Department of History
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.
Like previous recipients of this award, I would not have said that I had anything that qualified as a mentoring “philosophy” until the honor of writing this brief essay forced me to think about the issue directly. The essential thing is that, in my twenty years of teaching with GSIs at Cal, I have always worked with brilliant and energetic young historians in History 7A. I am simply awed by the idea that they have chosen to — and taken the trouble to — honor me in this way.
I suppose the core of my “philosophy” is that teaching an undergraduate course with GSIs is a thoroughly collective enterprise. Nor have I ever doubted that I learn as much, and sometimes much more, than the GSIs do from our collective endeavor. Yes, I bring more experience to the table with matters such as how to frame essay questions to prevent students from spinning their wheels, and we work hard on this issue together. I also have pretty firm ideas about topics that I want the GSIs to cover in their section meetings. But the GSIs always change the course from year to year by bringing up new ideas that change my mind about everything from interpretations of history to the usefulness of reading assignments and the standards for student achievement.
Our weekly meetings consist of seminars covering topics ranging from how I came to draw the conclusions I present in my lectures to how GSIs who have taught the course previously have solved the particular problems of presenting texts in their sections. We determine our grading policies as a group, frame essay and exam questions together, and share all kinds of classroom management tips over the course of the semester. We talk about how to encourage students to stay current with reading; what kinds of ideas and materials the students are finding to be easier, harder, more interesting, and less interesting in a particular semester; and what kinds of general complaints the students are raising that we can (or cannot) try to address.
I observe most, and all first-time, GSIs early in the semester— always by prearrangement, never by surprise — and again if they want me to come back. Each observation is followed by a short debriefing on matters of self-presentation (I have urged many GSIs to stand rather than sit while leading discussions); how to handle the occasional problem student who tends to talk too much, too little, flippantly, or rudely; how to use the blackboard (the one with the chalk, not the virtual one) to build a directed discussion from student comments; and how to organize discussions to lead students toward discovering the critical issues themselves instead of simply stating them at the outset or making them feel that they are supposed to be guessing the right answers. But my role in all this is more coach and cheerleader than teacher in any strict sense. The GSIs already know what they want to do. They also already know if it’s working. I offer a second pair of eyes on the process and a sounding board for their ideas about how to improve their own teaching.
The GSIs always know that I will back them up if a problem arises. They are the leaders of their own sections, with full authority over grading and similar policies. Students sometimes appeal to me if, for example, they think they have been graded too harshly, but the fact that I and the GSIs have spent so much time together working out our grading policies collectively (sometimes more than two hours per assignment) means that very few such cases arise. More often, GSIs come to me if they sense that a problem is brewing — a student has not been showing up to class, a series of late-paper excuses seems fishy, an athlete has an impossible schedule, and so on. The rise of the web has transformed the problem of academic dishonesty in student essays and, for some students, deformed the experience of exam studying (to memorizing wikipedia entries instead of reviewing course notes), but I have relied heavily on the good sense and alert intelligence of the GSIs to work out the best ways to respond to these emerging problems. I have also watched with great interest as they have experimented with the more positive uses of web technology, such as discussion boards. On this, the GSIs definitely teach me rather than the reverse.
I always read the evaluations of GSIs after the end of the semester — and am always pleased at how positive the students are about their experiences in their sections. They literally bubble with enthusiasm and thankfulness. GSIs from History 7A win the campus teaching awards with great regularity, and their consistent success allows me to tell the undergraduates at the beginning of each semester how much they can expect from their award-winning GSIs. To take a substantial fraction of the credit for their success would be presumptuous in the extreme. But it is a huge honor to learn that they think I can take a little of it.