Back in May I caught up with Alyssa Penick, Tiggy McLaughlin, and Sophie Hunt, three recent winners of outstanding graduate student instructor (GSI) awards. The following are highlights from that interview.

Terre Fisher (TF): Thank you all for coming! Can we first go around and get your teaching philosophies?

Alyssa Penick (AP): Because I teach American history, part of my classroom philosophy has to be getting students ready to learn something new. They’ve learned American history over and over. So convincing them that it’s worthwhile and important is half the battle. [History is] looking at the evidence and making conclusions about it. I see my role as training students to do that deductive work on their own—to act like historians in the classroom—[to] see history not as passive, but an active endeavor.

Tiggy McLaughlin (TM): I also want my students to act like historians, to question the sources. I teach ancient history, and my challenge is getting across that history is something more than wars, trying to get students to be open to cultural history and the idea that history is how we remember and construct everything in the past.

Sophie Hunt (SH): I prioritize teaching the skills of interpreting and leveraging evidence. That is a higher priority for me than the conclusions students may draw. So my goal is to get them to form their own interpretations of sources and defend them better than they would have if they hadn’t taken my class. We’ve done a lot of modeling about how to read sources and how to never make a claim without having a place in the text to … support that claim. They really take pleasure in seeing themselves do it, and I enjoy challenging myself to help them make a stronger case for their own interpretations.

AP: I agree! I hope students are going to walk out of my classroom with a much stronger argument, a more historically valid argument from the process of having to build that case from evidence.

SH: But there are wrong answers. And that seems an important thing to teach, too. College students are learning how to see multiple perspectives, but they must also be aware that if we’re assessing those perspectives based on evidence, some are stronger than others.

TM: Students can make good arguments and still be wrong, but that can be OK. I’ve had really good papers I’ve highly praised that came to conclusions I knew didn’t accurately reflect the situation, but the students argued effectively using the evidence at their disposal.

AP: There are wrong answers, but there’s not one single right answer ever—and that’s history.

TF: What advice do you give to students?

TM: I give so much writing advice! I’m a harsh grader, but I reward improvement. So when they come to ask how to improve, I give lots and lots of writing advice. Most of it has to do with being clear and concise, one idea per paragraph.… The thinking and questioning are really important, but the writing is something tangible where I can see improvement. So that makes me happy. I get really excited when students get way better at writing.

SH: I can think of structures I put in place to try to make those things happen. American Culture 100 with Greg Dowd is an intro-level class that lots of first-year students take. At the end they write a six- to eight-page paper where the topic is very open. So it has the potential for creative deep thinking, but they need a lot of help along the way in order to do well. With Greg’s support, I planned my discussion sections to guide them as they plan the papers. They spend time coming up with a list of potential topics and identifying sources. Then they peer workshop those and think of possible theses, evidence, and outlines. All the while they can come in to office hours to work with me. Working together to refine a paper is a lot of fun.  

AP: A piece of advice I give is about self-advocacy. The GSI is in a unique position of relatability but also authority. Students trust what you’re saying, but you’re not as scary [as the professor]. If you can convince them that they need to advocate for themselves, and coming to see you is one of those steps, in college and in life, that’s going to help them.

SH: That’s a great piece of advice.

TM: Self-advocacy is a really, really positive way of looking at what I’ve always thought of as taking responsibility for your actions. It becomes advice as opposed to a chastising lecture to give when it’s too late. So thank you, Alyssa!

TF: I wondered how your union [the Graduate Employees’ Organization, GEO] has affected your experience.

TM: One summer class I had an hours grievance. There were no hard feelings, it was just too much grading for a summer class. That was three years ago, I think, and subsequent iterations of that course now have fewer assignments. So it resulted in compensation for the hours I actually worked, but also changed the course so subsequent GSIs have not had to work over hours.

SH: And it gives us job security. I know people at other schools can lose their appointment if a class is canceled.

AP: And [the union contract] prioritizes teaching time—it allows me to say this is important in my schedule. You know, research isn’t the only thing that gets me somewhere, and Michigan reinforces that, which is so great. Teaching really matters.