Department of Art Practice
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.
During the spring of 1994 I assumed the responsibility of mentoring the newly designated Graduate Student Instructors in the Art Practice Department. They would be teaching sections in the course “Introduction to Visual Thinking” during the fall semester of 1994. I remember well a meeting I had with Linda von Hoene that spring and the generous and helpful range of information she imparted to me as I began my journey as a mentor. Over the years the GSI Teaching & Resource Center has played a major role in my education as a mentor, while serving as an indispensable aid to Graduate Student Instructors.
When I was young an event occurred in my life that changed the course of my future and influenced me to one-day want to become a teacher. I grew up in a blue-collar, working class family. My parents had survived the Great Depression and were grateful to have employment of any kind. College was not talked about. Painting was an avid interest of mine, and when I was sixteen years old, my mother got in touch with an old friend of hers, an ex pro boxer, watercolorist extraordinaire, teacher, and head of the Watertown Public School System, Joe Santoro. Joe came to our place each week for a few months, to, as he put it, “get me in shape” to take Saturday art classes at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston . He helped me with a number of visual fundamentals and urged me to apply for admission to Mass. Art. The following year I took the art test, and three months later was accepted. I was elated! It was the only institution to which I had applied. My course was set. As time passed, I realized exactly what Joe had done for me. He took the time to make a major difference in my life by being proactive on my behalf. He believed good preparation was essential; and he hung in there with me until I realized my path. The impact of that intervention has informed my teaching over the past thirty years. It has informed my mentoring for the past eleven years.
I begin the mentoring process toward the end of the spring semester for the following school year. Initially, I arrange two meetings to introduce my GSIs to the Art 8 Program and give each teacher a packet with a 301 handbook and other pertinent materials. I then offer my GSIs the opportunity to attend two meetings during the summer, and finally, two meetings in mid August before classes begin. This extended period of time allows for reflection and “settling in,” both necessities to become an effective teacher. My GSIs have time to personalize their sections, thoroughly scrutinize the course content, and develop confidence in the pedagogical approaches they choose to implement. While four of these meetings are on a voluntary basis, all new graduate student teachers want to attend them.
The GSIs and I agree from the start that we understand the course material. The challenge is communicating that material to a wide-ranging, diverse audience. To accomplish this we study the different types of learners we will have in our classes. We discuss whole group and individual, one on one teaching, and in both cases, the need to negotiate meaning when disseminating information. This process of negotiated meaning is especially critical when discussing twentieth century art since this time period tends to run counter to what many students initially believe constitutes art. Although I distribute a syllabus to all students in Art 8, graduate students feel strongly about developing secondary syllabi for their sections. There is a 301 handbook where copies of previous GSI syllabi aid the current GSIs in this process. The time my GSIs and I spend together in extended preparation for teaching enables us to cover every aspect of their teaching assignments. This would include the philosophy and goals of the course, discussion of the three main projects, overall classroom management, working with re-entry students and students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, time distribution relational to material presented, development and reconfiguration of formal exercise strategies and their relationship to the three main projects, grading and attendance policies, procedures for critiquing projects, and material and tool lists.
Throughout the semester we continue our discussions of these topics, as well as begin a discussion on the parts of the Art Practice Teaching Portfolio. During the second semester the GSIs and I hold a Saturday meeting where former GSIs come and discuss their teaching experiences at various local institutions. We discuss in detail each aspect of the artist/teacher teaching portfolio. A teaching portfolio, like a teaching philosophy, is an evolving document; constantly growing based on pivotal moments in one’s teaching.
I mentor my GSIs by taking a personal interest in them, believing in them, and being present for them by doing everything I can to aid in their efforts as first time teachers. My GSIs in turn have exhibited an intense dedication to teaching. They always go the extra mile in preparation and execution of their classroom responsibilities. They work with their students on every level to give each as meaningful a learning experience as possible. We all know that every day isn’t going to go amazingly well in the classroom. Given this reality, these teachers go to their classes the next day and persevere to turn a problematic dynamic around. And they will do this their first time teaching a section. GSIs in the Art Practice Department usually teach only one section, one time, on occasion two, before they graduate. This fact makes their teaching accomplishments quite remarkable. Within the student handbook “Resource,” Art 8 is the Art Practice Department course most recommended when students are randomly asked to choose a course they thought was good and that new students should experience. This success I credit to my GSIs.
Over the past eleven years I have received great satisfaction from my work with the GSIs. Being a part of a graduate students’s pedagogical development is a unique and exceptional experience. I’ve learned so much from these instructors. It can be the way they invent unusual strategies for implementing formal exercises, engage intriguing approaches for critique sessions, or handle adroitly particularly sensitive situations with students in their classes. From all of this I have been the recipient of new insights. These insights have helped me to improve my own teaching by challenging some of my long held beliefs. I have tried to impart to them that caring and negotiated communication will ignite a “process of conversion” within a student’s critical thinking process surrounding the content of the course.
In closing, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the rest of our faculty within the Art Practice Department who have listened, shared their experiences, and given pedagogical advice to our GSIs over the past eleven years. Clearly, mentorship is a collective and collaborative experience; which means that the sum of the parts truly does equal the whole.