Tag Archives: human fail

Putting the Passive-Aggressive in Ph.D

Humorous diagram that shows how to decipher your professor's mood based on how he or she signs his or her emails.Today in “Duh:”  A study of graduate students at a major Western U.S. university discovered that over half of the graduate students surveyed had experienced major emotional stress.  Over half also reported knowing a colleague who had experienced major emotional stress.

Today in “DUUUUUHHHH!!:”  experiencing emotional stress was correlated with have a dysfunctional relationship with one’s advisor (also, precarious financial status, lack of contact with friends and family, being single, and being female).

Graduate students–and probably females in particular–spend an absurd amount of time worrying about what professors think of them.  This is not just because they are insecure, needy little babies.  It is because the academic survival and career outlook of a grad student depend significantly on the quality of her relationships with senior faculty.

As such, I was intrigued to hear that faculty in my department have been doing a bit of bitching about graduate students during Graduate Program Committee meetings, an issue which prompted one of my fellow grads on the Professional Skills Committee to organize a session on Faculty/Grad Student Relations for younger graduate students.  Now, some of the faculty’s complaints were entirely legitimate.  Students who wait until the very last minute to request job recommendations or feedback on materials rightfully deserve to be admonished.  I gave my reccommenders 8 weeks, so I don’t think I am one of the problem students, but no one has ever told me one way or the other.

But that’s actually sort of a problem in itself.  One would sort of hope that faculty members could tactfully tell their students that they need X number of weeks notice on a recommendation or a request for feedback on a chapter or article themselves, rather than making it a topic for committee gossip.  One would hope.  Yet the colleague who ran the Professional Skills session reported that pretensions about openness and honesty between faculty and grad students followed by confessions about dissembling and manipulating in touchy situations was sort of a theme.  When she asked each faculty participant to talk about how they wish to be addressed by grad students, one faculty member declined to answer.  I am, as of this moment, now obsessing about the fact that I once called this same faculty member “Matt” in an email, thinking I remembered him introducing himself that way, only to go back and realize he signs all of his emails with an ambiguous “MC.”  How can something as simple and straightforward as “How do you like to be addressed?” become such a locus for anxiety and misunderstanding?

Later, when they were discussing the need for directness and openness when setting the terms of an advisor/advisee relationship (how often you expect to meet, what kind of turn around time the advisee can expect for feedback, when the advisee feels they need to finish, how long it usually takes students of that advisor to finish, etc.), one distinguished professor admitted that when he doesn’t wish to work with a grad student, he becomes “really busy all of a sudden.”

From the safety of my pseudonymous blog:  that’s fucking ridiculous.  I am gradually–as professors begin to seem a bit less like towering, impenetrable monoliths and more like human beings–beginning to realize that many faculty members are as socially awkward and terrified of confrontations as their students are.  But really, the standard needs to be a bit higher.  Given the enormous amount of power an advisor has in a grad student’s life, the refusal to honestly negotiate the terms of a relationship and occasionally have difficult conversations about the student’s performance or etiquette  isn’t really a simple personality quirk.  It’s downright passive aggressive and detrimental to the grad student’s academic development and overall well-being.

Graduate students often feel as if they are constantly breaking rules and failing to live up to standards that no one has ever spelled out for them.  Worse, the rules and etiquette change depending on whose class you’re in or who is conducting a particular meeting or workshop.  Graduate students also frequently feel like they are imposters, as if someone at the university is going to realize that they do not, in fact, belong there and immediately send them packing.  But even worse is the sense that maybe you don’t belong here, but no one is ever going to tell you one way or the other.  All you will know is that the faculty members who work in your sub-field won’t return your emails, and the Graduate Advisor refuses to look you in the eye.

Ok, that’s not my situation, and I do know of excellent faculty members who were able to sit down and honestly tell them that things just weren’t working out.  I’m reminded of Notorious Ph.D’s excellent post about having that very conversation with two grads in her own department.  She describes that conversation as “difficult,” but I guarantee you that it was also compassionate.  Grad school is too huge of an investment of time, money, and energy, and faculty are being downright disrespectful if they allow grads to simply flounder through the process with no clear signals about their progress or their future in the field while complaining about them to the colleague down the hall.

Image Credit: Ph.D Comics

The Millenial Whisperers

Over at The Chronicle, a forum post on using technology to teach Millenials has been sitting at the top of the queue for quite a while.  The discussion is interesting to me, as I happen to be a bit of a tech geek, but there’s something curious about the way the conversation is often framed both in this thread and elsewhere.  The OP posits that “Millennials are supposed to be quite different from the previous generation” in their use of technology.  The video linked to the post describes them as “digital natives,” a generation that has grown up amid digital technologies and social media, but as a member of a tech-saturated generation myself (different rubrics label me either as a Millenial or as Gen-Y, though I think those terms are sometimes used interchangably), I’m not sure that this relative comfort with communications media implies specific imperatives for the classroom.  I’m not sure that this generation is so profoundly “different” that technology must be used to “reach” them.

