A conversation with Mark Moller, dean of first-year students, philosophy professor and, yes, a Winnie the Pooh fan.
What does the dean of first-year students do?
As I see it, the dean of first-year students is responsible for helping first-years transition successfully from high school to Denison. One part of this role is overseeing the various programs that Denison has to assist in this process, including June Orientation, the pre-orientations, August Orientation, and the First-Year Studies (FYS) writing courses. Another part is to work individually with students who might be struggling with their own transitions because of homesickness, academic difficulties, or illnesses.
What was your own first year of college like? Has your experience affected the way you do your job today?
My own first year was difficult for me. I struggled academically and socially. By the end of that year I was in danger of failing out, and I considered not returning. Everything began to change my sophomore year when I became more involved, made a number of strong friendships, and found my direction academically.
Because of my own experience, I’m more understanding and patient when I work with students who are struggling. I also am unwilling to give up on a student because he or she is not doing well academically. My own academic trajectory changed when a faculty member took an interest in me and had confidence in my success.
“Because of my own experience, I’m more understanding and patient when I work with students who are struggling. I also am unwilling to give up on a student because he or she is not doing well academically.”
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.
I like to watch cartoons on TV. I am a huge fan of the Avatar and the Ben 10 series.
How has your teaching and research in philosophy influenced your work with first-year students?
As a philosophy professor, I teach and do research on ethics. This is an area of philosophy that seeks answers to such questions as, “How ought I to act?” and “What kind of person should I be?” and “What makes an act or a person moral?” It’s the second of these questions that most influences my work with first-year students. I see it as the question they need to be asking themselves.
Let’s say you’re stuck on an island. What’s the one book you’d like to have?
I have always been a big fan of Winnie-the-Pooh, and my children grew up listening to A.A. Milne’s stories about him and watching the classic Disney Pooh Bear videos. So, if I were stuck on an island, I would want The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh with me. I would want a book that would make me happy every time I reread it.
If you could pick one thing, what do you think makes or breaks a student’s first year in college?
Being able to persevere. Every student is going to face challenges during the first year. What makes a difference is how students handle these challenges. Will they learn from the mistakes they may have made and begin to make different choices? Will they become advocates for themselves and seek out whatever assistance they need, including taking advantage of the resources that Denison provides? Or, will they allow the challenges to pile up and become overwhelming?
What do you tell first-year students who are homesick?
I tell them that homesickness will eventually pass. The key is not letting it keep them from staying on campus during the weekends and from getting involved. For most students, once they have the opportunity to spend some time with other students, they will find their place socially at Denison and will be just fine.
If you weren’t a faculty member at Denison, what would be your dream job?
This is a dream job. I really mean it. But, if I couldn’t do what I am doing now, I would want to be a fly-fishing guide in Montana. Although, given how bad I am at fly-fishing, this is as far-fetched as my playing first base for the St. Louis Cardinals (which also wouldn’t be that bad).