Long-serving BYU professor retiring soon

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BYU’s longest serving religion professor, Professor Richard Cowan, has taught Doctrine and Covenants classes, researched Church history and written books about temples for more than half a century — all while blind.

Religion professor Richard Cowan pulls out one of his braille volumes of the Bible from his office.
Religion professor Richard Cowan pulls out one of his braille volumes of the Bible. (Photo by Sarah Strobel Hill)

“Before going on my mission I was debating going into teaching or law,” said Cowan, who has taught at BYU for 52 years. “I’ve been visually impaired my whole life and am totally blind now, and I realized then that anything I did would be a challenge.”

While serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Texas and New Mexico, Cowan participated in a small district meeting with an LDS general authority and other Church leaders. He wondered how he could make situations similar to this a part of his regular life.

“During that moment, the impression that came was to teach religion at BYU, and so that became my goal,” Cowan said.

Cowan began his teaching career at BYU in 1961, just months after finishing the doctoral program at Stanford University. Most professors wait several years before beginning careers as religion professors, but Cowan was offered a position right out of school.

“When I have to fill out forms about employment experience, it’s very simple,” Cowan said. “Three letters — BYU. This summer is ending my 53rd year here.”

Teaching for 53 years gave Richard Cowan the opportunity to teach between 40,000 and 50,000 students and several different courses at BYU–Provo, BYU–Hawaii and even the Jerusalem Center. Cowan teaches courses on the Doctrine and Covenants, Church history since 1900 and LDS temples.

“He was so knowledgeable about temples,” said Mallory Walker, a junior majoring in deaf studies. “He would always know the answer to any question we asked him, and if he didn’t know, he would research it and let us know the next class period.”

Cowan discussed a few difficulties associated with teaching as a blind professor. The class setting can often be a challenge because it is hard for Cowan to know who is there and when someone wants his attention. As a result, he asks students to help by making necessary adjustments.

“In a class, normally if you want to make a comment you raise your hand,” Cowan said. “Well, I tell people, if you raise your hand I won’t see it, so just raise your voice.”

Students who have taken courses from the religion professor are impressed with his ability to teach clearly and effectively, even though he cannot see the material he is teaching.

“I think class with Professor Cowan was a really cool experience,” said Porter Chelson, a junior advertising major. “Because he was blind, the class paid more attention. There’s a certain amount of respect involved. You admire all of his hard work while still being blind.”

Some students even find the class to be similar to the structure of other classes taught.

“It wasn’t all that different from any other professor, to be honest,” Walker said. “He would stand in the front of the room and either sit on his stool or pace the front of the classroom, just like other teachers.”

Professor Richard Cowan sits at his braille type writer in his office (photo by Sarah Strobel Hill).
Professor Richard Cowan sits at his braille typewriter in his office. (Photo by Sarah Strobel Hill)

Cowan’s teaching experience at BYU has not always been easy. When he first began, other professors questioned his ability to successfully teach when he could not see the students in front of him or even the material on the chalkboard. These doubts were silenced when Cowan was praised for his impressive work.

“They used to give an award called ‘Professor of the Year,’ and I got that at the end of my fourth year,” Cowan said. “I remember thinking, ‘Maybe I can succeed after all.’ That was a favorite memory of mine.”

Throughout his 53 years of teaching, Cowan has written more than a dozen books and many articles and research about temples and Church history. He is currently working on two books — one entitled “Provo’s Two Temples,” which will be published shortly after the second Provo temple is dedicated, and “The Oakland Temple,” to be published this summer following the temple’s 50th anniversary.

Cowan believes spending the time to complete research and write educational books is beneficial for his teaching.

“Research is not a necessary evil; it’s really an advantage because it gives you fresh material for your classes,” Cowan said. “You don’t have to say, ‘Well here’s something that somebody else has researched, but here’s something that I have discovered in my research.’”

Cowan’s 53 years of teaching gave him ample opportunities to see how education has changed, especially at BYU. He described his first days as being a student at BYU when the most advanced technology was the chalkboard. Today, he throws a flash drive in his pocket and can have his entire lesson online for his students to access. While explaining that technology has changed and the students have changed, the professor mentioned that one thing remains constant at BYU — the Spirit.

“We’ve always wanted to bear witness that Jesus is the Christ and that the gospel is his great plan of happiness,” Cowan said. “Teaching with the Spirit has always been the goal.”

Cowan will be retiring at the end of the Winter 2014 semester. After retiring, he plans to spend more time with his wife, six children and 22 grandchildren, finish his current books, teach classes upon invitation and continue to serve in his calling as stake patriarch.

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