2016-17 College Excellence Award Winners

The College of Arts and Letters is deeply grateful to all our faculty who nominated their colleagues for a 2016-17 Excellence Award. It was inspiring for our awards committee to see not only the great work that so many of our faculty and staff are doing, but how respected they are by their numerous colleagues who added letters of support for their nominations.

We are proud of all of the faculty and staff in our college, but here are this year's stand-out six:


Allison Abra

Department of History 

Allison Abra is an assistant professor in the Department of History. Her research interests include 20th-century home fronts, modern British history, popular culture of war, and war and gender. She earned her B.A. from the University of Manitoba, her M.A. from Queen's University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. 

Her monograph, Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50, is forthcoming in April 2017 from University of Manchester Press as part of their Studies in Popular Culture series.

Of Dr. Abra's accomplishments since she joined the Southern Miss faculty in 2012, a colleague noted, "In the four years since she arrived at Southern Miss, Dr. Abra has completed a monograph and a book chapter, won two grants, received a Suggs Endowed Professorship, been featured on [the] BBC, and represented Southern Miss at fourteen conferences. It is also worth noting that she did this while being director of undergraduate recruitment for the History Department, running National History Day, and prepping nineteen new courses." 

Dr. Abra is a well-loved teacher who combines rigorous academic standards with an engaging lecture style and approachable demeanor which makes her a favorite with both history students and the many students who have taken her World Civilizations class as part of their core curriculum.

Of her service to the university, a colleague says: "She took over and almost single-handedly organized and ran the state of Mississippi’s National History Day competition, which is hosted every year by the History Department at USM. In the two years she organized the event, it had a very high turnout of participants and it was hailed as a major success."

Congratulations, Dr. Abra, on being named the 2016-17 College of Arts and Letters Junior Faculty Member of the Year. We are proud of your accomplishments, appreciative of the work you've done with National History Day to engender a love of history in our youth, and eager to read your new book when it is published.


Kelly James-Penot

Department of Theatre 

Kelly James Penot is the Supervisor of Costume and Makeup Production for the Department of Theatre. She earned her B.F.A. from William Carey University, and her M.F.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. We've been fortunate to have her at Southern Miss since 2010.

Ms. James-Penot manages a rotating staff of approximately 50 students every semester, and together they create the beautiful and evocative costumes we have come to expect from our top-notch theatre productions—up to 50 unique costumes for each show.

Of her service to the university, one of her colleagues said:

"Over the past year [Kelly] was instrumental in conceiving, developing, and implementing the Apparel Construction and Design Certificate to further professionalize students from the Department of Theatre and the College of Business. This certificate allows Theatre costuming students to access the marketing and fashion history courses available through the College of Business; it also allows marketing and fashion-oriented students the opportunity to work with actual garment construction techniques through theatre courses. This interdisciplinary certificate is one of the first of its kind nationally, and easily the first of its kind here at USM." The program was "an immediate success" and provides a model for student-oriented cross-college collaboration.

Congratulations, Ms. James-Penot, on being named the 2016-17 Arts and Letters Staff Member of the Year. Your commitment to your students, your department, your university, and your field of study make you an outstanding member of the Southern Miss community and we all feel lucky to have you.


Ann Marie Kinnell

Department of Anthropology & Sociology 

Dr. Ann Marie Kinnell is an associate professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. She earned her B.A. from Indiana University, Bloomington; her M.A. from the University of Wisconsin; and her Ph.D. from Indiana University, Bloomington, and she has been at The University of Southern Mississippi since 1997. Her research interests are volunteering, service learning, and student civic engagement.

Dr. Kinnell has been the director of the Nonprofit Studies program since 2010, and in that time, she has significantly expanded the course work, created an internship program for students, and worked with the College of Business to create a graduate certificate in Nonprofit Studies. She is a member of the Pinebelt Nonprofit Network, is serving a three-year term on the  Board of Directors of the Mississippi Center for Nonprofits, and is an active participant in the President’s Summit on Community Engagement, an annual one-day conference co-hosted by Southern Miss and Volunteer MS.

