Journalism PhD student Charli Kerns has fought her way through whitewater rapids and cascaded over waterfalls in her canoe. Knowing that adrenaline rush, she doesn’t get too stressed out over research, writing, or teaching a class.
Kerns been an action sports enthusiast since being introduced to kayaking through UT’s Outdoor Pursuits during her undergraduate days on Rocky Top. She later picked up canoeing and now considers whitewater canoeing her main sport. She’s traversed waterways across the United States as well as in Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, Germany, France, and India.
She’s managed to translate her love for action sports—the preferred term for what some people call “extreme sports”—into a career and now into her doctoral studies in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media in the College of Communication and Information. Her research focuses on how action sports media can help reimagine issues of gender in sport and culture.
For her dissertation, Kerns is looking at how female athletes are represented in Red Bull Media House, a global multiplatform media company that’s a leader in action sports news. Red Bull’s YouTube channel has 8.5 million subscribers.
Kerns is looking at why sports media so often downplay women’s sport—whether they consider it less interesting or less of a moneymaker for them—and the ramifications that has on society: “If a sports news outlet says women aren’t worth covering, what does that say . . . and does that lead to girls not being able to imagine themselves as big athletes?”
In addition to completing her own studies, she’s teaching multimedia reporting.
Kerns said the pure exhilaration of whitewater canoeing, stemming from fear, risk, and physical exertion, has given her a different perspective on the stress of everyday life.
“It’s so much easier to deal with deadlines and social expectations when you know, as close to firsthand as you’re going to get, how precious and short life is.”
Kerns said “scary” is when you almost drown—or when you’re unable to save a friend from drowning. That’s what happened to her in an accident on the Little River.
“If you’ve been paddling long enough, you know someone that’s died,” she said.
To overcome her grief, she forced herself to go back out on the Little River and conquer the same rapids that claimed her friend’s life.
“Absolutely nothing holds focus better than whitewater paddling,” Kerns said. “It reminds me how small I am in the grand scheme of things. It’s taught me that the little things in life are not that big a deal.”
Born in Wyoming, Kerns moved with her family to South Knoxville after her dad retired from the military. She graduated from South Doyle High School. Kerns earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from UT in 2011 and her master’s degree in science and medical journalism from Boston University in 2012.
Once she was job hunting, she realized that most science and medical writing jobs would require living in a big city.
“I’m a mountain person,” she said.
So when she saw a job posted for an online editor for Canoe and Kayak magazine, she jumped at it. She was hired and relocated to San Clemente, California, where she began writing for Canoe and Kayak and other publications in the Adventure Sports Network.
After about two years on the job, writing about everything from epic fishing trips to Grand Canyon rafting to motoccross, she was sent on assignment to western North Carolina to do a story about whitewater paddling on the Green River. She fell in love with the place and the river.
She gave notice to the magazine, moved to Asheville, North Carolina, andlanded a job with the Hendersonville Times-News.
“I’d always had zero desire to work in newspaper, but I absolutely loved it,” she said. “Breaking news is one of the biggest highs you can get as a journalist.”
Kerns spent two years at the newspaper and another year teaching at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. All along, she continued to do contract writing and editing for a variety of outdoor and sport publications.
“I had always wanted to get a PhD and teach and study journalism,” she said. “I really want to do research and teach at a top-level university.”
Kerns applied to several schools but chose to come back home.
“I’m so very happy I chose UT,” she said, adding that the support of faculty has allowed her to meld two things she loves, journalism and action sports.
And getting to do it in Knoxville—which is close to some of the best whitewater paddling locales in the country—doesn’t hurt either.
“I can take a lunch break and paddle the Little River,” she said.