Back in the saddle

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Matt Kretchmar, associate professor of computer science, is about to wrap up his first semester back in a full-time teaching position after spending five years as Denison’s dean of first-year students. We asked him how it feels to be back in the classroom, whether the dean position helped him to do his teaching job better, and if he had any advice for the new dean of first-years, Mark Moller, who is about to finish his first semester in the rotating faculty position. (By the way, you can read our interview with Moller in the current issue of Denison Magazine.)

Boy, I learned so much as dean of first-year students. I gained an enormous appreciation for the hard and good work of our student development division. And I gained a much greater appreciation for how the university operates as a whole.

As dean I worked with so many students on a personal level that was not accessible to me as a professor. So many of our students overcome tremendous personal problems and still succeed in the classroom. It was very rewarding to support these students and help them achieve their dreams.

I did have a break from teaching of sorts, but not as much as you might think. While being dean, I taught a class every year, as I felt it was important to be in the classroom with my students.  Mostly I taught first-year seminars, but I also taught an upper-level artificial intelligence class.  I had no fears about returning to the classroom full time; I was very much looking forward to it—it’s my favorite part of being a professor.

In my transition back to the classroom, I most miss being “in the action” in the first-year office. The action never stops there all year round—kind of like a perpetual adrenaline high. By the same token, the constant action also takes its toll in terms of energy requirements and stress.

My philosophy as dean was to be a servant and advocate for the first-year students. Sometimes that meant lending a sympathetic ear; sometimes it meant dishing out some tough love; sometimes it meant calling out a student who had not respected our community values; and sometimes it meant standing up for a student who needed someone in his or her corner.

There is no question that my experience as a professor informed how I worked with students as dean, especially the ones who were struggling with a particular class. I also bring a wealth of experience as dean back to my life as a professor with a much greater appreciation for the full life of a student at Denison, not just his or her academic life.

Many students experience homesickness. I told them two things: first that it will get better; time is the best healer of homesickness. As students immerse themselves in their regular routine, that feeling in the gut does fade away.  The other thing I shared is that most students are going through the same thing.

Time management is the most important skill for a first-year student. There are so many demands on a student’s time, and most students are experiencing a level of freedom and responsibility never faced before. If a student can take charge of his or her schedule and make smart choices about balancing work and recreation, they can succeed brilliantly at Denison.

One of the things that attracted me to the dean position is that I love learning, and I love new challenges. First-year students come to an elite program like Denison’s to challenge themselves, to learn to see the world differently, and to grow as people. In my five years as dean, I never lost sight of that parallel.

There is no question that my own parenting philosophy has changed as a result of my term as dean. My daughter Dylan is nine and in 4th grade. My son Eli is seven and in 2nd grade.  I would say that I now put a lot more responsibility on them to get things done by themselves. They are in charge of doing their own homework. (I will help if asked.) They are given freedom to explore town and the responsibility of being safe doing so. They have a set of chores they are expected to do. I want them to learn at an early age to take responsibility for themselves. I’ve seen what can happen to students who are left to polish these skills in college—it is often a real struggle.

I don’t think anyone should achieve everything she wants. If I ever reached the point in any job where I felt I had done all I could, I would cease being effective. Life as an administrator is a constant movement toward some vision and goal; it’s never static. It’s all about prioritizing to make sure you do accomplish those things that are the most important and leaving the others for another day.

Dean Moller is off to a fantastic start. In fact, he is making it look a little too easy!

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