Writing my first paper for Great Books 191 was sort of like asking me to do quantum physics with an abacus. No matter how many times I read Socrates, no matter how nuanced my outline was and no matter how many times I scoured SparkNotes — praying the writing prompt would magically be answered under the “Themes, Motifs & Symbols” section — I knew my graduate student instructor would ultimately show my final copy to other GSIs to elicit a few laughs.

When I received my grade, it was hard for me not to chuckle a bit along with them. But I wanted to do better — this was material that I desperately wanted to understand. So I went to office hours. And then I went again. And again. Writing papers for that class turned into three-week long exchanges between me and my GSI. The entire time, I kept thinking, “This guy has got to be getting tired of me!”

When the semester ended, I did better than I could have imagined when I walked into discussion section on the first day. But more valuable than the letter grade I recieved is the lesson in writing I learned while toiling over my paper with my GSI in the Department of Classical Studies lounge. Though I sometimes like to attribute this to my dogged work ethic, I know it was my GSI who taught me how to bring my writing to the next level. I will certainly never forget the hours he devoted to helping me to get better. But how many of us can say that? GSIs are on the front lines of our education. While professors usually simply lecture, GSIs teach. Sometimes it seems students lose sight of that.

Before you write this column off as a sad attempt to get in good with my Stats 250 GSI before midterms, let’s consider who GSIs are. In the 2007-2008 academic year, the University employed 2,234 GSIs, according to University statistics. GSIs are not career teachers. Many of them have no interest in pursuing a career in education. They are simply people looking to pay their way through world-class graduate programs.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I, too, have endured GSIs whose grasp of English is questionable at best. I have also labored through discussion sections with GSIs who never once looked up from their notes. So to those GSIs who don’t quite understand what the “I” in their title stands for I say, consider a new line of work after graduation.

But what about those truly outstanding GSIs? I mean the ones whose class you actually enjoy attending. Where are their Arthur F. Thurnau awards for “commitment to and investment in undergraduate teaching?” Why didn’t my Great Books GSI get a Golden Apple award for his ability “not only to disseminate knowledge, but to inspire and engage students in its pursuit,” as the website puts it?

GSIs are in the trenches of our education at the University. They pick up where the professor left off or, in many instances, fell short. It seems to me that these students (let’s not forget that we’re talking about students) deserve some recognition for their contributions to the rich community of academic exploration and discovery at the University. Though GSIs are eligible to win a few outstanding instructor awards, I think there’s something more valuable to be earned. That undergraduates acknowledge and appreciate the work done by GSIs and the effort some of them put forward to enhance our education is sometimes the greatest award possible.

GSIs don’t come up in conversation much. Let’s be honest, no one signs up for a class because of a tremendous GSI. But why not? When my friends couldn’t grasp a concept in Great Books last year, they went to see the GSI for help. When I wanted help writing my psychology paper recently, I didn’t stop by the professor’s office for some pointers — I went to the GSI. Being able to learn from a truly remarkable GSI far exceeds any benefits of sitting in a class taught by a professor who has testified before the Senate or has written a textbook or two.

Learning doesn’t happen in a lecture hall with PowerPoint presentations and i>clickers. It happens in some dingy graduate lounge with poor lighting and the faint smell of day-old coffee. Sitting with someone who loves the subject matter and wants to convey that same level of passion and enthusiasm to you — that is how learning happens.

Tyler Jones can be reached at tylerlj@umich.edu.

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