Sitting in front of her ceiling-high bookshelves on one of the chairs drawn up for visitors in her Augustine Hall office, 72-year-old English professor Dr. Eileen Gregory remembered her time at UD and discussed post-retirement plans.
“Forty-five years is enough, don’t you think?” Gregory said. “I’ve done my duty by the English language, I like to say.”
Gregory got out her calculator to estimate the number of UD students she has taught, adding it up to about 5,000 to 6,000 students. She first came to UD as an undergraduate when she was 18 in 1964, just seven years after the university’s founding. After leaving UD for graduate school and her first few years of teaching, Drs. Donald and Louise Cowan invited her back to teach in 1973.
Over the years, Gregory’s influence has touched not only thousands of students’ lives but also those of her colleagues.
English professor Dr. Andrew Moran remembered when he first came to UD as a regular faculty member in 2008. For the first two years, he had to take an office in the chemistry department because there was no room for him in the English department.
“I was kind of out of things, being all the way out there,” Moran said.
Gregory was concerned that young faculty members ought to be closer to their colleagues. So in 2010, she gave Moran her “primo” office on third floor Braniff overlooking the soccer field and moved to her current office space in Augustine Hall, Moran said.
When Moran moved into the office, he found that Gregory had been using a “crummy old desk” made out of plywood material that was crumbling with age and had a chunk broken off. Her chair was broken and wobbly. Moran got the desk replaced and brought over a usable chair from the science building. But he said Gregory hadn’t complained about the broken furniture.
“I think [she] is a good servant of the university which has had financial problems at times,” Moran said.
Moran described Gregory as “the dominant force in the English Department” because of the respect her fellow colleagues have for her.
“Her colleagues listen to her because of how devoted she has been as a teacher and because, at the same time, she has been an outstanding scholar,” Moran said, referencing Gregory’s book about the modernist poet H.D., entitled “H.D. and Hellenism,” that was published by the Cambridge University Press.
English Department Chair Dr. Gregory Roper said that this book is “simply the magisterial book on H.D.”
“What’s amazing about her is just her deep dedication to the students” as well as her talent as a “superb reader herself,” Roper said of Gregory.
As department chair, Roper said Gregory has offered him much thoughtful and helpful advice.
“She’s a delight,” Roper said. Referring to her pottery hobby, he added, “she’s earned her right to go throw her pots and explore a million other things, but how much are we going to miss her.”
Gregory plans to explore new things now that she is retiring.
“Something I’m going to do when I graduate is become a student again,” Gregory joked. She hopes to take some of her colleagues’ classes here at UD and maybe explore courses at other institutions.
Gregory said that she probably won’t be able to let teaching go entirely.
“Probably I’m gonna sneak out here and, you know, teach a course so I can kind of stay hooked up to Homer and Dante [and Melville],” she said.
She also looks forward to doing more pottery, a hobby she has had for decades, and exploring new forms of writing, such as creative nonfiction or essays.
“Who knows, maybe I’ll become a mystery novel writer, I don’t know,” she said.
Gregory has always been passionate about literary studies, which led her to become a teacher in the first place.
She loves teaching at UD because the Core gives students a common body of knowledge that she draws on in class, and because students are “serious” and “bright” but “unpretentious,” Gregory said.
Gregory sees the classroom as a “consecrated sphere” where she brings her best.
“Students have the privilege of being grouchier than I think teachers have the privilege of being,” Gregory admitted. But students also “bring their capabilities to [the classroom] and their potentiality to it.”
“There is nothing, nothing in the world like the experience in a classroom and the kind of joy a teacher can have in a classroom, because it’s not you … that’s in charge, it’s partly the work that’s in charge,” Gregory said.
Gregory sees her role as a teacher as raising questions that start the conversation going, in which one student’s comment sparks others.
“[Literary works are] intended to be shared, and so it’s the experience of everybody looking at something together that is just so thrilling,” Gregory said.
Gregory considers the high point of her career to be teaching the English junior poet course. She has taught it frequently and describes the way in which it transforms students. Gregory remembers taking the course herself as an undergraduate and how it shaped her own work.
One of the more challenging parts of her career here has been navigating the differing intellectual perspectives within the UD faculty, Gregory said. UD has always had tension between differing intellectual extremes, and Gregory said she finds herself on the more liberal side of this spectrum at UD.
“Finding a way of inhabiting a median ground and being at home intellectually is a challenge,” Gregory said.
Another challenge is encouraging UD students to get excited about the 20th-century literature she specializes in, Gregory added.
“I’ve often, whenever I’ve taught that 20th-century course, really had to try to turn over a perception and get students to actually get excited about experimentation and all that,” Gregory said.
Gregory said she wishes UD faculty and administration could have better deliberation about the nature of the Core and whether any changes should be implemented. But she emphasized the role faculty has played in protecting the continuity of students’ educational experience.
While Gregory said that in the past, some administrators have been at cross-purposes with the vision of UD, this has not affected the strong education students have always received.
Speaking personally, Gregory said she has seen presidents she “deplored” and senior administrators who were “adequate at best, and sometimes damaging.”
But she said that “right now things seem to me about as good as I’ve seen them in terms of people who are representing us in the administration.” She added that “they’re all academics and committed to the school.”
Remembering the early years of UD under the Cowans, Gregory described the intense intellectual experience she had as a student and the faculty members who pushed each other to achieve their best.
“I look back at just the people that I’ve been privileged to know and converse with,” Gregory said. “I don’t think you could match it at, you know, a school like Harvard or Yale.”
“It’s always been a school with great ambitions, even in the very earliest days,” Gregory said. “We really have always … aimed high, and we’ve always been poor.”
The early faculty knew they were “doing something that was very, very unusual,” though they didn’t know exactly how to define it and didn’t entirely have the resources to support it, Gregory said. “Although on the other hand, maybe our poverty has been a part of our character,” Gregory added.
Senior English major Genevieve Frank has taken two classes with Gregory and looks up to her as a mentor.
“I owe a lot to Dr. Gregory,” Frank said. “She has really helped me have more confidence in my own intellectual abilities and writing, and she pushes you to go for more.”
Frank referred to Gregory’s role in founding UD’s Sigma Tau Delta English Society chapter and described how Gregory encourages young English majors to take advantage of opportunities such as this. Frank said many of her fellow students went to Gregory for help with their junior and senior projects because “she’s just so good at coaching you through the process of your own relationship with the text,” Frank said.
“I just think that she has a magical mind, and when she teaches you kind of get pulled into that because she just speaks with such love and eloquence about the writing,” Frank added. “I just love her.”