Virginia Craighill Retires After 21 Years

Anna Cook  
Junior Editor

Cover photo by Beylie Ivanhoe (C’24).

Professor of English, long time advisor to The Purple, and Sewanee graduate Virginia Craighill (C’82) is retiring after 21 years at the University. As a student of Dr. Craighill, I was devastated to hear of her departure, so I sat down with her to discuss her cherished time teaching at Sewanee, why she is moving on, and what her plans beyond the mountain look like. 

Craighill encountered Sewanee by temporarily replacing a professor on emergency leave in 2001, but the chair of the department asked her to stay, and she loved it, so she did. When asked how she had grown as an educator since that time, she explained that when she came to Sewanee there were a lot of American literature classes already, so she had the chance to design her own courses instead of taking over things that had already been taught. She created courses focusing on Tennesse Williams, literary journalism, the art of the essay, and women as artists in literature, to name a few. This process allowed her to search for her greatest academic curiosities and bring them to the forefront of her teaching, which aided her skill as a professor. Additionally, she cited teaching in the first-year program Finding Your Place, and therefore working with colleagues in various disciplines like geology and biology, which she was not well-versed in. “It was fascinating, and I learned more than I ever did as a student. I felt like I was enhancing my ability to learn, not only teach,” she said.

As someone new to the University this year, I wanted to know how the institution itself had evolved during Craighill’s time, and in turn how her job had changed.“My job changes when the student population changes, and that’s always changing. For example, after COVID, I see a real difference– I see this sort of shell-shock… There is this flailing, is the word I would use.” Craighill described a need to return to mechanics in the classroom, and fulfill more service-type roles outside of it, due to the ripples of consequence from the COVID years. However, whatever personal qualms she may have about these significant changes, one of her most defining qualities as a teacher seems to be doing the job well and thoroughly, however the job may present itself. I was in awe of how she handled teaching our Modern American Poetry class during the passing of her father, for instance. One day, at the end of a class that seemed as routine, competent, and engaging as ever, she revealed that her father had died days prior, and therefore our next class would be online. She explained that discussing poetry was as crucial for her as ever, then, and that she was grateful to be working through the emotion alongside us, and these poems. The moment of her disclosure was so affecting to me due to her unwavering clarity and steadiness throughout the lesson, and every lesson prior. It was plain that she valued both transparency and professionalism deeply, and the result was an increased trust and admiration on my part. 

After retirement, Craighill will keep her home at Sewanee, but first, she will fly to Spain and hike the Camino de Santiago by herself. “Like a lot of people do when they are retiring, and they’re figuring out their path, they just keep walking,” which she will do for six weeks, “And then I’m going to write.” She says. “I’m retiring because I want to write.” Craighill found it difficult to compartmentalize personal writing and teaching she explained, (understandably, given the page-long depthy feedback she attaches to every piece of writing we turn in), so she will have the chance to go back and revise old poems and essays to be published, and revitalize her practice of personal writing. Craighill noted that she used to write free verse and now she writes formal poetry. “I like that challenge of trying to find the right words to fit into a form. I realized that I have a sharper voice… if you can write within the rules and know the rules, then you’re allowed to break them” She remarked. “It’s not optional, poetry has to mean something.” 

Craighill has taught a range of subject matter, but one of her favorite texts to teach has remained the Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot. I loved being taught this poem in particular as well, as our class discussions strayed from line by line dissection, and towards the broad and existential that Craighill’s comments cast light upon. One line seems apt for Craighill’s goodbye, which is not really a goodbye, but a revision: “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/  Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” (Eliot, Four Quartets).