Humanities Professor Excels in her Field and in the Classroom

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Dr. Debra Sowell

While fans from all over the world cheer on athletes at the Olympic Games in London this summer, Dr. Debra Sowell — who has completed multiple scholarly publications and other projects in the past academic year — compares Olympic athletes to scholars, who both must obey “the law of the harvest” in order to excel.

“Olympians work and train for years before they win a medal,” said Sowell, a professor of humanities at Southern Virginia University who focuses much of her research on dance history. “As a scholar, you work on a project for an extended period — you hone it, you revise the manuscript in response to peer review — before it comes to fruition. That’s why it’s so satisfying when it finally appears in print.”

In June, Sowell published a chapter in “La Sylphide,” the first English-language book dedicated to one of the world’s most enduring Romantic ballets. She also attended the annual meeting of the Society of Dance History Scholars in Philadelphia, where she was selected for the second time to chair one of the organization’s groups — which is dedicated to research on nineteenth-century dance.

“It’s not like winning an Olympic gold medal, but there’s perhaps the same satisfaction when you’ve worked on a project over a period of time and you see it come to fruition,” said Sowell. “The true satisfaction comes from that confirmation that your work is appreciated by other people who understand the significance of what you’re trying to do: that you’re exploring some new facet of history that’s never been explored before. That is what my kind of scholarship is all about — it’s discovery-oriented.”

Though she has put time and effort into scholarly publications and presentations over the years, she also enjoys engaging students in the classroom full time, which she said “feeds [her] commitment to sharing her knowledge of the arts.”

“Her enthusiasm is contagious,” said Cameron Burgoyne, a liberal arts major from Pocatello, Id., who took one section of Sowell’s course on arts in western civilization last semester and plans to take the next section of the course this fall. “You can tell that she has a passion for [the subjects she teaches] and when we get excited and that enthusiasm shows, she’ll go even more in depth and then you’ll really see how much she knows. I wanted to do my best in that class.”

Burgoyne said that in Sowell’s classes, she tries to involve all of the students by asking questions, requiring each of them to meet with her in her office one-on-one, and taking them on an educational course excursion to the National Gallery of Art. For Burgoyne, the course excursion was one of the most rewarding parts of Sowell’s class.

“It was the first time I went into an art museum where I loved it,” said Burgoyne. “I enjoyed it because I had a background, I could pick out different aspects of paintings that we had studied.”

In the past academic year, Sowell published an article titled “Romantic Landscapes for Dance: Ballet Narratives and Edmund Burke’s Theory of the Sublime” in “Dance Chronicle,” the leading journal in her field. This article, which began as a conference paper several years ago, was one of the top ten “Dance Chronicle” articles downloaded in 2011. She also was invited to join the publication’s advisory board.

“Dance is the art form of the human body,” said Sowell. “And why not study our past from the lens of dance as well as from the lens of music, painting or architecture? It’s a fascinating way to see how human beings lived and interacted. We have to know [the history of the arts] because it’s our cultural inheritance; it’s part of our identity.”

During the university’s spring break in March, Sowell stayed busy by delivering a paper on balletic versions of “Ivanhoe” in the nineteenth century at the annual conference of the Humanities Education Research Association in Salt Lake City. In June, Sowell was a keynote presenter at the 16th Annual Education Conference at Southern Virginia.

Sowell, who previously taught in the department of humanities, classics and comparative literature at Brigham Young University, said that she is grateful to Southern Virginia University’s Faculty Development Committee for supporting the travel that has allowed her to continue her scholarly activities.

She received a bachelor’s degree in humanities cum laude from BYU and a master’s degree in theatre history from Tufts University. She then received a doctorate in performance studies from New York University.

Sowell also is the author of “The Christensen Brothers: An American Dance Epic,” which won two distinguished awards — the 1998 Evans Handcart Award for western biography and the 1999 De la Torre Bueno Prize’s Special Citation from the Dance Perspectives Foundation.