She’s a striking figure at the head of the table – salt-and-pepper dreadlocks, square spectacles in front of her face, an oddly-shaped red charm caressing her neck. But it’s what Valerie Boyd has to say that has 11 students enraptured.
She’s ready to take on the pressing questions her class of graduating seniors has about what lies ahead.
One student is expressing concern about her options for finding a journalism job. She is engaged and has to find something close by.
“You have to be partners, but one of you can’t keep making all the sacrifices,” Boyd says to the apprehensive pupil.
She continues her journalistic pep talk, insisting to her students that journalism isn’t dead; it’s just changing mediums, changing forms.
“I’m not worried about you guys,” Boyd says. “My job here is to give you the foundation to do a range of things.”
Then it’s time for the students to prepare for their next assignment in Boyd’s critical writing course— food reviews. She walks over to the only desk in the room, cluttered by old AP stylebooks and reporter notebooks, and hovers over it while operating the Mac desktop and projector simultaneously.
Her wardrobe is now fully revealed as she stands— a black top under an unbuttoned, earth tone colored kimono-like blouse, black pants, and black shoes.
On the screen: 10 tips for writing food reviews.
Explore the wine list. Try to blend in with the surroundings. Take notes discreetly.
“Food is becoming more popular as entertainment,” Boyd says. “That’s an area of journalism that is not really suffering.”
Her advice proves to be helpful to her class. The students type and write, only interrupted when a new tip appears on the screen.
Boyd, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, makes her mark in this class as she has been for many years, both as educator and journalist.
It was a book about another writer and one of her heroines, Zora Neale Hurston, that opened the door for her to later inspire others.
She received acclaim for Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, the first biography written about the author in 25 years. Author Alice Walker called it “magnificent” and “extraordinary;” The Washington Post described it as “definitive.”
It is that book that indirectly brought Janice Hume, an associate professor of journalism at UGA, closer to knowing Valerie Boyd.
“My first impression of Professor Boyd was before I met her, and it was even before she applied for the job because I had just read a New York Times book review of [Wrapped in Rainbows],” Hume said. “And because Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is a Zora Neale Hurston novel, was one of my favorites in college, that review struck my attention.”
Hume, who was a member of the search committee that was looking for a new addition to Grady College, said she and Barry Hollander, another associate professor of journalism who was the committee chair, were watching for emails from applicants when she got a little surprise.
“Valerie’s resume came over the email and I saw it and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s that woman who was reviewed in the New York Times,’” Hume said. “We were both really excited that she had applied.”
Wrapped in Rainbows was released in January 2003 during Boyd’s time as arts editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She returned to the newspaper after taking a leave of absence to do book tours.
“I enjoyed that job a lot, because it was in one of my areas [of interest], but I also knew I wanted to write more books and so I felt like I needed a job with a more flexible schedule, so I knew I wanted to get into teaching,” Boyd said.
Part of her job as a newspaper editor was to nurture young writers. She wanted to bring those same skills to students who are at even earlier stages in their careers.
“Young writers are unformed, eager, energetic, and trying to figure out who they are as writers or trying to figure out their voice,” she said, “and as a more experienced writer, I enjoy working with students one-on-one and in the classroom and helping them to figure out who they are and to learn those basics, so that it can really guide them throughout their careers.”
Boyd has been motivated by writing since her childhood days.
“I was one of those kids who always was like the family writer,” she said. “I was always writing poems and stories and my parents really encouraged that.”
However, she was troubled by the journalism profession. She feared she might end up a starving artist.
“[Writing] was something that I was really interested in, but when I was a little kid I kind of had the impression that writers and people who wrote books didn’t make a lot of money,” Boyd said.
She was 12 and in the eighth grade when she decided she wanted to be a journalist, after an AJC reporter came to speak at her school.
“I remember hearing her talk about what she did and I realized that journalism was a job that you could do where you would get paid to write every day,” she said. “And since I was so drawn to writing, I said ‘well that’s the perfect job for me.’”
Boyd stayed loyal to the journalism path and was even editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper. But she also knew she wanted to do bigger things.
Three years after joining the Grady College faculty, she was named the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence. It was a memorable moment in Boyd’s career.
“Having a position that carries her name is extraordinary,” Boyd said.
At the ceremony, emotion bubbled up. She knew what Hunter-Gault meant to the state of Georgia.
Her parents had wanted her to follow in Hunter-Gault’s footsteps and attend UGA; her dad even tried to bribe her with a car. She chose Northwestern University instead.
“When I started teaching here my parents were like, ‘Yay! You finally made it to UGA!’ and for them, what Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes had done to integrate the university was heroic and it was also bursting open those doors for me,” she said.
Now that she is a part of the UGA family, she certainly enjoys her educational calling.
The PowerPoint presentation is over and Boyd heads back over to the conference table, reaches underneath, and pulls out a brown paper bag reading “Whole Foods” in green letters.
She tells the students they have to write a “cookie review.” They can pick from oatmeal, peanut butter or shortbread cookies.
“Here’s the catch: only two lines of your review can be about taste,” she said before reminding her students to use all five senses when writing.
The 11 students crowd to Boyd’s end of the table, reaching for sweets like kindergarteners ready for a mid-afternoon snack.