You CAN Teach an Old Dean New Tricks

By Bill Henk – Hey, how about this approach?  Just for the sake of variety, let’s start today’s post with a good old-fashioned multiple-choice question.

Here goes:

Even after a 30-year career in higher education, which of the following has Dean Henk never done before?

  • written a scholarly book
  • been elected president of a national professional organization
  • received federal grant funding as a sole principal investigator
  • directed a doctoral student’s dissertation to completion

Give up?  (As if anyone would care…)

Actually, I’ve never written a scholarly book, been elected to a national presidency, or received federal funding as a single researcher.  So you would have been correct with any and all of the first three responses.

And until Monday, November 5, 2012, I had never directed a doctoral dissertation either.  So you would have been right on that choice, too, if not for that auspicious day.

The achievement of a doctoral degree is a major educational milestone, so it seemed only fitting to devote at least one post to it.  So now you’re going to get it, whether you like it or not.

Seriously, this piece is simply an acknowledgement of my very first, very own, very successful doctoral student, Lara Geronime.  Check that, let’s make the title Doctor Geronime or Lara Geronime, Ph. D.  Those have a sweet ring, don’t they?

Why So Long?

It’s not like I didn’t want to take on the work.  All these years I’ve been hoping to lose that particular brand of “virginity,” because it seemed like a gaping, almost embarrassing hole in my otherwise pretty commendable record.  How could I have been a full professor for almost 20 years, yet never once get a doctoral student to the finish line?

Well, the way my career has played out, I haven’t had much of an opportunity.  Because of a crazy start at the University of Georgia I wasn’t around long enough to do dissertation advisement.  The 19 years I then spent at a satellite campus of Penn State didn’t afford me opportunities to chair a dissertation committee, because our only doctoral program occurred in Adult Education.

In the meantime, I became an administrator and eventually moved on to Southern Illinois Carbondale where I could, at long last, have directed dissertations in Literacy.  In my three years there, though, we only had one doctoral student with that interest, and she understandably wanted to work with the faculty member who supervised her work as a graduate assistant.  Plus, I think she was afraid of me…

When I arrived at Marquette as dean in 2004, I might have been able to take on doctoral students, but over my first three years, I had my hands full with national accreditation, then getting our designation changed from a School to a College of Education.  Shortly afterward, I helped found the Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium, usher in Teach For America, launch our Marquette Educator blog, and more recently, oversee our Cristo Rey high school feasibility study.  In other words, I wouldn’t have had much time to work with doctoral students anyway.

Oh, and there is that one other not so little matter about being a dissertation chair — none of the doctoral students asked me!

Frankly, I couldn’t blame them.  They didn’t really know me, in part because I didn’t teach any of their courses.  And believe me, one thing you don’t want to do as a doctoral student is pick the wrong dissertation advisor.  Taking that concept further, imagine if that loser was also the dean?  We’re talking kiss of death, folks.

At Long Last

Fact is, a few different factors converged that caused Lara to ask me.  The request caught me off guard, because I didn’t know her any better than our other doctoral students in Educational Policy and Leadership.   I figured she asked more out of naiveté or desperation than anything else, so I asked her if she was sure, and even after she assured me, I thought she’d eventually come to her senses and change her mind.

But she didn’t.

The dissertation process turned out to be a truly gratifying experience for this old dean.  Don’t get me wrong; I needed more work like a hole in the head.  Many nights I read drafts of Lara’s chapters in the wee hours of the morning, fighting back sleep.  I’m still not sure where I found the energy and stamina to scrutinize her work and provide feedback.  But Lara was smart and driven, and took direction in all of the right ways.   Most of all she was deserving.

And I want to be clear that Lara’s success was a team effort that went beyond her heavy lifting and my steadying her a little.  She had two terrific committee members as well.  Dr. Hank Kepner of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, an internationally acclaimed math educator, provided priceless guidance.  Getting him to agree to serve represented a great stroke of luck for both Lara and me, because her dissertation was about number sense, and I knew roughly zero about that topic.

We were also very fortunate to have the services of Dr. Francesca Lopez, a rising star in the field of Education and an expert in the sophisticated statistics necessary to do the analyses in the dissertation.  Good thing, too, because yours truly is pretty clueless about that stuff, too!

At any rate, I want to congratulate, Lara, and thank her for teaching this veteran dean of education some new tricks.

————————-

Truth Be Told:

  • One of these days, I expect to write a book, probably in retirement.  After all, working in Milwaukee means I’ve got plenty of extraordinary education-related material.
  • I’ve been asked to run for the presidency of a national professional organization a few times, but because it would mean having to plan an annual conference beforehand, I’ve declined.
  • Although I’ve been associated with federal grants, I’ve never been the sole P. I.
  • My rise to full professor rank occurred on the basis of refereed journal articles and book chapters.
  • Actually I’ve served on quite a few doctoral committees over the years and informally co-chaired a few.
  • I am a recovering former math major, so I do know a little something about number sense.  And I also know a fair amount about statistics, but not path analysis and structural equation modeling.

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