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A “Dr.” in the House

June 11, 2009

On graduation day, May 10, 1975, my family gathered at my apartment in Monroe, La., after the ceremony at Northeast Louisiana University. My father let slip what I’m glad I didn’t know: “I never thought you’d graduate.”
To get to that day, I had had to take Filing 101 and other secretarial courses as an undergraduate to – as my mother put it – “have something to fall back on” if my journalism major didn’t pan out. I remember a suggestion that I might think about becoming a stewardess – a word still used at the time.
My father winces when I remind him of his comment 34 years ago, not remembering that his expectations of me were, well, low. He’s seen me graduate twice since then – once in 1989 with a master’s degree from Georgetown University after 14 years as a journalist, and again in 2003 with a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Maryland.
But he still hasn’t gotten comfortable calling me “Dr.”
I admit it’s taken some getting used to for the past six years during my reincarnation as an academic, even though the prefix is taken for granted in the halls of higher education. Students don’t realize that at 50 you might be new at this – that just as they are entering a different phase of life, you’re reinventing yourself, too.
It’s clear from their descriptions of me in a brief news writing assignment – a profile of their professor — that they don’t see this new role as a stretch. “Dr. Danna Walker always knew she wanted to break the mold for expectations of women in journalism,” one wrote. Another described me as “one of the main voices for women in journalism today.” They’re a bit over the top perhaps for want of getting an A in the course.
But even as I re-read my annual report form that I must e-mail the university, I try to relate to the person’s accomplishments on the page – a panelist at an international communication conference, the author of a peer-reviewed journal article, the creator of a theory course, owner of a contract for a forthcoming history on women and media. Sounds like a legit academic to me.
Thinking back on why I undertook this transformation I’m astonished to recall that it was actually part of a plan I began hatching shortly after I got my MA (which I did as a hedge against a previous recession), got married and started planning a family. I guess I’ve always been one to plan ahead but little did I know this vague notion would take me through the next decade and more.
In the early 1990s, a former colleague in news who had begun teaching suggested me for a one-semester, one-class adjunct professorship at the University of Maryland. I had five students for my 8 a.m. class on basic reporting. I have to laugh when I think of how much confidence I had in the classroom back then compared to today, when I sometimes struggle with what to tell students because my view is so much more informed and complex than before.

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