Meet Valerie Kinloch

Valerie Kinloch is the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. She earned her B.A. in English at Johnson C. Smith University, her M.A. in English (1998) and the Ph.D. in English with a concentration in Composition and Rhetoric (2000) at Wayne State University.  


Tell me about your background before coming to Wayne State. What were you doing at the time you applied to Wayne? What went into the decision to apply and attend here?


Before matriculating to Wayne State University, I was attending Johnson C. Smith University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Charlotte, NC. I was an English major, and in addition to working as a Resident Advisor, I was also working with the Upward Bound Program. Additionally, I recall working with my undergraduate studies advisor, Dr. Donald Mager, who pushed me to think critically about literature and language. He had attended Wayne State University for his graduate studies, and, not fully realizing at the time that he had attended WSU, I applied and was accepted. That led me to study at WSU, where I earned both my M.A. and Ph.D.


Was the M.A. in English always going to be a bridge to a PhD, or were you unsure at that point where you were headed? 


I have always loved learning (and recall how I played school all the time on the front porch of my parents’ house when I was growing up in South Carolina). To have an opportunity to go to school and, especially, to read books, to learn from and with other people, to listen to other people’s ideas and interpretations of texts, lived experiences, and the world, these things were always fascinating for me. Then, to realize that I could, in fact, engage in these practices AND earn an M.A. degree and, subsequently, a Ph.D., well, that was like icing on a cake that I did not know I could have a hand in baking. So, while I was unsure of what I was going to do after graduate school, I knew that I wanted to learn, to be in a space where I could think and grow, and to have opportunities to read literature, read texts, and read the world.


Relatedly, had you always known you wanted to be in academia? Always known you wanted to be working in literacy studies, and specifically at the intersections of literacy and race and place—and social justice in general? How did those interests develop? 


What I have always known is that I love listening to and sharing stories. I love language, I love community, I love being in community, and I love working with and learning from people. For me, these things have to occur at the intersections of race, place, literacy, and justice, particularly if the commitment is to reshape the world into a better, more socially just, and loving place for groups of people who have been historically marginalized, excluded, and violated by systems of oppression. This is also the case for people who continue to be excluded and marginalized from educational, political, economic, and healthcare systems today. So, while I may not have known that I would become a professor of literacy studies in a college or school of education, I did know that my work—wherever it was to occur—needed to be framed by race, place, literacy, and justice but also the lived realities, conditions, and stories of people in the world.  


Can you recall your Ph.D. dissertation, “A Cultural Critique of the City as a Site of Rhetorical Education”? Can you describe what you were looking at there? What you learned from that study, and from the process of writing it? 


Oh, yes, I recall it fully…in a way that I am left thinking, “What was I thinking at that time?” And, at the time, I was thinking that I wanted to work at the middle—that is, of English and composition studies and community engagement. I was thinking: How do we read community as text (with an attention on urban community spaces)? In what ways can we and should we pay attention to the life of communities—the ways people inhabit community spaces, the aesthetics and the artistic representations they make and (re)produce in and of community spaces? Why research, write about, and study urban communities in critically conscious, culturally relevant, humanizing, and loving ways? And if we can do these things with regards to community spaces, then we can teach about urban communities, we can envision urban communities as texts, and, equally important, we can and should see people who live and attend schools in urban communities as fully human, as fully agentive beings, as powerful and brilliant souls who should not have their literacies, languages, and lives debased.


What role did the city of Detroit and the location of Wayne State play in your graduate work? 


They played major roles. If it were not for the city of Detroit and Wayne State University, I would not have considered the important role of cities/urban spaces and landscapes in the type of work that I came to do and that I continue to do. Detroit offered me a space to think critically about community engagement, literacy, and urban education in relation to lived conditions and humanizing pedagogies. I will forever be grateful.


You went from Wayne State to Houston and began teaching right away. Did you feel well prepared by your study at Wayne State? How was the move from the theory of graduate school to the in-class practice of teaching? Were you able to apply that knowledge right away? 


I felt extremely prepared leaving the Department of English, Wayne State University, and the city of Detroit when I went into my first university position. I was ready to apply the lessons I learned from my time at WSU and in Detroit to my academic experiences—teaching, research, mentoring, and community engagement—and to gain additional ones that would prepare me for the ongoing demands and challenges of working in higher education.


Now you’re the dean of the school of education at Pitt. Do you see a change in mission, or role? An extension of the mission? How different will your work be at Pitt?


 I begin my work at the University of Pittsburgh, officially, on July 1, and I am looking forward to working with colleagues in the School of Education there, at the University, and in the larger community. As with any new role or position, one has to study carefully the patterns of operation and the overall mission, as well as spend time getting to know faculty, staff, students, and university and community partners. This is a part of my goal, and I hope that this will help me to share a vision—one that aligns with the mission of the School—with my colleagues. Also, the work will be different, given that I am assuming the Renee and Richard Endowed Deanship of a School of Education, whereas I was Associate Dean at Ohio State University. I am looking forward to seeing the direction we will take in the School and the impact we will continue to have at the University and in the communities in which we collaborate with people.



How do you balance research, teaching, and personal/family life? Is it a tough balance, or is it a naturally well-balanced field to be in for that? 


The balance is real (and hard), I must say, and yet it is doable. I can only do as much as I can do, and that means, simply, that the research feeds into the teaching and the teaching feeds into the research, and together, they both feed into who I am as a scholar, leader, and, overall, a human being. While the work is hard, it is fulfilling and enriching and necessary, and the work happens in partnership and collaboration with many other people. This, for me, is important.


You’ve been in academia for more than a decade and a half. What sort of changes in the field have you witnessed? There is an idea out there that jobs are much harder to find now, that there has been a narrowing of the field, especially in the humanities. Do you agree with that? Is it a career you would still encourage young people to follow? 


Honestly, I encourage people to follow their desires, their dreams, and their hopes. We have to cultivate people and help to sustain them in ways that honor who they are, what they seek to be/become and do, and we do this by listening—carefully, closely, and caringly—to what they tell us, share with us, reveal to us. Of course, listening also requires us to contemplate what we have heard and to offer a loving response to it. But such a response has to be, I believe, grounded by a discourse of care and humanization. We have to ask people what they think, what their stories are, what they seek to accomplish and contribute to the world, and for what larger reasons and purposes beyond self. When we do this, then I think we become aware of the ways the field has changed, needs to change, and our roles within it. We also become aware of the desire of others to enter the field and to ask, investigate, pursue big questions that still need to be asked, investigated, and pursued.


Thanks again for your time.

By Danny Fenster (M.A. 2016) and Benjamin Earl Turner (M.A. Candidate).


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Meet Valerie Kinloch 10/9/2017
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