Department of Architecture
Recipient, Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs

Background of the Award
Excerpts from the GSIs’ Nomination Letters

Background of the Award

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, sponsored by the Graduate Council’s Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs and the GSI Teaching & Resource Center, is presented as a surprise in the faculty member’s classroom, with the GSIs and other departmental faculty and staff present.

Gail Brager of Architecture is one of the three faculty members who received the award in April 2016. Laura Stoker, professor of political science and chair of the Graduate Council’s Faculty Committee for GSI Affairs, presented the award plaque.

The excerpts below reflect mentoring activities that the GSI found especially effective.

Gail Brager’s Statement of Mentoring Philosophy

Of all the hats I wear in my position at UC Berkeley, general student mentoring is the one I find most personally rewarding, and mentoring of GSIs stands out as particularly gratifying. I suppose I could say that my “mentoring philosophy” begins with a genuine respect and admiration of the GSIs I work with, and all else follows from that. Without a single exception, I can honestly say that all of the GSIs I have worked with have been amazing. They are so bright! They put in an enormous time commitment to my class every week, consistently demonstrate their passion for the material and for teaching, and are a delight to work with. They make a significant intellectual contribution to my class, which simply would not be the same without them. So I’m indeed fortunate that it’s been quite easy to start with, and maintain, this essential ingredient of respect.

Respect spawns another crucial element of good mentoring, and that is humility. I learn so much from the GSIs, and I make sure they know that (at least I try to!). These lessons come in many forms — they might have knowledge of a new technology or computer simulation tool, suggest creative ways of presenting material, challenge my ways of viewing a problem, or simply offer insights into struggles students are having and how we can best motivate them. I encourage them to offer their own ideas, and try to be quick to let it be known when they have influenced my own thinking. In large lecture classes, they are “at the front lines,” and their opinions matter. Deeply.

Humor is also essential. Respect means that we need to recognize the “whole lives” of our GSIs, and realize that they (and we) are all juggling many responsibilities and challenges in a semester — both related to the class we are collectively teaching, as well as other issues at school or in personal lives. The potential for rising stress levels is significant, and a little (or sometimes a lot) of humor can diffuse the tension, serve as a model for them to try the same, and allow a moment to breathe before diving back into the problem we are trying to solve.

Respect easily leads to the notion of providing diverse opportunities for GSIs to be involved in many aspects of the class. While the class is very structured in the teaching notes and interactive activities that GSIs conduct in their sections, I also give them a lot of creative license to modify things as needed for their particular students’ needs. The contribute significantly to the class overall — they have opportunities to design new assignments, laboratory experiments, or teaching tricks; they develop grading rubrics, contribute quiz and exam questions, and give extensive feedback to students; they create tutorials for the ever-changing software we use in our classes; and they excel at balancing both the technical and design skills that are an integral part of the class and student projects.

The thoughts above are about attitude, but there are many pragmatic strategies for effective mentoring as well. Organization balanced with flexibility is key! The class is in the Spring, and during the previous Fall semester the GSIs take a five-week “Teaching Methods” seminar with me and my co-instructor so we can discuss the class in a more relaxed setting and plan ahead. As is probably the case in any large class with multiple GSIs, during the semester we have weekly meetings that are a time for reflection and feedback about what worked and didn’t in the previous week and how are students responding, planning ahead for the next week, discussing what we can change this year vs. ideas for next year, feedback on my own lectures, etc. And we have lists (oh, so many lists!), shared in either a Google Drive or Berkeley Box. Many activities are common across the GSIs (i.e., responsibility for their own section), but there are many other semester-long tasks that we divide up (managing equipment for one of the weekly lab exercises, webmaster, spreadsheet guru, archivist, refining section notes for all, etc.). There is a strong sense of teamwork — if a GSI needs to travel or is having a particular hardship one week, the whole team is always quick to volunteer with a “how can I help” attitude. Creating that kind of supportive culture in the group goes a long way. I also have a combination of veterans and rookies in the group, since peer mentoring among the GSIs is sometimes much more effective than just what a professor can offer. And it gives an opportunity for the experienced GSIs to be “teachers of teachers.”

In closing, I want to say how humbled and honored I am to receive this award. It’s a great pleasure to be recognized for something that I “just do” because I love doing it. I became a professor at UC Berkeley at the young age of 25. Some of the GSIs in my early years weren’t much different in age than myself, and it has been a joy to see some of them now teaching at other universities. They have become my colleagues and friends, and they still use some of the teaching tricks we developed together (such as the now-legendary “molecule dance” to teach different modes of heat transfer). I am filled with an attitude of gratitude, and am blessed to be able to follow the wise advice of Ray Bradbury: “Love what you do, and do what you love.”

Excerpts from the GSIs’ Nomination Letters

Gail’s GSIs highlighted the ways she fostered collaboration among all the members of the teaching team, both new and returning:

Ahead of each semester, Gail invites her GSIs to take part in a weekly seminar to discuss the class content. This seminar not only gives us the chance to become familiar with the class content and readings (as new GSIs) and to reflect on previous experiences (for returning GSIs), but it also gave us the opportunity to become a team of GSIs, rather than a group of individuals. Gail encourages us to clearly articulate the specific roles and responsibilities of each member of the GSI team and work together to suggest changes to the syllabus and propose new activities. Beyond her own mentorship, Gail encourages returning GSIs to mentor new GSIs, realizing the mutual benefit in peer-to-peer mentorship.

The GSIs also comment on the value of the weekly meetings and guidance in grading student work:

I appreciated her clear communication with us both through weekly meetings and email. She was always quick to respond to a question from one of her GSIs and help us work through any struggles we were having in our individual sections. During discussions on grading, she provided her experience and encouraged the use of rubrics so that both the GSIs and students in the course could understand how to clearly evaluate an assignment across students and sections. She instilled a profound sense of fairness in her GSIs and her courses.

They also instanced creative activities Gail developed in lecture to help students understand difficult topics, for example:

Heat transfer equations are not a particularly loved topic. To make those equations come alive, she continues the tradition of the “molecule dance” – where the GSIs stand up in front of the class and move/demonstrate as mechanisms of conduction, convection, radiation, and evaporation.

Several of Gail’s past GSIs now teach similar courses at other institutions, based on what they learned from Gail. One wrote:

Professor Brager’s mentorship was extraordinary and provided me with a range of skills that I use to this day in my career as an architecture faculty member, where I now lead teams of graduate assistants in similar courses. She provided opportunities for me to deliver my first lectures in a large course … and develop my first assignments … that I piloted in my section and then helped deploy in all sections the following year. I was not alone in being given the freedom to try a new assignment out in a lab section. Professor Brager encouraged all of her GSIs to improve our sections and the overall course.

One of Gail’s GSI mentees summed up working with Gail in this way:

I look back to the experiences as a GSI for Architecture 140 as an ideal model for mentoring architectural educators. The weekly planning meetings helped us be ready for the coming week, and over the course of the term, each GSI was given an area to develop course content and assignments, leading the other GSIs for this topic area. … [T]his was a transformative experience.