For some, their professions are in their blood.
So it is for Mary Lynn Henningsen, a professor in the Department of Communication, who inherited from her ancestors not only a career path but a belief system as well.
“My maternal grandmother and my mother were both teachers,” says Henningsen, who came to NIU in 2001. “My mom was in graduate school when I was in preschool. To test out a teaching technique for her thesis, she stretched long ribbons across our living room, and she asked me to be a note on the treble clef.”
Childhood memories like that stayed with her as she pursed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication from Miami University (1993 and 1994) and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2001.
“I learned from this matrilineal teaching legacy that learning requires active involvement in the topic,” says Henningsen, who teaches in the Interpersonal, Organizational and Persuasive area of the department with specialties in social influence, decision-making and faculty-student communication.
“As a teacher, my goal is to create an opportunity for my students to get involved in their own education,” she adds. “Teaching is a jointly created experience that inspires awe and allows students to arrive at their own understanding of the subject. Teaching means trying to craft an environment that invites students to actively develop their knowledge of the content.”
Graduates of her courses remember performing the Hokey Pokey, an activity that exemplify the stages of hypothesis testing.
Or absorbing the sounds of rainstorms to investigate the persuasive effects of nonverbal cues. Or hearing noise makers as a demonstration of social influence. Or experiencing dance flash mobs featuring Henningsen, her graduate teaching assistants and the NIU Forensics Team, something the professor calls “a fundamentally different experience than listening to a lecture.”
These activities, Henningsen says, “allow students to be actively present with the phenomenon of persuasion.”
Previous assignments have asked students to create persuasive campaigns that discourage texting while driving or treating service dogs like pets or that promote getting adequate sleep, attending class or using crosswalks.
Henningsen’s mentoring work, meanwhile, has allowed her to “learn every day and share the love of learning with my students” as she has guided her Huskies in projects that have explored questions such as what made the Ice Bucket Challenge go viral on social media or how online learning during COVID-19 influenced teacher self-efficacy.
“The joy in their generation of answers is the best reward of my career,” she says.
NIU colleagues and alumni consider Henningsen, whom they lovingly call “Min,” a reward.
Praised for “a fair and disciplined command over her class while delivering a flexible and fun learning environment,” Henningsen receives accolades for holding rigorous standards for her students along with her commitment to help students achieve those high standards.
She also is known as a professor who “not only cares for her students and seeks to understand them” but one who wants them “to love her subject matter as much as she did.”
Laura Vazquez, an NIU Board of Trustees professor in the Department of Communication, says Henningsen “engages students with ethics, kindness and openness.”
“She presents her students with living, breathing engagement so that conceptual understanding is clear,” Vazquez says. “This is not a situation where Dr. Henningsen’s philosophy is window dressing. It truly evidenced in her classroom teaching strategies and well-known in department lore.”
Benjamin L. Davis, a doctoral graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, earned his NIU master’s degree from 2014 to 2016.
“Many times, I sat in Min’s office in Watson Hall being absolutely blown away by her guidance, advice and nurturing support. She allowed me to develop the thesis in a way that made me personally invested in the project,” Davis says. “Min doesn’t limit her students’ interests to serve her own research agenda; rather, she cares about her students’ passions and is skillful at meeting students where they are in their own talents and interests, working with them to explore and grow their own ideas and questions.”
Just fulfilling her destiny, Henningsen says.
“My grandmother probably said it best when she told me that teaching meant encouraging students to do their own learning,” she says. “My role as a teacher is not to give my students knowledge. As a teacher, I hope to excite in my students their own love of learning.”