As Dr. Wendy Atkins-Sayre recounts the highlights of her professional career,the little things stand out. The chance meetings. The unscripted conversations. The quirks of daily life that have guided her along the way. A comment from one of her first undergraduate professors — “How many people get to have a job that they love, get to do what they really love for work?” — sparked her lifelong interest in academia.
A chance encounter with a department chair led her to accept a position with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Department of Communication Studies. More recently, Atkins-Sayre happened upon an advertisement for the University of Memphis’ Department of Communication & Film, which was seeking its next chair. She was curious, but hesitant.
“To be honest, when I read it, my first reaction was, ‘Oh, I wonder who might get that? What a great program, what a great opportunity,’” she said. “Then it kept rumbling around in my head.” As if on cue, or guided by fate, she applied.
Added together, those small items led to Atkins-Sayre joining the UofM in August of 2019.
“It’s such an honor to be chosen to lead this program, especially right now because there have been so many changes. I’m really excited to work with everyone in that department. It’s just a great group of people.”
Originally from Portland, Texas — a city of roughly 15,000 across Nueces Bay from Corpus Christi — Atkins-Sayre traces her first attraction to the study of communication to her days in her home state. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas State University, where she also served as a teaching assistant. Before earning her PhD in 2005 from the University of Georgia, she worked as an instructor at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, teaching five sections of Public Speaking each semester.
“I would listen to 125 speeches probably four times a semester,” she said. “I don’t know how I did it.”
At the University of Southern Mississippi, Atkins-Sayre became the interim associate director of the School of Communication in 2016 after serving as the chair of the Department of Communication Studies and the director of the Speaking Center. She also directed the Speaking Center and served as a visiting professor at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., from 2005-07.
Her husband, Edward Sayre, is a professor of economics and director of the School of Social Science and Global Studies at the University of Southern Mississippi. For now, he will remain in Hattiesburg with the family’s dogs, Bennie and Sara (the family’s cats, Rami and Lexi, made the move to Memphis). The Sayres have two children: Glenn, a senior in biology at Agnes Scott College, and Owen, a freshman at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
At the UofM, Atkins-Sayre now heads a Communication & Film department that she says has “a very long and strong tradition” as well as a nationally ranked online bachelor’s degree program for communication. Atkins-Sayre’s research area of interest, rhetorical studies and Southern identity, fits in well in the City of Memphis with its deep history in civil rights and all manners of Southern life and culture. Her most recent book, co-authored with Ashli Q. Stokes, is Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining
the South (University Press of Mississippi, 2016).
Initially, at least, she believes one of her vital roles as chair is to soak in the department’s conversations and learn from those around her.
“I had one goal coming in: to find out more about the people and the department as a whole — listening to all different kinds of people, but especially faculty,” she said. “I think you could make a mistake by picturing yourself as the sole leader, taking charge and implementing changes. I think it really is a team effort and that involves listening to the ideas that are already there, which is really important, as is listening carefully to what administrators are saying.”