Gary Sposito
ESPM's Gary Sposito in with his unanticipated exhaltation and (right) presenter Jeff Reimer. (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)

About the awards: the Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs has been given annually since 1999 by the Graduate Division’s GSI Teaching and Resource Center and the Graduate Council’s Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs. The Graduate Council, which guides the Graduate Division, is a committee of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate.

OUTSTANDING MENTOR: GARRISON SPOSITO Empowering, generous, constructive

Environmental Science, Policy and Management professor Gary Sposito is not fond of having his picture taken. When a friendly deputation (including his GSIs and departmental chair, colleagues, and staff and, oh, God, a photographer) invaded his Wheeler Hall classroom earlier this month to surprise him with an honor, his first impulse was to cross his arms in front of his face, not like a perp-walked mob boss, but more reminiscent of an exhausted exorcist facing the ultimate evil.

His students in Environmental Soil Chemistry 126, however, were delighted, and their infectious cheer soon jollied him into relaxing and somewhat dubiously going with the flow.

The unexpected fanfare was about Sposito’s behind-the-scenes role in guiding the grad students who help him teach his courses, for which work he was about to receive the Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs, one of UC Berkeley’s earliest honors to faculty members for that noble and highly voluntary activity.

The award came from the hands of Jeff Reimer, chemical engineering professor (and department chair), who heads the Graduate Council’s Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs, but it was instigated by Sposito’s present and former GSIs, who nominated him, thus subjecting him to this happy torture.

Sposito earned his Ph.D. in soil science at Berkeley in 1965 (in under two years, which required a special waiver). On his journey away from and then back to Berkeley, he taught physics at Sonoma State University and soil science at UC-Riverside, with such distinction that he became perhaps the only person to have won Distinguished Teaching Awards from both state university systems in California.

His Berkeley GSIs extolled both his generosity and his individualized constructive criticism. One nominator said, “he was always very careful never to outright tell me what to do in my class. Rather, he asked just the right probing questions to facilitate my coming up with teaching ideas on my own. In my eyes, that is terrific mentoring. I repeatedly felt empowered and gained a sense of self-confidences in my teaching abilities.”

Once the award was in Sposito’s hands, his students called out, “Speech, speech!” To which he answered, “No speech, I have nothing to say. I really don’t. I have no idea why this happened. I wouldn’t know any other way to do it than the way I did it. I was just being natural. I started my career in a strictly teaching institution in the Cal State system for about nine years and taught five courses per semester, and I guess you really learn to teach in an environment like that. It’s a lot of work, but it was really good experience. It’s a very rewarding kind of career. Otherwise, I have nothing to say. But I’m certainly grateful!”

Sposito’s self-effacing ways are known, and noted, beyond Berkeley. When the American Chemical Society held its 2006 annual meeting in San Francisco, a four-day symposium was held under the title “Physical Chemistry of Soil and Aquifer systems: A Symposium in Honor of Garrison Sposito.” Colleagues reporting on the event in a journal referred to it in a group photo caption as “A Symposium in Honor of Gary, eyes closed in quiet forbearance.”

Elli Schindelman
Public health's Ellie Schindelman (in multicolored jacket) with "prize patrol" presenter Panos Papadopoulous (in blue blazer) and surrounded by her GSIs and students. (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)

OUTSTANDING MENTOR: ELLIE SCHINDELMAN – Transformational, analytical, motivational

Earlier, the “prize patrol” had (also with GSI connivance) snuck into a computer-lab setting on the third floor of Haviland Hall, where public health lecturer Ellie Schindelman was team-teaching a class on using video for public health leadership and advocacy. Her jaw dropped when she saw the troop of balloon-bearing unexpected visitors (“Oh, my goodness!”), and stayed dropped for much of the ambush-presentation. When it was all over and her students and GSIs surrounded her, she gave, and received, many hugs. Claiming she was “in shock,” Schindelman said she was thrilled with the both the award “and this stealth thing.” She told her GSIs how proud she is “of the work and the teaching that you all do,” and said to everyone in the room, “This is one of the best honors I could ever have!”

In nominating Schindelman, one of her GSIs said, “Ellie’s teaching capabilities go far beyond mentoring me as a first-time GSI. She was able to help me analyze my GSI experiences, but more importantly, motivate me to transform these experiences into long-lasting teaching and learning skills. Ellie’s class was more than completing a GSI requirement: her mentoring transformed me for life.”

A down-home yet highly energetic person, Schindelman is a Berkeley alumna; she earned her master’s degree in health education here in 1980. She has worn many hats on campus. Among them: managing the UC Berkeley Leadership Development Program, consulting on management, communication, and organizational culture for a variety of campus departments, and working on several UC-wide programs.

Cris Benton
Architecture's Cris Benton, holding certificate aloft, with his ace GSI crew: "Wow!". (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)

OUTSTANDING MENTOR: CHARLES BENTON – Insightful, engaging, curious

The final prize surprise took place in the E. Morris Cox auditorium of the Genetics and Plant Biology building, in the northwest corner of campus, where architecture professor Cris Benton sat with students in an interrupted Architecture 140 lecture, awaiting what he was told was a “guest demo” of some kind. He had no clue it was a campus-wide honor to thank him for the outstanding work he has done during more than a quarter century of mentoring GSIs in the Department of Architecture. Particularly notable for this nomination, Jeff Reimer said, “was the fact that we received letters from Professor Benton’s GSIs past and present, going back as far as 25 years ago,” some of whom are now full professors at such places as the University of Washington and the University of Oregon, “all telling the same story about the remarkable impact their mentor, Cris Benton, has had on them.” One such, writing from Oregon, said that he “entered graduate school with little understanding or appreciation for the work and expectations of a college professor in a professional discipline, and Cris became for me the role model of what a professor of architecture can be.” More than two decades after serving as Benton’s GSI for two years, the nominator said, “Today, as I work with GSIs, I train them as Cris trained me.”

One of Benton’s current GSIs wrote, “It would be easy for a faculty member to simply present the course material to GSIs without engaging them in dialogue about how the course is organized. Cris has an exceptional ability to meaningfully engage GSIs in course planning,” in that way imparting “a skill that will serve us will in our own teaching careers.” Another said, “Cris is admired by his students and GSIs alike for his insights and sense of humor, as well as a teaching philosophy that puts faith in observation, awareness, and hands-on curiosity. These traits set a tremendous example for GSIs under his mentorship.”

For his part, Benton had only one thing to say beyond “Wow, this is a surprise!” And that was, “While writing a letter of recommendation for a fellowship for one of the GSIs — Ceara, for a Rose Fellowship — I found myself thinking, ‘Well, after 30 years, what’s the high point of teaching?’ And in many ways it’s working with these GSIs. It’s the apex. I’m so proud of this group, this cohort. It’s an extraordinary privilege.”

Widely known as an architect and an academic, Benton has also achieved renown for his eye and his technical skill in a highly specialized hobby and art form: kite aerial photography. His website on that subject, with scenic galleries and copious helpful hints, is worth a tour.

Kite photography
Kite photography images © Charles C. Benton

Dick Cortén


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