Michael McDarby

Associate Professor

Fulton-Montgomery Community College

Mean, ill-tempered reptile
(Plus Snaps the Turtle)

Mine has been a life of gentle serendipity.  From high school, I was accepted at Prescott College in Arizona (now defunct) - kind of a hippy-dippy eco-friendly progeny of the 60's.  The financial aid officer never got to my stuff until August, though, much too late, so I couldn't go.  It was off to the workforce.  My academic career started with me as a part-time community college student, at Columbia-Greene Community College (when it was still in an old school building in Athens NY).  I have been a milkman, worked in a large retail store (doing virtually every job at one time or another), sold vacuum cleaners (with a spectacular lack of success), and upholstered restaurant-and-bar furniture (which made me realize that it was time to go to college full-time).

My full-time undergraduate work was at SUNY Albany.  This was before (between, really) general education requirements, which allowed me to be a Biology / Chemistry major and an Art minor, and take other unrelated classes as well.  I started fencing there - in a class with Michael Caprio and the club with the great Frank Collins.  I worked in the college print shop and at a Sealy mattress factory during summers and afternoons.  I also met Sara, who I'd marry after a while.

During my undergraduate days, I fell in love with invertebrates (a chaste love, but still...) and looked to continue in that field.  There were only 4 or 5 programs for that in the eastern half of the country, and I wound up at Memphis State University, now University-at-Memphis (the only full-time applicant in that field for that year, I think - it's not a popular discipline).  I went down early, in a big delivery van, with Sara, all of our belongings, and four cats (we got a flat tire 60 miles from our destination in 90-degree weather and found the jack didn't work) to a city I had never been to, and worked the summer at the Memphis Sealy factory - quite an experience.  I found that the plantation mentality is not completely dead, and the term "wage slave" takes on a different meaning in a southern factory.

At Memphis State, I was assigned Dr. Walter Wilhelm as a major advisor.  He was a parasite biologist, so that became my subdiscipline, although I never wound up working with his amebas-that-can-eat-your-brain, Naegleria;  I picked up an assignment from the Department of Agriculture in Arkansas, where bait farms were losing large numbers of shiner minnows and suspected a roundworm (nematode) parasite, Capillaria catastomi, of doing the damage.  I was supposed to assess the idea and test treatments, but that turned out to be impractical (the farms were too far away from the school).  I do think it was a roundworm doing the damage, but not the one they thought it was.  I began to do more basic research, subcellular or ultrastructure, on the roundworms, using electron microscopes.

Also at Memphis, I became a teaching assistant, and in my first set of assignments the coordinator misread my background - I was assigned a laboratory for vertebrate embryology, a senior-level course full of folks headed to med school, when I had never even had a vertebrate class of any kind.  The coordinator couldn't switch it, though, so with 3 days notice, I taught myself the physical / laboratory aspects of embryology and learned to read microscopic sections through whole tiny bodies (something, I've found, since, that ultrasound technicians often do very badly).

From then on, I was the guy who taught the classes that nobody (including me) had the background for.  There's no better way to learn new material than the icy panic that sets in when you know that you'll not just be teaching it, but answering lots of questions about it!  My best lesson came from Dr. Bill Simco, the lecturer for the embryology class, when he wandered into the lab about 3 weeks in (the labs were taught pretty autonomously - I'd barely spoken to him), and when a student asked him, "What is this I'm looking at?" he looked through the microscope and cheerily answered, "I don't know - can't see it well enough in this specimen."  That meant I was allowed to be stumped occasionally, I didn't have to know every answer to every question.  I've since learned that in biology, the specimens don't always behave - no matter how well you know your stuff, they'll stump you.  I once dissected a one-month-old calf for a class;  I knew I probably wouldn't be able to figure out what killed it, but it turned out that I couldn't explain why it had ever been alive - none of the major endocrine glands appeared to be there!  The world's a weird place...

During my time at Memphis, I worked on evolutionary lineage of trematodes,  learned to develop and process film, developed some odd preservation techniques, and found that on certain days something about my aura could significantly disturb electronic equipment.  As my master''s degree work came to an end, Sara very much wanted to go back to the Northeast where her family was, and I must say that even though Memphis is a fairly cosmopolitan city, there was enough of the Old South to make me look to leave.

The next step involved more serendipity.  I applied back to SUNY Albany graduate school, and to an intensified program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.  The UMass application got shuffled under a pile, and the program coordinator didn't find it until August (I suspect it wasn't getting a lot of applicants - they offered to fly me up for a meeting to convince me to switch), but I was committed to Albany.

At SUNYA, long story short, I found that I found teaching - a lower priority there - much more enjoyable than research.  After about a year-and-a-half, I moved on to teaching high school (at Bishop Maginn in Albany), and coaching track and fencing.  I also was an adjunct instructor at Southern Vermont College, one of the more interesting colleges in the Northeast.  High school was fun, but dealing with discipline was not so much, although I had an easier time than many.  Also, much of high school biology is prep for Regents exams, which cover a bizarre span of topics and are themselves written by folks who barely know the subject matter.  I enjoyed it well enough, though, that after a couple of years, I felt that maybe it was a good idea to get official teaching certification, necessary to teach in public schools (at higher salaries).  I took classes at Siena College (mostly good, although pure "education" courses were a waste of time - I recommend educational psychology courses) and SUNYA (a total waste of time, with one course taught ironically by one of the worst teachers I've ever had) and took the national exam (easy!) and worked as a substitute (not as bad as one might think) while looking for a permanent position.

Then I ran into a problem - as a teacher applicant, I was more qualified in the subject, already with an advanced degree, and had more teaching experience than most others, but those factors would have necessitated my starting at a higher pay scale;  as we know, public schools are interested in money, not so much in quality.

Fortunately, my qualifications were valued (and not additionally expensive) at the Community College level - in fact, high school teaching experience was especially valued, which it should be since a good fraction of CC students were not great high school students, and need maybe a bit more support and a more basic approach than "typical" college students.  Anyway, Fulton-Montgomery Community College has been a great "fit" for me - the population needs good teaching, and often appreciates it.  The age and ethnicity mixes are fascinating and challenging, and I can continue to coach fencing (no longer have a schedule that accomodates track, though), create or recreate courses, and not have to "teach for the exam."





Michael McDarby - Bio