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Shirley Garner: Leading for the Future

After decades of department and University service, retiring professor aims to advocate for the humanities
June 21, 2017

Professor Shirley Garner was the first woman to chair the Department of English (1994-2000) and one of only a handful of English chairs elected to two consecutive three-year terms. In her 47 years at the University of Minnesota, she also directed both the Women’s Studies Department and the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies (now combined as the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies), as well as serving nine years as an associate dean of the Graduate School. It’s no wonder the University awarded her with the President’s Award for Outstanding Service and the Mullen/Spector/Truax Women’s Leadership Award.

As chair of English, Garner oversaw the establishment of a department advisory board, the MFA in Creative Writing, the Esther Freier Endowed Lectures in Literature visiting author series, and the efforts to renovate Pillsbury Hall for English. “I actually liked administration, because it allowed me to get things done,” Garner confessed at the May 5 retirement celebration she shared with Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether. [Read her full remarks.]

An ill-timed sabbatical led to Professor Garner's discovery of her penchant, and prowess, for academic administration. A professor in the Women’s Studies Department, which Garner had helped to initiate in 1973, agreed to serve as director under the condition that she could still take her planned year-long sabbatical. Garner was asked to serve for a year in her place, and she agreed, as long as it wasn’t to be a nominal position.

“I’m really glad I did that,” Garner remembers, interviewed in her Lind Hall office, “because I then saw what shape Women’s Studies was in. Not all the faculty members had their own computers. The main office space was a shambles. The secretary, who was a character, had to become a real secretary. It had to become a department, after being a program. So we had to get going. There was a lot of satisfaction in doing that.”

Instituting the professional woman

Growing up in Amarillo, Texas, Garner didn’t envision herself as an academic administrator, let alone an English scholar. At the University of Texas, Austin, she signed up for an honors humanities program because, as she says with a laugh, “it allowed me to avoid Freshman English.” She finally chose to major in English because majors could make money as teaching assistants for, yes, Freshman English. But her work was excellent, so her professors recommended she apply for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, a national prize paying exceptional students to attend graduate school and become college teachers.

Professor Shirley Garner in 1991
Professor Shirley Garner at a 1991 Department of English Opening Day picnic

She won the fellowship and was admitted to Stanford University’s doctoral program in English. There she began to see what challenges awaited women in academia. None of her professors were women. When two female faculty were hired, the director of writing once disparagingly referred to them in terms of one’s marriage status and the other’s pregnancy. “We were just seen as women,” she recounts, “not professional women.”

After her hire at the University of Minnesota, the Department of English had three women among its faculty. Recalls Garner, “One of the graduate students asked the then chair, ‘Are we going to hire more women?’ And the chair said, ‘Well, we hired Ms. Clark’ (that was my name then)—as though that had done it!” She laughs ruefully. “That has changed, and now there is an equal number of women and men professors. But if you think about it, I was the first woman chair, and it’s a very old department!”

Many of those department changes can be credited to Garner, along with one of the women professors who arrived before her, Toni McNaron, and one who arrived a year later, Madelon Sprengnether. Together they witnessed feminist demands being made around work, childcare, and politics, and as Professor Emerita McNaron has said, “We understood very quickly that feminism had to do with learning, and we [were] in the position to help that part.”

Advocating for the next generation

“We all began to bring feminist material into our classes,” recalls Garner. “This might be simply teaching women writers that weren’t taught, or it might be teaching from a certain perspective, looking at how women were presented as characters, how feminist questions were raised. Then we began to realize that students liked being able to choose such courses.” The three professors created an annual brochure listing “Feminist Studies in Literature," which was so popular it continued for more than a decade and grew to include courses across the College of Liberal Arts.

The reception to the first brochure was not all positive. “The chair called us in,” relates Garner, “and said that announcing a curriculum was not appropriate and that we didn’t have the authority to do this. We replied, ‘But we aren’t doing anything other than listing our courses!’”

“I will miss the classroom a lot. I learn
from my students. I do go to the class
knowing a lot to teach them. But it’s
their questions that make me think
differently. It’s their own, sometimes
very different, takes on something
that make me pay attention. Someone
in my Shakespeare Honors class
compared Hamlet and Iago, the way
they thought, and saw them as being
similar. And that was so interesting to
me. I never would have thought it.
Never!”                 - Professor Garner

The trio went on to start a Feminist Studies subfield, bring about curriculum changes, and found a non-academic feminist review. The latter grew out of a fervent cultural discussion during which Garner declared, “We should be publishing this—and I have just the name for it: Hurricane Alice!” (The title, Garner has said, was meant to “turn upside down the long-time habit of naming destruction after women.”) The three professors became such a potent creative force that, as one former graduate student remembered, “They made the English department nervous when they sat together at meetings.” [Their efforts have been honored with the Garner-McNaron-Sprengnether Dissertation Fellowship.]

With Sprengnether, Garner published two collections of cutting-edge feminist literary criticism, The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation (with Claire Kahane, 1985) and Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender (1996). Garner also co-edited a wider critique, Anti-feminism in the Academy (1996), with three other scholars.

Their example, as scholars and instigators, inspired students and validated them. For Maureen Reddy (PhD 1985), Professor of English at Rhode Island University, “Feminist Studies gave me—and other young women—an institutional way to respond to those professors who wanted to exclude feminist theory from their scholarly worlds.” Garner received the Morse-Alumni Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education in 1999.

Building support for English

Buoyed by these department successes, and by her experience directing Women’s Studies, Garner ran for English chair in 1994 and was elected. Her legacies are many: working with Professor Sprengnether to create an MFA in Creative Writing and to secure Pillsbury Hall as the department’s future home [as Sprengnether describes]; consulting with the Freier family to inaugurate one of the Twin Cities’ most popular—and, significantly, free—visiting author series; and empowering staff with a collaborative leadership style.

Underlying these achievements is a significant shift in perspective that Garner brought about during her tenure: She came to understand that the Department of English (and the liberal arts in general) could no longer expect to thrive without support and advocacy from alumni, community and political partners, and campus leaders. As chair, she had to build the necessary infrastructure: recruit an English Advisory Board and a department development committee (which she has chaired ever since), connect with University development personnel, and institute fundraising campaigns for undergraduate scholarships, graduate student fellowships, and the renovation of Pillsbury Hall.

“I had no previous experience and no fundraising skills,” she says today. “I had to learn all that. And now all departments are expected to do this.” In a science and technology-obsessed culture, with state support of higher education continually shrinking, the department’s outreach has become a model within the College of Liberal Arts.

In retirement, Garner plans to catch up on various garden and house projects, as well as spend time with her grandchildren. She’ll continue to help campaign for a renovated Pillsbury Hall. But, as she noted at the retirement reception, the future of higher education in the United States, particularly the liberal arts, seems more precarious than it should be. This indefatigable advocate for literature, for women’s studies, for women scholars, for Department of English faculty, staff, students, and programs, and for graduate students across the University, is yet again widening her circle of responsibility to include supporting “the humanities and arts both inside and outside of the University.” There is little doubt she will take a leadership role: it is, after all, how to get things done.