Professor's challenge inspired my best work
By Christopher J. Womack ('88), Ph.D.
Originally published in Spring 2006, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.
Judi Flohr's "easy" Exercise Prescription course turned out to be no grade inflator after all for kinesiology professor Chris Womack ('88).
I was a junior physical education major in the fall of 1986. My academic history up to that point was an all too common tale: good high school grades, a very bumpy first year, followed by improving grades and a vow to put some effort into my classroom pursuits. I was in the process of improving but was far from being passionate about learning.
I surveyed my schedule in advance that semester and made the obligatory prejudgments on which courses to devote the most attention to. Anatomy would definitely command some time, as would Statistics. Fortunately, I had a course in Exercise Prescription that I could count on as an easy grade inflator. This course was taught by then-swim coach Judi Flohr. Since then, she has earned her doctoral degree in exercise physiology and is a tenured professor in the Department of Kinesiology. Although I had never seemed to do as well in Judi's classes, with my ever-improving academic performance and the relatively easy course topic, I knew I would succeed in this class. I knew that Judi was a good communicator and very passionate about teaching. However, this only led me to believe that I'd not only get an easy grade but would also enjoy class. As the semester began, I was doing well, but not great, in my "hard" classes, and by my personal reckoning, was going to ace Judi's class. This was my perception until she handed back our first papers. I had actually "worked" on this paper, so there I sat, smugly contemplating the glowing reception I would get. As I sat there wondering if I'd get a perfect score, or something in the mid-90s, Judi stoically walked up and down the aisles handing papers to each student, sometimes pausing to make comments.
When she got to me, she paused and said, "This is the best work you've ever done."
The best work I've ever done? I knew it! A rush of satisfaction surged through me as I hurriedly opened the paper to check my grade. My eyes gazed on a bright red B+.
Satisfaction led to disbelief and then to anger. The best I've ever done? Clearly she doesn't understand my genius! Clearly she doesn't realize that I am a talented and brilliant student. Then it hit me. Clearly, she realizes that I can do better. Deep down, I knew she was right. I knew that although my work on the paper was better than adequate, perhaps even good, it didn't measure up to a standard she knew I could hit. Though not an overnight transformation, that moment was the beginning of my academic life. I began to devote my full energies to my academic field and actually started enjoying the process of learning.
My academic journey led to a doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of Virginia and my current position as assistant professor at Michigan State University. I have continued to stay in contact with Judi — consulting her about important professional decisions and, of course, about ways to inspire and motivate students. We even collaborated on a research project that resulted in a publication and presentation.
Sometimes I think about what would have happened if Judi hadn't challenged me to do my best work. I certainly wouldn't be in the position I enjoy, and I would not have enjoyed the process of getting here. I am thankful and blessed to have crossed paths with her and that she cared enough to tell me that my work was good, but not good enough.
About the professor
Kinesiology professor Judith Flohr directs JMU's Center for the Promotion of Physical Activity for Girls and Women. The center was formed to develop and provide activities to promote physical activity for girls and women and enhance their knowledge of health issues.
About the author
Chris Womack ('88), Ph.D., is a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University. He enjoys running, Bible study and spending time with his wife, Dawn, and stepson, Landon. He will join the JMU faculty in the fall of 2006, due in part to the opportunity to work with Judi Flohr.