In addition to chairing the Department of Anthropology & Sociology and directing Nonprofit Studies, Dr. Kinnell is an active, engaged member of the university. She chairs the Council of Chairs, a university-wide committee, and in that capacity she meets regularly with the Provost to represent the chairs of all university departments in order to keep direct lines of communication open. She also serves on the Academic Leadership Council along with the deans and other campus leaders, a body that advises the Provost on important university matters. She serves on both the GEC Assessment Committee and University Assessment, chairing the former in the 2016-2017 academic year. These committees help establish the guidelines that enable faculty to assess university programs effectively and in ways that promote successful teaching and learning. 

While Dr. Kinnell's dedication to nonprofits is appreciated throughout the state of Mississippi and her work on university committees is an invaluable part of our continuing growth, it is her generosity of spirit that her colleagues keep coming back to. A group of faculty in her department had this to say about her: 

"We are in a unique position to explain Ann Marie’s informal service to you because we see her serve others all day, every day.  As our chair, Ann Marie’s door is always open. None of us has ever hesitated to discuss any issue with her. She has been a vital part of our professional development, always providing sound advice and solutions to problems. No issue is too small to bring up to her, and she never makes anyone feel like they are wasting her time. In fact, every time we ask her if she 'has a minute,' she responds, 'For you, I have two.' This speaks volumes about her commitment to her faculty members because it is likely that she really does not have a second to spare, yet she makes time for all of us."  

Congratulations, Dr. Kinnell, on being the recipient of the 2016-17 College of Arts and Letters Faculty Service Award. Your dedication to preparing students for work in the nonprofit sector reverberates far beyond the university and your leadership and kindness has made a world of difference to your colleagues and your university. Thank you.


Kelli Sellers

Department of English 

Kelli Sellers is an instructor in the Department of English. She earned her B.A. and M.A. at The University of Southern Mississippi, and her research interests are in composition and pedagogy, Victorian literature, and children's and young adult literature. She has been teaching at Southern Miss since 2006.

Ms. Sellers' concern for her students and their development as writers and as people is deep, genuine, and obvious to everyone who works with her. "Whether she is teaching expanded composition, honors composition, technical writing, or introduction to grammar," one of her colleagues observed, "Kelli dedicates herself to designing and implementing courses that engage our students and help them meet appropriate learning outcomes.... I cannot tell you how often I have seen Kelli in her office working with...students one-on-one to ensure that they have every opportunity for success.... I can think of no one in the Southern Miss community more deserving of being recognized for her teaching and service."

And it's not just her colleagues who point out that she is a wonderful teacher. As one of her students said, "[Her] constant encouragement and belief in every student’s ability to succeed was refreshing and often pushed my classmates and me to strive to be the best versions of ourselves. She kept an open-door policy and encouraged us to come see her during her conference hours. At these conferences, I learned many valuable tips and techniques—such as how to pick better research topics and how to construct stronger theses—that I know will help me on my path as an English major. Furthermore, Ms. Sellers made sure to inform us all that she would still be available for advisement once our class ended."

Ms. Sellers is also one of the principal organizers of Eagles Write!, USM’s annual celebration of student writing. "Key to ensuring curricular innovation and the promotion of writing across composition classes, Kelli has been highly effective in building communities of writers to help students better understand that writing is a social act and that language is power. Through her hard work, organization, and encouragement, Eagles Write! not only celebrates our students’ hard work and ingenuity, but also helps them to see the public work of the texts they produce," explained one of her colleagues. 

Congratulations, Ms. Sellers, on being named College of Arts and Letters 2016-17 Instructor of the Year. It is teachers like you, who spend so much of your time working with your students and helping them find their voice, that helps us cement our reputation as a university that believes in the potential of every student to succeed. 


Steven Venette

Department of Communication Studies

Steven Venette is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies. He earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at North Dakota State University, and his research interests include risk and crisis communication, organizational communication, and argumentation. He has been teaching at Southern Miss since 2006.

