Cindy in 2019
Cindy in 1987, Photo by Jens Zorn

Episode 16 - Cindy Sowers and Her Retirement (10:33) June 19, 2019

Cindy Sowers, the venerated RC Arts and Ideas in the Humanities faculty member, has retired. We knew this would come but that knowing doesn't shield us from the shock and disorientation of the event itself! To pay homage to Cindy and her incredible 46 year career in the Residential College, I coaxed her into appearing on the RC Podcast. In this June episode part 2, Cindy delivers an address similar to the one she gave at the RC Commencement in May 2019, in which she makes a case for taking the plunge into a liberal arts educational journey with breadth, curiosity, and deep respect. 

Read the transcript of this episode here.

Cindy Sowers Short Biography, 2019 (the official version)

Cynthia (Cindy) Sowers received her B.A. from Oakland University, her M.A. from University of Michigan in Comparative Literature, and her Ph.D. also from the University of Michigan in Comparative Literature. During her Masters program in 1973, she started teaching at the Residential College in the First Year Seminar and French programs. Her dissertation, The Shared Structure of Craft and Song: A Study of Homer’s Narrative Art, revealed passions for narrative and visual analysis comparatively understood that would characterize her teaching thereafter.  She participated in an interdisciplinary group composed of Residential College humanities and fine arts faculty who together constructed the Arts and Ideas in the Humanities concentration. Cindy's recent course offerings have included critical approaches to the literature and visual arts of classic modernism, postmodernism, Shakespeare and Rome, the heritage of Greece, the psychoanalytic interpretation of the arts, and many others. She combines analyses of literary texts, visual arts, and philosophy to hone in on the animating spirit of a cultural moment and space.  She has presented at the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2006 U-M residency, as part of the RC Faculty Colloquium, for the LSA Comparative Literature and the Colloquium on Critical Theory sponsored by the LSA Department of English Language and Literature, and at the Residential College's 50th Anniversary celebration. She has received the Ford Foundation Fellowship, the Rackham Prize twice, the U-M Excellence in Teaching Award, the Matthews Underclass Teaching Award, and is a member of the Medieval Academy of America. Cindy retires from her position as a Senior Lecturer and Lecturer IV, having served in the Residential College for 46 years. She has an active art practice, and her work will be displayed in the RC Art Gallery in a fall 2019 exhibition. She also maintains a personal website,, where she publishes essays, poetry, and visual artwork.

Cindy Sowers Short Biography, 2019 (Cindy's version)

When Robby Griswold asked me to submit a short bio for the RC Podcast, I was stumped. Who am I? Who was I? Who will I be? I risked falling into a whirlpool of verb conjugations. Amazingly, David Hockney, the venerable British painter, came to my aid – quite unknown to him, I hasten to add, from far, far away. In a 2016 interview in The Guardian, Hockney said that his favorite drawing, a perfect drawing in his opinion, was made by Rembrandt c. 1656 of a child being taught to walk:

Hockney’s visual analysis of this sketch is so sensitive, so tender.  He notices the moment of fearful daring that animates the child taking a first step.   The encouragement of the family expresses not just support, but delight in this tiny adventure into the world.  

What was my first step?   Well, I had to think about that.  Then I decided: it must have been when I learned to read, in Reno, Nevada.  I was in first grade. We were taught the alphabet, and marveled at the shapes of each letter.  Then imagine the fun we had when we learned to call out each letter’s name. So, letters have a body and a soul.  Thus proclaimed, I learned many years later, Vergilius Maro Grammaticus, a 7th century grammarian (perhaps Irish, but no one knows for sure) of unbridled eccentricity and abounding inventiveness:

“ . . .  who saw the physical littera, or letter, as similar to the human body: ‘… its shape, its function, and its pronunciation . . . are its joints and limbs . . .’    The letter had a soul in its meaning, and a spirit ‘in its higher form of contemplation.’

[Carol Farr, The Book of Kells (The British Library and the University of Toronto Press, 1997), p. 157.]

Carol Farr proposes that the multitudinous, often zany illuminations in the 9th century Book of Kells reflect the influence of Vergilius Maro Grammaticus.


An acrobatic Letter H from the Book of Kells, c. AD 804

Notice, this letter calls out in complex swirling form – but silently.  How can we readers not answer?

I remember when my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Lysne, wrote a very long word on the blackboard.  I stared; and then suddenly, as I pronounced the names of the letters, I heard the silent word speaking in my imagination.  I was so amazed that I stood up from my little desk, and walked out into the aisle of our classroom. I stood transfixed. The word was:


I had taken the first step. From that time to this, reading and letters have fascinated me.  But so have “Grandmothers.” Who are these ancient beings, the embodied presence of wisdom, who guide us with the lifted finger of authority that we dare not disobey, and not without a troubling dark understanding of the world; preparing us, and reminding us – of something.  What? I cannot say.


Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, 1500-1508; National Gallery of Art, London.

I wish to pay tribute to the Grandmothers – those beings who stand in the background, whose names and faces are partially erased, like the layers of chalk on a dusty classroom blackboard; those enigmatic progenitors who hold us in their laps, even though we can’t see them.  Sometimes they are called Mrs. Lysne, or Anne, or Leonardo, or Rembrandt, or Hockney. And with them are so many alphabets. They all want our attention; they want to start up a conversation – about something, anything. They are open. So, I close my short bio with one of my favorites, a nonsense alphabet made in 1871 by Edward Lear – he who has so much in common with Vergilius Maro Grammaticus: