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Associate Dean of Liberal Arts Dr. Robert Denning: A Faculty Q&A

SNHU associate dean of liberal arts Dr. Robert Denning wearing a dark suit and blue tie.Dr. Robert Denning, Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) associate dean of liberal arts, joined SNHU as an adjunct instructor in 2013 after earning his bachelor’s in history and then master's in history from California State University, Sacramento and his doctorate in history from Ohio State University. Recently he answered questions about his professional background, the importance of education and more. 

Please tell us a bit about your professional background.  

I started college as a math major in California, which required me to take a “History of Mathematics” course. I realized then that I enjoyed the history part better than the math part, so I switched majors and earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in history, focusing on the American West.

Then I dragged my family to Ohio, where I earned a doctorate in modern American history. I taught history courses as an adjunct instructor at a variety of institutions for a few years, including community colleges, small liberal arts colleges and large research universities.

In 2015, I joined Southern New Hampshire University as a full-time faculty member, where I taught graduate-level history courses. I then became the associate dean of liberal arts, where I oversee the online history programs, in 2019. I still teach the graduate capstone courses whenever possible.

What first drew you to higher education? 

I always assumed I would continue to college after high school, if only to escape the small town where I grew up. I never thought I would work in higher education until I started grad school where one of my responsibilities was to teach, which was terrifying at first but became enjoyable once I began to master the material and engage with students.

How do you continue to learn and evolve as a leader in higher education? 

I try to read everything I can related to the state of the industry and the field. I read the “Chronicle of Higher Education” and “Inside Higher Ed” to help understand the major trends and issues facing academia.

I also subscribe to the publications of the top history-related organizations, including the American Historical Association (“The American Historical Review,” “The History Teacher,” and “Perspectives on History”), the Organization of American Historians (“The Journal of American History”), and H-Net.

I try to attend the annual conferences for the major history organizations also, where I can network with other professionals and keep up to date on scholarship and issues of importance to professional historians and students alike.

What do you feel is unique about the faculty, students and programs you oversee? 

There is a strong sense of community among historians, which is evident in the ways that instructors and students interact with each other in classes, our student club and in our online faculty community.

History is one of those fields where you pursue the topics that fascinate you, and fascination is infectious. Historians at all levels love to hear narratives of historical events and discoveries of new sources, so there is not as much concern with rank as there is in some other fields.

Everything has a history, as we like to say, so it is not difficult to find common ground. 

Can you think of a particularly impactful or eye-opening moment as a faculty member? 

I recently participated in my first graduation ceremonies since 2019. I teach online and had not come face to face with students in nearly five years.

At those ceremonies I saw students from all different programs and different walks of life, along with the families that supported them, and it was a reminder that the university experience, including my small roles in developing the history curriculum and teaching a couple courses, has a huge impact on the lives of many people in the short term and in the long term.

Graduation ceremonies are humbling and exhilarating experiences.

How have you found ways to effectively connect with students? 

I host a podcast series, “Working Historians,” where I interview professional historians about their careers in museums, archives, academia, industry, consulting, teaching and other fields.

An engaged group of students recently established the “ChronoScholars History Club,” where I get to interact with students to discuss historical topics of interest, history-related projects, and news from the department and broader profession.

I will also launch a series webinars for students in 2024.

What advice do you have for new and current students? 

It is never too early to start thinking about the program’s capstone project (a research project that expands our collective knowledge on a historical topic), and it is never too early to start thinking about what you want to do with the degree after graduation.

Why is education important to you and the world at large? 

Education provides the tools necessary to navigate the world and interact with other people successfully. In addition to teaching the skills necessary to succeed in a career, education helps people to think critically about the world around them, to question the status quo, to recognize and understand biases, to consider different viewpoints, to engage with people of different backgrounds, and, perhaps most importantly, to recognize when they are wrong.

The world does not need more blind followers; it needs more independent thinkers who engage in debate in good faith, support their arguments with evidence and are willing to change their minds when someone else makes a different, but better, argument. 

Beyond work, what’s something you’re passionate about or really enjoy doing? 

I have spent 20 years learning how to play the ukulele, with middling results. 

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Joe Cote is a writer and organic marketer at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), where he has worked since 2016. Previously he spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers in Vermont and New Hampshire. He lives near SNHU's Manchester, New Hampshire campus with his wife and daughter. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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