Humans of UD: Dr. Eileen Gregory


Name: Dr. Eileen Gregory

Hometown: Dallas, Texas

Department: English

BS: How did you make your way to the University of Dallas?

EG: When I was in high school, I didn’t know anything about UD. Still, people in Irving don’t know about UD, and I didn’t.

A friend and I were driving our bikes on Northgate, which was a new road at the time. We came across UD, and we didn’t know what it was. It happened to be spring break, and there were just a few students hanging around. But even talking to a few students, I knew this was the place.

And it was an ugly place too; we ruined our bike tires because everything was stickers. It was just like a wilderness. They called Mrs. [Sybil] Novinski to come out and talk to me, and I just immediately knew that this was it. What they say about the genus loci is really true. The place has a spirit to it, I really do believe that.

I started out as a chemistry major, and switched in my sophomore year. I was equally good with both, but at a certain point, chemistry just seemed like cooking. Put a little of this, a little of that, cook it for 24 hours or whatever.

But the literature was really amazing to me. When I was in high school — I went to high school at Irving High — I was always a misfit. I really felt like an outsider, and I read a lot of books. When I came to UD, it was taken for granted that you talked about ideas, that you read books and talked about them all the time. It was beyond my wildest imaginings. I was so happy.

And then I ran across many good teachers, but among them [was] Dr. [Louise] Cowan, who was really my mentor. I took a lot of courses from her, so it was a profound undergraduate experience.

BS: Were you in Paris during the student riots back in the day?

EG: I was there in ’71-’72, so it was a few years after that. The big riots were in 1968. Of course, it failed, basically. The students started it because they were demanding a reformation of the university system. [The universities] conceded and gave them concessions, somewhat, to make it more like an American system.

One of the other things that they did was to divide the University of Paris into political factions. So there was a Maoist branch, a Soviet Communist branch, and a socialist branch and a conservative Gaullist branch. All these different factions.

When I won a teaching Fulbright there, I was advised not to take it because I would be at a Maoist communist branch, and they would have just picketed me all the time. It was a very chaotic time. It was not functioning very well while I was there. But it was a great experience, having a chance to teach college students in Paris. I ended up taking faculty exchange, so I was teaching American studies. It was a delightful experience, living in Paris for that year.

BS: What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve taken away from teaching at UD?

EG: Every year I teach, and this is something like my 42nd or 43rd year, I really do feel privileged, not only to have the context in which we teach, but to have the students that we teach. It’s like eating chateaubriand every day. It really is such a privilege. I could go on and on [about] why, but I do think that the students themselves bring so much, they’re so serious, they want to be here, and I like the idea that it’s a shared learning. It’s not hierarchical learning. It’s something that the C’s and the A’s learn together. They support each other and there is a community.

In terms of what I take away from it, I consider teaching to be like a ritual exercise in a sense. It’s something that teacher and student undergo together. The classroom is a place set apart, a time set apart, in which something can happen. We can both be opened up to something together.

That’s the way I approach literature. I don’t approach it, even with our majors or graduate students, as: “this is what is literary about this, this is what is literary about that.” I want students to experience the books, and to be touched by them.

Although my colleagues in other departments might put it differently, they want students to experience these texts. So the teacher is a facilitator, maybe a bit more than a facilitator. I don’t feel like I have any wisdom, like I’m in the business of facilitating wisdom, but that the books have wisdom.

I was talking to my sophomores today about “Go Down, Moses” and Isaac’s choice, and really, it’s a choice between the active and contemplative life. He refuses the active life, the life of ownership hierarchical worldliness, because he simply wants to be present to something and to live in a contemplative attitude.

I think teaching isn’t exactly in the active life. We straddle both lives. Because the classroom is work, we have a job to do, but I get to exercise the contemplative life. I get to come into my office and think about books all the time, think about ideas, wonder about the cardinal virtues in “Mansfield Park” and how we understand what Austen is saying about these virtues. I get to think about these things!

So a lot of our students go into teaching, and I think it’s a natural thing for them to do. But you have to be in it a while to understand just what a remarkable role it is.

BS: What are some of your fears for UD students?

EG: In the past I’ve had a fear about whether students will find their way. I don’t anymore. I think we try to make clear to them that they have a lot of choices open to them, and that it’s hard to make a bad choice, unless it’s really willfully a bad choice. You can meander.

In the past, I’ve been afraid because the University of Dallas is so idealistic that the students can become embittered too quickly, too early. Becoming embittered is always a possibility, for anyone, it just depends on how you handle setbacks and tragedies that happen to you. But I do fear that students leave sometimes with great idealism, and I love idealism, I think it’s a good thing. The opposite is terrible. It’s better, but they may leave without a sufficient sense of accommodation, without an openness to what they encounter.

What you encounter needs to make you constantly reflect on what you already believe. You need to be constantly processing reality and what you believe, and altering your outlook as you go along, based on other good things or dangers that you encounter.

In the past, I’ve been somewhat afraid of disillusionment for our students. Students are too impatient and have high expectations. We’ve had students go to graduate school, for instance, like one who accepted a Fulbright, and found it not up to his standards. Getting a good position, a good fellowship someplace, and finding it not satisfying.

BS: If you could get another Ph.D., in what would it be?

EG: That’s a very good question. Now, my fantasy is to do an M.F.A. in ceramics or pottery. I can’t do it now, it’s too late. You have to lug around all these sacks of clay, and it’s hard work. But I do love that, in just the little bit I’ve done in ceramics.

I’ve been very attracted to anthropology and archaeology. If I were making these choices right now, I might be very interested in archaeology, I think. I’m just fascinated by the deductive quality of it. The more scientific tools you have for analyzing information, the more you can discover about the smallest, smallest evidence. Right now, I’m very fascinated by that.

BS: What is your favorite Cap Bar drink?

EG: I guess it’s just a cappuccino.

BS: Do you have some advice for the graduating seniors?

EG: What I would advise our seniors is two things. Keep reading. Always have a book around. And cultivate a kind of anticipation and expectation for encountering new things. I think when you’re a senior, you’re partly fearful, because it’s a whole new stage of your life. But you’re so young, there’s so much still to happen, there’s so much that will open up and come into being in just the next two to three years for most people. So you ought to be joyful, and think about what’s happening next, rather than, “oh gosh, where am I going to be.”

Be gripped by anticipation, not by fear, with an expectation to encounter new things.


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