Center for the Study of Southern Culture Gets New Director

UM English and Southern studies professor Kathryn McKee takes over as director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture on July 1. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

For only the fourth time in the 40-year history of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, a new director will take the helm. Kathryn McKee, McMullan Associate Professor of Southern Studies and associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi, begins her new role July 1.

“I am humbled by this opportunity and excited to get to work,” McKee said. “The center has a rich history of thoughtful leadership and successful programming. I look forward to a future that extends that work and embraces new possibilities.”

The center, founded in the mid-1970s, was the country’s first regional studies center. Its mission is to investigate, document, interpret and teach about the American South through academic inquiry and publications; documentary studies of film, photography and oral history; and public outreach programs.

The cross-disciplinary Southern studies faculty and the center’s undergraduate and graduate degree programs are the core of its work.

Although the job of director will be new for McKee, she has been a part of the center since 1997, in both a teaching capacity and as graduate program coordinator for Southern studies. She arrived at Ole Miss after teaching humanities at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. In 2015, the UM College of Liberal Arts named her Outstanding Teacher of the Year; in 2004, she received the Cora Lee Graham Award for Teaching Freshmen, and in 2001, the university named her Humanities Teacher of the Year.

McKee has done an extraordinary job as graduate coordinator, as she helps provide the freedom and sets high standards for incoming students to excel, also bringing a curiosity about a wide variety of subjects, said Ted Ownby, the center’s outgoing director.

“She is one of the faculty members who helped bring to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture questions of the Global South,” Ownby said. “That perspective encourages faculty and students to rethink Southern studies so that it moves away from dualistic comparisons between the U.S. North and the U.S. South and instead to imagine Southern studies as part of a broader global system of ideas, people and products.

“She has brought that perspective to all of her classes and formalized it into a graduate class, Globalization and the South.” 

She has team-taught effectively with faculty members from history, documentary studies, sociology and anthropology, and she has run conferences and edited work with scholars from many disciplines.

The search process provided an excellent opportunity for faculty, staff and students in every part of the center to talk with McKee one-on-one or in group settings about goals for the center, said Kirsten Dellinger, search committee chair, associate dean for diversity and inclusion, and professor of sociology.

“It was immediately clear that people valued Katie’s collaborative leadership style and her dedication to creating a collective vision through strategic planning,” Dellinger said. “Her colleagues hold her in high regard for her cutting-edge research and leadership in the field of Southern studies.

“It will be very exciting to see Katie, the first woman director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, lead us toward the next phase of the center’s vibrant existence.”

She recently completed “Reading Reconstruction: Sherwood Bonner and the Literature of the Post-Civil War South” (LSU Press, 2019), which looks into the past to gain insight into Sherwood Bonner (1849-83), a Holly Springs native who portrayed the discord and uneasiness of the Reconstruction era in her fiction and nonfiction. The book participates in a renewed attention to the period of Reconstruction in American literary history.

McKee is co-editor, with UM English professor Deborah Barker, of “American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary (University of Georgia Press, 2011), and her articles have appeared in various journals, including American Literature, Legacy, Southern Literary Journal and Mississippi QuarterlyHer areas of scholarly research include 19th-century American literature, the literature and culture of the 19th-century South, writing by women, Global South studies, film studies and humor studies.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in English at Centre College, and her master’s in English and doctorate in American literature from the University of North Carolina.

William Ferris was named the center’s inaugural director in 1978, and under his 20-year tenure, the university became internationally recognized as a leader in the examination and study of the South. Charles Reagan Wilson became center director in 1998, when President Bill Clinton appointed Ferris as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ted Ownby, a member in the UM Southern studies and history departments since 1988, became the center’s third director in 2008. Ownby is stepping down to teach in his capacity as the William F. Winter Professor of History.

By Rebecca Lauck Cleary

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