By Debbie Nelson and Edwin B. Smith
University of Mississippi
The University of Mississippi recognized three professors who have demonstrated exceptional teaching, research, creativity and service on May 10 during the 2023 spring faculty meeting in Fulton Chapel.
Beth Ann Fennelly, professor of English and former Mississippi poet laureate, and Jeffrey R. Watt, the Kelly Gene Cook Sr. Professor of History, and were named Distinguished Professors.
Created in 2018, the Distinguished Professor title recognizes the best faculty members with sustained excellence at the university. No more than two eligible faculty can be appointed as a Distinguished Professor in a given year.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, professor of English and creative writing, received the Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award, the university’s highest honor for outstanding accomplishment in research, scholarship and creative achievement. She won the 2021 Research, Scholarship and Creative Achievement Award from the College of Liberal Arts.
The 15th recipient of the Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award, Nezhukumatathil is the first humanities faculty member and first woman of color to be selected.
“Nezhukumatathil’s achievements are exceptional by any standard, but they also provide the university with an opportunity to recognize a faculty member, one who is a woman of color, for creativity, rather than research, as has been the case in every other instance of this award,” said Caroline Wigginton, chair and associate professor of English.
“We are profoundly lucky to have her as a faculty member. By honoring what she does for our institution, for our students and for our world, we collectively signal to her that we concur with the honors and acclaim bestowed on her by many, many others and that we too value and respect her contributions as one of our very own community members.”
Nezhukumatahil came to UM in 2016 as the Grisham Writer-in-Residence before joining the faculty a year later with her husband, Dustin Parsons. Arriving as one of the youngest poets to achieve the rank of professor of English, she then published four award-winning poetry collections.
In 2020, her “World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments,” a collection of essays, landed on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for seven weeks.
“We are so thrilled this year to be able to recognize Aimee Nezhukumatathil for her truly remarkable accomplishments that have impacted so many,” said Josh Gladden, vice chancellor of research and sponsored programs.
“World of Wonders” was also named Book of the Year for 2020 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, the New York Public Library and Esquire magazine. The same year, she became the first full-time UM faculty member to receive a Guggenheim fellowship.
Ole Miss selected her book of essays for the 2021 Common Reading Experience, distributing it to all incoming students and incorporating it into the first-year curricula.
“The research I do for my essays and poems all comes down to having a curious mind and having lots of questions,” she said. “So much of my earlier poetry is explaining my entrance into subject matter that is ‘worthy’ of being published.
“It’s not that long ago when I was so very starved to find any experience or any writers that looked remotely like me in the ‘best of’ anthologies or journals. It was as if we didn’t exist, which is of course not true, but now, thankfully, I feel like there is an exciting embrace of writing from all backgrounds and cultures, so my focus on ‘explaining’ doesn’t feel as urgent to me as it once did, when I was struggling to just say, ‘Hello. I exist.'”
For Nezhukumatathil, the community of scholars and writers in Oxford is second to none – she deeply appreciates working in a community that recognizes the cultural importance of writers. She also pointed out the support of her husband, children and Wigginton.
“The simple truth is no one gets to this point in a 20-plus-year career without the support of the literary community behind you,” she said. “While writing itself is a solitary act, what comes before and after you sit down to write is a bevy of other writers, some living, some no longer with us.
“To learn that so many writers and students I admire advocated for me is one I don’t take lightly.”
A respected international scholar in poetry, Fennelly joined the UM faculty in 2001 and has been the recipient of four Ole Miss teaching awards during her tenure. She has also received several literary awards, including the 2001 Pushcart Prize, and has had three inclusions in the prestigious “Best American Poetry” series.
“Working with students here has been the most fulfilling experience I can imagine,” Fennelly said. “Receiving this recognition has been a very moving confirmation that the home I’ve chosen has valued my passion and loyalty.”
The Mississippi Arts Commission awarded Fennelly grants for nonfiction in 2005 and 2015, and for poetry in 2010. In 2015, the A Room of Her Own Foundation presented her with the Orlando Award in Nonfiction, and in 2016, she received the Lamar York Prize in Creative Nonfiction from The Chattahoochee Review.
She is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a United States Artist Award and an Academy of American Poets Laureate Award, given to her in 2021 in recognition of both her literary achievement and her literary advocacy for Mississippi. In 2015, Fennelly was honored with the University of Notre Dame’s Distinguished Alumnus Award.
“The state of Mississippi has abounded in what one critic calls ‘national and international literary giants,’ twentieth-century writers like Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Beth Henley, and Margaret Walker,” wrote Michael McFee, the Doris Betts Term Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina.
“The University of Mississippi, and the town of Oxford, have been home to their own literary titans, including Ellen Douglas, Barry Hannah and of course William Faulkner. Here in the twenty-first century, Beth Ann Fennelly – Poet Laureate of Mississippi, a much-decorated professor at Ole Miss, the winner of multiple awards and fellowships, and the author of six much-praised books of poetry and prose – continues and extends that eminent tradition.
“No one could be more worthy of a Distinguished Professorship at the University: she meets – indeed, greatly exceeds – the three criteria for such a position.”
Formerly director of the university’s master’s program in creative writing, Fennelly was named UM Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year in 2011. In 2018, she won the Faculty Achievement Award for Outstanding Teaching and Scholarship.
Watt came to UM in 1988 after receiving his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Promoted to professor in 2005, he has held the Cook title since 2015.
He said the Distinguished Professor recognition is the greatest he has received during his 35 years at the university.
“Both personally and professionally, I find it quite gratifying to receive this recognition, though it is also a bit humbling since I know that there have been so many outstanding professors at this university – rightly esteemed for both their teaching and their scholarship – who definitely deserved this distinction but never received it,” he said.
Having authored four books and edited a dozen more, Watt is recognized as one of the preeminent scholars of the Reformation. One of the most prolific researchers and scholars in his field, he has published more than 40 peer-reviewed articles and 70 book reviews and made 50 scholarly presentations at academic conferences.
In 2021-22, Watt received more than $375,000 in grants from Swiss foundations to complete the decadeslong project he has led to publish scholarly editions of the records of the Consistory of Geneva, a morals court created by Protestant reformer John Calvin.
“Even as Jeff has reached the pinnacle of his field, his intellectual energy and innovation continue unabated as he finalizes his fifth monograph in addition to the Consistory project work,” said Noell Wilson, chair of the Department of History. “This award acknowledges Jeff’s prominent profile on the international history stage, and the UM history department is thrilled that the selection committee recognized this global stature.”
Besides the Reformation, Watt teaches courses on the history of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, women and the family, and witchcraft. In 2019, he received the College of Liberal Arts’ Award for Achievement in Research and Scholarship in the Humanities; in 2007, he won the Mississippi Humanities Council’s Teacher of the Year; and in 1991, he received the College of Liberal Arts’ Cora Lee Graham Award for the Outstanding Teaching of First-Year Students.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Watt embodies what we in the College of Liberal Arts have determined to merit this award,” said Lee Cohen, UM liberal arts dean. “He is considered to be one of the top early modern historians currently working in the field worldwide.”