University of Mississippi

Prison-to-College Pipeline Program Helps Participants Build Futures

UM-Mississippi College partnership supports pursuit of college education at correctional facilities

Co-directors Otis Pickett (back row, left) and Patrick Alexander (back row, right) with 16 graduates of the summer 2016 Prison-to-College Pipeline course at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Submitted photo/Mississippi Department of Corrections

OXFORD, Miss. – A partnership between the University of Mississippi and Mississippi College is promoting higher education in prison and helping incarcerated men and women transform their lives as they earn credits toward a college education.

The Prison-to-College Pipeline Programbegan in summer 2014 with 17 students at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Since then, 61 men have completed a PTCPP course at the facility. Twenty of those have earned English credits from Ole Miss and several have received history credits from Mississippi College.

“Working with men who have been participants in and graduates of the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program has been one of the greatest joys of my life,” said Patrick Alexander, UM assistant professor of English and African American studies. “To have the opportunity to play a small role in encouraging and advancing the very large educational goals, intellectual curiosities, and college and post-college dreams of men of all ages who are serving time at Parchman in particular has been an unprecedented honor.”

Alexander, who has taught African-American literature courses in prison systems in North Carolina and Mississippi for the past decade, partnered with Otis Pickett, Mississippi College assistant professor of history, to create the program. Pickett said it has been the singular greatest experience of his career.

“To have the opportunity to address a social justice issue through my profession and as part of my teaching role is a unique opportunity and one that I am incredibly proud of,” he said. “I thought I was coming to teach these students, but they are the ones teaching me.”

Last summer, the program expanded to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility for women in Pearl. Pickett and Stephanie Rolph, associate professor of history at Millsaps College, team-taught a course there on “Turning Oppression into Opportunity.”

Eighteen students completed that for-credit college course, which was likely the first one taught at a women’s prison by Mississippi university faculty members.

Co-teachers Otis Pickett (back row, left) and Stephanie Rolph (back row, second from right) with the 18 graduates of the summer 2016 Prison-to-College Pipeline course at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Submitted photo/Mississippi Department of Corrections.

“The most valuable part of this experience for me has been the enthusiasm with which these women participate,” Rolph said. “You don’t have to explain to them why history matters; they already know. As an instructor, that is one of the most satisfying experiences I can hope for.”

In fall 2016, the PTCPP offered its first-ever course during the regular academic calendar at Parchman. The course, titled “Freedom: Literature and Creative Writing,” was team-taught by Alexander and Ann Fisher-Wirth, UM professor of English and director of the environmental studies minor who won the 2014 Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher Award.

“I have been very moved by my experience teaching in the PTCP program and I am so proud of the students in this class, many of whom had not really studied poetry before, but all of whom approached it with interest and curiosity,” she said.

Each of Fisher-Wirth’s 11 PTCPP students had an original poem or prose work included in the Parchman Portfolio, which she edited for the online journal About Place.

“Their work has been read by thousands of people,” she said. “In my 40 years of college-level teaching, I’ve never had a teaching experience that meant more to me.”

Comments from anonymous students about the program have been equally positive.

“I took the first course with Dr. Alexander and Dr. Pickett, which was an awesome experience, and this course (with Alexander/Fisher-Wirth) was awesome as well. The professors actually care about teaching us.”

Another student reported that the course “exceeded my expectations because I gained enormous skills that were hidden deep within me.”

“Your time and dedication to the service of men, who many people feel aren’t deserving of this level of education, shows that there are genuinely good people still in this world,” another student said. “The lessons I’ve learned are invaluable.

“When I become a published author, I will be certain to put the names of Dr. Fisher-Wirth and Dr. Alexander at the top of my acknowledgement page.”

Since the program’s inception, Alexander and Pickett have continued to teach their inaugural course, titled “Justice Everywhere.” Its original content, which focused on speeches and/or writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer and Barack Obama, has expanded to include Ida B. Wells and Maya Angelou.

“I am so thankful for the support of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Mississippi, to Mississippi College and to the Mississippi Humanities Council for funding this work,” Pickett said. “I am also thankful for Parchman and Central Mississippi Correctional, who have allowed us to come in, offer courses and to teach students.

