Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management
Recipient, Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs
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. Garrison Sposito received the award in 2010.
My work with GSIs derives almost entirely from the course I teach each fall with English Professor Robert Hass, “Introduction to Environmental Studies.” This course, necessarily integrative, has the pedagogical goal of educating students to function effectively as ecological citizens. This goal, in turn, necessarily implies a broad set of skills and topics to be taught, including both scientific and literary analysis, ecology and ecosystem function, nature writing, global change dynamics, and environmental ethics and policy, all of which must be presented seamlessly at a level suitable for lower-division students, many of whom have not yet declared a major. The challenges for a GSI in this course are daunting: two weekly 90-minute discussion sections enrolling up to 25 students each, with responsibility for both the content and format of these sections — which must be developed consistently with the course syllabus — plus in-depth preparation of the students for their midterms and the final examination, not to mention guidance to the students in writing the biweekly essays we require and in keeping a semester-long Environmental Journal. It is in this very demanding context that GSI mentoring must take place.
Bob Hass and I meet at the beginning of each week with our GSIs to talk over how the sections have gone in the previous week and what the coming week will bring in lecture. Our perspectives, his and mine, are necessarily different, one deeply imbued in the humanist tradition and the other just as deeply committed to the scientific approach, but out of our weekly conversations with the GSIs there has to come a holistic sense on their part of what the course is trying to do and, most importantly, what they can do to implement what the course is trying to do. For my part, I am most fortunate to be co-teaching with someone who supremely exemplifies what it means to be a human being on Earth at this time, and in a very palpable sense my mentoring of the GSIs in our class is an apposite response to the living example he sets.
So in practical terms, what does this entail? As Woody Allen famously said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up for work on time,” and this translates in the present context to working continuously with our GSIs to ensure that they have the resources they need to do their job when they need them, where they need them. It means also that one is at their side immediately offering help whenever issues arise that would keep them from doing their very best, anything from room-scheduling logistics to recalcitrant students (and sometimes there are recalcitrant students!). It means as well more subtle things like encouraging them to take pedagogical risks in teaching their sections and being there to help fix it if a problem arises from taking those risks. And it means supporting the notion that, at the end of the day, no one will know our students better than they do, their goals for the course, their limitations, their talents, and so no one is better equipped to evaluate their progress in a holistic way. In all, perhaps the best way to bring closure to these matters is in the words of my own mentor from a very long time ago, Manuel C. Díaz. He called me into his office after seeing clear evidence one day in class that I was on my way to perdition academically and then proceeded to turn my life around with these four words: You can do it. Yes, “you can do it.” Never underestimate the power of timely praise.
A few years ago I attended a seminar on campus in Chemistry for which the featured speaker was a fellow from Northwestern whose book on fluid mixing I had found very useful in my own research. But, before he was introduced, some students got up to present a teaching award to a GSI. The student presenter began by asking how many people in the audience could name the person (or persons) who had received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry four years earlier. A few — a very few — hands went up. Then he asked, “How many of you can remember the name of your fourth grade teacher?” and a forest of hands went up — just about everyone there, it seems, could remember her/his fourth grade teacher’s name (mine was Miss Eva Carper). The message from that experience has stuck with me ever since: Research projects may come and go, but the influence of our good teachers lasts forever.