Campus Celebrity: Dr. Mills

Dr. Elizabeth Mills, Professor of English and the Faculty Advisor to Her Campus Davidson, is nothing short of an inspiration to young women on campus; she is a brilliant, feminist academic who truly embodies the notion of “girl power.”

Dr. Mills married at the age of twenty. “People don’t do that anymore, but I was in love,” she explained with a smile. When she graduated from Agnes Scott College and her husband graduated from Davidson, they moved to El Paso, Texas, where he was stationed on an army base. “I would’ve stayed out there in El Paso,” she said. “I loved that nobody knew who I was when I first got there, and I made my own connections.”

Dr. Mills didn't only have a sweetheart on campus but she was THE "sweetheart" of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity.

When she arrived in Texas, Dr. Mills enrolled in courses at the University of El Paso.  One of her professors encouraged her to get her Master’s degree there, and in the process, she had the opportunity to teach. At the age of twenty-two, she taught English to college freshmen, many of whom were several years her senior. “I was terrified, but I loved it,” she admitted.

After finishing her Masters, Dr. Mills and her husband moved back to North Carolina and lived on a farm in North Iredale; she taught English in high school, then at community college for a few years.  In her early thirties, Dr. Mills finished her Ph.D. at Chapel Hill, where she also taught. “I commuted two and a half hours one-way through rain and snow and everything. It was wild…but I was driven, I loved it, I had to do it,” she explained.  She later added that she did all of this while raising two young children with another on the way; I’m exhausted merely thinking about this.

While in graduate school, the void of scholarship on literature written by women became strikingly obvious to Dr. Mills: “I felt like I was moving into new territory in studying literature by women…you know, I was just so curious about the scholarship that wasn’t there and ought to be.” And so she filled it; Dr. Mills wrote her Master’s dissertation on Flannery O’Connor, a Southern writer who was virtually unknown at the time.

For anyone who has taken one of her courses, Dr. Mills’s love for teaching is palpable.  “I love to be in the classroom, I like my colleagues and I like talking to people about ideas, I love to be in the library, what’s not to like?  I mean really, I like everything about it,” she said. For Dr. Mills, teaching is a creative act, filled with improvisation, akin to a Jazz performance.  She begins with the raw material in preparation for her lesson, but ultimately constructs the lesson based upon the composition of the students in her classroom, on how they are grappling with and responding to the text.

When she was first hired in 1985, Cynthia Lewis and Gail Gibson were the only other women English professors, and many departments were devoid of a single female employee. Since then, Dr. Mills has been a key component to the development of community amongst female professors at Davidson.  “I think there are really wonderful women professors here and I think it’s great to watch the development of that camaraderie over time,” she reflected.  Throughout her many years at Davidson, Dr. Mills has often acted as a mentor for younger female professors.

Dr. Mills’s adventurous spirit has led her to many foreign countries. She has connected many of her travels to her work. In accordance with her interests in Anglo-Saxon literature, she took a sort of “pilgrimage” with her husband and two of her sons. “I was reading The Venerable Bede to them, and we were looking at these various sites that I had picked out and they just said 'Mom! Not another Cathedral,'” she laughed.  She has also traveled to Greece, Italy, and Ireland, pursing her academic interests, and she is eager to travel to Nepal and Bhutan in the future.

When I asked Dr. Mills if she had a piece of advice to impart on young women at Davidson, she thought for a second and then said, “I guess I would say don’t be afraid to live a big life and explore.” The women of our community are privileged to have a role model like Dr. Mills.

Dr. Mills and her family.