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Commitment to Research, Passion for Teaching Land History Professor Distinguished Faculty Award

Christian Pinnen, Mississippi College's 2024 Distinguished Professor of the Year, receives praise from colleagues for exemplifying academic excellence and modeling a commitment to the cause of Christ.
Christian Pinnen, Mississippi College's 2024 Distinguished Professor of the Year, receives praise from colleagues for exemplifying academic excellence and modeling a commitment to the cause of Christ.

After spending three weeks in Pearl as an exchange student at the local high school and completing the University of Bonn’s North America Program to obtain his undergraduate degree, German native Christian Pinnen had acquired a solid – albeit theoretical – grasp of United States culture.

Two weeks after arriving at the University of Southern Mississippi on a postgraduate fellowship, one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history taught him everything he needed to know about the American spirit.

“There was no theory that prepared you for Hurricane Katrina,” Pinnen said of the Category 5 storm that ravaged the Gulf Coast region and eviscerated the town of Waveland, just 90 miles south of the USM campus in Hattiesburg. Without a car, Pinnen was unable to move away from the storm.

“Hattiesburg was pretty rough – I remember the Eye of the hurricane going over us. It was so powerful; the storm dislodged rooftop air-conditioning units.”

The hurricane didn’t deter Pinnen from staying in Mississippi, though. To the contrary, he admired the resiliency of his neighbors as they strove to help others return to their way of life.

“I had an academic, analytical approach to that experience,” he said. “We stayed in Hattiesburg for a week without power, gasoline, anything, really. The way that people came together was extremely interesting to me.

“It was encouraging to see people rally around the situation, take in those whose homes had been damaged, and share their food, water, and other resources.”

The episode reinforced Pinnen’s longstanding affinity for American culture. For a dozen years, it has inspired him to share his knowledge and passion for the state’s rich history and help students at Mississippi College better understand their heritage and their home.

His efforts to uncover the state’s past and transform it into a meaningful future for his students have earned the affable professor of American history the highest honor a faculty member at Mississippi College can achieve. Pinnen received the Distinguished Professor of the Year Award during the University’s Central Commencement May 2 in Swor Auditorium in Nelson Hall.

Pinnen said the award is special because his fellow faculty members in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences nominated him and a university-wide committee selected him for the honor.

“It’s humbling to see that a majority of faculty in my school thought that I was deserving of this award,” he said. “In our school alone, we have at least four current Distinguished Professor of the Year Award winners. That’s an impressive number.

“The outstanding nominees the committee considered from the different schools are what make MC such a strong university and a good place for young minds. To make this a university worth attending, to teach students that are well-rounded, Christian citizens themselves, requires faculty that are involved in the University on all levels.”

Patrick Connelly, associate professor of history and chair of the department, said that description certainly applies to Pinnen.

“Dr. Pinnen is a very conscientious faculty member who invests a lot of time into teaching and mentoring his students,” Connelly said. “He had participated on numerous key committees, served in the Faculty Senate and the Honors Council, and is a big supporter of undergraduate research and scholarship.

“It is quite remarkable that he has published two books while carrying double the teaching load of faculty at large research universities. This speaks to his tremendous work ethic and passion for history.”

His two award-winning books – “Complexion of Empire in Natchez: Race, Law, and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley” received the Best Book in Mississippi History Award from the Mississippi Historical Society in 2021, while “A Borrowed Land: A History of Colonial Mississippi,” co-authored with Charles Weeks, was a Mississippi chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution selection for the Best Book Award in 2023 – underscore his commitment to instilling and preserving historical accuracy in academia.

“Dr. Pinnen exemplifies academic excellence, publishing results of his own archival research and continuously mentoring undergraduate students through thesis projects, senior capstones, and entry into postgraduate studies,” said Kristi Melancon, professor in the Department of English and Philosophy and co-director – along with Pinnen – of MC’s African American Studies minor. “He simultaneously models a commitment to the cause of Christ, often giving advice to those otherwise absent from the historical narrative in his scholarship, and responding to the need of students of color, learning from and reading the works of faculty of color by bringing them to campus through our shared work in African American Studies.

“Christian realizes the job of a professor day in and day out, grinding in the archives, yet always being accessible to his students, usually in his stylish Nikes and with an Einstein Bagels chocolate chip cookie. I could not be happier that he was chosen as this year’s Distinguished Professor, nor more grateful for him as a colleague, co-director, and friend.”

Pinnen’s extensive contributions have not been limited to the Mississippi College campus. Colleagues throughout the Southeast recognize the value of his scholarly activities.

“An outstanding scholar of Mississippi’s colonial history, Dr. Pinnen is committed to sharing his expertise with the larger public,” said Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council. “He is an active member of our speakers’ bureau and has made presentations to historical societies, public libraries, and civic clubs across the state.

“In addition to his work as a public scholar, Dr. Pinnen is dedicated to his students, helping to guide both their academic and professional careers. We were proud to honor him as our Humanities Scholar of the Year in 2024, and he is most deserving of this prestigious recognition from Mississippi College.”

Pinnen’s research on the American borderlands and the colonial Natchez District led to his inclusion among a dozen noteworthy participants in the second cohort of the Bright Institute at Knox College, a prestigious fellowship program that supports the teaching and research efforts of professors of American history before 1848 at small liberal arts colleges across the U.S.

