Department of Geography, Architecture, and American Studies
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.
My GSI mentoring philosophy centers on supplying enough resources and support so that a diverse group of people can enjoy teaching and learning together as a team. A successful GSI team starts with an initial pool of good candidates, so I start recruiting early and shamelessly. Of course, I look for people who are smart, creative, and hard-working, but other key criteria are a lively sense of humor and a sense that learning is fun. (Humor, especially, helps the GSIs deal with my own foibles.) I make sure we have a team with backgrounds that reflect, as much as possible, the students in the course and its interdisciplinary reach. Past GSIs have come from architecture, landscape architecture, city planning, urban design, history, historical archaeology, journalism, and geography. The only problem in the process is that inevitably I can choose only a small fraction of the many excellent candidates.
By Berkeley standards, my survey courses are small. Each semester, I teach half of a two-semester, 100-student sequence in the history of the ordinary, everyday built environments of the U.S. The courses are cross-listed in geography, architecture, and American studies, and it’s a course sequence I unabashedly love. The four discussion sections are typically split among three GSIs. When possible, the half-time, two-section GSI is a veteran of the course. I don’t know why, but a team of three GSIs works better than a team of two or four.
At the first lecture, I introduce each of the GSIs for about five minutes. I do the same for myself. These introductions stress various twists and turns in our intellectual life-paths, places we have lived and worked — the course is, after all, about places — and our research projects. The biographies of the teaching team show students that it is OK to range widely, intellectually; to change one’s mind about one’s major, perhaps more than once; and that random opportunities may open doors that one cannot see in advance.
Because at most only one GSI has taken a course like this before, the GSIs are learning as they go, doing the readings for the first time, just ahead of the students. For the GSIs, this adds an element of pressure — and always being at the edges of one’s knowledge — but also more interest because they are learning something new. Also, they can genuinely appreciate and anticipate the learning processes that face the students in their sections.
Most of my other methods for GSI mentoring might be summed up as taking and sharing good notes. Each semester, several of the sections are skills-training sessions: how to read USGS maps for cultural history clues; how to decipher architectural floor plans of buildings, and then speculate about the ways in which the patterns of rooms and halls and yards might influence social life and social meanings; at least two 45-minute field trips near campus prepare students for an all-day, self-guided field trip that they take as a cross-section through Oakland, with the aid of a fairly long xeroxed field guide that students buy as a second reader. These skills are usually new to the GSIs, so I prepare detailed outline scripts for them; with sufficient background notes on the general content, they can then focus on their personal teaching styles and strategies. The GSIs and I also “pre-enact’ those entire sections; I act as the GSI, and we pore over the maps and plans together, and go out on the short field trips. Effectively moving 25 people through the city requires several easy tricks, such as saying “Squish together!’ so a section can hear discussions even on Telegraph Avenue.
I do anything I can for the students and the GSIs to reduce their anxiety; admittedly, fear can be a great motivator, but too often it inhibits curiosity and creativity. My anxiety-reducing tools are usually more notes, in the form of outlines and guides. The paper-writing guide for the students is twice as long as the eventual papers; in that guide (with credits) are the most useful ideas from past GSIs, former teachers, and those campus teaching newsletters that arrive in faculty mailboxes at mysterious moments. In the twelfth week, when it comes time to evaluate the papers, the GSIs receive another hefty guide to help them be better editors and commentators for manuscripts. The core of the guide comes from a GSI workshop on teaching writing that Phyllis Brooks, of the Subject A program, offered back in the 1970s — when I was a raw GSI recruit — and editing techniques learned from many patient editors who have worked with my own writing. For almost every section, I keep files of what prior GSIs have done and found effective, so the GSIs aren’t re-inventing the wheel, but we brainstorm about new experiments as well. We discuss together the construction of the curves, and at the end of the term we spend an entire day, again as a group, discussing each student before we assign a course grade.
GSIs need to be talent scouts. Part of the paper-grading guide (and the mini-workshop the teaching team does before paper evaluations) covers the essential task of identifying and encouraging undergraduates to go further, especially to send their papers out for publication. The subjects of the courses lend themselves to local newspaper features as well as more academic outlets. Before the final exam, the GSIs get to nominate two or three people from each section for a “postcard prize’ (the prize is simply a postcard signed by everyone on the teaching team) given for meritorious papers — not only those that received the top grades, but also papers that tackled risky, tough subjects or used creative research methods or argument. Each year the team has a lively debate about who gets to be on the list, and why.
Obviously, the hour-and-a-half weekly team meetings, at least a few of them over lunch at the Women’s Faculty Club, are essential learning sessions for me. The GSIs are remote eyes and ears: they notice, better than I do, when the students have fallen asleep in the lectures; they relay the questions that students have asked outside of class; they gently correct my misstatements, and from their varied backgrounds suggest new ideas and research; they vet the rough drafts of the exams so the student experience of them — and the grading of them — will be as positive as possible. After our team meetings, my parting shot to the GSIs (probably too often) is, “Have fun!’ However, that remains a major goal in my work: that the teaching and learning we are all doing together, although it demands real effort, be infused with genuine joy and infectious enthusiasm.