A scientific study of UC Berkeley's GSIs

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FEBRUARY 11, 2016

The common graduate student instructor, Latin name Eruditorem discipulus, is a moderately large, library-dwelling breed endemic to the campus and surrounding areas of UC Berkeley. Despite its relatively frequent appearance in classrooms and other areas associated with learning and knowledge, the graduate student instructor, or GSI, is still a favorite subject of nature-watchers and ecologists throughout Northern California. Here are some facts, tips and tricks that might be helpful for the avid naturalist hoping to catch a glimpse of one of these magnificent creatures.

The GSI is a peculiar species in that each individual has its own specific haunts that it tends to frequent. They commonly cluster around quiet, secluded areas, completing rituals such as “lesson plans” and “grading” at hidden library desks and out-of-the-way coffee shop tables. Also, some GSIs might be routinely found sunning themselves on Memorial Glade or in the vicinity of the species’ similar, but intimidating, cousin — the coastal forest professor (Latin name Eruditorem praeceptor). Because of this discrepancy in location between individuals, a person who wishes to engage in the sport of GSI-watching would be well-advised to wait around a common feeding ground, such as Brown’s or the Golden Bear Cafe. Even better might be a nesting area. Each GSI has its own office, usually located in the building endemic to their its interest, where it completes daily rituals, instructs its young and often sleeps; through patience and perseverance, one might be able to observe a GSI’s behavior in this natural habitat.

Once a GSI is spotted, its specific subspecies must be discerned and verified. Undoubtedly, there are hallmarks that stand constant across the entire species; the adult Eruditorem discipulus is similar in stature and appearance to a mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted human aged 22 to 30, has a distinct smell of coffee and new books and frequently carries around with it a pack or folder stuffed full of papers. But each subspecies has also, through years of evolution and rigorous study, become adapted to its specific niche of academic study. For example, an individual adapted to life in the English department might subsist on a diet of tea and have a greater amount of muscle mass in the arms from carrying around books, while a GSI with close ties to the computer science department will have highly specialized digits for quick typing and a quieter disposition, which helps it camouflage during silent coding sessions. Many local naturalists are of the opinion that chemistry GSIs are the easiest to identify due to the characteristic singeing on their eyebrows from years of close proximity to exploding reactions.

As a species, GSIs exhibit complex social behaviors, many of which have evolved as defense mechanisms against predators over the years. It is not uncommon to see a flock of two or three GSIs trailing behind a coastal forest professor — not only is there safety in numbers, but the symbiotic relationship between the two species grants the GSIs protection in return for assisting the professor. Within the species itself, GSIs frequently utilize both visual and auditory signals to communicate; signs that an individual might be in the area include red pen markings on buildings and the sound of rustling papers and stressed, heavy breathing nearby. GSIs also display long-term parental behavior toward their young, colloquially termed “undergraduates.” A few times a week, the parent GSI will instinctively gather multiple members of its offspring in an unoccupied room, spending up to 90 minutes a day teaching them the academic survival techniques necessary to make it to full GSI-hood themselves. Of special importance is the manner in which the adult will regurgitate information directly into the brains of the undergraduates, similar to how a mother bird vomits partially digested food into the mouths of her chicks (except far less disgusting). 

Approaching a GSI in the wild can be intimidating, but if done correctly, the pioneering zoologist will find that such a commune with nature can be exhilarating. Both males and females tend to be calmest during the time of the day termed “office hours,” in which they take care of their offspring or sleep in their offices. Drawing near to the individual in a non-aggressive manner, possibly with a shiny trinket or a food offering, will provoke a gentle and inquisitive response, as it will think you are one of its young. Through repeated contact in this way, one can get a closer view — and, though it is virtually unheard of, possibly even domesticate a particularly conducive individual, offering food in return for an unlimited supply of As, or maybe even a reference letter. But as it is with all of nature’s great beasts, a large amount of time and further study will have to be devoted to observation before we can truly understand all there is to know about this truly magnificent creature.

Note: No GSIs were harmed in the making of this article.

Contact Ariel Sauri at 


FEBRUARY 11, 2016