International Women’s Day, 2015

Oh what to say on this Sunday morning? I could say that I’m tired and worn from the stresses of a career in education. I could say that the spite of strangers can make a person cry. I could say that my time in the Ohio Education Association was much better than the women who had to sign this contract:

I could say, should say, and WILL say that my complaints and stressors could be so much worse. I have money in the bank, the right to vote, and can walk around a house without fear of abuse or violence. On this, International Women’s Day, I will remember and lift up the students who make my life’s vocation a joy, and ignore those who claim the joy that belongs to others. I will do my best to view these latest impediments to my eyes, mind, and heart as mere distractions. Here’s to lessons learned.


Grade Hunting Season

Every semester, there is a magical time of the year when students start worrying about their performance in their college courses. This time is usually right before finals. Thus begins the yearly ritual of hunting down professors (even though said students have never visited or e-mailed the professor before) and begging, pleading, asking, or just down right rudely demanding that she or he be given a grade higher than the one earned. I myself, have had plenty of out-of-line run-ins.

I had a mother try everything in her power to have me reprimanded when I told her child that she needed to do her school work instead of her mother. I still remember the woman saying, “It’s my job to help my child with her schoolwork.” Maybe it is when she’s in third grade, but not when she’s in her third year of college. I had a student tell me that because of his profession, he was incapable of doing anything dishonest so my plagiarism claims about his coursework were without merit. I’ve even had a student literally fall to his knees, put his hands together, and beg me for a higher grade. For fifteen minutes, he moaned and pleaded and, quite frankly, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more uncomfortable with a student in my office, in my career. And then there was that experience with campus security. Multiple college staff were hiding in the offices and hallways near my office after a staff member feared for my safety when a student stormed out of a room seething after getting back a grade from me. The student snorted, “I’ll take care of this” and for over an hour I sat clueless in my office while my colleagues made sure I wasn’t harmed.

Now some students reading this will just think we professors make it all up, that it’s never really as bad as we make it sound– students don’t demand or pressure professors for grades. Those students would be wrong. This semester I’ve noticed more and more friends sharing their own tales of disrespect from Grade Hunting Season. Here is just a smattering from the end of the season hunt.

Professor No. 1, Illinois

Dearest Student:

in the interest of saving your precious time, as it is vitally important
a) that you know what your grades are before you go home (because, you know, they’re not posted online for you to see or anything), and
b) that your grade should be what you want it to be rather than a reflection of the quantity and quality of your work for the past three and a half months, let me provide a blanket answer to your questions. NO.

1. NO – a baboon did not fly overhead and drop extra credit points out of its rosy behind. Thus, I cannot raise your grade.
2. NO – I do not agree that cleaning up after your fraternity’s “hella rad” party last night counts as community service.
3. NO – I do not care that your roommate took a different section of the class, did no work, and will make a higher grade than you.
4. NO – I do not need to tell you that spelling and grammar matter, and thus you will be penalized for failing to have a working knowledge of either.
5. and NO – I do not intend to meet with you to discuss any of these matters further. That syllabus that I posted before the semester started? That you indicated that you had read? IT’S IN THERE.

Happy holidays.

Professor No. 2, North Carolina

No, I will not and cannot give you a last minute extra credit opportunity. Yes, this means you’ve failed my class. Yes, I’m aware this means you’ll need to find another major. No, I will not issue you a permit for next semester. Yes, I realize this is an upsetting situation. No, I will not and cannot give you a last minute extra credit opportunity. Yes, this means you’ve failed my class. Yes, I’m aware this means you’ll need to find another major. No, I will not issue you a permit for next semester. Yes, I realize this is an upsetting situation. No, I will not and cannot give you a last minute extra credit opportunity. Yes, this means you’ve failed my class. Yes, I’m aware this means you’ll need to find another major. No I will not issue you a permit for next semester. Repeat, repeat, repeat, all afternoon…

Professor No. 3, Pennsylvania

Dear student,
I feel it’s important to let you know that I am not new at this game you’re playing. I have offered you multiple opportunities for a make-up, and you’ve agreed to but not shown up for any of those opportunities. Please get your business together and give your final presentation this morning, or I will have to give up on you. I don’t like doing so, but I feel let down, hurt, and insulted when I try and try and try to no avail; it pains my heart when you don’t succeed.

