Mark Rossman, EdD, has been a part of Capella University since 1995, witnessing the exciting growth of the school from less than 100 students at the start to the thousands of learners today.
He’s used his Capella experience to write a book that guides students through their graduate programs, providing them with advice and support. Dr. Rossman co-authored Managing the Graduate School Experience: From Acceptance to Graduation and Beyond with his two daughters, Dr. Kim Muchnick and Dr. Nicole Benak (also Capella PhD graduates).
Dr. Rossman discusses his successful career and what students should consider as they move through an online PhD program.
Q. Tell us about your tenure at Capella and what you enjoyed most about the experience.
A. I started at Capella in 1995 as special assistant to the president at the time, while the school searched for a vice president. Shortly thereafter, I became the VP of Academic Affairs. After about 5 or 6 years in that position, I transitioned back to the faculty as the first Senior Faculty, a newly created position for experienced Capella faculty members. As I left full-time work with Capella, I became Capella’s first Emeritus Senior Faculty.
The highlight of my experience at Capella was during my time as VP of Academic Affairs when Capella received its initial accreditation from North Central. It was really the highlight of my career to be the one to announce to the student body that Capella had received its accreditation.
We received a 5-year accreditation (the maximum) with no focused visit—unheard of at that point. We worked hand and glove—very carefully—with North Central to assure that we met their accreditation standards. We took the process very seriously.
Q. You and your wife, Dr. Maxine Rossman, are 2 of the 11 Capella Pioneers identified by Steve Shank, one of Capella’s founders. Tell us about the Capella Pioneers.
A. The Capella Pioneers were those of us who had major roles in starting the university. My wife Maxine was the VP of Learner Services and originally came on as a consultant to develop a student handbook. The pioneers were people who did everything. It wouldn’t be uncommon for us to be in our suits and ties after a major meeting cleaning the coffee machine, sweeping floors, and emptying the trash. We did it all.
The neat thing about Capella at that point was that we were so small, we knew everyone. One of the first enrollment counselors even set up a system where we would ring a bell when someone “got in” to Capella.
Q. What do you think is the most important thing for prospective students to know about Capella?
A. Learners have to be self-directed and take as much responsibility as possible to direct their program. Often in graduate school, students wait for things to happen. They wait for teachers to tell them what to do. I think they should be able to know what’s going on in the program by digging into the policy handbooks and other resources—anything that’s available—then ask questions. Don’t wait. Make things happen.
Q. What is your book about, and what inspired you to write this book with your daughters?
A. The central theme of the book is that to succeed, graduate students need to be fully aware of the process of completing a graduate degree, control as many aspects of the process as possible, and be careful, skillful, and tactful negotiators. Simply stated, the book is designed to help learners complete a graduate degree, regardless of how it is offered—online or on-campus.
I also wanted to be able to really express my personal learning and teaching philosophy. I feel strongly that learners don’t exert as much control as they should. There are times where they aren’t encouraged to put forth their own views and ideas. The reason I wrote the book is to point out where learners have control and where faculty can support learners by guiding them and facilitating discussions in others areas where learners may have questions or have a need to explore further. Oftentimes I hear from learners that they’re not encouraged to read the policy manuals or student handbooks and propose options—they’re encouraged to do what instructors tell them and be done with it. Through my experience at Capella, I’ve found that the learning process works best when it is a two-way street. Facilitators are encouraged to support learners and meet them where they are to support their ideas and expanded thoughts.
Over the years, the references and terms used in previous versions of the book became outdated, so when I decided to revise the book, I wanted to have my daughters involved because they’re both Capella graduates and both involved in online teaching. They helped bring fresh perspective and added new references and ideas, updated terminology, etc. For example, I did not know much about MOOCs and my daughters introduced those concepts in the book. It was a fun experience to work with them.
Q. Who would benefit from reading your book?
A. I wrote the book for a number of key audiences.
The book benefits incoming master’s or doctoral students in that it explains the graduate school process—what’s involved, how you get in, what you do when you’re there, what you do with your degree. The book is also a good companion for learners already in a program or newly enrolled.
My book also supports learners at the dissertation stage. These are the people who are at real risk of failure—and about 50% of them nationally do fail to complete their degree. It’s not because they aren’t able to do the work; it’s because they don’t understand the process. The book explains how to develop an idea into a proposal and how to turn the proposal into a final dissertation.
And finally, the book supports professors who want to understand the process. Many times, their view on how to design a graduate program is based on their experience as a graduate student. But what do you do for students who want something different? The book helps them get out of the learner’s way and think about new and creative ways to respond to the different learning styles of their advisees.
Q. What or who influenced your writing?
A. My experiences helped guide the book, but I also leaned heavily on the theory of andragogy (the art and science of helping adults learn) developed by Malcolm Knowles.
Andragogy has been a part of my philosophy since day one. It’s different than pedagogy, which refers to the teaching of children. Adults learn very differently than children. Adults have more and greater experiences than children and tend to use their experience as a means of evaluating or applying the relevance of new knowledge. Andragogy looks at the adult learners experience as an asset to be utilized rather as a threat to the teaching process.
Q. What is up on the horizon for you and your family?
A. I’ve always thought teaching has been akin to acting. Good teachers have much in common with good actors in terms of timing, diction, and enthusiasm. I did a lot of research on the similarities between actors and teachers. Over the years, I’ve been involved in acting, and since I’ve left Capella my wife and I started our own theater—Cherry Creek Theater in Denver, Colo. It’s now completing its fifth year.
I think that my family is unique in that my wife Maxine and I have always done things together—we’ve worked in three different universities together, facilitated workshops together, and co-founded a theater. We truly enjoy working together as a family.