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.
First of all, thank you for inventing this award. Mentoring GSIs is I think one of the most invisible — and important — forms of labor in the university; I have many colleagues who do it superbly, year after year, without recognition. I am very grateful to you on their behalf for noticing that it counts. And of course beyond grateful to you on my own behalf. (I’ve been saying to various of my wonderful GSIs ever since I heard the news that nothing could have pleased me more.)
Still, describing my mentoring philosophy is daunting. Until I received the email requesting such a description, I would have said that I didn’t have a mentoring philosophy. A structure, yes: 1) a meeting before the semester starts to discuss teaching issues that come up in the course (English 45A, a required course in early literature toward which students are often resistant and about which GSIs are variously knowledgeable); 2) hour-long weekly meetings in which GSIs report back to me and especially to each other about what worked and what didn’t in the last week’s session and jointly develop strategies for the next week’s, and in which they also let me know what in my lectures needs clarification or rethinking; 3) my attendance at two section meetings for each GSI, one early and one late in the semester, and an hour-long conversation — preferably in a coffee shop — after each to discuss whatever teaching issues came up in the section and (in the second meeting) to record progress and identify those areas that still need work; 4) a lunch after the semester is over both to signal that our mentoring relationship is a continuing relationship (should the GSI wish it to continue) and also to hear from the group what I might do differently next time. And some time-worn tips: don’t be surprised to discover that you don’t really know something until you have to teach it; don’t be frightened of silence in the classroom; be prepared to be surprised at least once in every class and don’t think that over-preparation can — or should — control all variables in a discussion; know your material as well as you can but relish the moments when you can honestly say “I don’t know but I’ll find out” to a question because those are often the moments when real teaching and learning happens. But a philosophy?
Well, yes, it turns out that I do have, if not a philosophy, at least an underlying attitude. To mentor effectively (at least for me), it’s important to take the time to find out who you are mentoring. To get to know their intellectual interests and areas of expertise, of course, since that has an enormous bearing on what they can bring into their own classrooms and what they can teach me. (It’s always an enormous pleasure for me when I can turn to one of them during a lecture to check a point or answer a student question.) But also — because I believe that good teaching comes from the whole person — to get to know something about them as people. I try to learn what their style is, what in teaching gives them pleasure and what they are anxious about, what the particular stresses in their lives as budding academics are, so that I can help them to compensate for their anxieties and learn to recognize that even their strengths can sometimes be a liability in the classroom. There are so many different kinds of excellent teaching; I try to get to know my GSIs so that I can help them to find their own best teaching mode.
I have been privileged to have an extraordinary group of GSIs over a period of many years, and it’s been a real pleasure to think collectively with them about how to communicate the material effectively to students of widely varying interests, especially since they often have more on-the-ground proficiency in this matter than I do. But I think that it is this last, more nebulous and individual exchange that has given me the most pleasure in the mentoring relationship and that may matter most in the long run.