The Don Dillman Fellowship: Interview with Leah Christian and Jolene Smyth


Leah Christian, Don Dillman, and Jolene Smyth standing together and smiling.
Don Dillman (center) with former students and current colleagues Leah Christian (left) and Jolene Smyth at the celebration for Don’s 50 years of service at WSU. Photo by J. Michael Short.

The Don Dillman Fellowship developed from an idea that Sociology alumni Leah Christian (National Opinion Research Center University of Chicago, PhD 2007) and Jolene Smyth (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, PhD 2007) launched to honor the impact that Don Dillman had on their and many other graduate students’ educations, careers, and lives. The pair spearheaded a fundraising effort among the many Sociology graduate students whose careers Don influenced over these past 50-plus years. From this effort, the Don Dillman Fellowship was endowed. We spoke with Leah and Jolene about their history with Don, the motivation for and development of the fellowship, and their hopes moving forward.

The Don Dillman Fellowship provides dissertation research funds for graduate students pursuing doctoral degrees in the department of sociology in some capacity at WSU. The fellowship honors Don Dillman’s commitment to supporting graduate students and their research, and his passion for improving survey research and other data collection methods. Thank you to all our donors who have contributed to this fellowship thus far. If you are interested in making a donation to the Don Dillman Fellowship, please visit the WSU Foundation’s online giving site.

Breaking news: We are pleased to announce the inaugural award winner of the Don Dillman Fellowship is Andrea De La Barrera Montppellier. The winner was announced in late April 2021. The newsletter plans to feature an interview with Andrea sometime next academic year. Congratulations, Andrea!

Tom: To begin, please tell us about your history with Don.

Leah: Tom might remember this, but it started after my first year of graduate school at WSU in the master’s program. Don was looking for a summer research assistant and Tom nicely recommended me, and it turned into a multi-year, long-lasting relationship. I first started working with Don on the visual design of web and paper surveys. After that first summer, it just continued and I was a research assistant for the rest of my time in graduate school, working with Don and the SESRC (Social & Economic Sciences Research Center at WSU).

Jo: I was Leah’s office mate in grad school for some time, so I knew Leah was working with Don, and then I took his class and found it interesting. It wasn’t the feminist family sociology that I thought I went to grad school for, but it was super intriguing and fun. I needed a job in the summer, so I went to Don and I guess I had done well enough in his class that he hired me. We’d joke that he actually hired me because we both grew up on dairy farms so we could reminisce about dairy farm things that nobody else really understood.

The first project Don had me work on was an experiment where he had collected data on “check all that apply” and forced-choice questions. He essentially dumped the data in my lap and said, “Write this up.” So I went to work and it became my first-ever publication—and probably the publication that’s generated the most citations or recognition in my career so far. It still generates a lot of conversation and argument.

We went on to work on many things like Leah said, visual design to mixed-mode surveys and web-push surveys. Even now when I have new ideas, he’s often the first person I send them to and say, “Hey what do you think?” Generally, he adjusts and pushes back and makes them better in some way before I get them out into the world. So, he was a great mentor in grad school, but he’s continued to be a mentor well beyond grad school.

Tom: We hope students identify influential mentors in graduate school, but not all of us have developed fellowships on behalf of our mentors. I’m wondering about what motivated the fellowship and how it developed.

Jo: Two things. One is that when it came time for me to do my dissertation, I wanted to get a little bit out of the strict methodology world and do more of the substantive stuff that I was interested in when I came to grad school. I wasn’t doing survey experiments or anything like what we had been working on. And yet, Don funded my dissertation for me to collect data on farm women in the state of Washington. He provided me money to survey those folks and support to drive around the state interviewing those folks. That, along with all the methodological mentoring and career-building that he did really stuck with me. When I became a junior faculty member at my first job, I got to see how other people related and talked to their mentors and it just wasn’t the same. I feel like I got luckier than those people. I think it’s the strength of that relationship that made us want to come back and realizing that he has done that for so many students before us. We wanted something to be in place as a reminder to an ongoing legacy that represents what he’s done for graduate students over the years.

