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Retiring professor Michael Marks reflects on Willamette’s community and love of learning

Eleanor Hu

Lifestyles Editor

Professor Michael Marks. Photo courtesy of the Willamette website.

At the end of the 21-22 academic year, Professor Michael Marks will be retiring after 28 years of teaching classes in Willamette’s International Studies department and the former Politics department. He is excited to travel, publish books and spend time with his family during his retirement, but will miss forming relationships with students and the opportunity to contribute to their learning.

Marks began working at Willamette in 1994 after receiving his PhD from Cornell University and spending a year working as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Wyoming. Having experienced the competitive environment of an Ivy League, Marks chose to work at Willamette in the hopes that students would have a passion for learning, rather than just desiring the prestige of a degree. Over the years, he’s found this to be true: “[Willamette students are] genuine, smart people…they’re focused on learning rather than trying to get the ‘right credentials.’”

As a whole, students are Marks’ favorite part of his job at Willamette. He said, though there are many things he enjoys about the university, the most rewarding aspect of his profession is working with students: “I’ve met thousands of students, and the most…enriching part of the job is having students to help with their education, to work with.” He emphasized the student-professor collaboration, stating, “It’s not like students are just the receptacles of an education, they’re partners in the learning process.”

Simply the fulfillment and purpose that comes with being a professor is what Marks will miss most after retiring. He said, “Being a college professor is not just a job, it’s who you are. And so what I think I’m going to miss is that identity.” He added, “In general [being a professor] is unlike any other job—you don’t just briefly come into contact with people in your job, you actually get the chance to know them and work with them, and have the opportunity to help them along in their education.”

Over the years Marks has enjoyed teaching many courses, but his favorite is his International Politics course because, “It’s the introduction to the main area that I teach in…[it’s] the basic concepts, but they’re quite sophisticated. Being able to teach basic theories that nonetheless have challenged scholars for decades is very satisfying.” Marks began with classes in the former Politics department, and after that was transformed into PPLE, started teaching International Studies classes. However, he has always enjoyed courses that reflect his research interests—in recent years, political metaphors and discourse.

Over the years, Marks has seen Willamette change in several ways. What stands out to him is the increasing prevalence of technology, as professors moved from having to request computers and struggling to send attachments on emails to now always being connected to their students via technology. He said, “Being a professor at Willamette is now a 24 hour a day, 365 day a year profession.” Marks anticipates further changes happening after he retires—in particular, both the International Studies major and the university in general having less major-specific classes and more emphasis on courses that connect to a variety of majors.

However, Marks hopes that one thing that stays the same is the ‘Willamette Way.’ The term was popular when he began teaching at Willamette in 1994, and was used to describe the sense of community, collaboration and partnership that is prevalent at the university. In comparison to many other schools, where faculty, staff and students can be completely at odds with each other, everyone in the Willamette community, “[tries] to cooperate and be nice to each other and find ways to approach problems where everyone [feels] affirmed…[People feel] welcomed and like their contributions are useful.” He said that, above all, he hopes that this turn of phrase continues to accurately describe the university well into the future.

When asked what advice he’d give to the Willamette community, Marks brought it back to what he valued most about his time at the university—students learning. To faculty, he emphasized, “Focus on the educational mission and not the business of running a university” and to students he advised, “This is a unique opportunity where you have four years in your life when you’re really focused on learning…Do all the things you want to do, but make sure education is at the core of it.”

During retirement Marks will be following his own advice by continuing to learn and explore new ideas, places and concepts. He plans to continue writing: “I have a list of, like, five books I could write, and…I have a lot of ideas I’d still like to pursue: either books or articles or maybe having a column on Substack.” Assuming that governments continue to ease Covid restrictions, Marks would like to travel as well—he currently has a trip to India booked for fall of 2022 and also hopes to visit Japan sometime soon. In addition to these ambitions, he also wants to spend more time with his family and learn a new skill, true to his character.

Marks and his love of learning have had an impact on many students, faculty and staff over the 28 years he’s been at Willamette. All who have had the pleasure of interacting with Professor Marks will miss his presence on campus, and undoubtedly anyone who has learned with or worked alongside him will continue to emulate his passion for knowledge and uphold the Willamette way that he enjoyed throughout his career here.

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