In her most recent column, editorial page editor Rachel Van Gilder discussed teacher quality and evaluation in response to a Michigan Senate bill that would alter the evaluation process if signed into law (Teacher examination, 12/06/2010).

The column neatly sidestepped any determined conclusion by pointing out that there is no quantifiable measure of a teacher’s quality and avoided making a connection to our education at the University and the teaching evaluations currently available on CTools. Van Gilder’s approach was probably for the best because any sincere evaluation of the teachers at the University would find a clear failure of hiring, training and evaluation. The teachers I’m referring to are graduate student instructors.

I’ve encountered my share of less-than-impressive professors and lecturers. I’ve been bored to sleep mid-lecture or left to decipher lecture notes for hours with classmates. These experiences aren’t the norm for most classes — and when they happen, professors often have lower expectations so students get a decent grade. Or students can at least look forward to a different teacher the next semester. These classes are tolerable, especially in larger classes where it’s easier to meet with a GSI than the professor. But when you have a bad GSI, you’re screwed.

When I think of a bad GSI, I refer back to my three worst experiences. One GSI for Economics 101 dedicated adequate effort and time to teaching his class, but that didn’t protect my section from suffering. The GSI often struggled to pinpoint where students were struggling. When he did understand where students needed help, his teaching style and inability to adapt to different students rarely succeeded in calming any confusion.

My GSI for Discrete Mathematics walked into class each week and spent 40 minutes writing on the board without speaking, leaving the class to frantically copy down logic equations that had been left out of the textbook and lectures but were necessary to pass the exam. Deciphering his accent during the remaining 10 minutes only added insult to injury.

My worst GSI? Math 216. He arrived 5 to 15 minutes late to almost every discussion. He never knew what material the lecturer had discussed, so he often attempted to clarify material the lecturer had not yet taught. In lab, he didn’t understand how to complete assignments.

Each of these GSIs made me dread discussion section each week. I was able to make it through the classes with a few extra hours of work and with the hope for a better experience the next semester. But I can’t help but think how my experience and grade in the class might have been different had I registered for a different section or my three best GSIs led these courses instead. I expect more from this University, which prides itself on being among the most elite in the world.

Hopefully, GSIs who receive poor evaluations from their students are encouraged to step aside the following semester. But inevitably, there are always some GSIs that struggle.

There’s almost no application process to become a GSI besides providing basic information and an oral English test for non-native speakers, according to the application. The College of Engineering uses a more specialized application, which is followed by an invitation to a required training session if graduate students are accepted to become instructors.

After scavenging around online for an explanation of how GSIs are trained, I stumbled upon various colleges procedures on their respective websites. Here is what I found. All GSIs go through general training in their first semester. After that, the process is different depending on the department. Graduate students in the College of LSA are welcome to sign up for a training session scheduled for the day before classes begin. While the Department of English Language and Literature has an extensive schedule for GSI training and support including a course in teaching, the Department of Economics only mentions the time requirement: two discussion sections and attendance at the lectures. The College of Engineering has more experienced GSIs serve as graduate student mentors that new GSIs can use as a resource. But this isn’t enough. GSIs are left to seek training and support for a job that requires practice and feedback that the GSI Guidebook can’t provide.

Departments throughout the University should take a closer look at the qualifications and training for GSIs. A GSI should lead a discussion or introduce a new topic to a current class as part of the interview. Training should begin a full semester prior to the GSI’s first semester teaching. In addition, the lecturer for the course and past students who took the course should sit in on discussion sessions periodically during their first semester to review and evaluate them. A round of student evaluations two weeks into the semester could help detect struggling GSIs early enough for the department to intervene and prevent sections from falling behind.

Sarah Squire is the Daily’s co-managing design editor.

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