Processing your PhD: on teaching

blackboard photoRecent PhD grad Will Mari continues his series on life after graduate school, Processing Your PhD. See his first post here.

Almost by their nature, large research universities don’t necessarily prime their PhD students and candidates for a teaching-oriented academic career. That’s changing, has been changing for the better, but most big programs in most places place a huge, albeit understandable, emphasis on becoming a researcher.

That being said, I was well-served by a department and a field that values teaching, and by a supportive adviser who spent the early part of his own career teaching many courses in the midst of research and writing. I learned from excellent mentors about the dos and don’ts of engaging with undergraduates. I enjoyed working as a teaching assistant and, as our university calls them, an instructor-of-record (IOR). But working as a TA and IOR for a class or a few sections is far different than teaching full-time or nearly so.

This past year I taught several classes while finishing my dissertation. It was a tough year. But I was pleasantly surprised by just how much fun it was to teach. Granted, I was on a course release, and two of my three classes were in my field (mass communication and journalism), but as a baby professor, I had to learn to juggle, and juggle quickly. I dropped many balls and definitely had some dud lectures and moments that felt overwhelming (and where I felt like doing nothing but fleeing to my office and crying in frustration), but my students were by and large patient, attentive, enthusiastic, hard-working and respectful of their newbie teacher.

Granted, some of this had to do with where I was working. Northwest is a small, faith-based university. Many of its students are the first in their family to go to college, or working more than one job to help pay for school. Few suffer from entitlement, which is refreshing. Most are some variation of Christian. There were exceptions, of course, but they were probably the best-situated students to give me grace. I tried to reciprocate.

It also was in the daily act of teaching that I felt affirmed in my vocation. There was no swooning moment, a la Dead Poets Society (though that remains a great teacher-inspiration movie). No one stood on desks and recited from the great communication theorists. I stood on a stool and held a yardstick high in the air to turn on a projector once, but I don’t think that sparked anyone’s imagination (besides the thought that their professor might and perhaps should fall).

Instead, it was in quiet (and loud) conversations with colleagues in the hall, talks with students in my office, in lectures that actually more or less worked and in difficult discourse about race and the media, in grading papers and in giving tests that I developed, slowly, over the year, a sense that yes, I am supposed to do this. I was made and am being made for this, for teaching.

A good mentor and colleague at Wheaton, Prof. Tracy McKenzie (whose awesome blog is well worth checking out, incidentally, at, once told me something that has stayed with me as I’ve waded into this world of the teacher-scholar. He eschewed being called “Dr.,” by his students, and instead preferred “Professor.”

That better reflected his calling, he said, especially as he got older. The first is an essential credential and helps one gain admission to the academy. But the latter means more to what you’re really doing. It’s akin to pastoring, he said, to profess-ing and ministering to others. I have a long way to go, but I’m inclined to agree. I confess, however, that in the meantime I like being called “Dr. Mari,” at least until I grow up into being a better professor.

Image courtesy of geralt at

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Will Mari

Will Mari is a recent PhD graduate of the University of Washington’s Dept. of Communication. His areas of research include media history, the history of media technology, and journalism studies. He loves teaching at Northwest University in nearby Kirkland, Washington. Also, Jesus, Ruth, tea, and Hamilton in that order.

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