“My greatest thanks go to the students, whose hard work in the most difficult of conditions proves what the human spirit is capable of.”

Sarah Baechle

Sarah Baechle specializes in Middle English language and literature and history of the medieval book. Her research interests include Chaucer, particularly manuscript traditions of his work within the larger cultural nexus of late fourteenth-century English-French interaction; Latin marginalia in copies of vernacular poetry; and medieval poets’ figurative strategies for representing emotion. She is currently working on a book project, Makeres in Their Margins: Latin Glossing in Chaucer’s Cross-Channel Literary Milieu, which explores the function of Latin marginalia in manuscripts of Chaucer’s poetry and their role in shaping medieval practices of literary criticism in the fourteenth century. She also is co-editing theessay collection Subjects of Violence: Women, Consent, and Resistance in the Late Middle Ages, and coedited New Directions in Medieval Manuscript Studies and Reading Practices: Essays in Honor of Derek Pearsall (U. Notre Dame Press, 2014) with Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and John Thompson.  



Ph.D., University of Notre Dame, 2015

M.A., University of New Mexico, 2007; University of Notre Dame, 2011

B.A., University of New Mexico, 2004


Teaching and Research Interests:

Middle English and Old and Middle French languages and literatures

Medieval manuscript and print culture

Cognition and literature

Medieval authorship theories and literary criticism

Gender and sexuality in the Middle Ages


Bondurant Hall W212

English Professor Wins Pushcart Prize for Best Essay

Chris Offutt also won Kentucky Literary Award for nonfiction this year

Chris Offutt. Photo by Sandra Dyas

OXFORD, Miss. – Even for someone who is already a respected, prize-winning author and screenwriter, winning the prestigious Pushcart Prize is a rewarding experience.

“The Pushcart Prize is a personal milestone,” said Chris Offutt, associate professor of English and screenwriting at the University of Mississippi. Offutt won the top annual literary honor for his essay “Trash Food,” originally published in Oxford American magazine.

“When I first started writing seriously, I read several volumes of the Pushcart Prize anthology in a public library,” he said. “It seemed far-fetched to imagine that one day I’d write something that would be in there. I’m still surprised that my commitment to writing has worked out.”

The Pushcart Prize is an American literary prize that honors the best “poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot” published in the small presses over the previous year. Awarded annually since 1976, the prize is considered one of the most prestigious in its field.

Magazine and small press editors are invited to submit up to six works for consideration. Pushcart Press publishes annual anthologies of the winners. 

Offutt wrote the essay at the request of John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is part of the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. The essay is about race and class in the South – an issue of great importance to Offutt – and how it plays out in the food people eat.

“The award meant that I’d gotten my points across well,” he said. “It also meant more people would read it. According to the editor at Oxford American, the essay went viral online.”

Ivo Kamps, UM chair and professor of English, praised Offutt’s latest achievement.

“We’re very happy, though not surprised, that Chris Offutt has been chosen for the honor,” Kamps said. “Mr. Offutt is an accomplished and prolific writer, and winning a Pushcart Prize on the heels of the 2017 Kentucky Literary Award for a memoir about his father further underscores the power and far-reaching impact of his prose.

“For the last six years, he has been an enormous asset to our English department. It’s truly wonderful that our aspiring young writers can study with someone of his caliber and dedication.”

Offutt worked on the HBO drama “True Blood” and the Showtime series “Weeds.” His books include “Kentucky Straight,” “The Same River Twice,” “The Good Brother,” “Out of the Woods” and “No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home.”

His work has appeared in such anthologies as “The Best American Essays” and “The Best American Short Stories.”

“I’d like to express my deep appreciation to Ivo Kamps and to all my colleagues in literature and creative writing,” Offutt said. “I have found a home here – physically and intellectually. My experience of teaching here for the past six years has been terrific in every way.”

UM Liberal Arts Graduate Programs Jump in Rankings: English, History and Political Science doctoral programs named among nation’s best

OXFORD, Miss. – On the heels of achieving the university’s highest-ever standing in the 2017 U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of Best (Undergraduate) Colleges and Universities, the publication’s most recent graduate academic program rankings confirm the university’s commitment to academic excellence.

