From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Joyce Kinkead

Joyce Kinkead consults with Sara Calicchia, a presenter at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

A Blue Ribbon Winner

Joyce Kinkead knows students are capable of great things. Dozens have won Rhodes, Truman, Goldwater or Marshall Awards under her watch as the former head of Utah State’s undergraduate research program. But she also knows that freshmen are scared of the locker room. So during orientation Kinkead led a tour of the gym, a hike along Logan River, read poetry with students, and got them certified in ethics for research involving human participants. Because she wants students to see the big picture about education and have opportunities she never did. We sat down with Utah’s Carnegie Professor of the Year for 2013—the university’s 13th faculty member to win the honor—to get schooled by the state’s top prof.

You grew up on a farm in the small town of Warsaw, Missouri. How did this shape your path to seeking higher education? My sister and I are first generation college students. My dad finished high school, and mom finished eighth grade. But they were always very keen on education. They got World Book Encyclopedias for us when we were young. Sometimes we would be talking at the dinner table and pull them out to answer questions we had.

What were the important stories of your youth? We didn’t have a lot of books in our home, but my folks would drop me at the Boonslick Regional Library every week when we went to town. I would get a bag of them. That library was my lifeline. (It now has a Kinkead Family Children’s section.) I took a book everywhere with me. If I was driving the tractor with my dad, I would have a book. I even took books with me to church.

Did you know what to expect in college? My sister went to college first so that provided some insight about what college was like, but I had no clue about navigating the college pathway. It was that ignorance that really led me as an administrator to make sure that students know what those pathways are when they get here. I created programs to demystify the process.

Did you always want to teach English? I was either going to do ag business or ag journalism. This was 1972 and I was the only female in the class, but even the professors were not very nice to me. Even though I was making the top grades I just thought I don’t have to do this. So I went over to English. I think I could have had a great career in ag business. But with Farm: A Multi-Modal Reader published earlier this year, I have my touchstone back.

What lessons from the farm have carried over to your classroom? Hard work and a strong sense of ethics. You work until the job is done. We tried to save every animal we could. Some mornings there might be a calf in a basket next to our stove because it was zero degrees, and if the calf stayed out, it could lose its ears. I participated in 4-H and that was tremendously helpful because it is all about projects. I think I am a project person now as a result. I see my classes as blue ribbon winner projects to develop. I still have a blue ribbon on my bulletin board.

You were recently named the top professor in the state by the Carnegie Foundation. What do you believe are characteristics of a good teacher? What you have got to do is continually put yourself into places of discomfort as a teacher. You have to stretch yourself. To be a teacher of English, you have got to stay up with technology. For instance, in my young adult literature class I am introducing students to glogs, which are graphic blogs. This is part of my goal of digital literacy. I say to my students, if I can learn this, you can learn this.

For more than a decade you held administrative positions and enhanced opportunities for students. Did you miss working with them? I always kept a foot in the classroom. Every role I had was student-centered. As vice provost of undergraduate education, I did focus groups with freshmen. I wanted to get them into the Champ Hall conference room. I wanted them to know where the president and provost are. The process gave rise to Aggie Blue Bikes; four year plans for all degree programs; and improved Honors and undergraduate research programs. I like being in the background, but instigating change for good. I want to make sure everybody knows what the opportunities are.

You’ve published 13 books to date. What are you working on now? I’m working on a research methods book that I have had in mind for 20 years. I’ve got two books planned after that. The last one is going to go back to the farm. I am going to try to write a creative nonfiction book in November for novel writing month about my grandfather. It will be something really different for me.

The term “degrees to nowhere” has been used to describe liberal arts degrees. What is the danger of using this type of rhetoric? There’s this conflict between seeing college as certification, vocational training, as opposed to a liberal education. What we need to remember is that liberal education is based in the whole concept of a liberated person. It goes back to ancient times, of those who are free and have the responsibility in upholding the democracy must be educated. Skills training is important, but that’s got to be married with the intellectual power of knowing not only how we do things, but why we do things the way we do.

Speaking of upholding the democracy, if you could prescribe a reading list for the citizenry and members of Congress, what would be on it? In the book Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, there is a letter titled “What is an American?” I think that would be very helpful. Readings by Thomas Jefferson would be in that same vein, also Wendell Berry who is the Thoreau of our time, and poetry by May Swenson.