Department of English
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.
When a large lecture course goes well, “mentoring” seems like exactly the wrong word to describe what goes on among teachers who together create the class for their students. It is far too vertical a term for the mutual learning that takes place.
Of course I do my best to translate the benefits of my experience into the kinds of everyday advice a beginning teacher needs: advice about managing time, about striking the right balance between structure and freedom in the classroom, about making peace with dread (dread of silence, of not knowing, of being inarticulate — or worse, of being disliked). But in truth I have much less to offer my GSIs than they have to offer themselves. Our most productive staff meetings are typically those in which I intervene least, doing little more than provide a supportive environment for teachers facing similar challenges to share their successes and misfires, their strategies and experiments. Those GSIs teaching for a second or third time are often better “mentors” of their first-time colleagues than I could ever be. At the semester’s first meeting, I introduce my current GSIs to the single most valuable resource I can provide them: the thick file of course materials I have collected from my previous GSIs. I regularly steal from this archive myself, and I encourage the new staff to do likewise. From syllabi to writing assignments, classroom policies to exam questions, these richly various materials are models of the ingenuity born from the excitement and anxiety of having to work up such documents for the first time, and they often cannot be surpassed, even by the most seasoned of teachers. The new staff adapts, adjusts, and innovates upon them, adding a new layer of collective practice for others to tinker with in the future.
My only guiding principle, then, is to trust my GSIs with the independence they invariably (and mistakenly) think they have not yet earned. While it is important to establish a shared identity in a large course, the sections need not be uniform.
For better or for worse, what goes on in section is tied to the lectures all students attend, and GSIs must spend much of their time clarifying, extending, and challenging the ideas I have presented earlier in the week. At the same time, however, there are always opportunities for them to put an individual stamp on the curriculum by introducing new texts into their sections or by designing essay topics that reflect their own emphasis. Although observing the sections is perhaps my favorite task as lead instructor, I try not to intrude too often; it is more important for GSIs to establish their autonomy than it is for me to satisfy my curiosity. The conversations that follow my visits are among the highlights of a semester, at least for me. Not only do I get to inform the GSIs that their classes were by no means the disaster they might have feared, but I also see how eager they are to absorb the kind of information about their class that only another set of eyes can provide. As we exchange our impressions of what took place, we get to enjoy the pleasure of teachers talking shop, not as mentor and novice, but as colleagues with a shared investment in the same students, learning from each other.