Doctoral programs in English, history and political science all made significant strides in the 2018 graduate program rankings, indication of the growing strength and upward trend for UM’s graduate programs in social sciences and humanities.

The U.S. News & World Report graduate rankings for the three programs were last updated in 2013.

“We are proud of the faculty who have worked hard to distinguish our graduate programs, and these new rankings clearly indicate that they are gaining recognition for their efforts,” said Noel Wilkin, UM interim provost and executive vice chancellor. “We have encouraged each of our programs to pursue excellence and I am pleased that this pursuit is bringing recognition to our faculty, our university and our state.”

The English doctoral program demonstrated the biggest jump as it improved 16 spots, where it tied for No. 40 in the nation among public universities with fellow Southeastern Conference institutions the universities of Florida and Missouri.

A Ph.D. in history from the university has never been more valued, as the graduate program cracked the Top 40 for the first time. UM tied for No. 37 in the category – up nine spots from 2013 – and shares the position with fellow SEC and Carnegie R1 research universities Texas A&M and Kentucky.

The political science graduate program entered the rankings for the first time and tied for No. 58 among public institutions.

Lee Cohen, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, says the rankings are a testament to the university’s strong faculty, staff and students.

“These rankings demonstrate what we have believed for some time: that we have strong, competitive doctoral programs on our campus that are well-respected at the national level,” Cohen said. “Of course, without the hard work of our faculty, staff and students, and the support of university administration, none of this would be attainable.”

The rankings are based on data collected last fall via surveys sent to administrators or faculty members at schools that granted five or more doctorates in each discipline from 2011 to 2015.

“Graduate education is increasingly important and valued in today’s competitive global marketplace,” Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said. “A UM graduate degree marks someone as a leader who will exceed employer expectations and be a real-world change maker.

“In order to continue the rise of our graduate programs, we are committed to enhancing our R1 standing as well as faculty excellence, research and scholarship.”

English Major, Olivia Davis, who was recently awarded a Fulbright ETA in Greece!  See the full article here.

Olivia Davis Wins Fulbright ETA to Greece

SMBHC senior Olivia Davis has been awarded a 2017 Fulbright US Student Program English Teaching Assistantship to Greece.

Olivia was born in Montgomery, Alabama, but grew up in different cities and states throughout the south and went to high school in Jackson, Mississippi. She will graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree in English, with minors in chemistry, music, and classics, with an emphasis in ancient Greek. She hopes to study Byzantine chanting and Christian hymnody in the Greek Orthodox Church as a side research project while she teaches English as a second language. Her senior thesis advisor is Dr. Daniel Stout.

Olivia’s Fulbright Campus Committee wrote: Olivia is an experienced piano teacher, musician, artist, and writer. She has worked with beginning and intermediate students. She has researched Byzantine liturgical music and postmodern literature. She has excellent communication skills and is mature and respectful in her interactions with others. She is highly organized and able to work on complex tasks independently.  Olivia is an excellent writer and public speaker. She is a patient teacher, a good listener, and has an eclectic and interesting set of interests in art, literature, music and philosophy. One of the most intelligent candidates we’ve interviewed.

Congratulations, Olivia!


For more information on the Fulbright ETA or other major scholarships, please visit the Office of National Scholarship Advisement, or contact ONSA Director Tim Dolan.

MFA Program ranked sixth for Aspiring Writers

Top 10 Universities for Aspiring Writers

Fennelly Named Mississippi Poet Laureate

Acclaimed author will spend four years working to promote poetry in schools, creating works for state


Gov. Phil Bryant has named noted poet and UM educator Beth Ann Fennelly as Mississippi’s poet laureate. Photo by Mike Stanton

Gov. Phil Bryant has named noted poet and UM educator Beth Ann Fennelly as Mississippi’s poet laureate. Photo by Mike Stanton

Governor Phil Bryant has named noted poet and University of Mississippi educator Beth Ann Fennelly as Mississippi’s poet laureate. The prize-winning author will spend the next four years as the official state poet while working to make poetry more accessible to Mississippians.

Fennelly, professor of English, is director of the UM Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, and she teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at the university. She will leave her position as director, which she’s held for six years, to fulfill her new duties.

