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In My Words: For dedicated educators, parting really is sweet sorrow

Associate Professor Naeemah Clark writes for regional newspapers about the joys and sadness each spring of watching students graduate.

The following column appeared recently in the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the Roanoke (Va.) Times via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Associate Professor Naeemah Clark

For dedicated educators, parting really is sweet sorrow
By Naeemah Clark - nclark3@elon.edu

I’m proud of the “Dr.” that comes before my last name. I’m Dr. Clark to the students in my class. Well, all but one. Alex calls me by my first name.

His emails generally begin, “Hey Naeemah!” He comes in late to class. He frequently seeks high fives when our paths cross in the hallway. No matter how many times I raise an eyebrow or correct him, it never changes.  He has driven me nuts for four years, but this spring he is graduating.

I’m happy that Alex is leaving. And I will miss him.

I have been a professor for 13 years and have taught more than 1,500 students at three universities in Ohio, Tennessee and North Carolina. Many of these students have gone on to pursue careers in Hollywood, Manhattan and in their hometowns.

One was an NBC page and now works for a national talk show. Two work for fashion blogs. Another assists a scriptwriter in Los Angeles. A few produce the local 5 p.m. news. I have one that hosts an entertainment program on cable television. Some are professors like me.

Even though Facebook and LinkedIn connect me with many of my students, I don’t know where most are now. At graduation they all promise to keep in touch, but they don’t. 

And that is just fine. The lost connections are good reminders that I am merely a stop along their paths.

They left their parents’ homes and moved to college.

They registered for my classes.

As they sat in front of me, I asked them thought-provoking questions, presented informative lectures and assigned projects designed to inspire engagement and innovation.

Yet students often think of their professors as those that stand in the way of graduation or, even worse, their weekends. We give them syllabi with pages of rules and copious reading lists. We mark up their papers noting their grammatical errors and lack of clear reasoning.

I know from the student perspective it seems as if we have an adversarial relationship, “us against them.” It’s not, of course. We give the rules, the lists, and the corrections in an effort to teach discipline, the profession, and precision.

Then they move to the next stop in the journey and I hope I have done my part to prepare them for that landing.

Still, for the brief moment we share, they are also stops along my path. They have made me who I am. And this is why I happily miss them. 

I miss my first group of graduate students that enthusiastically vied for the Tootsie Pops a 26-year-old me gave them for good grades. They gave me the confidence to know I was going to survive my first official job.

I miss the students that have taught me what’s going on in music, fashion and technology. Because of them I upgraded my phone and listen to Macklemore.

I miss the student I caught cheating on her final exam. Through rivers of tears she accepted her failing grade and hugged me. Then I sat behind my desk and cried because I realized the betrayal was more personal than I could have imagined. 

I even miss the students who suggested I be fired for being an awful teacher. I should have been honest with them—and myself—that I was not at my best that semester. I owe them a debt of gratitude for making me see that there is no shame in not being perfect. 

It may come as a surprise to all of these students that I felt a twinge of sadness when they walked across the stage to get their diplomas.

Seeing my students leave means that our formative time together is over. Their departure is the culmination of academic goals I set for myself when I applied to graduate school almost 20 years ago. 

And when I stop feeling that sadness at commencement programs I will know that it is time for me to walk away from teaching.  My sadness, after all, is rooted in the joy I received from mentoring, guiding, and knowing them. Even Alex.

Naeemah Clark is an associate professor of communications at Elon University. She co-authored “Diversity in U.S. Mass Media” and edited “African Americans in the History of Mass Communication.”

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
5/27/2014 10:25 AM