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

Background of the Award
Statement of Mentoring Philosophy
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.

Martha Olney of Economics is one of the four faculty members who received the award in April 2015. 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.

Martha Olney’s Statement of Mentoring Philosophy

I’m honored to receive the GSI Mentorship Award. My experience as a Lilly Teaching Fellow in 1985–86, when I was an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, informs my mentoring philosophy. Teaching is more fun and more successful when we know a few tricks and a little theory; more fun and successful teaching boosts our confidence; how-to-teach knowledge, success, and confidence can lower teaching’s time requirement; more time for research can boost our scholarly output and impact.

My mentoring comes in two primary forms: teaching the required Economics 375 pedagogy course, and teaching undergraduate courses with GSIs. Graduate students in Economics 375 are all first-time teachers of economics, a mix of ARE (Agricultural and Resource Economics) and Economics Ph.D. students, plus master’s students from across campus. Their goal at Berkeley is earning a degree. Teaching may be pre-professional training, or simply a way to waive tuition and pay bills. My goal as instructor is to simultaneously enhance their teaching skills while enabling them to put time limits on and boundaries around their teaching.

The pedagogy course is a mix of theory and tactics. What do neuroscientists tell us about how students learn? With those moveable chalkboards, use them middle-front-back. What are different learning styles and accommodative teaching methods? Plan ahead for group activities, how you will form groups, and the method of reporting out. What does research say about the role of instructor identity? Talk out a graph as you draw it, using proper nouns not pronouns. What does research say about the incentives and disincentives around cheating? Remember always: you are not teaching a roomful of “mini-me’s.” Every session involves some sort of group activity and then reflection on both the content and the process of the activity.

Economics 1 is a 720-student Introduction to Economics course which employs twelve GSIs and one Head GSI. For some years I treated my GSIs (note: “my”) as something equivalent to the person with the bucket and the scoop walking behind the circus animals. This didn’t go well, especially when enrollment and funding changes produced our current model in which 80 to 90 percent of the Econ 1 GSIs are not economics graduate students.

So my entire approach to the class changed. I now structure Econ 1 so that we deliver three vital inputs to learning: the written materials, the clicker-fueled lectures by me, and the hands-on “lab” work coordinated by the GSI. We are a team whose shared goal is teaching students how to think like an economist. Team work requires regular and clear communication, easily adaptable materials, chances to debrief and to tool up. Our bi-weekly meetings always have a three–point agenda: administrative matters, pedagogy, upcoming material. I do my best to structure the work to ease GSI time management burdens. I strive to model work balance, fun, self-forgiveness for mistakes, and finding joy in teaching.

Excerpts from the GSIs’ Nomination Letters

First, Professor Olney’s GSIs commented on her effectiveness in working with them as GSIs for Econ 1:

An organized boss, she outlined her expectations of us including all meetings and grading responsibilities at the beginning of the semester. At biweekly meetings, she would not only review upcoming material, she also would solicit feedback from GSIs on section exercises. In many respects, the biweekly meeting would serve as a material-specific pedagogy class, where she would incorporate many of her same active learning strategies to make us more effective GSIs in her class.

GSIs also commented on Professor Olney’s work with them as instructor of their pedagogy class:

In our roles as pedagogy students, we would often find ourselves participating in classroom activities with the goal that we would employ them in our own classes: ‘think-pair-share’ or chalkboard brainstorm lists, for example. Upon reflection, these were effective active learning exercises that allowed us to experience strategies prior to use, potentially recognize pitfalls that might arise in various classroom settings, and develop empathy for our own students.
A ready facilitator and moderator of discussion, Marty would connect and steer conversations toward the topic she had planned for the day. The safe environment would also foster important conversations whose subjects were difficult to broach in other settings.
Teaching a diverse group of students, Marty helped us recognize that some of us face greater day-to-day difficulties in our capacity as teachers: that privilege exists in constraints in dress, in language, and in authority. Where our conversations left gaps in sharing our own experiences, Marty would explicitly describe particular prejudices that we may encounter. Through her own personal stories, she also reflected on how she dealt with many of her own challenges and suggestions on how we could address many of our own unique experiences.

Professor Olney’s GSIs conclude by saying:

We value Marty most because she cares deeply about our welfare in our capacities as instructors-in-training, as students, and as human beings. Her mentorship has not ended with the pedagogy course or with her supervisory role in Econ 1. She continues to reach out and is always willing to provide guidance on pedagogical issues and beyond.