So Lindsay* walks into the classroom full of freshmen, taking a couple of nervous glances at the equally tense group of strangers waiting for their very first taste of collegiate learning. She timidly sets her books down, the ambiance of a recent University of Connecticut graduate floating through the room. “So umm aheheh could everyone, umm, just raise your hand as I call off your name?” As the class progresses, not a damn thing changes with this woman”s church mouse demeanor. “Umm, does anyone know the answer? Anyone? “C”mon guys ”
They warned me. They warned me before I even got my acceptance letter to U of M in the mail. They said, “Dustin, you know you are gonna be dealing with a bunch of graduate student instructors at that school, don”t you?” I didn”t think too much of it I mean, what”s the big deal, right? “You know the quality of undergraduate instruction may be sub-par at times as a result, right?” Ahh, I can take it. It”ll be OK, I told them. How misguided can one incoming student be?
With the prestigious reputation of The University of Michigan comes the unfortunate stigmata that are GSIs. Apparently, so many years ago some hapless bastard(s) decided that it was a brilliant idea to appoint college students to teach other college students, oftentimes with no professorial assistance, therefore allowing the former to possess absolute power over the latter”s grades and subsequent futures at the university. I would imagine that the load of a grad school student is probably more intense than that of an undergrad”s, but to have the added pressure of dealing with students on occasional semesters has to be mind-boggling.
On the flip side of things, we lowly undergrads would rather deal with an established professor for all the loot that is being shelled out for our “higher” education. Walking into a classroom only to find someone who was in our shoes just a couple of years ago is somewhat disheartening, at least for those of us who do give a damn.
The concept of a fresh college graduate instructing other college students yields difficulty. Granted, the financial compensation allowed to grad students for their willingness to teach courses is, I am sure, incentive enough to go through with the ensuing headache, but I often wonder whether the GSIs really want to do their jobs? I have come across a couple of them with huge chips on their shoulders, as if their compensation is not at all worth their troubles. When students see this (and yes we do see it), we associate the attitude with the quality of work that is, we can tell when GSIs don”t give a rat”s ass, and in turn we make sure their department heads find out as well.
So I walk into my Economics 101 discussion for the first time, in a minor state of trepidation from all of the intimidating things I heard about the course. Fifteen minutes after the hour, Gourou* busts through the door, a complete mess, and throws his things on the desk in a discombobulated manner. He grabs the chalk, writes his name on the blackboard, introduces himself, and says to the class in a heavy Japanese accent, and I quote: “I want to let you all know right now, that I am not a very good GSI ” True story, folks imagine my confidence level after this.
An issue that has concerned me a number of times is the inevitable personality conflicts that we have with GSIs. Our age group permits that, in some cases, a GSI can be the same age as the undergrad that he/she is instructing, and so there are bound to be issues with egos. On the undergrad side of the spectrum, you have your spoiled kids with the silver spoons shoved up their asses accustomed to straight As who won”t accept anything less from a GSI without a fight, and on the other side, there are your 22-year-old GSIs who might react with less tact than a seasoned professor if one of their students were to rub them the wrong way.
It”s also disturbing when the professor speaks perfect English in lecture, but you cannot understand a word from the GSI in discussion. This is one of those problems that probably can”t be dealt with in a plausible manner, but it interrupts the hifalutin” hell out of the lecture/discussion flow when one cannot understand the limited, accented English of a GSI. I have left discussion with a throbbing head questioning whether or not those participation points are worth sitting through an hour of hell. It makes me feel very sorry for foreign students who have the same struggle with our everyday English.
I have had a number of good GSIs, and only a handful of exceptional ones. But the bad, as it typically does, outweighs the good. I simply can”t get with the concept of an English grad student grading one of my papers when they are still in the process of learning how to write them themselves. Perhaps I am tired of learning everything I need to know in lecture and attending discussion because I have to get the grade. Do I have a solution to the problem? None that would satisfy all parties graduate school is expensive, and frankly I would probably commit to teaching as well if I were a grad student. Does that make me a hypocrite? It makes me a person in the same, financially distraught position as all of the other GSIs who do it because they have to. In the end, it is what it is, and those of us in frustration must deal.
*Names have been changed to protect the blissfully ignorant.
Dustin J. Seibert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.