Department of German
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.
Stranger, you’ve been speaking as a friend,
thinking as a father would for his own son —
and what you’ve said I never will forget.
Homer, The Odyssey. Translated by Ian Johnston. Book II, 417
These are the parting words of Odysseus’ son Telemachus, after Athena, goddess of wisdom and civilization, disguised as his father’s old friend Mentor, has given him advice, consolation, and confidence. Apart from revealing the origin of the word “mentor,” Homer’s lines still have a timeless appeal for me as they express a similar appreciation that my own mentors deserve for guiding me through my career as a foreign language educator. Here at Berkeley my gratitude goes mainly to Claire Kramsch, Professor of German and Second Language Acquisition, a passionate and compassionate researcher and practitioner, firmly grounded in the theoretical foundations of her field while not shy to advocate social change and to express affect and emotion.
The trust and recognition I have experienced from her, from Michael Bachem at Miami University, and from Margit Resch at the University of South Carolina have allowed me to develop the professional self-confidence necessary to become a mentor myself and the courage to engage in endeavors that I otherwise would not have pursued.
In turn, I see the Graduate Student Instructors whom I have the privilege to be working with in UC Berkeley’s German Department not as students or even mentees, but as colleagues and fellow language teachers who are part of a community in which all members share their experiences and creative energies for a common goal: helping students to become successful foreign language learners while developing and refining a well-versed, informed, and self-reflexive language teaching personality.
Even though GSIs work within the framework of curricula, course syllabi and University rules which they need to know, follow, and enforce, I try to empower them to make their own informed decisions from the very beginning on. They are provided with all the necessary background information available to me and oftentimes referred to the GSI Resources Center, a much appreciated and highly effective source of support for instructors and mentors alike. Then, common practices will be discussed, prior experiences are shared, and possible solutions are pointed out. The final decision, however, will rest with the individual instructor whenever possible. This oftentimes requires the mentor to stand back patiently and suppress the instinct to protect from a potentially painful experience which, consequently, doesn’t occur that often after all — instead, having reached their own decisions, GSIs feel empowered, gain self-confidence, and are encouraged to assume individual responsibility and accountability.
The way I understand my role as a mentor is also reflected in my preference to discuss questions about curricular content and teaching methods as they arise out of practical experiences. Inevitably, almost every topic that would otherwise have to be covered in a more traditional delivery mode comes up during a classroom observation, in a journal entry, or in the weekly practicum meetings. These concrete incidents then serve as the starting point for discussion before they are explored within a larger theoretical framework, which is provided in subsequent readings and discussions. Curricular questions are discussed again at the end of each semester, and GSIs have an active role in designing necessary modifications and changes, giving our curriculum a very innovative and diverse character that is much appreciated by students and instructors alike. I also invite, on a regular basis, an experienced GSI to co-teach the 300 courses with me, which brings a different and important perspective into the seminar while at the same time providing a unique opportunity for additional professional development.
Encouraging Graduate Students to engage in research pertaining to what and how they are teaching is another essential component of my mentoring philosophy. Here at Berkeley we are extremely fortunate to have the Berkeley Language Center which provides generous financial support by funding as many as 10 instructional development research projects each year. Graduate students in my department have an exceptional track record of applying for and obtaining these fellowships, allowing them to combine their own interests as scholars of literature or linguistics with aspects of foreign language acquisition and teaching. Their projects almost always have an immediate impact on our language program curriculum and thus directly inject the results of current research into the classroom. Furthermore, the presentation and publication of these research projects provide visibility and exposure beyond the GSIs’ home department and the University community. Expanding the community in this sense is an important aspect that I try to implement in other ways, as well: we bring in guest lecturers and departmental alumni who have become successful professionals to share their experiences and advice; I also facilitate contacts with Middle and High Schools in the greater Bay Area and invite GSIs to present papers or workshops with me that address foreign language teachers locally as well as nationally.
Finally, there is the somewhat sad part of preparing for the good-bye by trying to build a bridge from the graduate student teaching experience into the professional life of a college or university professor. Our 300 course series includes several workshops on developing a teaching philosophy statement and a teaching portfolio as well as readings and discussions about the future of the profession and the discipline. Once the graduate students are ready to enter the job market, I gladly make myself available for individual consultations about application procedures and requirements, on-campus interviews, and the preparation for teaching demonstrations. While hoping that the mentorees will succeed in securing an attractive position, one thing will remain beyond the time of parting: an enormous gratitude for the insights and experience I have gained, helping me to become a better mentor the next time around.