The award, established in 1958 to recognize outstanding college professors across Texas, is given annually to 10 educators to honor their dedication to the teaching profession and for their outstanding academic, scientific and scholarly achievement.
Each Piper Professor receives a certificate of merit, a gold pin and a $5,000 honorarium. Selection is made on the basis of nominations from two- and four-year colleges and universities.
“Theresa is such a gifted professor who combines intellectual rigor and high expectations with absolute charisma and the ability to make learning joyful,” said Dr. Dennis Kratz, dean of the School of Arts and Humanities and the Ignacy and Celina Rockover Professor of Humanities. “She is one of the most compelling and gifted teachers of undergraduates I have ever had the pleasure to know.”
Towner, a noted researcher of American author William Faulkner, said she encourages her students to think.
“I tell students that in life there are really only two questions: ‘What is…?’ and ‘What if…?’ You’ve got to know the world and how it works, but you’ve also got to be able to see how to change it. And in both efforts, your imagination is the best tool you have,” she said.
After earning her doctorate from the University of Virginia, Towner began her career at UT Dallas as a lecturer, advancing to the position of professor of literary studies in 2006. Earlier this year, she became the Ashbel Smith Professor of literary studies.
Towner was awarded the Chancellor’s Council Outstanding Teaching Award for the 2001-02 academic year and, in 2010, The University of Texas System named Towner a Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award winner.
“Every single minute in the classroom is different,” she said. “You never know what students are going to say, the subject matter is always different, and every single time you pick up something to read, you experience it differently than the last time you read it. There’s always something new to find out.”
Towner has written dozens of books and articles about Faulkner including her most recent, “Faulkner’s Mississippi-Writing,” in an anthology of Mississippi writers. She is associate director of a project called Digital Yoknapatawpha. Yoknapatawpha is a mythical county in Mississippi where Faulkner set many of his stories. The project breaks down the characters, places and events of Faulkner’s books into a searchable database.
Faulkner is often known for being difficult to understand, but Towner said the author wrote wonderful, thoughtful stories. And she is pleased she can help students enjoy Faulkner.
“I tend to do two types of teaching — one is with texts that students know are very difficult, inaccessible and complicated, ones they’re afraid to tackle. And the other is the kind of texts that students think they know really, really well, but then they are surprised that they can learn so much more,” she said.
Towner said her job is to give students the skills they need to be successful in her class and beyond.
“Rather than tell them to write an essay answer, I show them the kinds of questions that, answered, will produce a successful essay. I ask factual questions, in class and on exams, because I think that inspiration depends upon information. I encourage informed speculation in discussion, and I applaud students’ efforts to ‘make sense’ because I believe that’s what we are all trying to do every day, regardless of status or profession,” she said. “We are trying to read the story of ourselves and the world, and I plan to keep trying to help.”