A Literary Mind: Jacob Fennell flourishes as a scholar in earning Southern Studies master’s degree

This story is part of the 2024 Journey to Commencement series, which celebrates the pinnacle of the academic year by highlighting University of Mississippi students and their outstanding academic and personal journeys from college student to college graduate.

Jacob Fennell came to the Southern Studies master’s program at the University of Mississippi with an interest in literary studies, and during his two years here, he has flourished into a real scholar.

Fennell, from Gulfport, earned a public policy leadership degree from the university in 2022. Toward the end of his senior year, graduate school popped up on his radar because he developed curiosity about academia.

“I wanted to give myself the opportunity to explore that interest in a real, rigorous way,” Fennell said. “Given the interdisciplinary study that the Center for the Study of Southern Culture promotes and fosters, I knew that it would be an excellent place for me to learn and grow while maintaining my existing roots in Oxford.”

At first, Fennell wasn’t quite sure what direction his studies would take him. However, in a special graduate seminar class co-taught by Katie McKee and adjunct professor Marc Aidinoff, he learned about the concept of New Southern Studies, a field placing Southern texts and cultures in a larger geopolitical context.

That class was a comprehensive course focusing on different ways of studying and understanding the South. It’s where he formulated the core ideas of his thesis “Mississippi’s America: Late Southern Writing on National Themes,” in which he focused on three contemporary Mississippi authors: Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward and Mary Miller.

“From there, I knew I wanted to examine their literary constructions of the South as a critical political frame for the United States as a whole,” Fennell said. “The process of writing my thesis first required rigorous reading and notetaking for both those primary texts and a wide range of theory and applied study of Southern literature.”

He credits McKee, his thesis adviser and director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, for being an involved and encouraging mentor throughout every step of the process.

“Beginning last summer, Jacob and I met regularly to discuss what he was reading, and it was one of the most enjoyable book clubs I’ve ever been a part of,” McKee said. “Jacob is an insatiable learner.

“If you suggest he read a chapter in a book, he’ll read the whole book; if you ask him to reconsider a paragraph, he’ll rewrite the page to make it fit. I always looked forward to our conversations.”

Fennell also held two different assistantships, both of which were enriching experiences. For his first year, he worked with Greg Johnson and his staff at the Department of Archives and Special Collections in the J.D. Williams Library.

“By helping with the organization of archival materials and working directly with researchers, I gained invaluable knowledge and experience on the function of archives within a university,” Fennell said.

The following year, he served as a teaching assistant in the fall for Adam Gussow, professor of English and Southern Studies, and in the spring, Andy Donnelly, visiting assistant professor in English and Southern Studies.

“Doing so has provided me with a greater understanding and appreciation for all that goes into teaching a successful course,” he said. “Both of the professors I worked with have also been beyond supportive of me and my future endeavors.”

That includes entering the doctoral program in English at Ole Miss this fall.

“Taking my lessons from the center with me, I will continue to study Southern literature and its greater challenges and implications for our world,” he said.

Being a part of the community at the center was important to Fennell during his time here, and one he already looks back on fondly.

“I am a firm believer that education is a rare thing to regret,” Fennell said. “If you have any desire to work in higher education in any capacity or simply want to allow yourself the opportunity to engage in critical study, you should absolutely consider pursuing your M.A.

“Often, I will come into Barnard Observatory with the intention to get work done, only to end up in a series of long conversations with any number of friendly faces. Even if it meant needing to catch up later, I never really lamented those days and I will surely miss them.”

Luckily, he can make the short trek from Bondurant Hall to Barnard Observatory and visit anytime.

Written by Rebecca Lauck Cleary