Department of German
Recipient, Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs
Each spring graduate students are invited to nominate faculty members for the Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs. Typically each nomination is supported by several GSIs who have worked with the honoree. The award is sponsored by the Graduate Council’s Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs and the GSI Teaching & Resource Center.
At an institution like UC Berkeley, that has recognized the inseparability of research and teaching as two sides of the same spirit of inquiry, I have been encouraged to make no difference between mentoring graduate students and mentoring graduate student instructors. Most of the time, my GSIs are also writing their doctoral dissertations under my guidance. In the large Letters & Science 180T Language & Power course that I teach every year together with two GSIs, the questions and comments from our undergraduates sharpen and further my graduate students’ thinking and mine on the very topics we are writing about in our research. As it should be. After all, Socrates, Bach, Bakhtin, Foucault, Bourdieu were all fantastic teachers, who developed their own ideas in dialogue with their students, not at their desks or in the libraries. That is the unrevealed secret of graduate student mentors: They are not as much mentors as co-thinkers, co-designers in lighting up the fires of their students’ imaginations. In this joint endeavor, who can tell the teacher from the researcher, the mentor from the mentee?
Like me, graduate students teach with their hearts, their minds and with the same passion that goes into doing archival research or writing a dissertation.
The dialogues we have during our weekly meetings raise and debate the same urgent questions as the undergraduates do about the readings that the graduate students then have to teach in their sections. Once the graduate students have themselves understood the readings in all their intricacies, the question of how to make the undergraduates discover things on their own and whether to do to pair work or group work, fieldwork or coursework, how to best use bSpace or class space, what questions to put up on the chalk board, which passages of text to read together in greater detail, what supplementary material to bring to illustrate the readings, which audio- or video-recordings, which snippets of YouTube, which extracts from The Onion or The New York Times — all this is only a question of sharing each other’s resourcefulness, imagination and pedagogic experience.
My graduate students report to me on things the undergraduates have difficulty with, and I adjust my lectures accordingly; in turn, I share with them the feedback I receive from the undergraduates during office hours or via email, and the graduate students calibrate their teaching accordingly.
I am very aware of the 20 hour/week limit on my graduate students’ time. I am the one to write the syllabus, the daily reaction journal questions, the midterm and the final, but the last two are finalized in consultation with the graduate students, who have a better sense of how individual undergraduates are doing and how challenging and interesting the exams can be without being unfair. Every three weeks we share the task of reading and grading the 98 reaction journals the undergraduates have turned in. It is, of course, a lot of work and we all have to virtually block off a whole day to do this, but I have not found any shortcut to this exercise, if we are to keep track of how each of our 98 students understands the material. At the beginning of the term we calibrate our grading procedures and we rotate the batches of 33 journals we each read each time. We make sure that there is consistency among grades within a given reader’s batch, and among the three of us.
On the last day of classes, the three of us organize a “town meeting” to do a kind of a “post-mortem” with refreshments. The graduate students put up large sheets of paper over the walls and give the students magic markers to write any questions, comments, criticisms, suggestions they want. They also have to write down one “big” question that was raised by the course and that they will continue to explore in the years to come. The graduate students participate in this, too. A general discussion ensues that will, together with the written comments, inform the next iteration of the course. I like the wikipedia flavor of this town meeting and the idea that the course has been slowly co-constructed by undergraduates, graduates and myself over the years. Once again, the mentees have become themselves the mentors of future generations of thinkers and knowers. And that is how it should be.