Students enrolled in spring and summer courses may have found that their classes are taught solely by graduate student instructors, and while this may trouble some students, others are finding opportunities to engage in life-changing projects and learn in innovative ways under the guidance of GSIs.
While some professors are embarking upon research projects or personal endeavors that leave them unable to teach during the summer months, many GSIs have taken their place to teach undergraduate courses and are inspiring students on campus to engage with the surrounding community and get involved in ways that make a difference.
Students enrolled in American Culture 204: Making a Difference: The History of Public Scholarship this spring have found the opportunity to implement theories and practices learned in class to help improve local education systems under the guidance of Alex Olson, a fifth-year graduate student.
Of the 11 students enrolled in the course this spring, one student is working to establish a tutoring program in response to funding cuts in the Detroit public school system, another is collaborating with the Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra and a third is hoping to pair youth with the elderly for cooperative gardening projects in East Lansing.
Olson said these projects aim to get students “to think critically about what it means to make a difference,” emphasizing that classes that foster these ideals are not anomalies, but rather traits characteristic of many spring and summer term undergraduate courses led by graduate students.
According to Janet Weiss, dean of Rackham Graduate School and vice provost for Academic Affairs, undergraduate students who take classes taught by GSIs can expect to gain knowledge from instructors who keep up to date with the latest developments in their areas of study and are as strong at teaching as their older and more experienced counterparts.
“They have both a lot of familiarity with the most recent developments in their field and they’re very innovative in terms of their approach to teaching, their use of technology and their style … Many are as good as our very best teachers,” she said.
While many professors are unable to teach because they are engaging in projects or conducting research in the field, springtime increases the number of graduate students available to teach courses, which enables departments to offer more classes during the spring and summer months, Weiss said.
Additionally, she said graduate students are more readily available to teach during the summer because they are often enrolled in fewer credit hours.
“Part of the value of having graduate students teach is that they expand the number of courses that the University can offer,” Weiss added. “So by using graduate student instructors, the University is able to offer a broader array of courses and at more convenient hours.”
School of Education sophomore Michael Nafso, who is in the American Culture class taught by Olson, said Olson makes the information approachable and engaging.
“(Olson) does bring the material to life in terms of our age,” Nafso said. “I think having someone who’s close to our age does make a difference because they know more about what we do, how technology has impacted our lives.”
Olson’s relationship with his students, Nafso said, contrasts the typical connection between professors and undergraduate students. He added that while professors usually have less interaction with students and teach as if giving a lecture, Olson better understands how to teach according to students’ learning styles and makes an effort to get to know them.
“He’s got a more modern way of educating,” he said. “He knows the best ways of learning … the best way to learn is not by listening but by engaging. He has small quizzes rather than a big final exam because he knows that you learn when you learn in small parts.”
Andre Cavalcante, a fifth-year doctoral student in Communication Studies teaching Communications 101 for his third consecutive spring term, said graduate students are encouraged to develop and teach undergraduate courses because of their commitment to scholarship in their fields, the absence of professors and their age and ability to identify with undergraduate students.
“I think as graduate students we’re a little bit closer in age and experience to our students,” Cavalcante said.
“I kind of can identify with what they’re going through and with their experiences … because in a way we’re both students,” Cavalcante added. “We’re just different kind of students.”
LSA junior Travis Gonyou, a student in Communications 101 with Cavalcante, said he has established a rapport with Cavalcante due to their closeness in age, the small, seminar-like class format and Cavalcante’s ability to relate his experiences in public relations to course material.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be able to be comfortable with the person that’s teaching a class,” Gonyou said.