‘Nightmare’ language professor keeps students in check

Andre Radzischewski

She makes fun of her students, buries them in homework and gives quizzes “that will knock your crusty socks off.” But Italian instructor Rosa Commisso is far from unpopular.

Commisso’s teaching methods might give education majors a heart attack – it’s not uncommon that she jokingly threatens students with crucifixion – but they have earned her much popularity and an Outstanding Teaching Award.

“It’s tough love,” junior marketing major Cassie Ardire said.

In most language classes, students learn everyday terms such as “chair,” “cupboard” or “desk,” said Andrew Hansen, senior art education major. Some of the first words Commisso taught him were “bomb,” “gun” and “drugs,” he said.

In class, Commisso refers to Ardire, Hansen and justice studies major Thomas Vick, whom Commisso calls “Vicco” because his name didn’t sound Italian enough, as the “Gruesome Threesome.”

“I love how she picks on everybody, but it’s not degrading. It’s just really funny,” Vick said. “If she picks on you, she expects it right back.”

Commisso was born in Marina di Gioiosa Ionica, a small town in Calabria, the region at the tip of Italy’s boot. Her exact birthday is a mystery – even to her.

Her baptismal certificate claims it’s Nov. 1; her passport says Jan. 4. Mamma Commisso told her it happened Dec. 17. But having three birthdays doesn’t bother Commisso, who expects gifts on all of them.

Commisso’s family moved to the United States when she was 5 years old and settled in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. She learned English in kindergarten.

“You were immersed,” she said. “It was either survive or die.”

By 1981, Commisso earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Spanish from the University of Akron. The same year, Kent State hired her to teach Spanish and Italian.

Today, Commisso is Kent State’s only full-time Italian instructor; she also teaches at Akron. Last fall, 150 students were taking Italian, according to the Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies.

The Gruesome Threesome – all at least part Italian – said they were somewhat scared of Commisso. A couple of weeks into his first semester with her, Hansen said he called home and said, “Mom, I got to tell you about this Italian professor. She’s out of her mind.”

On the first day of class, Commisso announced she intended to be her student’s “incubo,” or nightmare. She likes to call her students “little devils,” make faces during exams and threaten to tear their tongues out and eat them if she hears one more word of English.

Vick said he was terrified until after the first exam, which was much easier than she had threatened.

With all her temperament, Commisso has a soft side, too. For about six years, she has collected donations – mostly clothing and toys – for underprivileged children at Lincoln and St. Anthony of Padua elementary schools in Akron.

But the next day, she’s back to torn-out tongues, tirades and crucifixion. After all, Commisso has no need to wow her students. She just makes them get up and call out, “Vivo per questa classe” – “I live for this class.”

Contact news correspondent Andre Radzischewski at [email protected].