Honoree Aims for Civility, Opportunities to Connect Real World With Classroom Concepts
Once a year, the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) honors a full-time faculty member with the Faculty Excellence Award — a recognition of outstanding contributions to teaching; curriculum and professional development; college community and the community at large. This year’s honoree is Communication Professor Denise Gilmer-Knudson of Chesapeake Beach, a 15-year veteran at the college.
“I’m still processing that,” Gilmer-Knudson said from her Prince Frederick Campus office weeks after the announcement. “To even be in that category is … huge. Overwhelming.”
Colleagues, however, were not surprised by the selection.
“This faculty excellence award could not go to anyone more deserving,” said Associate Professor of Communication Michelle Brosco Christian. “Anyone you ask will say, ‘Denise is the nicest person you will ever meet.’ But, in addition, she is one of the smartest, most creative and most caring people I know, and she shares all of that with her students and her colleagues. As a communication educator, she is a role model for her students, not only talking the talk, but literally walking the walk of a competent communicator. I could not be more honored to be her close friend and colleague.”
CSM students also praised Gilmer-Knudson’s selection.
Sherbie Carson, of California, was a non-traditional student at CSM who was also raising three children when she attended the college from 2005 to 2014. Carson credits Gilmer-Knudson for her decision to become a communication major. Carson said she took every class Gilmer-Knudson taught “because of the quality of instruction and genuine engagement not only between student and teacher, but also peer-to-peer.”
“Her intellect is matched only by her kindness,” Carson said. “She is organized and articulate, while remaining approachable and tenderhearted. She stands out among her peers in that she is genuinely vested in every student who has the privilege to attend her class, and remains vested in those relationships years later.”
Eduardo Umana, of Waldorf, echoed Carson’s sentiments. “From COM-2950, Issues in Contemporary Communication, I developed a connection with her as a professor due to the enthusiasm she has in every class and the passion she has for teaching,” he shared. “Furthermore, what makes Professor Gilmer-Knudson different from other professors is her commitment as an educator to ensure all material is well-taught, well-understood and, most importantly, that communication issues we read are current.”
Umana said he appreciated the educational foundation Gilmer-Knudson provided, particularly her teaching on discernment about reputable sources and the value of keeping current with industry research.
“One thing that stands out is her interest for teaching every class well and making every class meaningful,” he added. “Professor Gilmer-Knudson’s main goal is for her students to be successful whether [her students are] moving from CSM to four-year institutions or seeking employment.”
Umana graduated from CSM in 2016 and then graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication/public relations from University of Maryland, where he is pursuing a master’s in broadcast journalism.
Gilmer-Knudson said she aims to practice what she preaches — good communication. She said she wants to teach students to truly listen to views that are not their own, with the goal to understand others, and to express their own views civilly.
“We don’t always need to be agreed with,” she said. “We need to be understood … There’s so much to be said for civility.”
To that end, Gilmer-Knudson tries to foster a climate in her classroom where students feel safe to express different viewpoints and ideas; a place where they can be heard. “I just want to make everyone feel comfortable,” she said. “Set the tone; the other stuff falls into place.”
A native of Southwestern Virginia, Gilmer-Knudson throws a great deal of Southern charm into this effort, facilitating discussions with plenty of “hold on to your britches,” “bless their hearts” and “well, now I’m in a pickle” asides and always with a smile.
In addition to setting a certain tone in her classes, Gilmer-Knudson tries to provide a wide range of assignments so every student has the opportunity to shine in the way they express themselves best. She also looks for as many opportunities as possible for her students to take what they learn in class and apply it to real world situations or at least hear from the real world about the issue. For instance, she regularly invites guest speakers in to her classroom, and she organizes the college’s annual Social Justice event, where experts in the community are invited to the Prince Frederick Campus to lecture and hold workshops on a specific topic for the students.
Gilmer-Knudson’s students in the capstone course for communication majors also have the opportunity for service learning – where they can work at an area nonprofit and then reflect on those experiences. Those reflections are huge payback for Gilmer-Knudson, she said, especially when she reads those reflections and sees the impact of the experience on her students grasping classroom concepts.
“Oh,” Gilmer-Knudson said, with her hand on her heart to express the depth of her students’ reflections. “To me, that’s learning. Real, meaningful learning.”
Organizing these conferences, finding these speakers and making connections between her students and the community takes more time than a lecture approach to education, Gilmer-Knudson said. “But the paybacks are worth the effort.”
Gilmer-Knudson noted her Faculty Excellence Award honors a large portion of the CSM faculty because she learned so many of her teaching techniques and classroom strategies from other professors at CSM. She is proud of the collaborative, caring spirit at CSM.
“I love coming to work,” she added. “Students get something special here. My colleagues and I bend over backward to make sure students have every chance for success. I love our staff, too. They care about the students … we’re a family.”
She believes in the caring connection at CSM so much that both of Gilmer-Knudson’s daughters have or will attend the college. Gilmer-Knudson’s elder daughter is a CSM graduate and now works as an attorney in Washington, D.C. Her younger daughter will start at CSM this fall, where she has been accepted in the Presidential Scholars program at the Prince Frederick Campus.
Gilmer-Knudson is married to her high school sweetheart, a pilot and retired U.S. Air Force officer.
For information on CSM’s Faculty Excellence Award and previous awardees, visit http://www.csmd.edu/about/faculty-excellence-awards/.