Barbara Nolan, Pioneering English Professor and Vice Provost, Remembered For Scholarship, Wide-Ranging Intellect

February 12, 2009

February 12, 2009 — Barbara Nolan, a prominent English professor and administrator at the University of Virginia who retired last year, died Feb. 7 in Charlottesville. She was 68. Professor emeritus of medieval literature, Nolan also served as vice provost for instructional development and innovation for 10 years.

Beyond her outstanding scholarship, teaching and leadership, friends and colleagues emphasized her passion for life and expression of the highest ideals of humanity.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church. A reception will follow at Pavilion IX on the Lawn.

Nolan, who held the Robert C. Taylor Professorship in English, was the first woman to be hired into a tenured position in the English department in 1978. A Chaucer scholar, her interests spanned medieval literature and culture, classical Latin writers' influence on medieval writers and spiritual autobiography.

"Barbara Nolan was a scholar of great learning, generous humanity and intense intellectual curiosity in the field of medieval literature and indeed more broadly in the whole range of medieval culture," said U.Va. colleague Anthony C. Spearing, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Medieval Literature. "She was widely read in Latin, French and Italian as well as English, as emerges clearly in her two books and her many articles. Chaucer was her enduring love, and she had a special affinity for the way his poetry combines genial comedy with philosophical depth."

Nolan is the author of "Chaucer and the Tradition of the Roman Antique" and "The Gothic Visionary Perspective." Her articles and book chapters include: "Playing Parts: Props, Texts, Bodies, and the Mystery of Love in the Miller's Tale" in "Festschrift for V.A. Kolve"; "Promiscuous Fictions: Medieval Bawdy Tales and their Textual Liaisons" in "The Body and the Soul in Medieval Literature"; "Chaucer's Tales of Transcendence: Rhyme Royal and Christian Prayer in the Canterbury Tales" in "Chaucer Religious Tales" and "Ovid's Heroides Contextualized: Foolish Love and Legitimate Marriage in the Roman d'Eneas" in "Mediaevalia."

After chairing the English department from fall 1989 to 1991, Nolan was named vice provost for instructional development and innovation in 1992, serving most of her 10 years in that job with law professor Peter Low, who became provost a year later.

Nolan developed and championed several important initiatives that have become integral fixtures at the University, such as the University Seminars — small classes for mostly first-year students — and the Teaching Resource Center. Under her watch, the University created the English as a Second Language program, the American Sign Language program and the U.Va. International Residential College.

"Barbara was instrumental in beginning and nurturing the USEM program, and among other things was responsible for ... the annual teaching award program," Low said. "Her talks introducing the award-winners each year were legendary — crisp, informative, funny, appropriate to the occasion.

"I remember her best as a serious academic who brought to any issue for discussion or decision a distinctively disciplined and principled approach. … For the almost eight years that I knew her, she made substantial and serious contributions to accomplishment of the academic — and particularly the undergraduate teaching — mission of the University," he said.

Spearing added, "She was a dedicated teacher who brought her students into contact not just with literature, but with civilization and what it means to be a civilized person."

Speaking of "the cherished years of my friendship with Barbara," Farzaneh Milani, U.Va. professor of Persian literature and women's studies, said, "I came to admire in her a rare combination of pragmatic wisdom and elegant idealism, of impeccable personal integrity and visionary flexibility, of rigorous work ethic and boundless reverence for life and all its pleasures.

"I will celebrate Barbara's unique qualities as a scholar, an administrator, a bon-vivant, and a most loyal friend. Our University has lost one of its most valuable assets," Milani said.

"Like Chaucer," Spearing said, "she loved life, and her love included wine, cuisine, furnishings, fashion and travel as well as poetry, architecture and the other arts."

Nolan earned a bachelor's degree from Trinity College and her master's degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. She was a trustee of the New Chaucer Society and was on the advisory boards of Envoi: A Review Journal of Medieval Literature and New Literary History. She also served on the advisory board of the Reinvention Center, a national center focusing on undergraduate education at research universities. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of London and a National Endowment of the Humanities grant.

"It's hard to believe that so vivid a colleague and friend is lost to us," Spearing said, ending his e-mail letter with a Chaucer quote. "Barbara was always aware, with Chaucer, that "Her is non hoom, her nis but wildernesse"  — "Here is not home, here nothing but wilderness."

— By Anne Bromley