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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Monessa Cummins

Part of a series of occasional profiles of people somehow associated with Grinnell College.

I probably don’t need to introduce Monessa Cummins (or MC, as I call her) to most Grinnellians [1]. Students and alums know her as an outstanding teacher, one of the best at Grinnell [6]; faculty and staff know her as a thoughtful colleague. I feel fortunate to know MC, to have had the opportunity to collaborate with her on some committees, and to benefit directly and indirectly from her many excellent characteristics.

MC was here when I arrived at Grinnell in the fall of 1997. I soon learned that she was a faculty member that students valued. [Tony Stubblebine ’00] told me that MC was the only reason he learned to write well at the College. I also soon learned, to my great surprise, that we only gave this great teacher adjunct status. That is, Grinnell would hire her to teach when we needed an extra class or two, but, even though she was a better teacher than most faculty, we gave her no sense of security of employment. Fortunately, when Classics had its next retirement, MC was hired into that position.

I remember two other things about MC from my early years at Grinnell. One was a panel on religion, in which MC (Catholic), Katya Gibel Mevorach [7] (Jewish), and a third faculty member [8] (Protestant) talked about the ways in which their religion affected their vocation of teacher [9]. I will admit that although I think very highly of MC, her perspective did not resonate with me at all. Katya, in her approach, reminded me that even though I do not practice any religion (and attend church a lot with my Catholic family), I do approach the world and other people through one form of Jewish mindset.

The other encounter I remember was in a workshop about writing. MC said something like the following.

Our students should know spelling and proper English grammar. It’s not my job to correct either. Hence, when I encounter the third spelling or grammatical error in a paper, I stop grading and return the paper to the student. They can then turn it back to me once they have corrected spelling and grammar.

While I found that a terrifyingly strict approach, I did understand the rationale. The method also clearly worked for her at the time; students reported that MC had more positive effects on their writing than almost any other faculty member. And, I believe, most students could meet her high standards when given the incentive to do so. MC tells me that she is no longer so strict. I expect the falling standards [10] in high-school writing education, or perhaps the increasing reliance on software tools to catch spelling and grammar miss steaks [11], mean that our students can no longer readily meet her seemingly reasonable expectations.

At some point around the time of that workshop, we became friends, or at least friendly. When we encountered each other on campus or at church, we’d chat about students we had in common [12], about events on campus, or even about our kids (all of whom enjoy playing music). At various times, we both served on the Faculty Organization Committee (FOC) [14], although I don’t think we overlapped. However, our individual service on that committee built what I think is mutual respect about the care that is necessary for preparing and interpreting faculty policies and procedures.

These past few years, we’ve served together on the Wilson Committee [16]. She’s a lot of fun on a committee. We both enjoyed critiquing the mediocre writing that seemed to come before us as we considered definitions of leadership taken from the literature. We both brought a lot of College knowledge [20,21] to the committee. And, I hope, we both learned a bit from each other. It was on this committee that Monessa decided that she should call me Sammy [22] and I decided to call her MC.

You know what? You probably don’t care about any of that. You care about what makes MC a special member of the Grinnell community.

MC is an excellent teacher because she cares a lot about her students and, as importantly, she cares about pushing them to perform to their best. She challenges them and supports them to meet those challenges. And she does so with sparkling precision. There are a lot of faculty who both support and challenge our students. But MC seems to have found the perfect balance, and it’s a balance that students benefit from and appreciate.

You might think that a classicist would shun technology. But MC is a campus leader in using technology to improve student learning. She’s found ways to use virtual objects to give students a better understanding of artifacts and, therefore, their corresponding cultures. She’s been willing to experiment in the classroom. In the end, I think she tries to challenge herself as much as she challenges her students.

What about MC as a colleague? I’ve told you many of the things that make her a great colleague. She knows a lot about the institution; she cares deeply about the institution and about our students; she is thoughtful, precise, and collaborative. What else could you want in someone you work with?

If you’re a student, try to take a class with MC. You will work hard, but you will learn a lot and become a better thinker. If you’re a faculty or staff member, try to end up on a committee with MC. You will have fun, and learn a lot. And, even if you can’t join MC on a committee, take the time to chat with her. It will be worth it [23].

[1] Given that most people know about Monessa, is it really useful for me to profile her in an essay? I’m not sure. But I’ve found that writing these profiles lets me think more about people I know (yeah, there’s a meditative practice there, somewhere [2]), provides some insights that others may find useful, and, on occasion, and reminds the subjects of how much people value them. As importantly, writing these essays lets me riff on various subjects.

[2] Practice: Seeing the Secret Goodness [3].

[3] Kornfield, Jack (2008). The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, p. 21. [4]

[4] Given the recent disembowelment of the MLA style [5], I no longer find it necessary to include publisher or location. However, I do look forward to the next iteration of MLA, in which I’ll likely be required to include a link to the sales page for the book.

[5] Yes, I know that I’m not using MLA. I’m using something that bears a slight resemblance to APA. But that doesn’t obviate the primary point.

[6] Yes, she’s that Monessa Cummins, the one who won a top ten faculty member award. But Grinnellians knew how great she was long before RateMyProfessors figured it out.

[7] For the sake of accuracy, I should note that she was probably Katya Gibel Azoulay at that time.

[8] I have no memory of who that third faculty member was. An early reader of this essay tells me that it was Henry Rietz.

[9] I think we either had no Muslim and Buddhist faculty at the time, or were not yet enlightened enough to consider other religions. Alternately, I could be forgetting a fourth or fifth panel member.

[10] Or perhaps just standardized testing.

[11] sic

[12] Believe it or not, but many CS majors seem to do very well at Classics, and many Classics majors seem to do well at CS. Both departments seem to enjoy getting students from the other department.

[14] FOC is responsible for managing elections and committees, for some revisions to the faculty handbook, and for interpreting the handbook. I think FOC should also be responsible for organizing the faculty, but I can never get other FOC members to sing union songs [15].

[15] Have I done that one already? It’s almost certainly one of my Dad jokes.

[16] At this point, I think the official name is The Advisory Committee for the Donald and Winifred Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership. When MC and I served together, it was just the Wilson Program [17].

[17] Well, it was the Donald L. Wilson ’25 [18] Program in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, then the Donald L. Wilson ’25 Program in Leadership, Innovation, and Enterprise, or something like that.

[18] The Grinnell Style guide says that we are supposed to put class years after alumni last names. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do when a couple donates, and only one is an alum. Should it be The Donald Wilson ’25 and Winifred Wilson Center? That’s not very melifluous. But Donald and Winifred Wilson ’25 Center [19] implies that Winifred is a graduate. Perhaps Donald ’25 and Winifred Wilson Center?

[19] My colleague, John Stone, reminds me that ’25 Center is best pronounced quarter.

[20] Sorry.

[21] By College knowledge, I mean knowledge of the College, its policies and procedures, and the ways in which people at the College are likely to behave.

[22] I think there are two other people who call me Sammy. No, I won’t tell you who they are.

[23] MC, I know that you already have too many students and too many responsibilities. Sorry for sending more your way.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-11-04.