Dr. Venette is a prolific researcher who over the course of his career has contributed to his field 27 peer-reviewed publications, four technical report publications, one book review, 35 refereed paper presentations, 23 refereed panel presentations, six refereed posters, 34 invited presentations, three keynote addresses, 12 funded consulting projects, and 11 grants. 

His work is instructive and inspiring to others in the field of Communication Studies, here at Southern Miss and at institutions across the country. As one colleague said: "...[H]is article in Southern Communication Journal is the cornerstone of my risk component in [my] course. His explanation of how risk messages are processed and socially constructed resonates with students as he explains risk decision making by Gulf Coast residents for Hurricane Katrina.... Steve’s research goes beyond risk messages to explore how people learn from messages through instructional communication research. He has explored instructional messages and learning in crisis, risk and beyond. One of these areas would represent a very productive career, but Steve Venette has been able to maintain and integrate these two important areas."

Another colleague notes the breadth of his work outside the university: "Dr. Venette emphasizes the applied side of his research through his consulting, participating in a number of governmental and organizational meetings. For example, he has presented at the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, Department of Homeland Security Internal Food and Agriculture Training Summit, and the Disaster Education Network Conference. He has worked with U.S. government offices (Department of Agriculture), institutions (National Center for Food Protection and Defense), and foreign governments... He serves on journal editorial boards, helps with departmental writing boot camps, acts as our graduate director, and somehow also finds time to teach courses that are always packed and to sit down to talk with graduate students about research ideas. In short, he is a fine example of the kind of researcher that many of us aspire to be."

Congratulations, Dr. Venette, on being named the 2016-17 Arts & Letters Researcher of the Year. Research is a critical part of our mission at The University of Southern Mississippi, and we are proud of your contributions to the field of Communication Studies, as well your invaluable work as a mentor to the next generation of communication professionals. 


Fei Xue

School of Mass Communication & Journalism 

Fei Xue is a professor in the School of Mass Communication & Journalism. He earned his B.A. from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China and his Ph.D. from the University of Alabama. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in advertising, digital media, mass communication theories, and content analysis, and his research specialties are environmental advertising, international advertising, social effects of advertising, and new communication technologies. He has been teaching at Southern Miss since 2004.

Dr. X, as he is affectionately known by his students, believes in forming relationships with his students, both in and out of the classroom, and uses technology to make learning exciting and fun. His students develop real-world advertising campaigns for local clients, enter national competitions and present their work at national and international conferences, and visit advertising agencies and media organizations to see how advertising works in practice.

One former student said of Dr. Xue: "During my time at Southern Miss, I formed many lifelong relationships. Dr. X is my most treasured one. He was my teacher, supporter, and most importantly, grew to be my friend. Several years ago he went home to visit China. On his way, he had to pass through New Orleans... We met up, shared dinner, and then I had the chance to show off my new office... For the last eight years, I have run my own advertising agency in the Crescent City, a feat that in today's world is certainly not easy or often successful. But there I was, a budding entrepreneur using the foundation he had given me and embarking on a venture so few ever do. I proudly showed off our agency's humble abode, owing the courage and drive to start it to the mastermind who has continually challenged me to be all I can be. Dr. X is a brilliant teacher and an incredible friend. I never thought I'd have a former teacher be such an influence on both my personal and professional life."

A colleague who has worked with Dr. Xue since he began teaching at Southern Miss said: "He is without a doubt one of the most dedicated, resourceful, student-centered, and effective teachers I have ever known. Students admire and like him, but more importantly, they learn from him and count on him.... What makes his teaching so incredible is this: Dr. Xue endeavors in every class to improve his teaching and to better connect with students... His course content is constantly updated to reflect what he’s learned from his own scholarly research, his student evaluations, and his in-class and out-of-class experiences... The result of this hard work is a coterie of current students and graduates who’ve heaped praise on Dr. Xue and the difference he’s made in their careers."

Congratulations, Dr. Xue, on being the 2016-17 College of Arts and Letters Teacher of the Year. Southern Miss has a reputation for caring about our students, working to prepare them for the job market, and celebrating the achievements of our alumni/ae. Our reputation is built on professors like you, and we thank you for everything you've done for the countless students who have benefited from your classes over the past 13 years.