Article by Edwin B. Smith
A University of Mississippi English instructor described by colleagues as a “shining example” among educators has been selected as the 2023 Mississippi Humanities Council Teacher of the Year. She will deliver a special lecture as part of her honor.
Beth Spencer, senior lecturer in English, said she is appreciative of the award because it was so unexpected.
“I’m honored to be included with a list of winners whom I truly admire and some of whom have provided mentorship to me through the years,” Spencer said. “Teaching and working with students is my passion and so it’s gratifying to receive recognition for doing what I love.”
“Also, I am grateful to my department chair, Caroline Wigginton, and to my colleagues in the Department of English, particularly Adam Gussow and Tom Franklin, who wrote letters in support of my nomination process.”
The award recognizes outstanding contributions of humanities faculty during October, which is National Arts and Humanities Month, and at the council’s annual awards ceremony in the spring.
As part of the honor, Spencer will deliver a lecture on the influence of early 20th century cartographer Harold Fisk and how his 1944 meander maps of the Mississippi River can serve as a metaphor for people’s roles as mentors and teachers.
The lecture, titled “The Mentor as Cartographer: Seeing Harold Fisk’s Meander Maps as Metaphor,” is slated for 6 p.m. Feb. 20 in Barnard Observatory on campus. The free public event is co-sponsored by the UM College of Liberal Arts and the Mississippi Humanities Council.
“Fisk’s maps, which have long been a source of fascination for me, are visually captivating and provide a unique geological rendering of the ancient courses of the Lower Mississippi River,” Spencer said. “They are also hand-drawn works of art that invite meditation not only on the history of the river but also the nature of the human spirit and its relationship to that river.”
Spencer said creativity and curiosity about the world are closely linked to her satisfaction as a teacher, writer and mentor.
“These values are also important for our students’ lives and their ability to find meaning and satisfaction in their careers,” she said. “I hope that by sharing a bit of my journey, I will be able to broaden our shared sense of passion for pursuing our curiosity in all fields.”
Spencer credits one mentor in particular who influenced her decision to become an educator.
“Astrid Daly, my biology teacher in high school, lit a fire in me for sharing knowledge and exploring the world that would become my vocation later in life,” she said. “She embodied passionate, engaged and caring teaching that provides a model for me to this day.
“For me, Fisk’s maps combine artistic creativity and environmental curiosity in a unique way to carry on the vision of my most influential teacher.”
A member of the Ole Miss faculty since 2009, Spencer teaches courses in literature and creative writing and takes undergraduate students to the U.K. each spring for a fantasy fiction class.
Her honors include an artist fellowship from the Hambidge Center for the Arts and Sciences, Outstanding Teacher of Writing Award nominee at Columbus State University, the Creswell Hall Recognition for Excellence in Teaching at the University of Georgia and a nomination for the Pushcart Prize in Poetry.
“Beth Spencer is a shining example of what makes an exceptional university instructor,” said Caroline Wigginton, UM chair and professor of English. “Excellence is the common thread in her teaching, scholarship and research. She is most definitely a favorite among our students and respected by her colleagues in the English department.”