Dr. Westley “Lee” Follett is an associate professor of history at The University of Southern Mississippi, who was recently named the University’s Teacher of the Year by the Mississippi Humanities Council. At the University’s Gulf Park campus, Follett specializes in religious history, with emphases on monasticism, hagiography, liturgy and manuscript studies, and a geographical focus on pre-Norman Ireland. He is the author of Céli Dé in Ireland: Monastic Writing and Identity in the Early Middle Ages (2006) and has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on pre-Norman Ireland. His recent research investigated the holdings of a lost medieval Irish library, and he is currently working on new book exploring the origin of monastic life in Ireland. He took a few moments to reflect on his professional career and outside interests in a question-and-answer format.
Q: What is your hometown and educational background?
A: I’m a beach bum from Cypress, Calif., just south of Los Angeles. I started my college education as a history major at Cal State University Long Beach (where you can get college credit for surfing!) but ended up in Canada at the University of Toronto where I earned my Ph.D.
Q: How many years have you been with Southern Miss and where did you work prior to joining the University?
A: I came to Southern Miss in 2008. Before that, I taught at the University of Georgia for four years, and prior to that, I was in Kamloops, British Columbia at the University College of the Cariboo—and yes, that’s how it was spelled. Funny name, gorgeous location.
Q: What influenced your interest in history, especially medieval and religious histories, for you to study it and chose a career in it?
A: My interest in history goes back to high school and an amazing AP European history teacher, Ms. Stokes. She made the past come alive, and I was hooked. As for why I became a medievalist, probably the most significant influence was the semester I spent on study abroad in England, roaming through castles and cathedrals. I also made several trips up to Scotland and over to Ireland where I just fell in love with the land, its people and past. I wanted to learn about Ireland’s earliest times, so that led me to religious history at the dawn of the Middle Ages. If you go back far enough in time, pretty much the only people who wrote anything down were church people, like monks. So I study monks, even though I’m pretty sure I’d make a terrible one myself.
Q: You were recently awarded the University of Southern Mississippi Teacher of the Year Award by the Mississippi Humanities Council. What does this recognition mean to you?
A: It’s a reminder of the ultimate reason why I and all of my colleagues are here. Southern Miss is rightly proud of its status as a research university, and research is certainly something that I delight in and take very seriously. But for all that, it remains true that without the teaching, without the students, none of us faculty would be here.
Q: What has been your proudest accomplishment while working at the University and why?
A: It gives me great pleasure to hear from former students who have gone on to do amazing things. One example among many: several years ago, a Navy reserve pilot took a number of history classes from me and developed a love of ancient history. He kept reading and learning about it even after he was done taking classes on it. Sometime later, after he had been deployed to Iraq, he volunteered to teach a series of informational seminars about the culture of ancient Iraq to his fellow service members. Before he returned, he emailed me some pictures that he had taken from the cockpit of his fighter jet as he flew over many of the very sites and ruins that he and I had talked about. We’re still in touch. My students are not my “accomplishments,” but they are what I am most proud of.
Q: What is your favorite aspect of working in a university environment?
A: It’s that I continuously get to learn new, fascinating things, both within my field and without. My wife says I’m not allowed to get any more degrees, but I consider myself a professional student just the same.
Q: If you could travel back in time, what period would you like to visit and why?
A: Hmm, that’s a tough one—so many to choose from! But here’s one that’d be high on my list: to Alexandria, Egypt, in 48 B.C., just before fire gutted the Great Library that housed hundreds of thousands of ancient books. If I couldn’t prevent the fire, then I’d at least like know what was lost. That, and maybe head-slap the guy responsible for the fire.
Q: Do you have any historical heroes you admire or major influencers that have impacted your life? How so?
A: I know it’s cliché to say this, but Abraham Lincoln is a big one. As a kid I was a bit of a Civil War buff and learning about how Lincoln held our country together through the worst trial this nation has ever faced profoundly impressed me. Over the years, as my historical understanding has expanded, my admiration and respect for him has only deepened. He remains our greatest president.
Q: If you weren’t employed in your current job, what else might you be doing and why?
A: I think I’d love to be an archeologist. You get to be outdoors, play in the dirt and dig up stuff from the past. What could be better?
Q: What do you like to do during your spare time when you’re not working?
A: Spare time? Ha! That’s a good one. I have three preteens at home.
Q: What little known fact would people find surprising about you?
A: I grew up with a strong Japanese influence. My father was part of the postwar occupation army, learned the language and then taught it for 35 years in the L.A. school district. I don’t speak it myself, but I’ve been to Japan and have a great appreciation for Japanese culture—and food!
Q: What’s the best advice you ever received and from whom?
A: Probably the most helpful academic advice I ever received was to take as much Latin as possible. That’s what a professor in Scotland told me 24 years ago when I shared with him my budding interest in medieval history. I now use Latin constantly and shamelessly inflict it upon my students.
Q: What advice would you give to others?
A: Don’t regard your university education as simply a path to a better job. Education is valuable not because of where it might lead you but rather for what it makes you.