She said she’s honored to be selected to replace Natasha Trethewey, whom she admires, as poet laureate.

“Southerners in general and Mississippians in particular are known to have produced many of our nation’s greatest writers,” Fennelly said. “It will give me joy to help promote literary arts throughout the state and encourage future generations of Mississippi storytellers and writers.”

Her new duties include creating and reading poetry during state occasions and participating in school and community events that promote appreciation of poetry. The distinction of Mississippi poet laureate dates to 1963. Fennelly said she has major aspirations for her new role.

“I look forward to continuing and deepening my work with the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Out Loud Initiative in Mississippi, the fabulous Mississippi Book Festival, and the schools, libraries and organizations that grow and nurture talent from our rich Mississippi soil,” she said.

The governor said he is pleased Fennelly will continue Mississippi’s rich literary tradition.

“Mississippi’s reputation for the written word is unmatched the world over, and Beth Ann will strengthen that reputation,” Bryant said. “I am pleased to appoint her poet laureate.”

W. W. Norton published Fennelly’s second and third collections of poetry, “Tender Hooks” (2004) and “Unmentionables” (2008), as well as her book of nonfiction, “Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother” (2006). In 2013, HarperCollins published “The Tilted World,” a novel that Fennelly co-wrote with her husband, author and associate professor of English, Tom Franklin. It was named an IndieNext Great Read, became a finalist for the 2014 SIBA Book Award and has been published in six foreign editions.

Her sixth book, “Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs,” will be published by W. W. Norton in fall 2017.

Fennelly’s poem “The Kudzu Chronicles,” from “Unmentionables,” is grounded in her experience in Mississippi and references William Faulkner, the Neshoba County Fair and her home in Oxford. Its closing stanzas were used as lyrics for Jackson musician Claire Holley’s song “Kudzu.”

In 2011 she was named UM Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year. Her first collection of poetry, “Open House,” was a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick and won a Kenyon Review Prize, a Zoo Press Poetry Prize and a Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award.

Born in New Jersey and reared in the Chicago area, Fennelly has written and taught around the United States and world before settling in Mississippi in 2001. She received a bachelor’s degree, graduating magna cum laude, from the University of Notre Dame, then taught English for a year in a coal mining village on the Czech-Polish border.

She returned to the United States to earn her M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas. She then completed a Diane Middlebrook Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin and went on to teach at Knox College in Illinois. She has completed residencies at the University of Arizona and MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, fellowships at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and Sewanee, and a 2009 Fulbright grant studying poetry in Brazil.

Fennelly has received a number of national awards, including a 2001 Pushcart Prize and a 2002 National Endowment of the Arts grant in poetry. She received a United States Artist Grant in 2006 and the Subiaco Award for Literary Merit in 2012.

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.

The poet laureate title has been a time-honored way of drawing attention to the importance of poetry in national discourse, said Ivo Kamps, chair and professor of English. The title dates back to 1616, when King James I of England gave poet and playwright Ben Jonson a pension, with the expectation he would write occasional verses to commemorate the country’s major events.

“It is an incredible honor for Beth Ann Fennelly and for the University of Mississippi that she is called to join in this tradition,” Kamps said. “I can’t think of a better person in the role than Beth Ann because she has written lyrically, lovingly, but also poignantly about the state of Mississippi.

“Her verse confronts readers with poetry’s best attributes: a clear understanding of proportion and form, captivating rhythms, striking imagery and startling insights.”

Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, said he’s also thrilled with the selection.

“Beth Ann’s accomplishments in literature are too numerous to mention,” White said. “We are thrilled that she has chosen to make her home in Mississippi and contribute to arts and education in our state. She is an excellent choice for Mississippi’s poet laureate.”

UM’s very own Beth Ann Fennelly chosen as new poet laureate for Mississippi

Photo by Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

Photo by Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

Three volumes of poems, two books of essays, and a book co-authored with her husband has led to Beth Ann Fennelly being named Mississippi’s Poet Laureate.

Fennelly’s selection was announced Wednesday by Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, at the Rotunda of the Capitol Building.  She was chosen from among three finalists submitted to Gov. Phil Bryant by the state poet laureate selection committee.

