Reni Gower has been teaching in the Department of Painting + Printmaking for 37 years. Throughout that time, she has learned a lot from her students, including how to creatively craft an excuse for being late to class.

Gower and four other longtime faculty members were recently profiled by VCU News. The following Q&A with Gower is an excerpt from that story.

What do you like best about teaching at VCU?

As cliché as it sounds, the students are the best thing about teaching at VCU. Being in the fine arts, I love learning what motivates a student and envisioning ways to make art about it. New students always renew my enthusiasm for the classroom.

How has VCU changed since you started working here? 

When I first arrived, VCU was a fairly sleepy campus with many local students commuting from off campus. Now with a significantly higher enrollment, there is an active residential campus culture of enormous diversity.

Do you have a favorite classroom moment? 

More of an outside of the classroom moment: I had a student making sculptural “paintings” out of found materials such as plastic, hair, nylon and wood. When he wanted to light the works on fire and document the burning process as a performance, I asked him to take the event outside. Given the volatile nature of his materials, I also required that he sign a waiver against future liability, that he would not do the performance alone and that he have a fire extinguisher handy at all times. In our follow-up critique, he presented a dramatic video along with the charred remains. Many years later, this same student — now an alumnus in New York City — sent me a retrospective catalog on Alberto Burri, an artist we had discussed, who also burned his work. His heartfelt inscription touched me deeply by noting my ongoing influence on his artmaking and how grateful he was for my support while he attended VCU.

What’s the best or most outrageous excuse you’ve gotten from a student for missing class or turning in a paper late? 

Beyond the predictable (e.g., someone has died), students often claim:

  • “I’m in my sister’s wedding.”
  • “My parents booked my flight without asking me about finals.”
  • “I have a court date.”
  • “Burst pipes flooded my apartment and caused the heat to go out.”
  • And always good for a 9 a.m. chuckle: “I am not a morning person.”

What have you learned from the students at VCU?

Never underestimate them. They will rise to the highest bar you set.

Read about more longtime VCU professors in VCU News.


August 6, 2018