Main content
Oxford’s Molly McGehee honored with Exemplary Teacher Award
profile image of Molly McGehee

Molly McGehee, professor and senior associate dean for teaching, scholarship and strategic initiatives at Oxford College, is recognized for her exceptional teaching and significant contributions to the university. Here’s what makes her tick.

— Photo by Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video.

“You are like a celebrity here,” Benjamin Parson noted to his mother, Molly McGehee 07PhD, at a campus event one evening.

McGehee, professor and senior associate dean for teaching, scholarship and strategic initiatives at Oxford College, modestly refutes that idea.

However, the 14-year-old son of McGehee and her husband, Daniel Parson, the farmer educator at the Oxford College Organic Farm, observed what is obvious to many people — that McGehee is an engaged leader working tirelessly for an institution she loves. 

More justification for celebrity status came when McGehee was awarded the Exemplary Teacher of the Year Award — which honors exceptional teaching, significant contributions to the scholarly life of the university, as well as high personal and professional standards.

So, what makes her tick?

Dean Badia Ahad puts it this way: “Dr. McGehee is a beloved professor and role model; a valued mentor to students, staff and other faculty; and an extraordinary human being. She understands that learning doesn't just happen in the classroom and challenges her students to think beyond boundaries and borders. Molly embodies the values of caring, inclusivity and a passion for exploration and discovery that we hold dear at Oxford, and we are lucky to have her.”

Four chicken pot pies for $1

Both McGehee’s parents were educational leaders. Her late father, Larry T. McGehee, was a college administrator — first as executive vice president to the president and then vice president at the University of Alabama, then chancellor at the University of Tennessee (UT)-Martin, executive assistant to the president at UT-Knoxville and finally a vice president at Wofford College.

Against the usual grain, he began his career in administration. Later in his career, he taught and wondered, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?” His students created a scholarship in her parents’ names that provided book money for students, something they had been doing “on the sly,” says McGehee.

Her late mother, Betsy McGehee, was a high school history teacher who supported her husband while he was in graduate school and understood the need to occasionally serve chicken pot pies for dinner. She later worked as an assistant to Knoxville’s mayor during the World’s Fair.

McGehee’s older sister, Liz, recently retired after 20 years at the Washington Post.

“Education was deeply valued in my home. Our childhoods were filled with books. Any opportunity I wanted to pursue — from playing the viola in high school and going on a European tour with the orchestra to attending Davidson College — my parents made opportunities happen,” she says. 

Finding her path

Davidson was not, however, part of the Wofford tuition-exchange program.

“I could hear my parents late at night talking about money. Sending me there was a stretch, and I am beyond grateful they did that for me,” she says.

Having taken French from the fourth grade through high school, McGehee thought she would major in French. Instead, she minored in it, finding herself drawn to history and particularly to the study of the U.S. South.

On a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship in Nice, France, for a year after graduation from Davidson, McGehee became increasingly self-reflective.

“Living abroad, completely alone, left me a great deal of time to read and think,” she recalls. “I began to question the racial segregation that continued to mark the landscapes that had surrounded me and the racialized norms that informed social relationships. I found that Southern literature, especially by authors of color, explored these issues so movingly and complexly,” says McGehee.

The logical next stop was the University of Mississippi and its Center for the Study of Southern Culture, where McGehee completed her master’s degree. It was here she embraced the broader perspective that fields such as history, literature, religion and sociology could provide.

“I came to understand that I have always been an interdisciplinarian,” McGehee says. “I have never been satisfied approaching a topic from a single disciplinary lens.”

An Emory education

“The master’s program confirmed that I wanted an academic life and never wanted to leave ‘school,’” says McGehee.

Her mentors encouraged her to consider interdisciplinary doctoral programs in American studies with a focus on the South, and that road led to Emory. McGehee joined the Institute for the Liberal Arts (ILA) and had the additional good fortune to find Emory engaged in the kind of self-reflection that was driving her.

Former history faculty member Leslie Harris and Gary Hauk, then vice president and deputy to the president, were leading the Transforming Community Project, a five-year effort to document the university’s past and confront current racial challenges.

