Kelly Pender begins the ritual. She laces up her running shoes and heads toward the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus. One foot in front of the other, she feels the familiar terrain pass underneath her feet. She runs along the same paths most days, watching the seasons change around the Duck Pond, the Drill Field, the Pylons. She does not grow tired of her surroundings. Change abounds. The flora and fauna are ever in flux, as are the people she meets on her journey.

But Pender’s work rituals are changing. After 17 years as a faculty member, the professor of rhetoric and writing is now the chair of the Virginia Tech Department of English, a position she assumes after serving as interim chair since December 2022.

Pender approaches her new role with a sense of continuing a tradition of service to the department that was instilled within her by faculty mentors from her first years as an assistant professor. 

“Over the past 17 years, my English department mentors and colleagues have inculcated in me a sense of responsibility and care for the department,” she said. “I was able to learn a great deal from watching them lead the department, and I hope to continue their legacy of stewardship and vision.”

Before becoming interim chair, Pender served as the department’s associate chair from 2016 to 2022, and she served as the director of the rhetoric and writing Ph.D. program from 2013 to 2016 and from 2020 to 2023. Earlier in her career, she was the department’s director of graduate teaching assistant education, as well as president of College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Faculty Council.

“I am truly delighted that Dr. Pender has assumed leadership of the Department of English at a critical juncture in its esteemed history,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “She is a smart, seasoned, and principled administrator, and she will be a great advocate for students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”

During her time at Virginia Tech, Pender’s research has focused on topics ranging from rhetorical theory and history to the rhetoric of health and medicine and the medical humanities. She has written extensively about the public, biomedical, and biosocial discourses surrounding genetic risk, particularly genetic risk for breast and ovarian cancers. Along with numerous articles and chapters, she is the author of “Techne, From Neoclassicism to Postmodernism,” published by Parlor Press in 2012, and “Being at Genetic Risk: Toward a Rhetoric of Care”, published by Penn State Press in 2018. Most recently, she collaborated with surgeons at Penn State Medical College on a project about controversies in breast cancer treatment.

Pender earned her B.A. in English from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her M.A. in English from North Carolina State University, and her doctorate in English from Purdue University. 

Transition is a recurrent theme for Pender. Not dissimilar from her early years at Virginia Tech, when the department’s M.F.A. and Ph.D. programs were new, the Department of English is continuing to change. In the immediate offing are the possibilities of new certificate programs, undergraduate and graduate program collaborations with Radford University, and the development of transdisciplinary collaborations both within the college through its Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies and beyond through public engagement and outreach. Then there are the headier topics of defining English studies within the humanities and its role in a technologically advancing world.

“For me, being chair right now looks like leading us through a period of transition, which is not just about what’s going on in the department, but what’s happening to English studies and the humanities more broadly,” Pender said. “While there’s plenty of handwringing about declining enrollments across the humanities, I take stock in the fact that even (or especially) in a tech-saturated world, language is at the heart of what it means to be human, and we in the English department are experts in all things language. Students know this, and so do employers across a wide range of domains. There are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of English studies, especially at an institution like Virginia Tech, where there is a concerted effort to stay focused on the human implications of advances in science and technology.”

Written by Leslie King, Manager of Communications and Instructor in the Department of English