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.


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.


T.G.I.M., Sabbatical edition

It’s Monday. It’s the first Monday of summer break, or as I choose to look at it, the first Monday of my sabbatical. I know that technically my sabbatical doesn’t begin until the fall semester, but why put off until August what I can call sabbatical today? In honor of this eagerly awaited time, I thought I’d write some simple goals I’m looking forward to during this time.

Starting today, by my count, I have 245 days to try and replenish and accomplish much. My first goal is to:
Read 35 books while on sabbatical. It’s a modest goal– a book a week, so let’s cross our fingers that we can do it.

Goal number two:
Watch a movie each day. I do teach film courses after all and will be teaching a new film course when I return in January 2014, so this seems a tad significant.

Goal number three:
Focus on me. Make me happy. I don’t know how I can quantify that, but just this past week I feel like I’ve done more for myself than I have done in a very long time. That needs to continue.

Goal number four:
Yes, indeed.

This is a good list as far as I’m concerned. I shall take it all as I am able and see fit. I am so very, very grateful for that.


Students and Writing

A first-of-its-kind study has revealed the obvious– U.S. students aren’t very good writers. This is in addition to our 17th worldwide ranking in science and 25th in math. Our highest ranking is 14th in reading literacy, but this most recent study shows that literacy doesn’t equate to skill in written communication. As my students and I were talking yesterday morning, they admitted that they memorized lots of words in their English classes but that didn’t mean that they actually used them in conversation.


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


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.


Is Our Children Learning?

I must admit that when I first read the results of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses I wasn’t surprised.  In fact, I was surprised that anyone would be surprised at their findings.  As a college instructor for over a decade, I have witnessed first hand that 45 percent of college students “show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years”  (

In the fall of 2005, I was so shocked that my students didn’t know who the Secretary of Defense was in a time of war (Donald Rumsfeld) that I started requiring my public speaking students to read Newsweek.  I gave students weekly quizzes about the latest issue and eventually started including vocabulary in each quiz.  The vocabulary section wasn’t particularly difficult. Students had to match the word with its definition.  That was it– match the word to the definition.  On one ill-fated week in winter of 2007 (I remember it that vividly) one of the vocabulary words was steely.  The definition was “resembles steel in hardness.”  One-third of my students did not correctly match steely with “resembles steel in hardness.”  I think my soul died a little that day.

Arum and Roksa’s study, in addition to PISA latest results for high school education place the United States in a precarious position.  As a country surely we want better than to be 14th in the industrialized world in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.  Once our children get to college surely we want a better process than the current one where students are graduating with a 3.2 g.p.a., on average, yet show no great strides in their ability to critically think.  Yes, Lyndsey Wajert, many college students aren’t ‘as dumb’ as the study infers.  But far too many are horribly, inadequately prepared for college and the world beyond.  In a higher education system that functions by business models instead of intellectual ones, more and more students view their college education as a hoop to jump through, not an experience in personal growth and intellectual exploration.  Paying tuition does not equate to going to the local hypermart where you can return an item if it didn’t meet your expectations.  Or does it?  Will the Registrar’s office soon become a customer service desk where you can ‘return’ that “C” in sociology for an “A?”

We can do better.  We can be better.