Although Fennelly submitted an application to be considered for the post, she says her only reaction was to giggle when she found out she had been chosen.

“I’m really tickled, I’m so happy. Even though I knew I was nominated and knew that my application had been progressing through the system, somehow I just didn’t imagine it would happen,” said Fennelly.

A Chicago native, Fennelly, a University of Mississippi associate professor directing the master of fine arts program in the English Department, says it’s an honor to be recognized by a place she loves:

“To leave the place where you are from, and to find a new place, and to think this is my spiritual home. I want to die here, this is where I want to raise my kids, this is where I want to educate my children, this is where I want to live and make my friends. And for that place to claim me as I have claimed it has been a profound experience.”

Being in the South, she says is a great place to be a writer, especially in Mississippi. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and her master of fine arts degree from the University of Arkansas.

“I feel like Oxford specifically, and in Mississippi in general, reading still matters. It’s still a place where the stories we tell about each others lives influence our lives,” Fennelly said.

Fennelly says she thought she began to think about being a poetess in college, but that turned out not to be the case. At a reading, a person in the audience asked her when she knew she wanted to be a poet.

“I told them the story about being in a great college creative writing class,” Fennely recalled, “and my mom was in the audience, and she raised her hand. And she said, ‘that’s not true Beth Ann, I have a letter you wrote when you were seven saying you wanted to be a poet, p-o-i-t.’”

Now that Fennelly is Mississippi’s poet laureate for the next four years, she hopes to spread the enjoyment she gets from poetry to other people in the state.

“That’s always been my lifelong mission,” said Fennelly.

She thinks Mississippi is a perfect place to do so with its storied traditions in oral history, literature and music.

“I want to remind Mississippi that poetry can be there in such a rich way, and if I can help spread that message I’ll be very content,” said Fennelly.

She really wants to focus on exposing children to poetry

“I feel like poetry is pleasurable, and children understand because they nonsense rhymes, and they clap, and they like Dr. Suess,” said Fennelly.

She believes that a disconnect for students comes through the way poetry is taught in schools.

“I hate to say it,” said Fennelly.

Some students, she says, are taught that poetry must have a rigid structure.

“You can’t approach poetry with the heart or the ear; you have to approach it purely with intellect and knowledge. I think you start with the heart; I think you start with the ear,” said Fennelly.

She notes that people who don’t live in Mississippi like to harp on the state’s negatives while ignoring its rich literary history.

“I want to say, you know what? Most Pulitzer Prize winning authors, best book store in the South, how about we talk about that?” asked Fennelly.

Fennelly was named in 2011 as Outstanding Teacher of the Year at Ole Miss. Among her publications are three full-length poetry books — Open House, Tender Hooks andUnmentionables — and a book of nonfiction (Great with Child). With her husband, Tom Franklin, she co-authored the 2013 novel The Tilted World.

See Professor Fennelly’s interview here.

Jennie Lightweis-Goff

Jennie Lightweis-Goff earned a Ph.D. in English and Graduate Certificates in both Gender Studies and Africana Studies from the University of Rochester. Her dissertation, Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus, won the SUNY Press Dissertation / First Book Prize in African-American Studies, and was published by SUNY Press in 2011. Her current project, Temporary Housing: Slavery in the American City, examines the conthumbnail_IMG_0711strained literary archive of urban slavery in the South and beyond. Articles from this project have appeared in American Literature and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 
Presently, she is at work on a critical edition of Abraham Oakey Hall’s
 The Manhattaner in New Orleans (1851), a bald piece of economic propaganda encouraging Northern investment in Louisiana sugar slavery written by a one-time mayor of New York City. She has an essay on the status of the 19th century in the “New Southern Studies” forthcoming from Mississippi Quarterly, and an essay on The Wire and Treme (David Simon’s two distinctly Southern shows produced for HBO) forthcoming in Small-Screen Souths: Interrogating the Televisual Archive(LSU Press). On the way to completing a book on captive cities in the 19th century, she has begun writing a series of meditations on modern and contemporary representations of the urban South (including John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind) called Peculiar and Characteristic: Reflections on the Southern Cityscape.