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

Background of the Award
Statement of Mentoring Philosophy

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 is sponsored by the Graduate Council’s Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs and the GSI Teaching & Resource Center.

Stephen Tobriner’s Statement of Mentoring Philosophy

The context in which I teach my five GSIs is challenging. Most fall semesters I teach a required course (Arch. 170A) on world architecture and urbanism to two hundred and fifty graduate and undergraduate architecture students who are not sure of the relevance of the course to their professional education. Class is held in a dark, poorly ventilated room, using unreliable double slide projection. In the last thirty-three years dogs have walked across the stage, drunks have wandered in, stink bombs have exploded, microphones failed, projectors burst into flames, and students have tried to sleep, talk, read, and even make love in the dark. For every problem I have attempted to devise an appropriate response, which always has the aim of bringing students’ attention back to the subject at hand. I tell the GSIs that the attitude that they bring to the class is very important. My genuine enthusiasm for the course material and my love of teaching creates a positive and stimulating atmosphere which fosters mutual respect and interest among even the most reluctant students. I also tell my GSIs that understanding the difficulties from the students’ perspective is crucial. For example, staying awake in class is often very difficult. It is part of the culture of architectural education to ask students to stay up nights in studio. Students have told me, rather sheepishly, that they wanted to stay awake in class but physically could not. So I decided to surprise them in lecture by turning on the lights, having them stand up, shout some architectural term, and then sit down. They seem to love this silly exercise — and remain awake throughout the rest of the lecture. Often I take three minutes and have the students write me letters in class. They invariably feel connected and seen because I answer their questions either from the stage or by email. I really want the GSIs to understand the importance of relationship to learning.

I challenge the GSIs to use every tool at their disposal to bring the subject to life and to use the unexpected creatively. We bring in materials, tools, building parts and models to illustrate points. Sometimes in my enthusiasm my demonstrations go array in strange and frankly hysterical ways. Once I was demonstrating the principle of the lever by moving the podium. As I jacked up the podium the GSIs shouted “no, no, no!” I catapulted my glass of water all over my lecture notes. Everybody roared with laughter, me too. Then I launched into a discussion of construction failures due to oversights — the latter has long been remembered, along with the principle of the lever.

I teach the GSIs that in architectural history everything is relevant, the rooms we lecture in, the events of the day, the concerns of the students themselves and the strange events that occur as we teach. I try to use them all to make the architecture of the past relevant and exciting for the students of today. It is important to me that the GSIs model how to approach an unknown culture or architectural form with curiosity and respect. Our class is made up of American and foreign students who can trace their origins to nearly every country in the world. We attempt to model a way of studying and understanding without judgment or prejudice.

I try to expand the GSIs’ way of thinking about architecture and urbanism as well as how to teach. The GSIs are responsible for pinning up our picture display, checking the web site, conducting sections and writing the scripts for two of them, writing questions for the midterm and final, helping students find research paper topics, helping the students research, outline, and write their papers, and grading papers, final exams and section participation. I discuss everything involved in designing the course with them before the semester starts. I also talk to each GSI individually to prepare for the semester. Once I was afraid a very bright Ph.D. student might not want to work as a team member. He and I talked about this problem and established an understanding before he taught. He worked well with the other GSIs. I find it is essential to talk with the GSIs often to find out how their sections are going and how the students are responding to my lectures. The GSIs and I meet every week to discuss sections for the week to come and often talk about individual students who need help. I teach the GSIs how to organize a lecture, how to conduct a section, and how to handle class problems, like overbearing students or plagiarism. We work together as colleagues to solve class problems. I often go into sections to see what problems the GSIs are encountering. I never undercut their authority or contradict them in front of their students. I correct them in private and suggest how they might restate or rephrase information that has been presented inaccurately. I also suggest strategies for teaching. One woman GSI was struggling with a very introverted woman who would not talk in class. I suggested they go out for coffee together to discuss the problem. Afterward the student felt understood and she began to talk in class when called upon. We often have to deal with plagiarism. Because the students write multiple drafts plagiarism is not too difficult to spot. A GSI recently caught a student plagiarizing and asked what to do. The two of us met with him and the GSI pointed out the text that he had plagiarized. We were both witnesses and acted together to establish the appropriate consequences.

I have been enormously fortunate to have worked with so many outstanding GSIs. It is no problem for me work with them as colleagues because they so richly deserve my respect and confidence. Some were my Ph.D. students, but the majority were not. We had to build our relationship to make the class work. We usually end the class with a dinner, and every time I feel the sadness of losing the team that has coalesced around me. Over the years they have become professors themselves and have taken our way of teaching and the subject matter of the Arch. 170A and B across America and literally around the globe. What a great honor and privilege it has been to work with these capable young scholars and teachers. It is an honor to have been nominated by them for this mentorship award.