The GSI Center: from baby steps to national example

Great at what they do: the 2006 crop of Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award recipients, at the presentation ceremony in Alumni House. Peg Skorpinski photo.
Great at what they do: the 2006 crop of Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award recipients, at the presentation ceremony in Alumni House. Peg Skorpinski photo.

BEING A GRADUATE STUDENT INSTRUCTOR is not only a good way to offset the expenses of your graduate education, it’s a heck of a good way to develop your skills and instincts as a teacher, help educate Berkeley’s undergraduates — and get a real jump on the market.

About a sixth of the currently enrolled grad students are GSIs this semester. Over their time here, the vast majority of all grad students will take this option, teach undergrads, become role models (whether they realize it or not), and affect their own futures.

For the first 121 years of UC Berkeley’s existence, GSIs — known until 1985 as teaching assistants or TAs — were pretty much on their own. Nadesan Permaul, a lecturer in the rhetoric and political science departments, was a TA in the 1970s, and likens it to somewhere between sink-or-swim and being cast adrift. “I was fortunate as a graduate student to have some individual professors who were generous with their time and gave me advice, but otherwise there was nothing organized where everyone could go for help in becoming a teacher.”

Then in 1989 came the first baby steps. In the basement of California Hall, where the Graduate Division was at that time, the Office of GSI Training was started under its wing, with a director, one grad student helper, and one desk.

Seventeen years later it’s a fixture and a necessity, nationally recognized and emulated, under the name Graduate Student Instructor Teaching and Resource Center (usually nicknamed the GSI Center), and operating out of offices in the southwest corner of the third floor of Sproul Hall.

Undergraduates tend to have mixed impressions of GSIs. They’re a slightly more exalted breed of student, but are “mere students” nonetheless; they’re not yet “real” faculty. An undergrad will work with quite a few of them in four or so years of courses and, if interested, may realize that beyond whatever administrative and grading power they have, they’re positioned to unlock mysteries of the disciplines, even more than individual professors, because they’re usually in closer contact with individual students.

But what’s involved in reaching this privileged (and paid, if not royally) position of steering the knowledge-acquisition of other, more junior, students? Quite a lot more than most undergrads might guess.

The minimal qualifications to be chosen as a GSI by the department are: a grade point average of 3.1 or better, excellent scholarship as a student, promise as a teacher, willingness to be an apprentice supervised by a regular faculty member. Each GSI must be registered and enrolled in at least eight units for the semester they’re instructing, and yet must not, with the GSI position and any other employment, work more than 50 percent of the time that semester (20 hours per week). GSIs must either be native English speakers or demonstrate their English proficiency by passing a formal language test. They have to take a for-credit semester-long seminar on teaching within their department and successfully complete an online course on professional standards and ethics in teaching. First-time GSIs must also attend a full-day start-of-the-semester teaching conference. (This year, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau told the new GSIs of his envy of them — he clearly misses teaching — that “teaching matters at Berkeley in a way that is close to unique,” and that “by teaching undergraduates you’ll learn more about your field in the process.” He also said that “if someone made a difference to you, inspired you while you were an undergrad, keep in mind that you are now that teacher, that mentor, that role model.”)

The intensive orientation for new GSIs was one of the first offerings of the GSI Center in its early years. It also gave workshops, offered small grants for grad students to use for course improvement, and presented awards to the each year’s outstanding GSIs — all of which it does to this day

Linda von Hoene, the current director, “always wanted to teach, ever since I was a kid.” She had been a GSI for several years, teaching students in the German department, when she first joined the Center as a “campuswide consultant” in the early 1990s. She was still working on her dissertation — “Fascism and Female Melancholia: the Lure of Fascism for the Female Subject in Psychoanalytic Theory, German Literature, and Film” — when she found herself wanting to make a broader contribution to the university’s teaching mission, through her work at the Center. She’s been there for all the other major changes, and has had a hand in most.

“If someone made a difference to you, inspired you while you were an undergrad, keep in mind that you are now that teacher, that mentor, that role model.”

— Chancellor Robert Birgeneau

In the mid-1990s, she says, “two new programs were developed, two that I think are particularly good. One is the seminar for faculty on teaching with GSIs, which helps individual faculty to mentor and work effectively with GSIs. Approximately 150 faculty members have benefited from this three-afternoon seminar. Another is the Teaching Effectiveness Award, an idea that came out of our brain trust, the Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs, a subgroup of the Academic Senate’s Graduate Council. It rewards GSIs for pinpointing problems in teaching and learning, and road-testing innovative solutions to them. Their award-winning essays are posted on our website so more instructors — GSIs and others — may benefit from these terrific ideas .” (http://gsi.berkeley.edu/awards/tea_index.html)

Looking out at the landscape of higher education: GSI Center director Linda von Hoene, left, with Ph.D. candidate Anuradha Mukerji at the 2006 Summer Institute for Preparing Future Faculty. Peg Skorpinski photo.
Looking out at the landscape of higher education: GSI Center director Linda von Hoene, left, with Ph.D. candidate Anuradha Mukerji at the 2006 Summer Institute for Preparing Future Faculty. Peg Skorpinski photo.

When the century turned in 2000, von Hoene took over as director. She rethought, renamed, and beefed up the Center’s workshops on teaching (“to get the topics to be a little more germane to the actual graduate student teaching experience”), and increased the number offered each semester.

She expanded workshops and seminars on developing a teaching portfolio as a way to help GSIs to reflect on and improve teaching, and to document their teaching for the academic job market. Many graduate students create portfolios now, to demonstrate that they have a sophisticated approach to, and knowledge of, teaching. Their portfolios enable them to show that they’re not only top-notch researchers, which most Berkeley graduate students are, but also excellent teachers.

