The University Record, September 17, 1996

New graduate student instructors learn from CRLT program

Aurora Sherman (center), talks with a group of new graduate student instructors.

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services


Even award-winning graduate student instructors (GSIs) can have a bad first day of teaching.

Peter Sherman, a zoology GSI and a recipient of the Rackham Outstanding GSI Award, admitted that on his first day as teacher, an apparently aggressive student challenged him by asking "What is a monocleales?"

"I had no idea," Sherman told attentive GSIs in a teacher training program organized Aug. 29-30 at Rackham by the Center for Learning and Teaching (CRLT).

"So I brushed him off with `I think it is some sort of sponge but we'll come to that later in the semester.' Then another student pointed at a chart behind me. It was a chart of the plant kingdom and `monocleales' was a classification in it.

"So I said, `Oh, you mean `MonoCLEEales. Of COURSE. In the PLANT kingdom.'"

Sherman's audience roared in recognition.

"And from then on," Sherman added, "I dreaded students' questions."

Not long after, however, he was talking with another GSI, a young white woman who was nervous about teaching "The African American Experience."

"We talked about how, in that setting, she had to be a choreographer and an energizer rather than a relater of facts. And then I suddenly realized that when students ask questions, you don't always have to know the answers. You can say, `I don't know. Let's explore that and design experiments to find out.' So don't be afraid of not knowing it all. Some of your best teaching develops that way."

Sherman was one of a panel of four GSI experts assembled by CRLT to kick off the two-day GSI training program. The other award-winning GSI panelists were Joan Sitomer in English, Aurora Sherman in psychology and Nadeem Hussain in Philosophy.

Sitomer shared how she panicked when she got her first set of papers to grade. "Grading is an important teaching tool," she said. "With some students, it may be the only contact you have, your one shot at helping them overcome obstacles."

Sitomer shared her own grading tips. "Design the exam with the response you want in mind. Don't correct every error in mechanics. Instead, list the most common ones and teach the whole class. Design your grading evaluation sheet with room for comments so you are not destroying the student's paper with red ink. Be selective about the issues you comment on and don't try to fix all the mistakes at once."

Aurora Sherman discussed coping with teacher student evaluations. "They are important because they give you a peek into students' heads. But take them with a grain of salt," she said. "Student A can rave about a course while student B will say it was the worst course she ever had." Learn from evaluations but don't live and die by them, she stressed.

Nadeem Hussain noted that "Your attitude is as important as what you do or say. If you enter the classroom determined to have authority, you won't get it. Just assume that students will do what you expect them to do and they will do it.

"And don't be righteous and scornful if they don't do it. Be a `consequentialist' and let them deal with the consequences of their behavior. Also, keep you own opinions out of the classroom and teach multiple views. Put yourself in your students' shoes."

Dean Cantor shares teaching tips

Nancy Cantor, the new vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, shared her own teaching tips during the CRLT program for GSIs.

"Wait, wait, wait an unimaginable amount of time after asking a question. Your most important teaching tool is a glass of water to drink while you wait.

"Understand that students are confused. Their boredom, scorn and disdain for you is actually confusion.

"Recognize that when students fail, it will be your fault. When they succeed, it will be entirely due to their own efforts.

"Take student evaluations with a thick skin. After my first teaching experience in psychology, I was criticized for my clothes, my accent, the boring reading and the absolute uselessness of the entire field of psychology.

"I was devastated until an award-winning professor pulled out his old student evaluations for me. They were incredibly rude and foul. I felt much better."