Even among that august body, Pinnen’s exceptional intellect stood out.

“Over the last two years, Prof. Pinnen has deeply impressed me with his breadth of knowledge about early America, his original and insightful scholarship, and his commitment to thinking deeply about how to create the most meaningful learning opportunities for his students,” said Cate Denial, Mary Elizabeth Hand Bright and Edwin Winslow Bright Distinguished Professor of American History and director of the Bright Institute at Knox College. “He is a delightful colleague, brimming with curiosity, quick to share his wonderful sense of humor, and committed to shaping his interactions with others through enormous kindness.

“His dedication to learning, teaching, researching, and writing about history is unparalleled.”

Pinnen’s fascination with the U.S. and its history came from his parents, both of whom grew up in the Rhineland, Germany. They shared with their son stories passed to them by their parents of how American soldiers helped rebuild their homeland after World War II. By the time Pinnen had reached school age, the first Gulf War had broken out, and America’s presence once again became the center of world affairs.

“I was always fascinated by America culture and American history,” said Pinnen, who began learning English in fifth grade and came to Pearl for the exchange program at age 15. “I had a broad assessment of American culture through movies, TV shows, and sports, but it was a different experience in person.”

During his time in Pearl, Pinnen battled the dense Mississippi humidity and even began to understand the Southern drawl. He noted that many high school students had cars and drove to school, whereas their German kindred were about three years away from getting their driver’s license.

“There was a lot more of this kind of freedom in America,” Pinnen observed. “That certainly made an impression.”

He chose a program in college that focused on the U.S. – some of the classes were taught in English – and encouraged students to apply for fellowships. He pursued several postgraduate opportunities in America and ended up back in Mississippi at USM.

“Then I just stayed,” he said.

While pursuing his Master of Arts in history and his Ph.D., Pinnen became intrigued by the pre-antebellum period of Natchez.

“People know more about antebellum Natchez than they do about the Spanish, British, or French period of that area,” he said. “I started researching the town, the people there, the system of enslavement there, and I kept digging. My work naturally progressed from dissertation to book; then I expanded it out into Mississippi in general with “Colonial Mississippi.”

“Now my work is more of a regional take, but still with a focus on Natchez and other smaller colonial outposts and the slave trade in those areas. It’s all motivated by my interest in helping the state build a stronger foundation of its colonial history.”

The more he dug into Mississippi’s colonial period, the more he became fascinated by the story of its people and their cultural development.

“The state is so diverse and its history is so diverse, and the most well-known parts of that history are all linked to problems that stem from racism, be it slavery, Jim Crow, or any of the systems that make Mississippi historically an interesting place,” he said. “Fundamentally, Mississippi is always presented as something that’s not really America, but it’s very much American in many ways.

“If you can understand what goes on here, what people in Mississippi went through and go through, how they try to attack these problems in the past and today, I think you will learn a lot about what’s going on in the nation as a whole.”

One of the most venerable leaders in the Department of History and Political Science – and a fellow USM alumnus – recruited Pinnen to Mississippi College. Dr. Kirk Ford, chair and professor emeritus of history, was seeking a promising Ph.D. graduate to add to his established stable of talented history professors at the Christian University, and Pinnen fit the bill perfectly.

Admittedly, his transition from a large public university to a small private college took some time to perfect.

“Germany has a different kind of faith environment than the U.S.,” Pinnen said. “Here, faith is lived very openly and is on your tongue, whereas in Germany, it’s more in your heart. Coming to MC and seeing people profess their faith was refreshing, and it attracts an interesting pool of students.

“One of my advisers (at USM) had graduated from St. Olaf College in Minnesota and he enjoyed the small Christian liberal arts college environment. He talked to me about his experience and encouraged me to pay it forward. The transition in terms of students was easy, but in terms of culture, it took a little bit, but it has worked out well.”

Since arriving at Mississippi College as an assistant professor of American history in 2012, Pinnen has progressed from associate professor in 2018 to full professor in 2022. A three-time Professor of the Year selection by the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, he received MC’s Pittman Young Faculty of the Year Award in 2017 and was named the institution’s Humanities Teacher of the Year for 2019-20.

Pinnen counts among his proudest achievements the significant role he has played in developing the African American Studies minor at MC – “That’s where my heart is in terms of who I am as an academic and as a teacher,” he said – and his many academic triumphs, including his two books, the Humanities Scholar of the Year Award, and his fellowship. Primary among his accomplishments, though, is his family.

His wife of 10 years, Sydney, teaches seventh-grade social sciences at Jackson Academy, where their daughter, Annabel, a rising third grader, and their son, John Christian, a rising K4 student, attend school. The family worships at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Jackson.

Pinnen credits their support, along with the encouragement of his mother, Verena, and his brother, Andreas, both of whom still reside in Germany, for his successful career.

“Without that, no academic could do this,” he said.

What he treasures most about his chosen occupation, what keeps him involved in the culture at Mississippi College, are the students.

“It’s important to me to maintain an academic professional profile outside of MC, because I believe strongly that it benefits the students when we, as teachers, can be involved in the larger academic field of our specific subject,” he said. “The students are really good – they’re coming to us from various parts of Mississippi and from out of state with a particular focus on what they want to do.

“It’s a great place to work with so many promising young minds. It’s fun to help them find a pathway that’s good for them moving forward, be that academia, law school, or anything else.”​​​​​​