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Why I Teach – Daniel Marks, MD, PhD

Nine members of the School of Medicine faculty were recognized in 2010 by their peers for excellence in teaching. This Q&A series profiles each of the recipients and asks the question, “Why do you teach?”

Dr. MarksJune’s Q&A features Daniel Marks, MD, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics

Dr. Marks graduated magna cum laude from the University of Oregon in 1988 with a degree in biology and chemistry. He then entered the University of Washington where he received a Ph.D. in 1993 and an M.D. in 1995. He completed his residency in pediatrics at the University of Utah, then a fellowship in pediatric endocrinology at Oregon Health & Science University in 2001. He is currently a Scientist in the Center for the Study of Weight Regulation and Associated Disorders, and an Associate Professor in Pediatric Endocrinology at OHSU. Dr. Marks has an extensive research background and has published numerous original research manuscripts.

Q&A with Daniel Marks, MD, PhD

What first attracted you to teaching?

My father taught physics for 35 years at a small college. As I grew up I spent time hanging around the science department and attending some of his classes. Even then it was clear to me that he and his colleagues were there because they wanted to teach. He was an excellent mentor to graduate students and had a Confucian style of teaching.

How did that play out in the classroom, and do you model your style of teaching on his?

Yes – I adopted a Confucian style also. The idea is not to overwhelm people with words. Rather than set up a forced march to get through your notes, you try to suggest a few wise things to invite discussion and provoke a response. You engage with your students rather that talk at them. When my father lectured he was so engaged that he became exhausted. For both him and me, it’s the key to helping the students learn. It’s harder on the teacher than just delivering a lecture but you have to be engaged to the point that you know if your students are getting it, or if you need to kick in some extra juice.

Are great teachers born or made?

Great teachers have to be born with an integral sense of confidence, but also be willing to make fools of themselves. As a good teacher you generally receive positive feedback and good reports and so you keep doing it – it’s a good feeling. Of course, occasionally it doesn’t go well, because there’s an element of risk in any class. As a teacher you have to have a thick skin but also take criticism as being in your best interests, not as an insult. It’s a compliment that someone has taken the time to give you feedback.

What do you think is the top challenge facing educators today?

The biggest challenge is that teaching is an unsupported mandate. The leadership at OHSU values and supports it a lot. The issue is more with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which doesn’t ask anything about teaching experience or activity in its grant applications. In the current climate the university is justifiably going through a time of constrained budgets and attrition, and it's hard not to stop doing things that are not part of your main job description, like teaching.

To help me through those darker moments I have a file two-and-a-half inches thick of thank you cards and short notes of appreciation. It will never be relevant to any NIH grant I write, but I keep it because it tells me something about me that isn’t there in the grant applications. Recognition from colleagues and peers is a simple act that creates great meaning.

What is the future direction of education?

However technologically complex it becomes, teaching in the future will still require direct human interaction. By being there in the room you get a palpable sense of whether a student understands it or not. You can’t tell that if you are not there. It’s like being a conductor in front of an orchestra – that human interaction is essential. There are many ways and reasons for students not to be present in the classroom these days and people’s attention spans are getting shorter. I hope that the pendulum swings back one day.

How do you continue to learn so that you can continue to teach?

I read every day without fail – usually it’s first thing in the morning on the treadmill. There isn’t a day that I don’t get into the lab to hang out with the students and see and hear what it is that they are doing.

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