Anyone who has come through the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media in the last 30 years likely took a course under Joseph Atkins.
The journalism professor retires this summer after 33 years in the classroom, where he taught courses in advanced reporting, international journalism, ethics and social issues, media history, and labor and media.
“I’m leaving this program as a full-time professor in good hands because a lot of great, exciting things are going on,” Atkins said. “We’ve got a great faculty and good leadership.”
Before he started his work in academia, Atkins spent 15 years as a journalist, with the last five serving as a congressional correspondent for the Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C.
“Professor Atkins was a true gem of a journalist,” said Eva-Marie Luter, a journalism graduate student from Tylertown. “He put his students before himself, listening to our needs and working through them with us individually.
“There will be other great journalists, but none like professor Atkins and how he shaped the lives of every student he taught.”
Atkins’ work as a journalist continued at Ole Miss and his coverage of labor issues in the U.S. and Singapore gained international recognition. His work has appeared in publications such as USA Today, The Baltimore Sun, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Progressive Populist, Southern Exposure, and Oxford American.
His book Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008) explores the tumultuous relationship between labor unions and the media outlets that cover their stories.
“I consider myself as much a writer as a professor,” Atkins said. “I always try to keep active as a practicing journalist as well as a professor who is teaching journalism, so I like to practice what I preach.”
Atkins used that passion as inspiration for the international Conference on Labor and the Southern Press at the university in 2003. Besides organizing conferences about labor unions, he is also a member of the United Campus Workers of Mississippi, an organized labor group at the university.
The Mississippi Association for Justice named Atkins “Advocate of the Year” in 2011 in honors of his work in underrepresented communities.
His emphasis on labor relations was a major influence on former student Jaz Brisack, the university’s first female Rhodes Scholar, who rose to national fame after leading the unionization of Starbucks employees.
“Joe Atkins is the best professor I’ve ever had the joy of knowing and is the reason I’m a labor organizer today,” Brisack said. “… so lucky to have taken a record-setting number of his classes.”
Atkins’ last semester as a full-time faculty member was accompanied by five graduate students that turned into a unique family. The group ended up together in both of Atkins’ last classes.
Hayden Wiggs, a graduate student from Flowery Branch, Georgia, was part of the five-student group that took Atkins’ last classes: Jour 580: Alternative Media and Jour 668: Narrative Journalism.
“Professor Atkins is, without a doubt, the best professor I had during my time at Ole Miss,” Wiggs said. “There is no other professor who cares as much about teaching or about his students as professor Atkins does; I genuinely looked forward to his classes, as they were always an equal balance of informative and fun.”
Atkins is also a successful novelist with published works including “Wicked City,” “The Innocents,” “The Lost Ones,” “Infamous” and “Devil’s Garden.”
Having more time on his hands, Atkins plans to focus on writing projects that have taken a back seat over the years and recently was appointed to the board of directors of Theatre Oxford. He also has been granted the title of professor emeritus, and he hopes to continue teaching an occasional course because of his love of the classroom.
“I’m not retiring from life; I’m entering a new phase of life,” Atkins said.
By Jaylin R. Smith