Professor No. 4, Missouri

Long time since this sort of thing has come my way. I’ve received an email from a parent of a student, who tells me that said student is anxious about his/her course grade, and doesn’t want it to prevent him/her from following in father’s lawyerly footsteps. Ahem.

Professor No. 5, Illinois

OK, gang. Just gotta vent. I have a group of students I’m finding a real challenge. Aggravated at students who do not read, listen, follow directions, note the day of their presentations, or due dates of assignments. One just emailed me to ask for it all to be repeated again, because she went home early for Thanksgiving. (I referred her to the handout that I BOTH gave out in hard copy in SEPTEMBER, and attached to an email a week ago.) No, I don’t know when your group is presenting. Believe it or not, I did not take that information home with me over the weekend! It’s called self-responsibility. Look into it. ARGH!!!!!! I am counting the days till this semester is over. I welcome clicks to indicate empathy, but please– no advice. Thanks!!!

Professor No. 6, Missouri
I am entirely confident that I just spent more time pulling together the documentation for this plagiarism report than the student spent plagiarizing his essay.

My statements on this matter in the syllabus are getting more passionate by the semester. The latest line I’m adding: “…. If you fail to behave honorably in completing your assignments, then you fail the course IN EVERY POSSIBLE WAY.” And, you know, life. You fail at life.


Professor No. 7, Minnesota

This is how today is going:



Guides for Better Writing

Sometimes I find myself reverting back to Strunk and White when grading student papers, writing in the margins that the best writing is efficient writing. As a college student, I was a member of the nationally respected (and feared? 🙂 ) Morehead State University Individual Events speech team. Luckily, I learn efficient writing early on and practiced it, literally, every weekend as I delivered all of those speeches at colleges and universities around the midwest. With only 7 to 10 minutes to speak, every word was carefully chosen and powerfully concise. If you’re looking to improve your various writing styles, one of these books may be the ‘coach’ you need.


Dear Students… e-mail edition

Dear Students,

I feel compelled to remind you that I teach communication courses and pay close attention to the nuances of the various types of communication in which we engage. Our abilities to communicate are, in part, what makes us human beings. Too often in our professor-student communication, I find myself frustrated, put off, and generally discombobulated because our interaction isn’t as competent as it could be. Please consider this my request for you to reconsider your communication with me more carefully.
An increasing percentage of mishaps occur via e-mail. Please consider what e-mail stands for— electronic mail. If letters are an important form of written communication, e-mail is then an electronic form of important, written communication.

When writing e-mails, please familiarize yourself with the different parts of the e-mail.
• The subject line is the area that you can alert the recipient what your message will be about. Please make sure that this subject line is pertinent to the message you are writing. When you simply reply to previous e-mails I have sent you, you may send me a message the week of final exams that reads “Welcome to COMM 110.” I will undoubtedly scratch my head as to why you’re just now responding to a message I sent at the beginning of the semester and may not open it immediately since it’s not pertinent to the end of the semester.
• The salutation is the greeting of a message. Traditionally this would be: Dear Dr. Darnell, Dr. Darnell, or Professor Darnell. Hey! is not an appropriate salutation. I’m your professor, not your b.f.f..
• The next section of the e-mail is the body. This is where you address the subject with which you are concerned. Please make sure that in the body of your e-mail you are not showing that you either did not read the syllabus, grading philosophy, or honesty agreement, or simply chose to ignore those documents all together. For example, I do not ‘take doctor’s notes’ yet I get doctor’s ‘excuses’ e-mailed to me all the time.
• The ending of the e-mail includes a closing and a signature, or just a signature. A traditional closing is “Sincerely,” with your name as the signature. Given the medium of e-mail writing, a closing is not necessary in my opinion. When signing your name, make it your complete name. 🙂 S. is not an appropriate signature.

If you’re still confused by the format, consult this image of a traditional letter.

