By Susie Allen
Photo by Robert Kozloff
Christopher J. Wild studies German theater from the early modern period through the 18th century and is currently working on a book about entrances and exits in European theater. He is the director of graduate studies for Germanic Studies and has been supervising many dissertations since joining the UChicago faculty five years ago.
What’s your approach to mentoring graduate students?
Graduate school is obviously about teaching knowledge, but in some sense, it’s also about graduate students developing their own intellectual style and finding their own intellectual voice. It’s our job as faculty members to help them do exactly that.
We don’t want to produce clones. Thus, it's important to figure out where students want to go, where their strengths are, where their weaknesses are, and help them with both.
Who has influenced your teaching and mentoring style?
One of my colleagues here at UChicago was my dissertation adviser at Johns Hopkins, David Wellbery. He was enormously influential as an adviser, and I still try to live up to his model. He was incredibly flexible, trying to understand a student’s specific needs and talents and adjusting his advising style accordingly.
He believed that advising doesn’t stop at the PhD—it continues until at least tenure, because even when you have received your PhD, the learning and maturing continues. Thus, you still need mentors.
What’s special about teaching graduate students at the University of Chicago?
The level of intellectual inquiry and the rigor is singular here. You can challenge students to a degree that you can’t at other places. They share a common sense of purpose and a seriousness I have not encountered elsewhere. We have very intellectually mature students.
What advice would you give to a new colleague about working with graduate students?
In many respects, new faculty members need the least advice. Much of what we do is about facilitating the transition from student to young scholar. New faculty members have just done that. I feel that they are a great resource when it comes to issues of professionalization. Experienced faculty members haven’t needed to get a first job in a long time! Things change and it is in human nature to forget.
What’s the most rewarding part of teaching graduate students?
At the University of Chicago, we can teach courses that grow out of our research agenda. Often, I’ll teach a course on something that I want to work on, or that I’m beginning to work on, and teaching a seminar is sort of a test balloon. I can use the conversation with the graduate students to think something through. You have all the excitement of intellectual discovery, and you have it in the classroom.
It also means that I’m modeling intellectual inquiry and research in the classroom. I’m figuring it out with the graduate students in real time. I find that incredibly helpful—and I think it’s good pedagogy, because graduate students see what it means to do research and what is, in our field, original work. It all happens before their eyes, and they’re deeply involved.
Originally published on June 3, 2013.