Department of English
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.
In a famous defense of the freedom of the press from licensing, a form of early modern censorship, John Milton’s revolutionary prose tract Areopagitica (1644) drew on a metaphor from contemporary university pedagogy, a subject close to its author’s heart: “And how can a man teach with authority, which is the life of teaching, how can he be a doctor in his book as he ought to be, or else had better be silent, wheneas all he teaches, all he delivers, is but under the correction of his patriarchal licenser to blot or alter?” Its rhetoric rapidly exceeding its logic, Milton’s prose soon explodes — “I hate a pupil teacher, I endure not an instructor that comes to me under the wardship of an overseeing fist!” — so much so that Areopagitica soon needs to rein itself in, and return to the point: just how does a man become a doctor in his book and teach with authority? The question persists, remaining no less pressing when we modernize the site of instruction and the gender of the pronouns.
Everything I do when I work with my graduate student teaching colleagues is guided by the recognition — more memory than philosophy — of the two-fold paradox of graduate student needs and desires. GSIs require and merit real and not merely puppet-autonomy in their classrooms; they also want and deserve guidance in the face of variously challenging undergraduate teaching situations. They are still (and who among us is not?) students of teaching, but they are never what Milton calls mere “pupil teachers.” Assuring them independence and guidance at once is a delicate balance, but one as necessary as teaching without pedantry. I do not know a secret recipe besides very hard work (I have never been a believer in making teaching look easy; it isn’t), combined with genuine gratitude for their equally hard work and a strong dose of self-mockery, equally heartfelt. Let me elaborate the hard work, if not the self-mockery.
Since most of my work with GSIs has so far occurred in the context of English 45A, a large gateway course to the English major that employs up to eight TAs each semester, I should begin by describing its special challenges. A survey of Medieval and Renaissance English literature up to the late seventeenth century (and, when I teach it, focused on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and Milton’s Paradise Lost), 45A has over the last decade or two earned the undeserved reputation of an anathema: the service course most faculty hope not to teach; the prerequisite for an English major that undergraduate majors dread taking, fearing the difficulty of the language and the density of allusion, and suspecting that the issues presented by these texts will be arcane, remote from their own experiences. That reputation is indeed unmerited by this terrific material, but it is a myth we have to contend with, especially since the course is not an elective but required for each majoring student. Moreover the pace is unrelenting: the class meets three times a week (two lectures, offered by me, and one Friday section, led by the teaching assistants); it requires three short papers, one midterm, one final, a frequent weekly writing exercises.
In order the manage the course, I hold “staff meetings” every week, after the second lecture but before the section, for anywhere from one to two hours a meeting. A good part of the time must be allotted to specific tasks: the drafting of paper topics, the discussion of exams, the norming of both paper and exam grades, the exchange of sample paper comments, and the discussion of what kinds of comments are or are not effective. We also talk about how best to address specific students needs, such as the considerable additional challenges posed by middle or early modern English to ESL students, and we take up all the unpredictable challenges that come our way each year. Probably my favorite part of these meetings consists of the collective brainstorming we do to gather possible emphases and test out possible plans for the upcoming Friday section, a day or so away at any given staff meeting. These become little seminars of sorts, in which I and those who have taught the course before — and there are almost always some 45A veterans among the GSIs staffing the course — offer strategies and recommend sites for special focus. What is a good passage of text to focus a class’s attention on? And where might one hope to end up at the end of the hour? Some of the best discussions I have had at Berkeley about the literature we teach and love have occurred in these settings. At the same time, it has been important for me, in keeping with the central paradox I discussed above, to make clear that my suggestions are in almost every case just that; each GSI must feel free to explore new directions within the limits of the syllabus and the needs of the 33 students in each section. I have found that newer GSIs, or those feeling a bit at sea, seize the suggestions offered by me or their colleagues with relief; others know when they do not have to. The camaraderie among our graduate students forged in the act of teaching is strong.
One of my responsibilities and my pleasures consists of visiting the several sections of the course, which I do at least twice per section leader, more where necessary and when possible in the course of a term with 15–16 Fridays. My visits are then followed immediately by individual meetings with each section leader in order to discuss the strengths of the hour and areas for further development, where they exist. It has been important for me to remember that there is no single model for good teaching; to pretend that there is courts the peril that Milton (again in Areopagitica) derided as a “starch conformity [such] as any January would freeze over.” In short, I myself have had great teachers who have been charismatic performers and equally great ones who have been reticent and cautious — we all carry our characters into the classroom. My task is accordingly to identify what pedagogical character each GSI brings with him or her, to describe it to us both (often revelatory), and having described it, to consider how best to make it legible and helpful to the undergraduate students.
It is a tremendous honor to be nominated for this award; indeed it feels almost a guilty one, since it seems to me that everything I do ought be our job, in the best sense of that word, and because the collaboration with teaching assistants has been, since I first came to Berkeley in 1997, such a source of joy. The quotidian life of leading a service course can become dreary; mine has been greatly brightened by the intellectual exchange, inspired wit, and laughter of GSI colleagues.