When I was a graduate student, I was a teaching assistant (more than once) for a very inspiring mentor, a man named Manos Vakalo. His teams of teaching assistants had remarkable autonomy. He never questioned a grade we gave, and he always treated us as respected equals. In retrospect, we could be dumb at times; I remember bringing beer to a critique for our undergraduates, and Manos simply raising an eyebrow in reprimand. That, however, was enough. He had remarkable expressions, every one of which I think I could still imitate perfectly today, nearly 20 years later.
My last semester teaching as his assistant, five of us worked together. Manos never told us what to do in the classroom, although he would often praise something we had done well. He told us (only once, I think) what he expected: excited, productive students. How we achieved that was never explained…. He left all the grading to us as a group, on open-ended design problems not easy to grade. As a result, the teams I taught with spent a lot of time debating what we should do, and learning what we believed about teaching. At the end of that final semester, two of us had decided on teaching as a career–although that was not what I intended when I began graduate school. Both of us, Laura Lee and myself, were hired as Assistant Professors by Carnegie Mellon–without any of the formalities of interviewing. Laura is today the Director of the School of Architecture at Carnegie.
When Manos died in 2000, I realized with deep regret that he would never see my first book, and he did not see Laura become Director. In a way, mentoring (like teaching) is an act of hope. Manos never knew the depths of his influence. Many of us who teach never do.
But there are great joys in the day-to-day tug of mentoring as well. Some of the faculty who received this award last year spoke of it as an honor–and it is, albeit a fleeting one. The real honor is the daily honor of teaching together with the GSIs, as a team of strong, dynamic people. In the introductory courses, we address both convention and innovation in construction systems and materials. The GSIs’ strengths and interests within a very broad and rapidly evolving context effectively complement my wide-ranging and (for the most part) longer understanding of the field. I respect the knowledge they bring to the team, and each GSI is invited to carve out territory and define their interests, presenting a lecture if they wish. Their knowledge also influences the class each day. This year, I have a GSI who knows a lot more about structural design than I do; if I am trying to explain a structural principle and feeling he could probably do a better job, just having him in the room makes me work harder. The group who seem to have nominated me all have things I want to learn from them: one of my GSIs loves a good construction detail, thinking elegantly about materials and their connections; another has a far deeper understanding of steel than I can ever hope to, based on long professional experience; still another has been doing genuinely ground-breaking research on computer-aided fabrication; the last (and last but not least) has more heart than I have ever seen in a single human being, and motivates everyone around him in a way that I can only envy–from him, I learn more about pedagogy. These are not the only strengths they have; that would make a far longer list than is fair to impose on anyone. My little summation just begins to explain why I like to teach with the terrific GSIs we have at Cal.
I am like every other professor I know. You walk into a large lecture hall and discover you cannot find the remote control for the slide projector or do not know how to work the lights on an overly complex light panel that you encounter twice a week for a whole term. How we as a group have so aptly earned the appellation of absent-minded, I will never know. The GSIs always patiently and with only mild amusement sort out these problems while I do the work of getting class underway. I sometimes feel as if they are benign babysitters… and from their occasional amused chuckles, I suspect they may feel the same.
Yet while I may not always be able to work out where the appropriate light switches are, I do know something that my GSIs often seem not to understand: their great knowledge, and the experiences they have accrued at Berkeley, make them leaders in the field, right now. They are able to see how this translates into a relationship with the undergraduates, but I challenge them to do something about their leadership beyond the classroom. As a result, I think they take their research more seriously, and go further with it: applying for grants and fellowships, talking to publishers, considering where teaching will fit into their long-term career choices, which, like mine, probably were initially based on professional goals.
Recently, one of my GSIs was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. We began class by acknowledging it, but he took control and went further, encouraging the undergrads to think about applying for Fulbrights themselves, and explaining why he thought this was a reasonable goal. The students were rapt. In casual conversations since then, the subject has again come up, and it is very clear than many of our undergrads he touched are seriously considering what this possibility means in their lives. If I create the right context for the class, the GSIs comfortably accept leadership, even sometimes when I am present. I want to be able to stand aside and let the next generations teach me, even as they are teaching each other.
I naturally asked the GSIs to look at the approach I took to writing this piece. My GSIs unanimously wanted me to add the point that we have weekly lunches together in the Faculty Club. For some, the location was important, as it added dignity and perhaps even gravitas to the group. For all of them, these meetings were a good opportunity to talk about the work we were doing and how we do it. Eating together is an important part of the week, as it also establishes a relaxed atmosphere where they feel comfortable adding their thoughts and ideas–it is hard to see me as intimidating when I am stealing French fries from your plate. They are a tough crowd–this is where they tell me a test question was a stinker (and with their help, I am getting better at writing tests). Manos, as I remember it, would take us out for beers, and we would sometimes impiously imitate those remarkably expressive gestures, much to the shock of our classmates who found him intimidating. Perhaps that was why I mistakenly tried drinking beer with my undergraduates; I learned in time to consider my own way of applying the models he offered.
I have avoided a prescriptive response to this essay, but in summary, this is what I have come up with to make teaching with GSIs a joy: find people who are passionate and know a great deal something exciting, encourage them to live up to the responsibility of their gifts, and get out of the way when they do. And if you are lucky, you get to see some of the fruits of what it means to support such people–but the truth is, you will never know all of what they accomplish, or what role your support may have played in them getting there. The wheel goes around and around.
—By Dana Buntrock
What is mentoring and where are all these awards coming from?
In modern usage, a mentor is a wise, loyal adviser or a teacher or coach. In ancient derivation — Greek mythology — Mentor was a person, the loyal friend, specifically, of Odysseus (he of the eventful wanderings) and teacher of his son. Mainly, a mentor is a trusted friend. In the campus context, it’s someone who has good judgment and is informative.
As Dana Buntrock’s essay here admirably demonstrates, teaching isn’t just a one-way street, especially when you’re teaching GSIs about teaching. The teacher gains from the process, and so, cumulatively, do the undergraduates in the classes taught by the teacher and his/her GSIs.
But: while various individual faculty members over the years have just gone ahead and acted as mentors, from their own generosity or because they’ve perceived the value of the process, the surrounding long-term tradition hasn’t, until recently, actually encouraged mentoring or given much credit to those who make the effort to do it.
Several organizations in recent years have been working to rectify the situation, and now there are two awards with lengthy names that reward the previously unsung. These are, to wit:
The Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs, presented by the Graduate Division’s GSI Teaching and Resource Center, co-sponsored by the California Alumni Association. This award primarily honors the mentoring of teaching. The Association, which has been a co-sponsor of the Academic Senate’s Distinguished Teaching Awards for decades, had been looking for other ways to support teaching at Berkeley; recognizing faculty who help GSIs become good teachers was particularly appealing, and the Association provided a monetary component the award had been missing in its first years. The award has been given since 1999, honoring 19 faculty members to date. Funding was added in 2003.
The Distinguished Faculty Mentoring Award, presented by the Graduate Assemby, honoring outstanding leadership in mentoring graduate student researchers. Presentation began in 2005, and seven faculty members “who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help graduate students become outstanding scholars” have been honored.
Both awards combine tangibility with honor, in the neighborhood of $1,000 to each recipient. Award nominations are requested by their sponsors early in the spring semester, and the awards are presented in ceremonies that typically take place in early May.