Department of Molecular & Cell Biology
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.
How can prospective teachers learn to teach? What is good teaching? Can we identify excellent mentoring? Definitive answers to these questions probably do not exist, but the effort of inquiry reveals insights that help us to refine our efforts at training capable teachers who can inspire a new generation of students. Analogy is the weakest form of argument, yet its very weakness enables associations between concepts that may appear unrelated but are not. A few simple ideas follow.
1. Quality is paramount.
The finished product cannot be better than its ingredients. Graduate students fascinated by what they do and committed to it inspire all who encounter them. Mentoring is ineffectual absent that essential catalytic quality. The many exceptional graduate student instructors I have been fortunate enough to know have impressed me with their curiosity and lack of cynicism.
2. Inspire by example.
People emulate what they see. Exhortation and remonstrance are ineffectual tools. Seeing the teacher labor to explain the material or listening carefully to a student’s question is the essence of learning to teach. Hearing the teacher say that they don’t know an answer but will find out (and following through) has much more impact than any admonition.
3. Respect the ingredients.
The best raw materials cannot realize their potential without due respect. The teacher exists to serve her/his charges. The students deserve and merit the utmost respect since its absence perpetrates qualities of insensitivity and inattention that are inimical to learning and which impair personal growth. The latent power of young minds is the royal jelly of learning.
4. Take care.
Amendments prepare the soil by carefully balancing acidity and alkalinity for optimal growth. Attention to the spoken and unspoken concerns of graduate students will cultivate their best performance. There is no substitute for (and no greater intellectual pleasure than) knowing vigorous young minds capable of growth. This requires the teacher often to listen rather than speak.
5. Encourage individuality.
Stand aside and allow graduate students to blossom into gifted teachers on their own terms. Teachers are made, not born. Domination and interference retard natural growth and discourage independence.
6. Less is more.
Teaching is like herding cats or pushing string. Inspired students want to learn, and helping them find the best way to do this is what counts. Eschew obfuscation, give students the sense that ideas are beautiful for themselves. The finest ideas are luminous in their simplicity and can engender concepts of infinite complexity. Such reverence is the essential first step of wishing to know. It engenders the drive to learn and sustains it for a lifetime.