English professor retires after 45-year career

By Tracy Douglas

English Professor Emily Watts has seen many things at the University during her career.

Watts started teaching at the University as a graduate student in 1958 and she became a tenured professor in 1968.

“I had gone to a women’s college, and I was intellectually restless (there),” Watts said. She said she felt “talked down to” at that school.

She transferred to the University as an undergraduate because it had a better Classics


Originally planning to major in elementary education, she decided she did not like that course. She said she planned on majoring in Classics in order to become a high school teacher, but people told her it would be hard for a woman to be in Classics, which was a male-dominated field at the time.

Watts said her mentor suggested an English major, which she chose, specializing in American


She was hired as an emergency professor in 1964. At the time, the University had a nepotism rule that prohibited the hiring of family members. Because one of her husband’s relatives was on the Board of Trustees, she could not be hired as a full-time professor. The nepotism rule no longer exists.

Watts has seen many other changes at the University.

“The status of women faculty is much better now,” she said. She said there was open discrimination when she started teaching displayed by one professor who would not take female graduate students. She also said pregnant professors had to quit and be rehired while male professors with medical problems did not have to quit.

“There are more women than there were before,” Watts said. “It’s wonderful to see women in other fields that they weren’t in in the ’50s.”

She also said the literary canon has changed since she started her career. She said she did not read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, but students read it now.

Watts said the administration has grown in size, with many offices emerging in the Henry Administration Building.

She said it was not hard being a professor, because she has had many smart students. She received the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, as well as the Campus and College Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.

During her career, Watts published three books – Ernest Hemingway and the Arts, Businessman in American Literature, and Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945.

During high school, she wrote stories on the 1952 Eisenhower campaign, but she quickly learned that she did not want to be a journalist.

“It’s been a wonderful career (as a professor),” Watts said. “There are opportunities to learn constantly. It’s a stimulating place.”

Brad Campbell, graduate student, said he took two seminar classes with Watts, 19th-century African American literature and Paris in the 20s.

“Both seminars were very rewarding, and she was an excellent teacher and mentor,” Campbell said. “Her class was full of great literature and great teaching.”

Graduate student Kristen Nash also enjoyed Watts’s class. She took Watts’s American Puritans seminar.

“Professor Watts was quite helpful. She was always encouraging and interested in working with our ideas, both in class and in our individual projects,” Nash said.

She said she is retiring because she wants to spend time with her grandchildren, travel with her husband, read more books and finish her fourth book, on Ernest Hemingway.

“I just thought it was time to retire,” Watts said.

She said the University needs to continue to emphasize undergraduate education.