Contentment and Growth

By Kia Wassenaar

Elizabeth Fowler, an associate professor in the UVA Department of English, breathes life into medieval and renaissance literature. In the classroom, Fowler creates a fascinating and self-reflective learning environment by placing very old texts in the context of both their own time, and in the context of how they relate to the present. Fowler is committed to making these texts both morally and politically relevant to her students through creative and positive means. 

Fowler’s path to teaching was not always obvious. After finishing her undergraduate degree at Brown, she moved to New York to play in a “no wave” rock band called The Hi Sheriffs of Blue. When the band broke up, she moved to Rome, Italy, where she spent her time learning Italian, and reading Shakespeare. A few years later, she moved back to the states to work in a number of other fields.

“I worked in an engineering firm for a while, a law firm for a while, and started a building business with a builder, and learned to design architecture, so that’s where my architecture [background] comes from. That was fabulous,” says Fowler, “but I really missed talking to people about books...  so I ended up going back to grad school, in English, and then carried on from there.”

As a graduate student at Harvard, Fowler began working as a teaching assistant, before getting her first job at Yale. After a few years, she relocated to Charlottesville to teach at the University of Virginia, where she has been ever since. 

“I couldn’t be happier, I really love teaching here,” she says, “It seems to me to have the best of both worlds, public and private. I think that we feel strongly how important it is to educate the citizens of Virginia.” And while Fowler loves teaching at UVA, she says that there is still room for change and growth in her own life. “I always thought, maybe I’ll do this for a while, and maybe I’ll change, but I’ve really liked it.”

Professor Elizabeth Fowler. Photographer: Jane Haley.

Professor Elizabeth Fowler. Photographer: Jane Haley.


The importance of remaining open to change guides Fowler in almost every aspect of her life, especially in her larger view of the world. She believes that keeping positivity in balance with a healthy openness to growth is the only way to make progress. Fowler feels that “If we’re not allowed to express the gap between our aspirations and what we have, because somehow that’s being negative, that’s a terrible way for us to move into the future.”

Instead, Fowler thinks that recognition of the good should be constantly “knitting together” with a desire for improvement and growth. On this, she says,“Figuring out how to maintain a posture of gratitude, and positivity, while still striving for justice, and being angry about our lack of it, seems to be so difficult and challenging, but so important.”

This outlook comes through in her teaching methods as well. While music, art, and live readings are all staples of Fowler’s classes, the incorporation of current events is what truly makes her teaching style unique. Alongside many other UVA faculty members, Fowler addressed the August 2017 “unite the right” rally and its associated violence on the first day of class and continues to tie themes of honor and truthfulness in the coursework back to issues of social justice and morality in the present day. She reminds her students to remain self-aware, positive, and open minded even in the face of adversity.

The energy she brings to class is reflective of her own personal feelings about positivity, which have changed over time: “When I was young, my mother, who was very wise in some ways that I didn’t appreciate then, she prized very much being positive... [which] led me to disdain it, because I didn’t think one should be positive without content. I thought that if there wasn’t something to be positive about, then taking that posture was fake, corrosive even. I really didn’t like being pushed in that direction, but as I get older,” she says with a small laugh, “I’m rethinking that response that I had to my mother.”

These days Fowler thinks about positivity in a way that is more akin to the way Jefferson described it: a pursuit of happiness; a constellation of smaller choices and feelings that add up to a bigger picture. She sees the state of happiness as “some sort of conglomerated sense of joy and contentment, but also rightness and fittingness and justice, in that sense, and feeling that I’m in the right place at the right time.”

Consistently choosing kindness over negativity and hatred is important to Fowler on both a personal and political level, and she reinforces these values through her teaching every day. While maintaining incredible poise, humor, and positivity, Fowler encourages her students to strive for improvement, both in themselves, and in the world.

Shreyas Hariharan