Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again, but perhaps it is possible to return to a college campus after a few years away.
New University of Mississippi faculty members Andrew Donnelly and Ryan Parsons aren’t returning home, per se, but they are back in a familiar place. They both studied or researched at the university.
“We’re always excited for the return of students in the fall,” said Katie McKee, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. “This year, our excitement is doubled by the prospect of welcoming two new professors.
“We do a lot of learning from each other in an interdisciplinary program like Southern studies, and we’re eager for the fresh ideas and new insights that Andy and Ryan will bring.”
Donnelly is a cultural and literary historian of the 19th-century United States, and his work examines the history of sexuality within the literature and culture of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
He first came to the Mississippi Delta in 2010 as an English teacher through Teach for America, working for three years in Lake Village, Arkansas. Donnelly spent part of every summer for the next 10 years teaching and working in Mississippi.
In 2015, he began working with the Freedom Project Networkyouth empowerment and liberatory education organizations in Sunflower, Meridian and Rosedale. He helped start a new initiative, Freedom Summer Collegiate, which brings doctoral students from around the country to teach college-bridge summer courses to high school students.
He was a visiting fellow at UM in 2018 as he researched and wrote his dissertation, which he is turning into a book, “Confederate Sympathies: The Civil War, Reunion, and the History of Homosexuality, 1850-1915.”
“While a New Englander, I have deep roots now, through working and teaching, in Mississippi,” Donnelly said. “One part of my own research focuses on the long literary tradition of New Englanders trying to make sense of the U.S. South, a tradition which, as is often the case with our research, I awkwardly join.
“Additionally, Mississippi was where I first learned how to be a teacher. Every time I’ve taught or learned here, I’ve been pushed – by fantastic colleagues and tremendous students – to develop as a teacher, to think and write more clearly, and to act more thoughtfully because of the regions’ legacy of activism and the stakes of inaction.”
Donnelly, who earned his undergraduate degree in English and history from Boston College and his doctorate in English from Harvard University, was a postdoctoral fellow in the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program, serving as education programs manager for the National Book Foundation. His work has been supported by research fellowships from the Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts Historical Society, Center for Mark Twain Studies and the Library Company of Philadelphia.
Caroline Wigginton, chair and associate professor of English, said Donnelly impressed the hiring committee in every possible way.
“He is a brilliant scholar and teacher of U.S. Southern literatures and cultures who has been growing roots in Mississippi for around decade through his work with the region’s Freedom Projects,” Wigginton said.
Donnelly is excited about working with students and colleagues because of the Southern studies program’s interdisciplinary nature.
“No matter the specific texts or tools we’re using, everyone is grappling with a set of questions about the U.S. South, its history and its present,” he said. “My own work is interdisciplinary – I primarily use the tools of literary studies, and often literary texts, to understand that history and how that history shapes life today.
“I share with many of my Southern Studies colleagues the opinion that literary texts are a unique and invaluable archive for understanding the history of what people thought, believed and experienced, and that the tools developed in literary studies are useful far beyond books and poems.”
Besides looking forward to the joys of teaching at UM, Donnelly is looking forward to the very practical matter of a good meal.
“Oxford has been a warm, welcoming community at UM,” he said. “And the food is also better than in New England.”
Parsons earned his bachelor’s degrees in international studies and Chinese from the UM Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and a master’s degree in development studies from the University of Cambridge. In May 2022, he completed his doctorate in the joint degree program in sociology and social policy from Princeton University.
His research is motivated by experience working in China and the Mississippi Delta region. For his dissertation, he studied the structure of community life, race relations and reactions to economic change in a rural Mississippi town.
Before studying at Princeton, Parsons worked as an AmeriCorps VISTA and then as a project manager in 2012-15 with the UM McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, which works to support a culture of engagement between the university and off-campus partners and communities.
While there, he got to know some of the graduate students at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and the kind of energy they bring to campus.
“My own work focuses on the experiences of Mississippi communities, particularly those facing social and economic disadvantage,” he said. “I’ve always been committed to community engagement in my work and I hope to get students involved with community work around Mississippi.”
Jeff Jackson, chair and professor of sociology, said he is excited to have Parsons join the faculty because he combines the community studies tradition in sociology with an empirical focus on the South in a way that should attract students to the program.
“Dr. Parsons’ research focuses on ‘understanding the distressing lack of upward mobility options for students and families in persistently poor, predominantly Black parts of the country,’” Jackson said. “Not only does he bring a stellar academic set of credentials with him to this position, but he is also deeply connected to Mississippi and has worked closely with communities in the Mississippi Delta, where he has focused his work.
“Anyone interested in solving the most pressing problems of race, place and poverty that face us here and throughout the nation will be sure to sign up for his classes and join his collaborative public-facing community engaged projects.”
For a course on race, place and space, he plans to explore how “race” and “space” come to define each other in the United States.
“One theme I’m excited about doing with this class is building in an ethnography lab,” he said. “Each week students will conduct observations of some space on campus, and over the course of the semester they’ll work on an analysis of how race, place and space are operating here at UM.”
Parsons is also writing a book about Sunflower County that draws on his dissertation field work and enjoys spending time with his dog, Sharkey.
Written by Rebecca Lauck Cleary. A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of the Southern Register.