Over the last decade and more, studies showed that graduate students “weren’t being well prepared for their future responsibilities,” says von Hoene, “only the immediate ones of teaching undergraduates in sections and labs.” Building on her experience in preparing GSIs for teaching, she teamed up with Sabrina Soracco, the Graduate Division’s Academic Services director, to offer a remedy, at least locally. The result: in 2003 and every year since the Summer Institute for Preparing Future Faculty, an intensive six-week program for students nearing the end of their graduate programs, designed to make the transition into the academic workforce not only possible but less of a shock and even enjoyable. “Our program prepares graduate students for all components of faculty life,” says von Hoene. “It also looks at the landscape of higher education, trends in higher education, in addition to going on the job market, applying for academic jobs, and the life of a new faculty member. One aspect always leaves graduate students with the biggest impression — the panels of faculty from different institutions talking about faculty life.”

Von Hoene’s personal overarching goal is “to ensure that Berkeley is not only the best place in the country to pursue an advanced degree, but also to develop one’s skills as a teacher.”

“I love working with graduate students,” says von Hoene, “because they’re so new to teaching, and they’re enjoying the amazing fact that they are invested with the authority to teach something they absolutely love, and to share their passion.”

“When most people begin to teach, there’s a lot they don’t know about teaching. In addition to knowing their subject matter inside and out, they have to develop levels of competency in teaching. I feel privileged to work with graduate students, helping them to think through what they’re doing, what’s working well and why, what’s not working and why not, and to make adjustments to the way they teach.”

Von Hoene knows how vulnerable people are and feel at this formative stage and she respects the courage to self-examine and especially to ask for some help. What makes it easier for all concerned is that generally the effort pays off so well.

“I love working with graduate students because they’re so new to teaching, and they’re enjoying the amazing fact that they are invested with the authority to teach something they absolutely love, and to share their passion.”

— Linda von Hoene, GSI Center director

“One of the most challenging things we offer is also one of the best,” she says. “It’s voluntary, and completely confidential. It’s a video consultation, where, by request, we videotape a GSI teaching in the classroom and give feedback. We meet with the GSI before the classroom visit to discuss the areas he or she would like feedback on, the material to be taught, and what the GSI wants students to take away from the class session. After videotaping the class, we give the GSI the tape and tell them to watch it once to get over how they feel about their appearance and how they sound, and then a second time to look at the teaching and learning that took place in the class. The GSI then watches the tape with a consultant from the Center and identifies areas of teaching they’d like to work on and specific steps they can take to improve in those areas. I would recommend it to anyone. It’s the activity that people can get the most out of, watching themselves on videotape, with a trained consultant. The consultant knows how to guide you to whatever big-ticket items you may need to work on, but it’s the process of establishing goals that’s most significant.”

The Center’s emphasis on professional development for graduate students has been rising since the late 1990s, as a way of helping them bridge into a changing career landscape, where the goal might or might not be academic, and might not remain the same over the years.

“We recognize that the teaching life is not part of everybody’s plan,” says von Hoene. “Forty to 60 percent of the Ph.D.s in engineering, for instance, do not go into academe. But a lot of the skills you learn through teaching as a GSI are highly transferable. When I worked with a group in engineering last year, I took over a list of skills that are involved in teaching. I asked them to think about which ones they might need in a future career that was not an academic position — synthesizing information, oral presentation, time management, maintaining records, evaluating work of others, and so on. Most of these graduate students are not going to go in on the ground level. If they go into industry, they’ll be in management positions. So they’ll be supervising teams, giving feedback on work, explaining concepts, answering questions all of the skills that one learns through teaching.”

Honored and online: the GSI Center in recent years

The GSI Center was given a signal honor in 2004, the Berkeley campus Educational Initiatives Award, which said in part that “The programs of the Center go well beyond the nuts and bolts of teaching, forging a research-based, reflective approach to teaching and learning.” Among various testimonials, then-history GSI Heather McCarty was quoted: “Each program I have participated in at the Center has taught me new techniques, which I have applied in the classroom. The amazing staff there not only helped to prepare me for teaching as a first-time GSI; they also offered programs to aid in my continuing growth as an instructor throughout my graduate studies. My experiences with the Center have been nothing short of phenomenal.” (McCarty is now an assistant professor in the history and political science department at Ohlone College.)

In the university’s 2004 reaccreditation review, the Center was referred to as “a model for TA development centers everywhere” by the external review team.

Another honor came in late 2005, the Chancellor’s Outstanding Staff Award, which went to team members in the GSI Center and people in a number of campus offices who collaborated with them in creating the groundbreaking online course for GSIs on professional standards and ethics, which, like many of the Center’s resources, is available on its website. The online course is a treasure trove of information about professional standards, campus policy, student demographics, and pedagogical strategies to enhance student learning..

Would you have guessed, for example, that 28 percent of the undergraduates at Berkeley were born in countries other than the U.S.? Or that 25 percent of Berkeley’s undergraduates come from families with a combined household income of less than $35,000?

Is it okay to inject things not really associated with the subject matter of the course into classroom presentations or discourse? No, that’s actually a breach of campus policy.

Did you know that prompt return of student papers is an ethical issue? Not doing so can be an infraction. When you assign a lot — more than you can grade and turn back in a timely manner — you are not giving students the feedback they need to progress in your course.

The GSI Center is currently designing a certificate program in teaching and learning in higher education and is preparing to make its online course on professional standards and ethics in teaching available for use by other institutions. News about both the certificate program and online course will be posted on the Center’s website (http://gsi.berkeley.edu).

by Dick Cortén (Originally published in The Graduate magazine, 2007)


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