This semester’s Braniff Salon, to be held Saturday evening beginning at 5:30 p.m. in SB Hall 122 at the University of Dallas, will celebrate the legacy of Dr. Louise Cowan (1916-2015), her work in creating the UD curriculum and her love of lyric poetry.
The event is free, but attendees must RSVP online by the end of today, April 27.
A panel discussion, led by some of Louise Cowan’s former students who are now professors themselves, will follow an informal reading of her favorite poems.
Dr. Robert Dupree, ’62, professor of English and one of the salon’s panelists, said that, in a word, Louise Cowan was a “fantastic” teacher.
“Everyone was very excited when [the Cowans] came [in September 1959] because they weren’t monks or nuns,” Dupree said. “They were lured here from [Texas Christian University], where they’d been teaching, by a prominent board member. Louise was teaching the sophomore survey of English, which was really the first literature class you took because the freshman took a course in rhetoric and composition. In the first 15 minutes of her first class, I realized I’d never met any teacher with this kind of conviction — she really believed in the importance of what she was teaching.”
Dupree said that when he came to UD, he wanted to study subatomic particles as a physics student, but that plan changed the moment he met Louise Cowan.
“There was one thing I didn’t want to do: teach,” Dupree said. “That changed in those first 15 minutes. She had an aura . . . she made literature relevant on so many levels. You were really talking about the most important things in existence.”
Dupree went on to explain the influence of both Donald and Louise Cowan at UD, Donald Cowan as president and chair of the physics department and Louise Cowan as curriculum reformer and chair of the English department.
“The acting president at the time was one of the reasons the Cowans came — they saw lots of promise in this place,” Dupree said. “I graduated in May 1962. The next day, I picked up the Dallas Morning News, and the headline said, ‘UD President fired.’ They named his replacement: Donald Cowan. I thought, ‘This place is going to become really dynamic.’”
Both Cowans taught in the honors program, Dupree said, but at one meeting, Louise Cowan decided a significant change needed to be made.
“She asked, ‘Why aren’t all our students honors students?’” Dupree said. “From there, the Core curriculum was created, which was different from everything else being done around the country . . . we went back to reading the actual texts instead of the textbooks.”
As a student assistant in the English department during the compilation of the Literary Tradition sequence, the first class of which was taught in the fall of 1960, Dupree said he witnessed the diffusion of Louise Cowan’s innovations throughout the English department and other departments across the university.
“The [English] professors had to get together to discuss the scholarly merits of all these works, because many of them did not study non-English lit,” Dupree said. “[The Lit Trad sequence] started to influence the other departments. Philosophy went back to reading the texts themselves … and history did the same thing.”
Besides revolutionizing the university’s curriculum, Louise Cowan changed the lives of many students, including Dupree.
“My senior year, I was standing outside Carpenter talking to her, when she told me, ‘You must get your Ph.D. and teach here,’ and so I did,” Dupree said. “It was a command. Her last words to me were, ‘You must finish another book.’”
The Cowans were also well-loved for inviting students and faculty alike to their nearby home for entertainment, dinner and, Dupree made sure to add, chianti and literary discussions.
It was during these conversations that many important administrative decisions regarding the university’s future were made and that the student magazine Kerygma came to be.
The magazine, under Dupree’s leadership, was soon circulated across the country.
Dupree said that the Cowans transformed the university into an intellectual utopia, a transformation that would have been inconceivable without their presence.
“They changed the atmosphere,” Dupree said. “They changed the idea of being an intellectual — now it was something exciting . . . They made a community.”
Louise Cowan was also known for her love of lyric poetry.
At a Phi Beta Kappa address given in May 2013, Louise Cowan advised students to memorize a few poems.
Dr. Eileen Gregory, professor of English and specialist in lyric poetry, spoke to the wisdom of Louise Cowan’s exhortation.
“I think it is crucially important to “memorize a few poems” – and I relate that imperative . . . to “heart” — knowing things by heart,” Gregory wrote in an email. “This is the way we speak about memorization — because the heart is a location of memory, and with memory also associated affections and affiliations — things we hold dear.”