Social studies professor Reagan Mitchell brings jazz and family roots to the classroom

Reagan Mitchell says education is in his DNA. Coming from a family full of academics – his mother is a retired psychologist, his father was a historian and professor, and his three brothers have advanced degrees – this is a difficult point to argue.

The Nashville native has an assortment of academic and artistic experiences that he brings to his job every day as a professor of humanities in UNCSA’s liberal arts division. The common thread that ran through his experiences – from his jazz studies and his work as a musician, to his higher degrees in teaching curriculum, to his role as an educator – is an overwhelming and all-encompassing curiosity. “First and foremost, I’m a learner,” he says.

It’s something he brings to every one of his classes (or, as he calls them, “learning communities”) – he’s there to learn, too. The desire and deep interest in learning is a path he has traveled all his life.

A family background

Mitchell’s background as an academic began at birth, with the family and community into which he was born. His father, Dr. Reavis Mitchell, was a professor and administrator at Fisk University, as well as a historian and the first black to chair the Tennessee Historical Commission. His mother, Dr. Patricia Mitchell, is a retired psychologist.

“This whole education process for me, I learned because of the community I was in,” Mitchell says. “I had a father who was in the PTA, but also went to colleges and lectured on black history. I had a mother whose research supported the launch of HeadStart programs in Nashville. C It’s my philosophical DNA when I walk into the classroom. It’s been a lifelong understanding.

Mitchell (fifth from left) and his family

With undergraduate and graduate degrees in jazz studies, Mitchell worked as a musician in Nashville after college. When the economy collapsed in the late 2000s, his attention inevitably turned to academia.

“My intention was to be in Chicago, as a freelance musician,” he says. “I came back to Nashville in 2009 and it was in the middle of the economic crisis. A lot of musicians were out of work, but I still had no intention of getting a PhD at that time.”

Turn to education

Spending time with his family moved the needle for him. At the time, Mitchell’s brother, Dr. Roland Mitchell – who is now dean of the School of Education at Louisiana State University (LSU) – was getting his doctorate. “I hung out with him, went to class and read with him,” Mitchell says. “We were sitting around the house together, talking, and he said, ‘Why don’t you go back and do a doctorate in curriculum education?

Mitchell decided to try the program for a year. Seven years later, he emerged with his doctorate and education specialist degrees in curriculum education from LSU, a hub of curriculum theory and home of the Curriculum Theory Project (CTP).

His work as a musician continued throughout his time at LSU. One of his top academic advisors at LSU, Dr. Denise Egea, encouraged him to incorporate his music throughout his time there. “She found out I was a musician and she asked me to incorporate my music into what I was doing,” Mitchell said. “I laugh at the fact that she was one of my heaviest composition teachers, because she made me write [musical] documents to accompany my papers.

Reagan Mitchell performing

Reagan Mitchell performing

In fact, he adds, it was a robust musical period for him and solidified the connections between his work in music, education and a wide variety of other interests.

“I think about all these things that I do, it’s all academic, it’s all intellectual to me,” Mitchell says. “Whether I’m going out and engaging in activism, in a teaching institution, playing music – it’s all deeply academic and intellectual work. Period. It’s not separate.”

And it is this philosophy that he brings to his learning communities at UNCSA.

Build a learning community

Each fall, Mitchell teaches a freshman seminar and the Self, Society and Cosmos course. Her goal is to establish the courses as learning communities where students come to appreciate the power and beauty of their own minds and the minds of their peers.

“I see these classes as a way to give them an introduction to what I do, but also to remind them, ‘Hey, let’s have fun thinking.’ And go all the way. There’s all these really cool ways of thinking.”

Each spring, he teaches thematic courses such as the black diaspora, black music, black feminist thought and critical disabilities. All lessons are discussion-based. “I think it’s important that you get in the habit of talking to yourself and understanding that it’s not just my point of view that matters,” he says. “We talk to each other because we enrich the space. We all come with this beautiful knowledge.”

He encourages reflection in every class, right up to the final exam, where he asks students to reflect on a bit of the semester that they disagreed with or confused them with. Classes end with an organized multimedia project.

In these learning communities, says Mitchell, each person brings their own intellect and knowledge to the table. “I want people to think about how they engage with this material, but remember that it’s already enough when it comes to space,” he says. “They already have this beautiful spirit. So let’s engage with a variety of texts in a variety of modalities to think about other possibilities.”

What concerns me is that we are engaging in extensive education. I want you to really understand that you have this beautiful thing that you do and you do it better than anyone else in the world.

Reagan Mitchell

“What worries me is that we are engaging in extensive education,” he adds. “I want you to really understand that you have this beautiful thing that you do and you do better than anyone else in the world.”

Back to basics at UNCSA

As a musician (and former music student), UNCSA is not a completely unfamiliar sphere for Mitchell. “Teaching at UNCSA was like going back to basics for me. I had an artistic experience before,” he says. “But there was always that point of reimagining what I would want as a student. That’s what always disappointed me, because I could only take music lessons.”

As an educator at UNCSA, he had the opportunity to reimagine what an arts education can look like. “For example,” he says, “if I’m in jazz studies, then what might it mean to take post-colonial literature. Or what might it mean to deal with the social foundations of music?”

It comes down to the interconnection he sees in his work and between disciplines. It encourages students to think about the historical and social contexts of what they do. “I often ask, especially in my Black Music class, ‘What does it mean to be engaged in work where there’s a good chunk of that community that can’t walk in the door? Entrance ?'”

He continues to address these issues in his own music, most recently with Music Skrontch by Byron Asher, based in New Orleans. The ensemble is currently working on a multimedia project exploring topics such as Jim Crow, Black women in Blues and James Baldwin.

Reagan Mitchell Quartet performing

Mitchell performing “Kind Sir” with the Reagan Mitchell Quartet

In everything he does, Mitchell brings that same sense of curiosity and deep roots to his family and community. It ultimately informs his work as an educator and lifelong learner. “I see education as a way to build community. That’s what I mean when I talk about education in depth,” he says. “How can we begin to radically reimagine what community might look like? And what does this process imply about our responsibilities?

“The act of commitment in education is always a radical project of imagination, of daydreaming.”

by Corrine Luthy

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