In general, please show common sense when you e-mail me.
• Do not ask “Did we do anything important while I was absent?” If you can’t figure out why you shouldn’t ask this, I’d be happy to explain this in person.
• If you want ‘my notes,’ come to class and listen to them. Ask your peers for their class notes. Class discussions are more than my lecture notes. Understand the difference.
• Spell words correctly. Proofread and then proofread again.
• Do not expect a response to your e-mail immediately. I’m not up at 2:30 a.m. checking my e-mail. You shouldn’t be either.
• Do not demand things of me or use your e-mail to angrily vent. Be careful of your tone. If you don’t mean to be aggressive and inappropriate then do not write an e-mail that can be interpreted that way.
• I do not need to know why you weren’t in class. Your personal life is yours, not mine. I don’t need to know that you were up all night throwing up, that your child had diarrhea all night, or that you’ve just felt really crummy with all your coughing and sinus infections and body aches. E-mailing me doesn’t mean you get ‘more’ excused absences. I understand that you may consider this a courtesy, but I don’t think you’re a bad person if you’re not in class.
• Don’t ask me to ‘look over’ your assignments, via e-mail, since you can’t make it to office hours because you’re too busy. If you can’t talk to me during office hours, then arrange a time to see me in person. You’re not the only person who is busy.
• When in doubt, come see me rather than e-mailing me from your Android/iPhone/smart phone/Segway/Whatever-you-call-the-technological-gadget-of-the-moment.

All of these things relate to our personal encounters as well. When you come to my office, do not walk in and say “I need you to sign this” while shoving a piece of paper in my face. Instead, let’s have a conversation after you have knocked and asked “May I come in?” You can choose to stand or sit while we talk about your speech, your desire to drop a course, or your travel plans that may affect class.

In this technological age where you may be used to communicating n shrt wrds w/no punct & less than 140 charactrs, you need to set yourself apart and show the world that you do indeed know how to communicate appropriately and effectively.

Please understand that I write this for you, not in retaliation against you. Please be mindful of your communication with all professors. We all want you to leave Columbia College with the best possible skills to help you achieve your personal and professional goals. Competent communication skills are key to achieving those goals.


All That Mushy Teaching Stuff

I seems as if I’ve been writing “You are loved” a lot lately and you’ll forgive me if there’s a bit too much ‘love’ here, there, and everywhere.  I’ve been writing “you are loved” on the blog and faceplace pages of former students, two in particular, who have been having a rough time of it.  One with stage four cancer, the other with pregnancy complications.  I feel as if I’m sharing private information here, violating a trust, sharing t.m.i. with a nameless, faceless internet.  I’m not sure that I care.  As I see it, spreading the word that these two are loved is all the better, because not enough people can know how special they are.

It feels a bit odd to be confessing my love for two former students.  Surely that’s a violation of some teacher-student code written somewhere in pedagogical ideology.  Should I emphasize that these are former students?  Does that free up some emotional space, some emotional appropriateness?  I admit that I’m always one to carefully look twice before I cross the road from teacher-student relationship into teacher-student friendship.  In this age of 24/7 access, I used to have a very strict policy against social media connections amongst current students and very few students were ever given my cell phone number.  I have colleagues that give their cell phone numbers out to students all the time and have scores of current students follow them on twitter, facebook, and allow students to call them by their first name.  Is this student-teacher bff-dom a sign of the times and I’m horribly outdated?  I have no earthly idea.

Social media has certainly allowed a new era of student-teacher relationships to emerge, that is for certain.  Now, students can ‘find’ you years, months, or days after graduation and reconnect.  I must say that each time it happens, I am so flattered– flattered at the prospect that a former student thinks enough of me that they want to stay connected rather than cutting the bookbag strings and staying as far away as possible.  These two students, that have been on my mind, fall into that ‘flattery’ category.

I’m always struck by that moment when former students move from the Miss, Professor, or Doctor Darnell relationship into an  Amy Darnell relationship.  Sometimes when they call me by my first name it’s awkward for both of us.  For me, it’s as if I expect Mr. Hankins, Dean Van Tassel, or Dr. Brouder, or some other administrator to be nearby and I can’t stand the thought of disappointing.  (I have a bit of a Catholic guilt problem and I’m not Catholic.)  Other times I tell them that plenty of time has passed and I think it’s good if they no longer call me “Professor.”

Interestingly I don’t think either of these students hesitated a second calling me by my first name.  I can’t say that it was a surprise.  Hearing one of them call me “Honey,” well, that one took me by surprise and I attributed it to some really good medicine.

