking the director of Graduate Studies if we could propose such a subfield, we designed a brochure listing all the courses we were going to teach the next year that focused on or even included women writers. Then we found a local women’s press to print those brochures, which we proudly put on the counter in the office of the director of Graduate Studies.  

Having enrolled wonderful students in our courses that first year, we decided to celebrate our success by holding a symposium for faculty and students from colleges and universities locally and nationally. At another of our talks over dinner, we tossed out names of possible keynote speakers we might invite. Feeling cocky, I said “How about Adrienne Rich?” We pursued this seemingly impossible dream and, to our amazement, Rich agreed to come to Minneapolis in the fall of 1981 and deliver the keynote address. The huge space in Willey Hall was packed, mostly with women from the larger community who knew her poetry and politics and were thirsty to see and hear her in person.

After that first year of just listing our English courses, we began to be contacted by faculty from various language departments who asked if they might send us descriptions of their courses. Word spread, and it became patently clear that Mimi and Shirley and I were providing a visible structure that many of our colleagues saw as beneficial to them. So eventually our brochures listed courses in speech/communications, philosophy, family social science, history, sociology, psychology, and education. This program lasted a decade from 1980 until 1990.

"At every level, these two
wonderful women have
enriched the intellectual
and material lives of
countless colleagues and
students." - Toni McNaron

Once all three of us had tenure, we wanted to offer that same support to female students, staff, colleagues, and faculty in related departments. So we played various roles in the emerging Women’s Studies Program and eventually in the graduate wing that offered a minor in feminist studies. We also wrote many supporting letters as so many of our feminist colleagues in other departments were not given tenure though they had dossiers that equaled or surpassed those of their male colleagues.

Because we believed there were many talented women in the broader Twin Cities community, we decided to form an editorial board made up of us, some graduate students in English, and several such feminists living in Minneapolis or St. Paul. We would advertise our hope to publish a literary periodical that we named Hurricane Alice. This publication became a forum for writers, primarily but not exclusively women. For about six or seven years, we read and accepted manuscripts, found a publisher in Forest Lake, MN, that would print the journal for us, and gradually built a subscription list made up of people from throughout the country. In addition to fiction and poetry, Hurricane Alice included art work and photography, along with critical essays and political treatises.

By the time I retired in 2001, Mimi and Shirley were deeply involved in convincing the College of Liberal Arts and the central administration of the University to locate the English department in Pillsbury Hall, one of the oldest and most architecturally beautiful buildings on the campus. They have given untold hours of their time to this effort, which seems closer to becoming a reality than it has been. If (or should we begin to say “when”) that move occurs, it will be in large measure because of their unstinting labors to make this happen in the face of many hurdles from various quarters of the University.

So at every level, these two wonderful women have enriched the intellectual and material lives of countless colleagues and students. Now they deserve to move into new activities, taking with them the thanks and love of all of us who have been privileged to know them.

Address from Professor Shirley Garner

Professor Shirley Garner
Professor Shirley Garner

Only after I became a graduate student did I consciously aim to become an English professor, but that story is too long to tell. What was essential to me were the scholarships I had both as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, provided by my mother’s employer, and as a graduate student at Stanford University. I usually worked to attain those scholarships. I recall only one year without additional work, when I was a national Woodrow Wilson Fellow, my first year at Stanford. There was no way I could have attended Stanford and paid its private-school tuition without that financial support. College loans weren’t available, but in any case, I couldn’t have imagined going into such debt.

When I went on the job market, I applied mainly to large universities in cities, I think because they were similar to the University of Texas, in Austin (when I went there, there was only one University of Texas). I came here because the University of Minnesota offered me the best job and did so immediately after they interviewed me at the Modern Language Association.

One of the attractions here was that as a beginning assistant professor, I could teach courses in the Renaissance, even Shakespeare; whereas, in many large universities, that was not the case. But there were advantages here that I didn’t anticipate.

Essentially, I was hired with four other assistant professors and a visiting assistant professor, a scholar from Denmark, who was completing his graduate work at Yale; the next year Madelon Sprengnether (Mimi) was hired. So, we were six, and we remained friendly colleagues and fought for what we thought of as our interests and rights. Memorably, through us, we began to insist that when we came up for tenure, we would be able to see the reviews of our work and respond to them. Before us, reviews and reviewers were secret from those coming up for tenure or promotion, though known to everyone else in the department. This was long before the Data Practices Act and such openness became a requirement at the University.

Though I was only the third woman on the faculty, I was lucky to have one of them be Toni McNaron, also in the Renaissance, who invited me to give a response to a paper presented at the Midwest Modern Language Association. To my dismay, the writer was arguing that in Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona and Cassio really were having an affair. My response became the seed of my first published article, published in Shakespeare Studies, the first journal I sent it to.

Though I came from a highly regarded graduate program and had concentrated in the Renaissance, I had only studied formally one play of Shakespeare—King Lear. So, in fact, I didn’t know a great deal about Shakespeare. For that, I owe the experience of teaching, first, undergraduate students and, later, graduate students. The gift my undergraduates gave me was to force me think broadly and centrally. Considering why everything turns from an infertile world to a green one in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, I found the subject of another article, which became a source for Liviu Ciulei’s Guthrie production of the play.

"One of the things I intend to
do is to find ways to support
the Department of English—
especially the renovation of
Pillsbury Hall—and the
humanities and arts both
inside and outside of the
University." - Shirley Garner

There was enough flexibility in the English department and an array of scholars in the University—mainly women, but also men—that allowed me to be part of the exciting changes in the academy that accompanied the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement.

