College Writing Programs
Recipient, Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs

Background of the Award
Statement of Mentoring Philosophy

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 is sponsored by the Graduate Council’s Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs and the GSI Teaching & Resource Center.

Gail Offen-Brown’s Statement of Mentoring Philosophy

Being a teacher and being a student are constant dual roles: The best teachers are always students, constantly questioning, constantly learning. And the best students serve as our teachers, pushing us to new approaches and insights. It is this dual role that I take on and promote in the classroom, whether I’m working with freshmen or graduate students, whether I’m teaching writing or teaching teachers of writing. In teaching College Writing 300, Introduction to Theories and Practices of Teaching College Composition, I can embrace both roles openly and enthusiastically, moving back and forth between conveying pedagogy and examining it.

The 300 classroom as model and as teaching laboratory. Instead of serving as the only authority on teaching in the room, I encourage GSIs to think of themselves as authorities on education since they have a wealth of experience to draw upon, as student-teachers and as teacher-students. From the first moments of the first day, every element of the class is up for examination under our microscope. How does the arrangement of the chairs affect the class atmosphere? Why is it important to learn everyone’s name as soon as possible and how can it be done? What happens when we devote the first ten minutes of class to a quickwrite? How does the quickwrite help us as writers? How does it jumpstart discussion? What happens when a discussion flops? The 300 class serves as a testing ground for ideas and strategies. GSIs can then make their own decisions about which strategies they will incorporate in their own classes as they develop their own teaching styles. They have not only studied and talked about them; they have seen them in action in our own group.

Dialogue and inquiry. Each week GSIs read selected articles drawn from the fields of composition and pedagogy presenting significant research, theory, or practice. Some readings are paired to be in dialogue with each other; all readings spark the group’s critical inquiry. Class discussion becomes a mutual intellectual investigation in which we evaluate the ideas of one article in relation to another, and test them against our varied experiences as writers, as students, and as teachers. Dialogue and inquiry are the keys. I don’t want GSIs to be wedded to a single approach or theory, nor to dismiss approaches without examining them. Good teachers are always changing and learning.

Reflection. Frequent opportunities for reflection on teaching and learning-within the classes GSIs are teaching as well as within 300-are woven into the course. Early on, GSIs are asked to reflect on and articulate in writing their purposes as teachers of reading and composition. This piece is revisited, and often revised, at select points in the semester.

Quickwrites at the beginning of class provide informal opportunities for reflection and spark discussion. The required Midsemester Reflection assignment (yes, that’s its name) is a four-page essay on “how your thinking about and practice of the teaching of writing or the role of writing in the university have been shaped thus far by the course.” The final project (see below) includes a rationale section so that GSIs consider why, for example, they select the readings they do for a certain course; why assignments are presented in a specific sequence; how a rubric might be used not only to clarify grades but also to convey lessons and attitudes about writing. Reflection helps GSIs move beyond the anxiety of novices worried about filling their class time to a more productive stance. With reflection, every course document, every class discussion, every failure and every success is transformed into a rich source of learning. These reflections are, of course, the beginnings of a teaching portfolio that can be used for the job search and developed throughout a teaching career. The frequent opportunities for reflection in 300 are intended to foster reflection as a habit of mind and pen beyond the semester.

Teaching by doing; learning by doing. We don’t simply read about, discuss, and reflect on teaching strategies in 300; we practice and enact them so as to plunge ourselves into the roles of teachers and students.

In working on assignment design, for example, GSIs create their own assignments on a text they are teaching or planning to teach, and bring copies for the rest of the class to examine. We practice responding to student writing by responding together to papers that GSIs bring from their classes, and then compare and critique our responses. After reading about the virtues and drawbacks of collaborative learning, we work together in small groups (and then reflect on the experience) to experience collaborative learning as students.

Teaching as a process; writing as a process. To gain a deep sense of what it means both to teach writing as a process and to experience writing as a process, GSIs for their final project experience a process parallel to that in a writing class: They select a project from a range of choices; submit a proposal defining and explaining their choice; bring copies of a rough draft to class for response groups; receive response from peer response groups; receive response from the instructor; revise and polish the draft; publish a collection of final projects. Such an experience simultaneously pulls GSIs into the world of the student-composing drafts, dealing with peer and instructor response-and pushes them into the role of teacher-deciding how such a sequence or process might be adapted to their own discipline and classroom.

The not-so-secret secret is that I take great joy in the 300 class. That is yet another aspect of the course that I think is vital. It’s not just the teachers as students as teachers and the various experiences we have in the class. I hope that I convey the joy that I experience as a teacher.