Valerie Boyd, the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, emphasizes to students the importance of well-reported, well-researched writing that connects with readers.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my undergraduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and my MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. I am an associate professor of journalism here at UGA, and founder and director of the narrative nonfiction track of the new Low-Residency MFA Program in Narrative Nonfiction and Screenwriting at the Grady College.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in 2004. At the time, I was the arts editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and I had been working as a journalist for almost 20 years. But I knew I wanted to write more books and I wanted to teach. So becoming a professor at UGA gave me the perfect opportunity to make the leap from the newsroom to the classroom.
What are your favorite courses and why?
I teach a graduate class—one that I created a few years ago—called “Factual Literature: The Art of Narrative Journalism.” I love this course because it gives me an opportunity to work with a range of highly motivated graduate students who are excited to read well-researched, well-written books and to learn how to write about their own research in accessible ways that privilege storytelling. Some of my students have described the class as a super-intense book club—but one that requires them to write as well, and to really stretch themselves on the page. This course also has served as kind of a pilot for the new MFA program. Another course that I really enjoy teaching is “Critical Writing: The Art of the Review.” This is an undergrad course in which students write reviews of various forms of art and entertainment, from movies to theater to food. The students really love the course, and I enjoy teaching it because it takes me back to my previous life as an arts editor.
What interests you about your field?
I tell my students that journalists can write about anything, as long as they utilize their skills as reporters and researchers to become experts in their subject matter. I am interested in well-reported, well-researched writing that connects with readers—and that’s what I try to teach my students to do.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
One of my biggest career highlights here at UGA just happened this summer, with the launch of Grady’s new Low-Residency MFA Program in Narrative Nonfiction and Screenwriting. As I mentioned, I am directing the Narrative Nonfiction track, and I’m proud to say that this is the first MFA program in the country based at a school of journalism and the first one to place journalism at its core. Along with Nate Kohn, who directs the screenwriting track, I’ve been working for about five or six years to make this program happen, and we were finally able to launch it in August. We have some amazing, committed, nontraditional students from all over the country who are doing us proud.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
I am a writer of research-based, narrative nonfiction. My work—which I call “factual literature”—seeks to employ the tools of literary journalism to tell diverse, engaging stories for broad audiences. I am also deeply interested in American history, arts and culture, as well as race and gender issues in media and society. These interests cohere in my creative work, which rests at the intersection of journalism and literature. My first book was the award-winning biography “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.” And I am currently curating and editing a book that Simon & Schuster will publish in 2017, “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker.” As these two examples show, I am committed to chronicling black women’s lives and to articulating these lives in ways that are well researched and well written, and thereby accessible to a wide range of readers. This kind of work—diverse, engaging stories that matter—is what I try to write and what I try to teach.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
In the classroom, I try to be an interesting communicator, a strong, straightforward editor, and an enthusiastic cheerleader.
Describe your ideal student.
Eager to learn, interested in reporting and research, committed to being a better writer day by day, devoted to being herself/himself.
Favorite place to be on campus is…
… in the classroom. I love that I can close my classroom door and have a private conversation with my students that might influence the way they think and the way they approach our ever-changing, complex, diverse world.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
… read good writing; cook tasty, healthy meals for myself and those I love; support the arts; experience joy.
Community/civic involvement includes….
I serve on the boards or advisory boards of several organizations, mostly related to literature or the arts.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
It’s hard to come up with a single favorite book or movie, as there are so many that mean a lot to me. One of my favorite books is Toni Morrison’s second novel, “Sula,” which is a lean, beautiful, devastating exploration of friendship. Of course, many people know Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved,” but “Sula” is one of her early, underrated masterpieces. And one movie I’d recommend is “I Will Follow,” the first feature film by Ava DuVernay, the acclaimed director of the Oscar-nominated film “Selma.” “I Will Follow” takes place in a single day—a day in which a woman is contemplating her life as she packs up the home of her aunt, who has recently passed away. Over the course of the day, she welcomes several visitors who give us a window into her life and the life of her beloved aunt. The film is a quiet meditation on love, loss and moving on.
Proudest moment at UGA?
My proudest moment at UGA was in spring 2007 when I was named the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Grady College of Journalism. Charlayne (then Hunter) was one of the first two African-American students admitted to the University of Georgia; she graduated in 1963, the year I was born. Growing up in Atlanta, I always knew her name, not only because of her role in desegregating UGA, but also because of her work as a respected, high-profile, award-winning journalist. She was one of my role models growing up, one of the women who showed me, by example, that a career as a black woman journalist was possible for me. So it was a wonderful, full-circle moment when I met her at a ceremony in which I was appointed as the university’s first Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence. Charlayne and I have since become friends, and she is amazingly accessible and down to earth, while remaining as brilliant as ever. And every day, I remain honored to carry her name.