When a faculty member in Women’s Studies did not want to begin chairing until after she had completed a year’s sabbatical, I accepted a year’s appointment as chair of Women’s Studies. That let me learn that I actually liked administration because it allowed me to get things done. My experiences as chair of English for six years and associate dean of the Graduate School for nine years were invaluable. The Graduate School during that period was the center for graduate studies across all colleges in the University, and its staff—some of whom are here today—was extraordinary: smart, collegial, and creative. Working there was one of my best professional experiences.

Living in the Twin Cities with its literary and arts community surpasses what it means to live in a city. For someone in English, being part of one of the most literate cities in the nation with its many distinguished theatres and presses is special. My connection with this community began when Linda Myers, the Director of the Loft Literary Center, asked me as chair of English to become a member of the Loft’s board. My connection with the Loft, the first of its kind of literary center, which became a model for others across the country, continued as I served as vice-chair and chair of its board. My continued membership in the Loft Book Club, composed of former board members, some of whose members are here today, involves me in some of the most exciting and engaging conversations about literature I have inside or outside of the academy.

As I see how hard my own students—both undergraduate and graduate—work to lessen the burden of their college debt; as I see how the English department on the brink of losing five faculty members to retirement must present an extensive case to hire even one—which we might not get; as I think about the fact that we have been working for 20 years to attain sufficient renovated and permanent space in Pillsbury Hall, I must recognize how privileged the time of my life has been.  

I hope that the future of education in the United States generally, particularly higher education, will be brighter than it currently seems. The humanities and arts have suffered a disproportionate loss of funding in comparison to STEM disciplines—though all disciplines have experienced the tightening of funding or cuts.

When people ask me what I am going to do when I retire, I have many things to do. But one of the things I intend to do is to find ways to support the Department of English—especially the renovation of Pillsbury Hall—and the humanities and arts both inside and outside of the University.

Address from Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether

Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether
Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether

At my very last class on Monday, my students asked me what I had enjoyed most about my career at the U of M. Instead of answering this question directly, I talked about how I had “grown up” here. Let me explain. 

I began my career when I was barely 26, fresh out of graduate school and utterly unprepared for my life as a professor, much less as an adult. Up to that point, I’d only been a student and a very quiet one at that. I didn’t know how to teach (there were no teaching practicums for grad students then) and more importantly I didn’t know how to be a mom (my daughter Jessica was born in the spring of my first year at Middlebury College). 

I was then on a series of one-year contracts, annually renewable—not unlike our adjunct professor appointments here—and my contract was not renewed in the fall of my third year. At first I was depressed (I thought that my career was over), and then I began to pull myself together. And this is where I got lucky; I was hired the following spring as an assistant professor by the Department of English at the U of M.

And then I got doubly lucky. I found myself in a community of young assistant professors who liked each other and socialized frequently. We bonded quickly and formed a political group, helping each other understand the tenure process and how to advantage ourselves within it. (Back then, there were no written procedures for tenure; senior faculty just got together and voted.) 

I was especially lucky to be befriended by Toni and Shirley, who became my closest friends in the department and my closest collaborators in all of the projects that we dreamed up: a Women’s Studies Department; a Center for Advanced Feminist Studies; a Feminist Studies in Literature curriculum that reached across the College; a feminist journal called Hurricane Alice. It seemed that there was nothing that we could not do!

"This is what I said to
my students this week:
'If you can imagine it,
you can do it.'"
- Madelon Sprengnether

I learned in those years how to learn from my peers, how to speak my own mind, to defend myself when necessary, how to establish communal goals and work toward them with like-minded others. I also learned important lessons in courage.

Toni was the first lesbian I had ever known personally. In my memory, she was the first faculty member at the U of M who “came out” publicly. She was also the first faculty member to offer a course with the word “lesbian” in its title.  

She and Shirley are also master teachers. What I did not learn in graduate school about how to conduct a classroom discussion, I learned from them. (The older professors in our field did not speak to us and voted against us in our annual probationary reviews, so we could not turn to them for advice.) No one used the word “mentor” then, and we had none. So we mentored ourselves. 

These were difficult, but also exhilarating, times. We accomplished so much, just doing what we thought was right and pursuing our goals! We acted instead of asking for permission to act. 

At this stage, I learned (as I told my students on Monday) to value rebellion—by which I mean standing up for yourself, pursuing your dreams, and speaking truth to power.

Here again, I was lucky. I’d landed in a department that allowed me flexibility—to change fields (from Renaissance studies to feminist criticism, to psychoanalytic theory, to creative writing) without telling me that I had to stick to the job definition by which I was hired. I was free to develop new courses, to pursue new interests, and to dream new dreams.

One of these dreams was to establish the MFA degree in Creative Writing. Here again, my close collaborations with colleagues helped us all to make this dream a reality. Had Shirley not been chair of the department at this time, we could not have succeeded as well as we have. Shirley and I worked together to create a sound basis for the new program and to facilitate new hires (Ray Gonzalez, Julie Schumacher, and David Treuer).

Crowd at Garner-Sprengnether Retirement Reception
English Advisory Board member Judy Healey thanks the retiring professors

And then we worked together to dream the greatest dream of all—to find a permanent home for the Department of English in Pillsbury Hall. Neither of us thought that such an effort would require 20 plus years of steady effort. Nor did we imagine that such an effort would depend on so many supporters outside of the University. I want to recognize here the members of our extraordinary Department of English Advisory Board, many of whom are here today. Together, we are now making this dream a reality.

This is what I said to my students this week: “If you can imagine it, you can do it.” 

I “grew up” here. I found my passions and commitments here, and I found my personal voice.

My retirement years will be like paradise on earth—the greatest sabbatical of my life! And I owe it all to U! I owe it not only to the people in this room but also to the University of Minnesota. 

One of our undergraduate majors, in answer to the question “What can you do with an English major?” replied “Anything I want!” 

When people ask me what I plan to do now, I can truly say, “Anything I want!”