As a communication teacher and practitioner I can’t help but think about the linguistic relativity of it all.  Surely, the name we put on things, on people determines the ways in which we think about that thing, that person.  I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten away from this concept my entire life.  My family always referred to my brothers by their formal first names, but all of their friends called them by their shortened nicknames.  To this day, I’m not sure I really know who Mike and Phill are.  I have students that offer up really casual nicknames to me on the first day of class and as I told one young woman, “That’s a bit too intimate for me.  I’ll stick with your first name.”  So, am I letting my profession down when I move from Miss Darnell to Amy or “Honey”?  Am I letting down my one-time student if I take a breath of air when she moves beyond Professor to call me Amy?  I can only remember a handful of former students referring to my parents by their first names.  Is it merely a different time?  Is it the difference between high school and college? Is it really about that frou-frou topic of love?  That once we start to care for students and students begin to care about their teachers, that we change the names with which we refer to people?  Titles don’t necessarily breed the deepest concern and care.

I’m not sure I have an answer.  All I know is that to J.S. and H.B., I wish you only best.  The best is simply karmic reciprocity.  Be well.

Love,  Amy


Really We Don’t

This article from Forbes, “Dear Student: I Don’t Lie Awake At Night Thinking of Ways to Ruin Your Life,” highlights so many of the same things I have written in my own grading philosophy.  In a wonderful beginning, Art Carden cites 1 Corinthians 13:11 as a way of understanding the frustrating quicksand of professors, students, and grades.  Do yourself a favor and read Carden’s insights on the the topic.


New Year in Education Resolutions

This post by Paul Stoller in the Huffington Post highlights some of the tiring dilemmas in Higher Education. Among his assertions is that, “Higher education should be more than a system for processing student bodies. Indeed, it should be the serious attempt to teach young people how to be in the world–an attempt that will set a course for the future.” More importantly, I hope that students may take him up on his challenge in the new year and new semester…
Here’s a New Year’s resolution for college students: make a habit of visiting your professors and discussing the world of ideas. Taking such a small step will not only be rewarding for students and professors, but will make the university a little less corporate and a little more humane, which means, that everyone benefits.


Thinking about Teaching

Today is Fall Commencement at Columbia College. As I watch our graduates revel and sigh in relief over their upcoming graduation I think, not only, about how much they’ve changed in the years since I first ‘met’ them, but in how I’ve changed as well.

The past 15 months have felt like a lifetime in regards to the way I view my teaching. In the fall of 2010 I was challenged like never before in a classroom. Daily I questioned how I would approach the next day of teaching. Sunday mornings were almost painful as I realized that in 24 hours I would need to go in to the lion’s den once more. The very next semester I had my first public speaking class in which no student earned an “A.” That same semester, however, I had the very best Film History class I’ve had to date. And this semester I have had the pleasure of enjoying the work of a few students who remind me why I got into this ‘teaching gig’ in the first place. What a short, strange journey it has been.

When I reread the teaching philosophy I so fervently believed in when I stood for tenure, I almost don’t recognize the person who wrote it. So resolute she was. So sure she was about teaching having a definitive formula for success. So certain she was about all things educational. I don’t know how my senior colleagues feel, but the more I teach the more I realize how ambiguous it all is. There is an ebb and flow, surely, in teaching, but the undertow is never visible and at a moment’s notice you can be freed from teaching’s uglier moments and race for the shoreline of bliss and satisfaction.

“On a more serious note I want to thank you for all you have done for me during this semester. I have really enjoyed this class. You are a great professor.

I used to inwardly sigh at teachers who said it was their ‘calling’ to teach. Like the ministry, they would speak about our profession as if some divine hand had reached down and proclaimed, “Thou shalt instruct!” My opinion started to change this summer when I visited the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa. Originally, I visited the site because it had been a touchstone in a favorite film of mine. But as I traveled the pathways and read more about Fr. Paul Dobberstein, who began construction on the Grotto in 1912, I began to understand the ministry-teaching metaphor more. Dobberstein worked for 42 years on his hand-made creation. The reward for him had to be in the work itself, because external rewards for such tireless work are few and far between. Much like a bird expending so much energy to find a small seed to eat, we teachers often spend a lot of time and effort in thankless after-class meetings, office hours, and late night e-mails, only to get that small seed at the right time to sustain us until the next bit of sustenance comes along.

I received the above e-mail during the last week of classes this semester. It was the seed I needed and will, most likely, be the seed that sustains me through another semester. It was such a simple offering on his part, but the graciousness of my student’s words served as a reminder that students and teachers are united in the quest for knowledge. What we do really does matter.