Teaching is one of the main ways Southern Studies alumni use their degrees. Perhaps a quarter— perhaps even a third—of all Southern Studies alumni have gone into education, some in teaching, some in administration. Growing numbers have college and university teaching positions, and four Southern Studies MA students in the past two years took classes taught by SST alumni. Many teach in high schools and middle schools. Some just teach occasionally. For example, this summer Amy Evans Streeter (MA 2003) taught a workshop for graduate students interested in foodways oral history techniques, Cathryn Stout (MA 2011) taught writing to middle school students in a summer program in Connecticut, and Sudye Cauthen (MA 1993) teaches workshops on oral history and memoir. Bert Way (MA 1999) has a new job teaching History at Kennesaw State University and a new University of Georgia Press book, Conserving Southern Longleaf, and Nattoria Kennell Foster (MA 2011) will be teaching high school English in Marks, Mississippi.
For this article, I asked three questions of a few of our teaching alumni: what subjects and at what level do they teach, and how—if at all—does their Southern Studies degree affect their teaching? Many teach classes in Southern Studies or in closely related fields. Sarah Alford Ballard (MA 2003), who after starting her career in the Mississippi Teachers Corp now teaches English at Murrah High School in Jackson, incorporates Southern literature into her World Literature and American Literature classes. Molly McGehee (MA 2000) teaches Southern Studies courses in her position in the English Department at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. Along with courses in U.S. History and Government, Chuck Yarbrough (MA 1995) teaches an interdisciplinary Mississippi Crossroads course at the Mississippi School of Math and Science in Columbus.
Amy Clukey (BA 2003) has a new assistant professor position in English at the University of Louisville. Influenced especially by the New Southern Studies, she writes, “This fall I’ll be teaching a graduate course called ‘The Transatlantic Literature of Slavery.’ We’ll be discussing antebellum proslavery tracts and postbellum fiction by Thomas Nelson Page, Thomas Dixon, and William Faulkner alongside 19th- and 20th-century Caribbean, British, and French literature. My teaching typically has this sort of transnational reach, but remains firmly anchored in the regional. In other words, my courses ask global questions but examine these questions through the lens of the local—an approach that I first learned as a Southern Studies major.”
Scott Small (MA 1999) has taught several classes that involve Southern Studies themes at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School. He mentions a class in Race and Sports in Modern American History as showing the influence of his classes in Southern Studies and particularly his
work with Chuck Ross in History and African American Studies. Of the classes he has taught at the University of Florida, Virginia Wesleyan, and Andrew College, Jay Langdale (MA 1996) writes, “I taught a history practicum based on Southern history that uses, among other things, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury as a means to better understand how we think historically. This idea first occurred to me in a seminar with Susan Donaldson while she was visiting at Ole Miss.”
Other alums mentioned specific books that either influence their teaching or that work well in their classes. Teaching at the Episcopal School in Knoxville, Chris Renberg (MA 1994) writes that the clearest example of Southern Studies in his classes is that he teaches To Kill a Mockingbird to eighth graders. While teaching composition courses as she works on her Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburg, Elizabeth Oliphant (BA 2006) “assigned a long portion of Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which my students received with enthusiasm and curiosity; hurricanes are considered pretty exotic here in western Pennsylvania, where most of my students grew up. They seemed to respond to Trethewey’s book both as a record of an unfamiliar place and as a homecoming story to which they could relate—and as such it was a pleasure to teach.” Chuck Yarbrough writes, “In each of my classes I encourage students to explore local and regional cultural/historic details in keeping with Ed Ayers’s ‘World History is simply local history writ large.’ (Thanks, Charles Wilson, for assigning Promise of the New South!)”
Many alumni mentioned that interdisciplinary approaches help their students start to interpret the world and their place in it. Ron Nurnberg (MA 1995) serves as executive director of Teach for America in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta. He summarizes that over the past 15 years “I have helped recruit, select, train, and provide ongoing professional development for over 1,000 new teachers in the greater Delta. From our national recruitment materials to our Delta context sessions at induction to the courses and ongoing support that we offer and provide our teachers throughout their commitment in the classroom so that they better understand themselves and their Delta students and communities, Southern Studies is fully embedded and intertwined.”
Molly McGehee writes that as “in the Southern Studies MA program, my courses at Presbyterian College challenge students to think critically about the places and areas they call home and the identities they claim for themselves while also allowing them the opportunity to celebrate the cultural connections between the South, the nation, and the world.” Velsie Pate (MA 2009) teaches classes on American Culture and Speaking and Listening to international students in the University of Mississippi’s Intensive English Program. She writes, “One of the greatest things about teaching students from other countries is being able to see one’s own culture through their eyes. It allows one to see one’s own surroundings from a fresh perspective. The instructor or staff member is the ambassador to the students. We have a responsibility to connect the students to the environment that they are immersed in while acknowledging and respecting the culture that each student brings to the program.”
Some stressed that their teaching methods continue things they found especially appealing in Southern Studies. Buddy Harris (MA 2001) practices what he calls “applied Southern Studies” in his work at North Carolina Central University, where he does research in “things like mobilizing rural churches to prepare for natural disasters” and teaches Introduction to Composition classes.
Sally Monroe Busby (MA 2002), who teaches seventh-grade English classes in Memphis, mentioned the importance of listening, a skill she says she developed in part in David Wharton’s classes. “One salient quality I have as a teacher is the ability to listen. I believe this comes in handy when teaching (and learning from) middle schoolers. They are learning to apply their experiences to the analysis of literature and it helps to listen. I learned how to listen to lives in my Southern Studies classes—especially my documentary classes. In fact, I painted ‘When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground’ on one wall of my old classroom. My students do a documentary project each year where they interview someone in the community and write vignettes of his/her life.” Sarah Alford Ballard wrote, “Pulling heavily from the pedagogy of the Southern Studies Program, I use music, art, photography, history, and even food to help students better understand and ultimately connect to the text.” Using a phrase the faculty would appreciate, Elizabeth Oliphant recalled her favorite classes as having “a certain beyond-thecanon funkiness that I really loved and hope I can recreate in the classes I teach.”