Allen Tullos, professor of history and co-director of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, was her adviser. She was a teaching assistant for former Emory College dean Michael Elliott, studied with former faculty members Cris Levenduski and current professors Matthew Bernstein and Catherine Nickerson, and learned from the late Dana White and Rudolph Byrd, founder of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference.

“I don’t even know how to summarize all that I learned from that nexus of people. The ILA was the place to be,” she concludes. 

Answering the call to teach

Following graduation and a year as a visiting assistant professor in the ILA, McGehee headed to her first tenure-track position at Presbyterian College in South Carolina.

Her reception there foreshadowed how she has been embraced at Oxford: students flocked to her, taking as many of her courses as they could.

Making teaching central was exactly what McGehee intended.

“I wanted to be a teacher-scholar, not a scholar who also happens to teach,” she notes. The chance to teach a diverse range of courses over six years “helped me cut my teeth as a teacher and prepare me for my time at Oxford,” she says.

“It is simply impossible to come up with a short quote to describe everything Molly has brought to Oxford College since she arrived in 2014,” says Matthew Moyle, associate professor of French.

Of that homecoming, McGehee says, “Returning to the Emory family, and being based at Oxford, was such an honor. The first two years of a college education are incredibly formative, which is why I enjoy teaching here. It is a highly relational community where we cheer each other on and mourn each other’s losses. This is the kind of world I like to live in.”

Having co-led two Global Learning classes with McGehee, Moyle emphasizes that “teaching is at the core of her being. When we traveled with students, her academic expertise, energy, compassion and patience were crucial to the learning experience — and everyone’s sanity.”

Galya Fischer 24Ox is a linguistics and anthropology major who took the travel course Visual Culture with McGehee. Emphasizing that Oxford has afforded her “the chance to take many incredible classes taught by amazing professors,” she nonetheless puts McGehee in a class of her own. 

“She is always full of energy, curiosity and brightness that fosters a sense of community, fun and learning. She is warm, compassionate and incredibly dedicated to her students, going to great lengths to make them feel heard and valued. She inspires others to speak their voices, challenges them to reach for greater goals and offers guidance and support. Looking back, I have never experienced a class so intimately connected and engaged, where students and professors collaborated, challenged one other, and formed a cohesive and strong community that lasted far beyond the semester itself,” Fischer says.

Granted tenure in 2017 and promoted to full professor in 2023, McGehee wrote candidly in her teaching statement: “While events of the past few years at times have threatened to dull my idealism, I remain committed more than ever to making sure that I meet students where they are, challenging them to think more deeply and communicate more clearly while structuring my courses to help them succeed and offering them opportunities to connect their classroom-based learning to the world beyond our borders.”

McGehee’s teaching is driven by “a pedagogy of curiosity” and a “pedagogy of kindness.” The latter concept comes from Catherine Denial, who wrote during the pandemic of the need to “believe people and believe in people.” McGehee, whose mother passed away from COVID-19 in 2020, was stirred by the kindness the Oxford community showed her in the wake of that loss.

Soon after her own arrival, Tameka Cage Conley felt what she calls McGehee’s “unyielding support” as she helped bring Roxane Gay to campus in 2021 — the first guest of the Distinguished Speaker and Lecture Series that Cage Conley established.

According to Cage Conley, assistant professor of English and creative writing, “This event — and so many others — would not have manifested from seedling to bloom if not for Molly's support. To do all she does with wit, humor, keen intelligence, and with the intention that all of us in her orbit thrive, is part of what makes her such an exemplary colleague. She curates the most thought-centric curriculum and experiences for her students even as she extends devoted time to mentor junior colleagues and offers grounded, progressive leadership for the Oxford community.”

One of McGehee's classes — Monuments, Memorials, Meanings — now has a direct link to the university’s Twin Memorials project, which will honor the enslaved individuals who helped build, maintain and grow Emory. In summer 2023, McGehee was asked to co-chair the Twin Memorials Working Group after serving on the Task Force for Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations.

