Dr. Kay Knickrehm's reflections on her time at JMU
I came to JMU straight out of grad school when Harrisonburg did not have a single decent restaurant and JMU had perhaps 9,000 students. Everyone in Harrisonburg looked exactly alike and I’d say that roughly half the population called oil, earl and tires, tars. There were eleven professors (three were geographers) in the Department of Political Science and Geography and public administration was a brand new program. That first year, I missed Washington, DC so badly that I’d have gone back in a heartbeat. By the end of the year, however, I was sold on JMU and I never left.
There were two things that tied me to JMU. One of these was the collegiality and sense of purpose among the political science faculty. We were all dedicated to teaching and as the department grew, we hired others who were equally dedicated. We might not have agreed on everything, but we were unified by our sense of mission and by a work ethic in which we all pulled together. I could not have had a better group of colleagues. I remain saddened by the loss of two of our professors – Marion Doss and Dick Nelson. They are fondly remembered.
The second thing, no less important, was the quality of the students. By the time I arrived in 1978, JMU had already become selective in admissions and if anything the quality of the students improved over the years I was there. Not only were the students capable, they were just plain likeable. Somehow JMU attracts students who can be serious and hardworking when called upon, but who are also well-rounded and fun to be around. I loved getting to know new groups of students every semester. I loved seeing students from one of my classes show up in another. In all honesty getting to know so many JMU students was the best part of my job.
Below are a few specific memories:
I was the first woman in the political science department. Years after I was hired one of the professors confessed to me that he worried a bit when I was first hired about how it would be to have a woman as a colleague. I never for a moment sensed that unease. I was made to feel welcome immediately upon my arrival and I always felt that everyone treated me with respect and kindness. When I became department chair for the first time in 1992, I was continually impressed with the level of support from my colleagues and from the other chairs in the college.
In the south where I grew up we used to refer to well brought up individuals as "raised right". I found JMU students to be raised right. Only once in my 31 years of teaching was one of my students rude to me. When I refused to change a grade he was unhappy with, he left my office and slammed the door. About 20 minutes later, he came back. He stuck his head in the door and apologized. "My mother would kill me if she knew I was rude to a professor," he said. I still didn't change his grade, but his apology did restore my faith in the politeness of our students.
In the summer of 2002, I was faculty member in residence in the London semester program. Since my husband could not go along, my sister went with me and it was great to have a summer together. We had a truly outstanding group of students. They quickly formed a community, looking after one another and responding enthusiastically to program activities. When we went to Bath for the weekend, we all stayed in a bed and breakfast. As we were leaving on Sunday morning, the proprietress came running up to the bus and asked to speak to me. She said, "I have to share this with you. A few moments ago two British ladies staying here asked me who those very agreeable young people were. I replied that they were American college students. Oh my, one of the ladies exclaimed. We thought all American students were loud and rude. These young people are charming. " Special thanks go to our student assistant, Justin Busacca whose kindness, energy and enthusiasm were contagious.
Once a student in my research methods class asked me if he could miss a test because it was his birthday and he needed to get ready for his party. My response was to compliment him on his honesty, but also to ask him if he had lost his mind. He said that he had heard that I was a pushover, but apparently the rumor was wrong. It turned out that his friends, who had been in my class the semester before were playing a trick on him.
I had two honors students win the Phi Beta Kappa award for outstanding honors thesis: Erin Snider and Mutheu Maitha. Working with these two brilliant young women was a true pleasure. All of the credit for their theses goes to them. I was just along for the ride.
At the close of one of my senior seminars, as we were all getting up to leave the room for the last time, a student said, "Wait! I've kept a list of things over the semester that Dr. Knickrehm likes and dislikes." Then he read his list: Things she does not like: The UN Security Council, I-81, Accounts Payable, psychologists, economists, assessment, ideologues, and those terrorists who took liquids on a plane and spoiled air travel for the rest of us. Things she likes: NPR. (For the record, I do not dislike all psychologists and economists.)
I had many wonderful groups in senior seminar, but I had one class that I will never forget. They would be so absorbed that some days that they would actually not notice that class had ended. It was the only time in teaching that I would have to ask them to leave the room so the next class could come in. When we had guest speakers, they asked to move to another room to continue their discussion when class had ended. They bonded to the extent that when a student organized a Senior Night at a local restaurant for our majors, they immediately commandeered a table for all of us where we sat for the entire evening; and they sat together at graduation. I don't know what it was about that particular group but it was a great mix of personalities and opinions and I will always remember their enthusiasm.
I had many students over the years tell me that they were grateful that the political science faculty, on the whole, tried to be unbiased and make sure every student felt comfortable expressing his or her opinions. One semester, when I was teaching the class on third world politics, a student came to my office and told me that he hoped I would not hold it against him that he was a liberal since I was clearly a right wing apologist for the status quo. The very next day, (this is true) a student came and asked if I would penalize his essay for being too conservative since I was clearly a liberal. I know I didn't always succeed at keeping my own biases out of the classroom (see list of things I do not like above) but that semester I must have managed it particularly well.
I also had opportunities for work and travel away from the department. Thanks to the Mine Action Information Center at JMU, I was able to do field work in SE Asia, Africa and Europe. I met many very brave dedicated individuals through this work. One highlight was visiting a home factory in rural Thailand. A woman whose husband had lost his legs to a landmine had been given two looms and was weaving silk. Her work was beautiful and I bought a piece of fabric from her that I then had made into a skirt.
And thanks to a colleague, Steve Bowers, I was able to travel to Romania and Moldova soon after communism collapsed there. I taught a class and conducted research there. Again I met wonderful people who showed me enormous hospitality. I learned so much from these visits.
Last, I remember a number of email exchanges among department faculty that were so funny I wish I had kept them. One year when the university was late turning the heat on in our building, we were all freezing and repeated calls to Facilities Management proved fruitless. Finally Scott Hammond sent an email that began: "It grows colder by the day. We have killed the sled dogs for food. " I forwarded it to the president's assistant. The next day they turned our heat on. Some other memorable exchanges concerned meadow voles, haiku, and Fall Semester: The Musical. In particular, Scott Hammond, Tony Eksterowicz, Devin Bent, Paul Cline, Adrian Clark, Jon Keller, and Chris Koski have kept me laughing for days. Any of these people could have made a living as a standup comedian. Although I single them out, no one in the department lacked a sense of humor. It was a fun place to work and I will miss them all.
It was a great pleasure to teach so many students who were genuinely interested in politics, in world affairs, and in being involved and informed citizens. I have been so proud of the sense of commitment shown by our majors who have opted for public service - whether that has been through service in the armed forces, the Peace Corps, NGOs, politics, or government. Regardless of the path they choose, I believe our students will always be concerned and involved in public affairs. They give me faith in the future.