CULLOWHEE – A Western Carolina University faculty member who regularly wins praise from students and colleagues for the knowledge and passion that illuminates her teaching has been named one of the best teachers in The University of North Carolina system.
Mimi Fenton, associate professor in Western’s English department, is among 16 recipients of the UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching. The award will be presented at a recognition luncheon May 14 in Chapel Hill. Winners receive a commemorative bronze medallion and $7,500 cash prize.
Fenton’s teaching at Western ranges from introductory courses for freshmen to Renaissance and 17 th-century British literature for seniors and graduate students. Colleagues in the English department have noted, “At all levels, students overwhelmingly appreciate the knowledge, passion and compassion of her teaching. Dr. Fenton manages that most difficult balance: Her courses are demanding and enjoyable. Dr. Mimi Fenton is a perfect example of how scholarship and teaching will merge to create a wonderful experience for the student.”
Concerning her teaching philosophy, Fenton said, “I sometimes wrongly have assumed that students embrace intellectual growth with the same vigor that I do, but I try not to get discouraged if students do not value the literature, ideas and history that I love, and instead I have come to accept that sometimes it is only the force of my own enthusiasm that will get them wanting to read, learn and study. I also have grown to understand that part of my purpose is to lead students not just through the treasures of literature, but to their own desire to learn, to respect knowledge, to respect themselves as thinkers and scholars.”
“I want my students to experience the worth of literature because then they will perhaps take themselves more seriously, and they will continue to read, grow, learn and change long after they have left my class – hopefully, throughout their lives in whatever marketplace they enter,” Fenton said.
Lively lectures and class discussions are the mainstays of Fenton’s classroom, and she constantly seeks new ways to make literature relevant for students beyond the classroom. Students in her Renaissance literature classes learn about the role of the printing press in early modern culture by collaboratively producing a book, and they also organize an authentic Renaissance banquet. Students in Fenton’s senior- and graduate-level classes on English writer John Milton write and deliver “prolusions,” formal oratorical performances modeled on those done by Milton at Cambridge University in the 1620s. The students wear Fenton’s doctoral gown when they perform.
Freshmen in Fenton’s seminars on “The Age of Discovery” read and study early modern and contemporary literature about discovery and place, and simultaneously discover Western North Carolina by exploring Western’s campus, the town of Sylva and local natural resources through hiking, whitewater rafting and picnicking. This year, the students carried out a group service project by helping a local nonprofit organization construct houses.
“My students also often work with international students to discover different family cultures and customs while they work on their own family heritage project. In all of the projects and assignments I design, scholarship is at the basis, in the process, and revealed in the products of learning,” Fenton said.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Fenton traveled to Africa as an exchange student at the age of 16, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Wyoming when she was 20. She earned her master’s degree in English literature at Wyoming in 1982, and went on to obtain her doctoral degree at the University of Kentucky in 1990, specializing in Renaissance literature and John Milton. A nationally recognized scholar on Milton ‘s work, Fenton is nearing completion on a book, “Milton and Places of Hope.”
Fenton received Western’s highest teaching honor, the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, in 2003, and she won the College of Arts and Sciences Teaching Award in 1996 and 2003. She lives in Whittier with her daughters, Ellie and Grace, and her husband, Tony Hickey, professor in Western’s department of anthropology and sociology.
The Board of Governors Awards for Excellence is Teaching are given annually to one tenured faculty member from each UNC institution. Recipients are nominated by committees on their home campuses and selected by the Board of Governors committee on personnel and tenure.