She describes “Twin Memorials as the culmination of so many of my interests and passions. I started my intellectual journey wondering about the past, how the past informs our present, and I teach students to ask who is present or absent from the narratives that towns, nations and institutions foreground and celebrate.”

Recently, McGehee had the opportunity to introduce her students to Walter Hood, the artist carrying out the Twin Memorials design. “This work is personally and professionally meaningful for me. To witness my students’ excitement as their learning becomes ‘real’ is one of the true highlights of my job,” McGehee says.

Doesn’t mind — in fact, loves — administrative work

Like her father, McGehee has proven herself an adroit administrator. In 2018, former Dean Doug Hicks appointed her to associate dean for faculty development and director of the Oxford Center for Teaching and Scholarship. In January of this year, Dean Ahad promoted McGehee to senior associate dean of teaching, scholarship and strategic initiatives.

Nerdy as she knows it sounds, McGehee relishes the administrative work.

“Having watched my dad move the needle at Wofford, I enjoy collaborating with people and bringing an idea to fruition. To be part of moving an institution forward is so energizing. Every day is different, and I enjoy the challenges that push me to think in new ways,” she says.

Kristin Bonnie, senior associate dean of academic affairs, well understands the value of McGehee’s broader leadership. “From the start of her career at Oxford, Molly has shown outstanding leadership at the college and university. The exemplar of the teacher-scholar model of a liberal arts institution, she consistently puts student and faculty flourishing at the center of her activities. Not only does Molly do a lot under challenging and often high-stakes circumstances, she does so with care and authenticity,” she says.

Writer of wrongs

The arc of McGehee’s writing reflects her interdisciplinary grounding and efforts to better understand the significance of race, gender, class and sexuality within the mid-20th to early-21st-century U.S. South, especially the experiences of marginalized populations within and beyond the region.

For example, in a Cinema Journal essay that she began while an Emory graduate student, McGehee explored censorship in Atlanta from 1945-52 from the standpoint of how racial boundaries are policed through film.

In 2020, McGehee wrote a chapter for Tison Pugh’s book “Queering the South on Screen.” With a focus on DeAundra Peek — the drag-queen hostess of “American Music Show” from 1981-2005 — McGehee asked the question, “How do disenfranchised communities find joy and connection when the mainstream entertainment industry doesn’t want to show them?”

Her current book project, “Atlanta Fictions: Women Writers’ Urban Imaginaries,” focuses on figures such as Celestine Sibley, Anne Rivers Siddons, Pearl Cleage, Tayari Jones and Karin Slaughter and how they describe the city. McGehee has found that sometimes their stories match up with established historical narratives; other times, they show a darker side of Atlanta.

“The dominant narrative of Atlanta’s post-World War II development typically chronicles the efforts of a powerful, all-male coalition of white and Black leaders to craft an image of Atlanta that would attract business and tourists to the seemingly racially progressive city,” McGehee says. 

“‘Atlanta Fictions’ traces a history of female-authored writing in and about Atlanta that complicates this standard narrative and reveals how that prevailing triumphal story of modern Atlanta has neglected women’s complex negotiations of the city’s development from the 1940s to the present,” she continues. 

The three big things

Of what is this year’s Exemplary Teacher proudest? Without hesitation, she answers: “Benjamin” and “Daniel,” her son and husband.

But her love of Oxford creeps right back in. Nothing about her current circumstances would surprise her parents, including the teaching award.

“Oxford offers what I valued most in my own educational journey — a student-centered environment, excellent teaching and mentoring, liberal arts learning, opportunities to travel, a commitment to acknowledging its history along with a strong sense of community and deep friendships. For me, that is home,” says McGehee, who loses no time flipping back on her administrative hat.

“I am really proud of the curriculum plan I helped establish and of the strategic planning we are currently undertaking. I can’t wait to see what Oxford will be in five years, and it is thrilling to be part of that journey.”

For more on McGehee's career and the impact of the award, see the recent video conversation between Dean Ahad and McGehee.

Recent News