Leah: I would echo that he invests and where he invests, he invests heavily. I mean that not in a financial way, necessarily—although he did invest in Jo’s dissertation financially—but in what he gives to that mentoring relationship, and not just day one but day whatever. We probably shouldn’t count anymore (laughs). He was the first to give an opportunity and bring people in.

Both Jo and I went to our first AAPOR (American Association for Public Opinion Research) conference together, funded by Don. It was amazing to see all the other graduate students who came before us and the long-standing relationships, so we really started to see that multiplying effect and how much impact he’s had. Specifically, what he’s given to graduate students in terms of mentoring, research, and teaching—the whole combination.

I would add that it’s rare for someone to be at the university as long as he has. So, the combination of his tenure at WSU and that he stayed and invested in that university, community, and the graduate students. We could have done an AAPOR award or other types of things, but given how much he has committed to WSU, it was cool to be able to do something here and continue this legacy of supporting graduate students and particularly research work and financial support to help them carry that out.

Tom: The award reflects what Don’s done his whole career. Don identifies students who are interested in the work that he’s doing and then he gives back 100-fold. We can’t quantify the contributions, but I think the award is a nice reflection of Don’s career.

Jo: One of the things that’s been the most fun about this fundraising effort and this fellowship has been hearing people’s stories of Don and the impact he had, which has resonated with our stories. It’s been super fun to connect to this whole world, the “Don Dillman bubble.”

Tom: I think it is interesting to consider how when we graduate from graduate school, we have this mentoring relationship and our local peer network, but we often fail to understand the extent of the larger academic network that comes before us. Don’s mentored so many students in such a wide variety of situations and they still connect with him. For Don this network is extensive, isn’t it? Please tell us a little bit more about the fundraising effort, what it took to get it off the ground running, and how many people are involved in your endeavor.

Jo: Leah and I talked about wanting to do this for many years, but, you know, you’re busy with building careers and all this stuff, so we didn’t get to it for a long time. We finally had a point in our careers where we had some bandwidth to do this, so the first thing we did was talk to Monica Johnson, who had become chair, about whether the department was interested and what they thought about it. She helped us get in touch with folks at the WSU Foundation and so we started working through it on that end.

We had several ideas—how do you honor a guy like Don Dillman who had all this impact? We toyed around with involving Don in the process or surprising him and Joy, his wife, as well. I think we ended up having some secret meetings with Joy behind the scenes to get her perspective on what she thought would be meaningful for Don. Ultimately, we involved him in the process to figure out the purpose of the award. When we finally came around to this idea of graduate student funding, we were like, “Oh, yeah, that’s obvious. That shoe fits really well.” So we ran with that.

From there, we started compiling lists of people. We reached out to the department to get us lists of Don’s former students and the SESRC to get us lists of people who had worked with him there. Leah and I drew a little bit on our knowledge of our professional field within AAPOR and related organizations. I went through Don’s vita and pulled anybody who was not on our existing list, whom he had published with, who was still active and contactable. From there, we started reaching out to folks. I think we did two mass mailings of emails and letters to contact people and generated a ton of interest from folks just in doing that. People jumped on board and I think that speaks to Don’s influence. Interestingly enough, it created social networks for me here in the Lincoln, Nebraska and Omaha area, people who are in Omaha who I didn’t realize were here and who are Don’s former students, which has been fun.

Leah: It was at least a couple hundred, I want to say. There was such a wide range of responses to Jo’s point, which was so nice. And it was interesting to see the notes, see what people wanted to contribute, whatever they could where they were in life and be a part of it. People were excited about that.

Jo: One of the things that’s special about this award is that we didn’t wait until Don was no longer with us to do it. We got the chance to get his input and to have him help us shape it and to do something that fit him, and I think that’s super cool. Hopefully, he got the chance to understand how much we appreciate his contribution to our careers and everybody else’s too.

Tom: That’s really nice. I remember we did a similar thing for Jim Short and the Jim Short Paper Award, and it was great having Jim come to the presentations and see the graduate students who won the award in his honor because there is something to be said for having the person around and recognizing their influence. Can you describe the purpose of the award and what you hope to see it do in the future?

