If you walk with Jonathan Mercer, be prepared to pick up your feet. He walks fast. He also thinks and talks fast — and students like it a lot.
An associate professor in the Department of Political Science, Mercer has won a Distinguished Teaching award.
He specializes in international relations, doing what the best diplomats do: talk but also listen very carefully, whether one-on-one or with a class of 150 students. He listens, wisecracks and isn’t afraid to challenge.
James Harmon, a senior in economics and political science, got to know Mercer last year when he took his 400-level course in political psychology. “Mercer really opened my mind to alternative explanations — better explanations than the traditional paradigms of political science,” Harmon said.
Mercer researches the effects of emotion on international relations, a field long dominated by theories that assume perfect rationality.
Harmon sought Mercer’s counsel about graduate school. “The Ph.D. had been my dream. It helped me get through some difficult situations,” Harmon said. Between the ages of 10 and 18, he lived in 20 foster homes.
But Mercer wouldn’t let Harmon simply amble into graduate school. He questioned him closely. He issued chapter and verse about rigor, about analysis, about time and money. In crowded fields, plenty of professors make sure students genuinely want the doctorate, but Mercer is particularly probing
Harmon went away and thought hard. Eventually, though, he decided yes, he very much wants a doctorate in political science.
OK, Mercer said, and helped with applications. Harmon got accepted to several programs but decided on the UW. “I chose to stay here,” Harmon said, “largely because of the support I knew I would get from people like Jon Mercer.”
Mercer himself holds a doctorate from Columbia University. He’s drawn by the drama of international relations. “Biology doesn’t have wars,” he said. “There’s drama to international politics that makes it really easy to teach.”
But don’t be misled. Mercer does not just wander into class and spout anecdotes. In a 400-level international conflicts class this past May, Mercer worked from a detailed outline projected on a screen, quizzing students about theories of nuclear war, helping them connect theory to example. It does not pay to attend a Mercer class unprepared because he calls on students, expecting answers.
Mel Belding, a retired physician, audits the international conflicts course. “Jon is one of the finest teachers I’ve ever encountered,” he said after one of Mercer’s classes. “His lectures are extremely well organized and well presented. He’s engaging, very sharply humorous and incredibly well informed.”
“I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy teaching,” Mercer said during an interview in his office. “Students are smart; they work hard and they put up with my bad jokes, even though I don’t put up with them coming late.”
Mercer has been a leader both in and out of the classroom. He served as director of the political science honors program from 1999 to 2005, at the outset seeing too little sense of community and too many students fumbling with honors theses. He arranged social gatherings, involving faculty in some events and hosting some at his home. Working with faculty and staff, he also redesigned requirements and faculty advising for the thesis.
In the past eight years, Mercer has shaped at least 10 honors theses, three of them winning the departmental award for best honors thesis.
With Elizabeth Kier, an associate professor of political science, Mercer has made international relations and national security more prominent on campus. They secured external funding for the UW International Security Colloquium, the only academic forum of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. It brings leading figures from across the U.S. and Europe to the UW. Mercer and Kier also created a certificate program for undergraduates seeking to concentrate on international security.
The really revealing thing about Mercer, said Department Chairman Peter May, is the line of students outside his door during office hours. “While most of us wonder where students are,” May said, “Mercer is stretching minds, challenging them.”
Some days, May drops by for a chat, only to find Mercer talking with a student. Rather than quickly wrapping up with the student, Mercer says, “Sorry, busy – I’ll call you later.”