Mitchell Understands the Impact a Teacher Can Make on a Student’s Life
By Katharine Webster
In June, his dedication to teaching and service was recognized with the 2020 Manning Prize for Teaching Excellence, an honor bestowed each year upon one faculty member from each UMass campus. He had previously won the Student Government Outstanding Teaching Award, the English Department Outstanding Teaching Award and the Haskell Memorial Award for Distinguished Online Teaching.
“Teaching and being with the students, that’s my passion,” he says.
That passion began when Mrs. Kirk, Mitchell’s ninth-grade English teacher in Columbus, Ga., started him on the path to becoming a professor of American, African American and Caribbean literature.
Mrs. Kirk saw something special in Mitchell, so she gave him a new book to read each week, including classics like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain and “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte — still among his all-time favorites — to more recent works like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series. And each week, they met one-on-one to talk about them.
That was precious and rare in the working-class, cotton-mill town along the Chattahoochee River.
“She was the first teacher who mentored me and saw that I had some potential beyond what was expected — especially if you were African American. Mostly, when you graduated from high school, you either went into the mills or the military,” says Mitchell, whose father made his career in the Army.
Mitchell went to college at Emory University in Atlanta instead and then to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, where he and a young woman classmate became the first two African American students to earn Ph.D.s in comparative literature. They are still fast friends.
After completing his Ph.D., Mitchell found his first job as an assistant professor at Penn State New Kensington, a two-year campus in the small Pennsylvania town. After three years of teaching freshman composition over and over, he set his sights higher.
His search for a university that would support him as a scholar and allow him to teach students who, like him, were often from blue-collar backgrounds and the first in their families to go to college, ended when UMass Lowell offered him a job in 2004.
He immediately felt at home on campus. Lowell even looks a lot like Columbus, Ga., with its clusters of brick mill buildings along a major river, he says. Plus, it has the advantage of being a city whose culture has been enriched by successive waves of immigrants from across the globe.
“I was thrilled. I needed not only racial diversity, but cultural diversity, and to have colleagues doing cutting-edge research and teaching,” he says. “It wasn’t until I came here that I was able to teach classes devoted to African American literature.”
He has not been disappointed in his students or his colleagues, “an amazing group of scholars and educators” who are supportive of each other and their students and who always strive to be better teachers, he says.
Now, he teaches courses in African American and American literature, from the Puritans through Frederick Douglass and F. Scott Fitzgerald up to Toni Morrison.
The Manning Prize also recognizes faculty service, and Mitchell has served in multiple roles, including on the Honors College Advisory Board. He mentors honors students on their theses and for reading fellowships one-on-one, and this fall, for the second time, he will co-teach an Honors College Symposium on the Harlem Renaissance.
He’s also starting research for a book on African Americans’ literary responses to the war in Vietnam. But Mitchell’s first love is teaching. And he feels that’s where he has had the most impact.
So what are his secrets of teaching success? He’s got a few. First, he revises every syllabus every semester for both his on-campus and online classes. He also makes sure that he reads and responds to every student’s assignments, including every single discussion board posting.
When a student does particularly well, he sends them a personal email. When they’re not doing as well as they could, he first compliments them on what they did right — before explaining how they fell short.
“It’s critical to let students know how valued they are in class and how important their contributions are,” he says.
Along with empathy, a sense of humor is key — as is listening to students with an open mind and learning from them, he says.
And, because he teaches students from a wide variety of backgrounds, he provides them with plenty of context for the literature assignments through historical and literary articles and essays, YouTube videos and discussions about the authors’ lives and times.
“I want them to understand that there’s no disconnect between an imaginative work of art and life. The human foibles and the flaws that characters have, real people also have,” he says.
Mitchell also uses the choices that literary characters make as an opportunity to discuss how students can make a difference, about the moral courage it takes to go against the grain of society, and how much they can accomplish against great odds.
“I always tell my students, ‘You don’t have to cure cancer to be a great person. Just be kind to other people, respect other people, and help them when you're able,’” he says. “‘And remember: There’s no one else like you in the whole universe. You should cherish that and honor that. I honor that.’”