Jo: We tied it to Sociology because we are of the Sociology department as is Don. But we didn’t want to get too tied to Sociology because we knew that there are students doing great and sociological work in different disciplines. I believe the fund agreement we ended up with essentially says it’s for Sociology students or at least somebody who has a Sociology faculty member on their committee. Although the fund is written quite broadly, it’s meant to fund dissertation work, especially data collection. Our idea was that there are good dissertations out there that could be really good if they just had a little more backing behind them. So, we identify students who are doing solid dissertation work and we give them a little backing that can help take it to the next level. Hopefully, that helps set them up for the rest of their career, not just for this dissertation but everything that a great dissertation can do for you moving forward.

Leah: Yeah, and with Don, as everyone knows, certainly Sociology is his home, but he is affiliated with many different groups and organizations across the University. So that was the balance of wanting to keep it in the Sociology family but give some opportunity for other students. Any given class of his in the graduate program I think was half sociology and half outside of sociology, for the survey practicum in particular.

And the data collection part of it—he was always about that. “If you need to answer a research question, let’s collect data to figure it out and do an experiment.” It alone probably isn’t going to be the funding for a lot of folks, but it can hopefully add to what people are able to do and take that project a bit further than it would have without it.

Tom: The department is aware of the legacy that Don has created here. The department really wants to make this first award special. I view it as arm in arm with the Jim Short Award in the sense that both of those faculty had such a strong influence in the department and where it is today. Those two are at the forefront because of the time they spent here. It is rare to have someone stay that long because Don (and Jim Short) certainly could have moved anywhere. They both had amazing careers and decided to stay in Pullman. It’s nice to have their contributions and memories reflected in these awards. The department is appreciative of you two and the others who are involved in supporting it. What are your hopes for the award moving forward?

Jo: I think COVID has put the brakes on active fundraising because there were other more pressing things that needed to be dealt with, like making sure people had food and shelter. But as we’re looking at vaccinations and aid coming out, and there starts to be a little light at the end of the tunnel, maybe we can get back to something looking a little normal. I hope that we can re-energize and get going again on the fundraising front and, ultimately, I would love the endowment to be large enough that it can fund a full great dissertation. That’s my hope for it in the future. So we’ll get reorganized and pick up steam, as it’s appropriate to do so as we come out of COVID, and try to keep it moving.

Leah Christian joined NORC at the University of Chicago as the first-ever senior vice president of the Methodology and Quantitative Social Sciences Department in February of this year, overseeing and developing their research activities and methodological capabilities. Previously Leah was the senior vice president of Data Science at Nielsen, and before this she was a methodologist at Pew Research Center. Leah received her master’s degree and PhD (2007) at WSU in the Department of Sociology. Leah is the co-winner of the prestigious AAPOR Warren J. Mitofsky Innovator’s Award for web-push data collection methodology and co-author of Internet, Phone, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method, with Don Dillman and Jolene Smyth.

Jolene Smyth is a professor and chair of the Sociology Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with research interests in survey methodology and gender. Previously, Jolene was the director of the Bureau of Sociology Research at the university for almost a decade. Jolene received her master’s degree and PhD (2007) at WSU in the department of sociology. Jolene is the co-winner of the prestigious AAPOR Warren J. Mitofsky Innovator’s Award for web-push data collection methodology and co-author of Internet, Phone, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method, with Don Dillman and Leah Christian.

Don Dillman is a Regents Professor in the Department of Sociology at WSU, where he also serves as the Deputy Director of the Social & Economic Sciences Research Center (SESRC). He has lived in Pullman since 1969 and has served as chair of the Department of Rural Sociology (1973-1981) and director of the SESRC (1986-1996) and was a founding coordinator of the Public Opinion Laboratory in 1970. Throughout his distinguished career at WSU, Don has maintained an active research program, authoring nearly 300 articles, books, and other publications. He has supported graduate students through his teaching and research grants and by serving on the dissertation committees for more than 100 graduate students, 29 of which he chaired. He is best known for his book, Mail and Telephone Surveys: The Total Design Method, the first of four editions published in 1978, 2000, 2009, and 2014, which continues to guide the design of student surveys in universities throughout the world.