With my daughter successfully defending her dissertation (Way to go, Dr. Mary, PhD!), my thoughts this week were filled with memories of my own graduate school experiences: my defense, dissertation, and most of all, my advisor, John Stecklein. Also stirring those memories this week are the accomplishments of another young woman, his granddaughter, Lee Stecklein, currently competing with the USA Women’s Hockey team in her third Winter Olympics.
It has been a dozen years since Prof. Stecklein passed away, and truth be told, I lost touch with him several years before that – you know how that goes. Looking back, however, I cannot overstate the impact that he had on my life and career.
It Takes a Village
Nobody earns a PhD, or accomplishes anything of significance for that matter, on their own and I was no exception. In my case, it’s fair to say that it took a village. Any list starts, of course, with my wife and the support she provided; support that included her willingness to join me in Minnesota and her ability to provide for us financially throughout those years. Speaking of money, because there was none of it in measurement and evaluation (I probably should have paid closer attention to that), and my graduate assistantships took me to Special Education, Stan Deno, CBM, school-based research, and a lifelong friendship with the PI on that project, Steve Robinson. For the actual measurement side of the “measurement and evaluation” program and a link to the psychometrics folks across the courtyard in the Psychology Department there was Mark Davison. There were my fellow graduate students, within and outside of the program, and the department administrative staff who actually kept the place and everyone in it from falling apart.
And then there was my advisor, Prof. Stecklein.
The IBM card reader room on the top floor of the Psych building overlooking the Mississippi River was my Fortress of Solitude, but his office was my sanctuary. It was located in the suite of offices and meeting space that housed the Ed Psych statistics professors – tucked away in the small half-floor that sat atop the back half of Burton Hall, isolated literally and figuratively from the rest of building and the rest of the world. His office had the cozy clutter one expects when visiting a professor or an old bookstore – the comfort in being surrounded by books and papers without the fear that a small breeze could leave you buried in the same. It was also the first time I had ever seen an office with a mini fridge. And there was the man sitting behind the desk.
The Long Game
They tell you that getting a doctorate is a marathon, but they treat it as if it’s a series of sprints. A steady stream of deadlines and seemingly life-altering decisions coming at you from every direction. On top of everything else, the University of Minnesota in the 1980s operated on a quarter schedule instead of semesters. I never got used to taking a third round of courses in the spring.
But in meetings with Prof. Stecklein, I learned how to slow it all down – to focus on the long game, to think about where I was going and how I would get there.
For the three years I was on campus in Minnesota, the three years after that to complete my degree, and for years after that we talked.
We talked about teaching and about the differences in teaching statistics to undergrads, graduate students, and nursing students. We had friendly debates on the merits of introducing statistical tests using sets of numbers that students might find fun or engaging even if those numbers didn’t quite meet the assumptions for the test. (An issue that never came up once during my career in large-scale testing.)
We talked about life, about family and tennis. Tennis was one of his loves. Playing, I never made it beyond a single summer session of free lessons at the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Boston. But how could you not love tennis in the 80s: Connors and McEnroe and then Becker, Evert, Navratilova, and Graf.
We talked about careers in academia, the pros, and the cons. One aspect that I interpreted as a con was being at the mercy of the University Press to continue to produce and market a series of neat little assessment literacy briefs for classroom teachers and others that he had written.
In many ways, his distinguished career in institutional research was a testament to the benefits of playing the long game. Among his signature projects was the study of Minnesota college faculty; a very longitudinal study with census-like surveys administered to faculty at all of the institutions of higher education approximately every ten years starting in the late 1950s. Each successive survey yielding a wealth of analyses and papers about the current state of higher education in Minnesota and how it had changed over time.
My one opportunity to collaborate with him was based on data from the third round of the study. It resulted in the paper, Comparative Factor Patterns of College Faculty Characteristics, my first conference presentation at the 1986 annual forum of the Association for Institutional Research (AIR) in Orlando, and the opportunity to experience Ozark Airlines (famous for their regionally-based meals and wine cellar in the sky).
At the AIR conference, I was able to see Prof. Stecklein away from the campus, in his own element, interacting with people in an organization and field he helped nurture since serving as the first president of AIR in 1965. I took those lessons with me to NEERO and NERA and leaned heavily on AIR’s well-documented “50thanniversary methodology” in preparing for NEERO’s 50th in 2019.
In 1986, when classes and prelims and proposals were finished and the pull of being away from family in Boston became too strong, we talked again about family and about statistics – the statistics that reflected the challenges involved in leaving campus before completing the degree.
In those days before e-mail and text messages, he stayed in contact with timely phone calls and letters. He kept me connected and moving forward, albeit more slowly than either of us hoped. Then the call came when he informed me that he was retiring in 1989, so if I was going to finish the time was now. And so, with my first PC (a Packard Bell) and pile of floppy disks containing BMDP statistical software I finished my dissertation.
I defended my dissertation in November 1989, in the little conference room a few doors down from his office.
That night, Prof. Stecklein and his wife, Helen, took me to dinner at an Italian restaurant. We reminisced about the past six years, talked about our unknown futures (he was entering retirement and I was teaching my first college course to pre-service teachers and two months into a data analysis position at Advanced Systems), and we drew upon my heritage to discuss the differences among the various shapes of pasta – how they were pronounced, what they looked like, and how to choose the right type of pasta for a particular sauce.
It was a wonderful evening.
He was a wonderful man.
A final thought
I wrote last year about the process of choosing to attend the University of Minnesota. Choosing the right advisor was not something I considered as part of the process. I knew Minnesota had great faculty, but I knew nothing about John Stecklein when he called and told me that he would be my advisor. I didn’t have a real conversation with him until I arrived in Minneapolis in September 1983. So, maybe Garth was right, we will never know the way it all will end, the way it all will go. You will never have all the information you need when it’s time to decide, and perhaps to a certain extent our lives are better left to chance. Put yourself into situations with good people and trust the process. Good things will happen.
Image by AlexiusHoratius, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons