Several years ago, during a rather difficult office hours meeting, a student told me that I wasn’t qualified to teach political science because I was earning a Ph.D. in English.

The only problem with this challenge was that the student was wrong: I was indeed earning a Ph.D. in political science. This particular student had definitely earned the C- grade over which she was questioning my teaching qualifications.

However, there does seem to be a lack of knowledge among many undergraduate students about the qualifications of their Graduate Student Instructors. Every term, I ask my sections what they know about the background and qualifying process for GSIs. Almost without exception, I get blank stares.

Here’s a tip: on the first day of class, ask your GSIs about their background. It’s unwise to directly challenge their competence, but it’s fine to express curiosity about their experiences.

Although I can’t answer questions for my colleagues, I can comment on the general qualifications for your GSIs: they gained admission to a graduate program at the University, usually a top 10 program in the country in a given field. Most departments are highly selective and admit less than 15 percent of applicants. The great majority of them teach in something closely related to their field — this term, I have sections in Introduction to American Politics, not Shakespearean Dramatic Conventions.

GSIs also go through multiple training courses before they enter the classroom and have to demonstrate English-language proficiency. Department training sessions often are a term-long course. In addition, any GSI who grades an upper-level writing course or teaches introductory writing must go through semester-long training courses at the Center for Learning Research and Teaching. Beyond formal academic qualifications and training, many GSIs have relevant life experiences that help enrich their teaching.

Three of my fellow GSIs had jobs as either community or political organizers before they came to grad school, which has influenced how they think and teach about political mobilization and participation. Another worked for a major polling firm, which comes in handy when you’re talking about how public opinion and voting works. Many of my colleagues who have taught the popular Arab-Israeli Conflict course have an extensive background in the Middle East. One spent a year in Egypt on a Truman scholarship and is proficient in Arabic. The second has lived in both Egypt and Israel and is proficient in both Hebrew and Arabic. The final one has studied in Egypt and Syria extensively, is fluent in Arabic and is pursuing research on how the social networks of Christian and Muslim shopkeepers might affect religious tensions.

When I told several of my students about the activities of those GSIs, their mouths dropped open in surprise. Why don’t more undergraduates know about the depth of their GSI’s qualifications? Often, it’s because GSIs don’t tell them.

I suspect our training influences our decision not to talk about our qualifications, previous experience or research relevant to teaching. When I took both the CLRT and my department’s training course, facilitators emphasized creating professional boundaries between us and our students.

This focus is important to understand. Because GSIs are students as well, are close to the age of undergraduates and are something of a middleman between students and professors, boundaries tend to blur.

By limiting the amount of personal information and access we give to our students, we give ourselves authority and autonomy as GSIs. My relationship, role as a parent and other aspects of my personal and professional life really aren’t any of my students’ business. Also, by having designated office hours and e-mail response times, we give ourselves the ability to say no to students who ask for unreasonable appointments, expect e-mail responses 24 hours a day or call us on our personal cell phones when we haven’t handed out our number.

But if we build the barriers between our students and ourselves too high, then we might neglect to share some of our personal experiences and research interests that do have relevance to the subject we teach. Sometimes those stories and information illustrate a concept clearly or spark interest in our field. In short, they help education.

And then, perhaps, fewer students will tend to wonder about their GSI’s qualifications.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.

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