Professor Sophie Mills Wins Teaching Excellence Award
“Like watching Socrates under a tree.”
That's how Dorothy Dvorsky-Rohner described what it was like to watch her colleague Dr. Sophie Mills holding students’ attention at an archaeological site in Greece.
Sophie Mills fell in love at age 14, but it was more than a teenage crush. It was a love for the classics that has only grown over the decades, and it has led Mills to become one of the most accomplished and beloved members of UNC Asheville’s faculty.
Mills recently was named the winner of the 2011 Award for Teaching Excellence from the UNC Board of Governors. She’ll receive a commemorative bronze medallion and a $7,500 cash prize.
An Oxford-educated classicist and prolific scholar, Mills joined the UNC Asheville faculty in 1994 and serves as chair of the Classics Department. She was nominated for the award by a committee of the faculty. Her closest colleagues speak of her hard work and passion for the discipline, but it is the way she works with and inspires students and faculty alike that distinguishes her the most. “Our department has grown because of the way Sophie approaches students,” says UNC Asheville Associate Professor of Classics Dorothy Dvorsky-Rohner. “She is so engaged and animated—it is as if she carries an energy ball around with her that students can’t resist.”
Classics departments are being cut all over the country. This award shows that at UNC Asheville, the culture of the ancient Mediterranean is still inspiring to and valued by students.” — Classics Professor Sophie Mills
Jennifer Sons, a senior who entered UNC Asheville as History major but switched to Classics, says students feel like Mills “is always there, willing to give extra help when we need it, and her knowledge base is so large.” Sons first encountered Mills in a Latin translation course, and she herself now plans to become a Latin teacher. She says Latin flows off Mills’ tongue “as if she’s been speaking it her whole life, but it sounds better, more eloquent, with her British accent.”
A native of London, England, Mills earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at the University of Oxford, and taught at Oxford and Bristol Universities for four years before coming to Asheville.
Mills teaches Greek and Latin language and literature, and Greek history and historiography. She is also co-director of a study abroad program in Turkey and Greece. Mills strives to bring the mindset and feeling of the Ancient Greeks to life on the UNC Asheville campus, by having her students create their own costumes and stage scenes from Greek tragedies in the ancient language.
Mills also loves combining and contrasting the ancient with the modern. In one course, she and her students compare and analyze Euripides’ “Medea,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit,” among other works. “I am lucky to do what I do,” said Mills. “It is an extraordinary privilege to teach about what I love.”
Mills said the Board of Governors award is the greatest honor of her career, and was overjoyed at the news, “not just for me, but for my discipline. Classics departments are being cut all over the country,” said Mills. “This award shows that at UNC Asheville, the culture of the ancient Mediterranean is still inspiring to and valued by students.” The Classics Department at UNC Asheville is the only one in Western North Carolina.
The UNC Asheville faculty is facing a stronger teaching load because budget cuts are forcing the departure of many adjunct instructors. “We are all teaching more courses,” said Associate Professor of Classics Lora Holland, “but Sophie volunteers to teach more even though she also serves as chair of the department. She always goes above and beyond the call of duty, and inspires us to do the same.”
Regardless of teaching load, Mills “always maintains an extremely high level of rigor,” said Associate Professor of Classics Brian Hook. “When her seniors defend their theses, the level of care, attention and guidance they have been given is extraordinary. She is demanding and challenging, but I never hear any complaints about her because students know how she cares about them.”
When asked what she would like to do next, Mills said she would like to keep infecting even more students with a passion for the classics. “And one day,” said Mills, “I would like to write a book on ancient and modern imperialism, comparing the excuses and rhetorical justifications used for military conquests then and now.”
Mills has already authored the books, A Companion to Euripides’ Bacchae (Duckworth 2006), A Companion to Euripides’ Hippolytus (Duckworth 2002; 2003) and Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire (Oxford 1997), along with dozens of scholarly articles. She received the Award for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities (2003), the Award for Scholarly and Creative Achievement (2006), and the Ruth and Leon Feldman Professorship (2006-2007)—given for outstanding achievement in scholarship and service.