After graduating from Lee University, Summerlin entered the educational system of her hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she taught in Hamilton County public schools for thirteen years. In 1988, she joined Lee’s faculty in the Department of Language Arts. Her specialty is Appalachian Literature, and she commonly teaches composition, humanities, Southern literature, and Modern Literary Criticism. After completing an M.Ed. and an M.A. at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Summerlin received the Mellon Fellowship, which allowed her to pursue her doctorate, which she completed in 1995 at UTK. She a co-sponsor of the English honor society, Sigma Tau Delta.