Communicate with Faculty, GSIs, and Staff
Taking the time to carefully prepare for the semester before classes begin will save you many headaches, reduce anxiety, help make the first day of section go smoothly, and decrease the amount of work you will have during the semester. Moreover, undergraduates appreciate well organized and informed GSIs.
Below are steps you should take before the semester begins to ensure a good start in teaching. We use the term “section” loosely for any GSI-led component of the course; feel free to substitute “lab” or “studio” as necessary.
Meet with the Faculty Member in Charge of the Course
Communicate with Past and Present GSIs
Communicate with Department Staff
Identify the Department Faculty Adviser for GSI Affairs
Checklist for Getting Started as a GSI (pdf)
It’s essential to clarify expectations with the faculty member and other GSIs about the running of the course. Questions you will need to address with the faculty member include:
- What is the function of the GSI-led section vis-à-vis the lecture component of the course? Does the professor have specific activities in mind for section? Will the GSI team come up with activities, or will each GSI determine the content of his or her section?
- Is there a head GSI? If so, what are the head GSI’s duties?
- Are GSIs required to give assignments in section? If so, will the professor or the GSI design the assignments?
- Will GSIs give a section grade to students? How many percentage points in the overall course are allocated to the section grade? Does the professor have a policy regarding the breakdown of the section grade (a specific percentage for participation, assignments, attendance, etc.)?
- What are the due dates for class assignments? (These should be listed on the course syllabus.)
- Will the instructor have review sessions for the midterm, final, or other class assignments or examinations? Will the GSIs hold review sessions?
- When, where, and how long are the meetings that the professor will convene with GSIs during the semester? (The Graduate Council Policy on Appointments and Mentoring of GSIs states that professors are required to meet regularly with GSIs.) Will there be a pre-semester orientation?
- How many office hours is the GSI expected to hold per week? (This should be included in the appointment letter or the supplemental letter of appointment.)
- How do GSIs in the course get desk copies of books and course readers? Where can students purchase their copies?
- How should you obtain the most recent roster for your section (if applicable)?
- Is the class full, or can students still add it? Are all of the sections full? This is important because GSIs may need to direct students who try to “crash” their sections to other sections that are not full.
- How long do the GSIs have to grade assignments after students turn them in? Many instructors let GSIs determine this issue; some instructors, however, have strict timelines for getting assignments back to students.
- Does the professor have policies about students adding and dropping the course? What is the procedure for enrolling people from the waitlist? When will decisions about the waitlist be made?
- Does the instructor want GSIs to enforce particular policies about attendance, late assignment, laptop use, etc., in section?
- Does the professor have a policy to handle student requests to challenge grades on their exams or assignments?
- What are the professor’s expectations about handling possible cases of plagiarism, cheating, and other forms of academic misconduct?
- Is there a podcast or web video of the lecture? Or does the professor post notes?
- How will the faculty member and GSIs use the bCourses site (for instance, to communicate with students, record grades)? Are your permissions in the course site set up yet so that you have access as a GSI? Does your section have its own space on the course site?
- What other systems, services, equipment, or applications does the course use? How can you learn more about them and get access?
Fellow GSIs are among your most valuable resources as you start teaching. Talk with experienced graduate students who have worked with the instructor in the past or taught as a GSI for the course with a different instructor. Seasoned GSIs often have helpful, “insider” knowledge about the course (e.g., the research paper assignment is demanding, and students need it broken down into steps; whether the first few weeks of lab are difficult but get easier or easy but get more difficult as the course progresses, what the best resources for the course are, etc.).
Experienced GSIs may provide new GSIs with lesson plans, assignments, handouts, and other materials that will help new GSIs save time.
GSIs may consider making explicit arrangements with fellow GSIs to divide the workload — share lesson planning for instance, or alternate writing handouts and assignments, develop a collective grading rubric, etc. Sharing the workload with other GSIs can save time and ease stress. GSIs should find out whether their departments have files with lesson plans, handouts, and other materials from past semesters. (Your department’s pedagogy course instructor or Graduate Assistant may have this information.)
Staff members in your teaching department are typically very knowledgeable. Some questions to ask staff:
- Where are GSI mailboxes located?
- Do GSIs get a code for the department’s copy machine? If so, is there a limit to the number of copies GSIs can make during the semester?
- Where can GSIs find supplies needed for teaching such as pens, printing paper, index cards, envelopes, etc.?
- Where do GSIs find departmental equipment for labs, studios, or sections? What is the process for checking equipment in and out?
- Is there a computer and a printer in the department that GSIs can use to prepare for teaching?
- Where is your office for holding office hours with students?
It may go without saying, but it is important to emphasize that departmental staff are extremely helpful — particularly to GSIs and faculty who treat staff members with respect and appreciate their work.
Each department employing GSIs should have a Faculty Adviser for GSI Affairs. Among this person’s responsibilities are these:
To be actively aware of all policies and regulations concerning GSIs, whether they originate in the University, the campus, or in the department, and to communicate these policies and regulations to departmental faculty and GSIs. Such policies and regulations include eligibility requirements, maximum and minimum terms of service, promotion procedures, appointment procedures and criteria, evaluation procedures, departmental or university requirements regarding the pedagogical preparation and mentorship of GSIs for teaching, and any other policies pertaining to GSIs.
To be available to GSIs teaching in the department for consultation and advice on matters of policy and regulations, on pedagogical matters, and in cases of conflict with supervising faculty members.