As this post at Historiann indicates (as well as this post on Not of General Interest, which Historiann links), universities and school systems are exerting increasing pressure upon instructors to implement new media and tech in the classroom:

Administrators love technology, because people think it’s doing something magically special for education so they buy it and want professors to use it regardless of its actual strengths and powers.

The belief that technology has magical powers in the classroom extends to this idea that using social media makes one a sort of Millenial Whisperer, as if this generation were a different species or culture (digital “native?”) communicating in foreign ways.  There’s a strange way in which this effort at bridging a generational gap has become decidedly othering.  What makes it worse is the way in which an affinity for new media has increasingly been depicted as a dependency or pathology.  (For what I think is a truly balanced looked at internet addiction see the work of research psychologist Nick Yee, who prefers the term “problematic usage” to addiction.)   While it’s true that you can hardly turn around without seeing an alarmist article about a kid who spontaneously combusted because his parents took away his World of Warcraft account, most Millenials actually are capable of functioning without the mediation of a computing device.

Most students are, in fact, quite accustomed to traditional classrooms, given that most public schools cannot afford to equip every class with state of the art equipment.  Last fall, I was assigned a classroom that was like a portal to 1985, with a chalkboard and an overhead projector, and we all did just fine.  As a rule, I think that students appreciate an instructor who genuinely cares about their progress more than they care about whether you tried to incorporate Facebook into your course.  Be a good teacher first, then figure out how to use technology creatively and effectively, but only if it is going to a) make your life easier, or b) help you achieve some specific pedagogical goal.  And stick to tools that are comfortable to you.  If it seems like an unnecessary hassle or a poor fit to you, I guarantee it will feel that way to your students, who can smell pandering insincerity a mile away.

As for me, I’ve found that a class website, whether you manage it through Blackboard, a wiki, Facebook, or some other means, can be an invaluable tool, and next Spring, I am going to look at using WordPress blogs in order to help students think about writing for broader public rather than just writing what they think the teacher wants to read.  I am skeptical about the use of texting, because not everyone has an unlimited plan, and I suspect that being charge 10 cents to receive updates from your instructor probably isn’t much fun.  Using stuff that students can access for free in their home or in a lab is essential for me.

Technology can be incredibly useful for educators, but it is not a magical tool that will make you relevant to the generation you’re teaching.  Sincerity and genuine investment in what you’re doing, as it turns out, is pretty timeless.

It’s Called an Email Policy

A "Zits" comic: three teenagers operating lawn equipment while texting and closing in on each other. Two adults watch saying "This should be interesting."I remember when my family got our first answering machine.  That answering machine introduced us to the wonders of call-screening.  When Caller-ID came out, we immediately got one of those little boxes that attached to your phone cradle, since phones weren’t coming equipped with them just yet.  If we were hanging out around the dinner table (as we often did), and the phone rang, we would let the machine get it, half listen as the caller left a message, and if the words “is going to die” or “on fire” or “detached appendage” did not float across the kitchen within the first few seconds, we would ignore it until it was convenient to call them back.  And if we didn’t want to talk to that person, we just wouldn’t call them back ever.  People who came to visit us were horrified by this practice, and I’ve never understood why.  We were having FAMILY DINNER.  The people physically  in front of you are always, in my thinking, more important than people who aren’t, unless those people require medical attention.  I do not understand the people who cause fatal traffic accidents because OMG MUST ANSWER THIS TEXT RIGHT NOW!!11!1  And I do not understand the people who take calls on their cell while I am having a conversation with them, unless they are in danger of being fired for failing to do so.

Which is probably why I found this article, entitled “E-Mail: the Third Shift” on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, in a word, stupid:

Many academics have a love-hate relationship with e-mail. We know it has made communicating with colleagues in our own departments and around the world far, far easier. But we are also aware that e-mail is devouring a great deal of our time.

For faculty members, it is not just e-mail messages from professional associates, friends, family, and spammers that demand our attention. Students, sometimes by the dozens, e-mail their instructors daily, seeking an immediate response. For faculty mothers and fathers, e-mail eats up the extra hour or more a day after they have put the children to bed and prepared for the next day’s teaching—or perhaps the hour before the children or the sun rise.

Yeah, people are sending and receiving a lot of email these days, and it takes time to deal with them, but the data that this author presents to back up her argument that answering email now represents an enormous additional workload is fuzzy and anecdotal and the argument itself seems to boil down to a pretty standard “Kid’s These Days” polemic:

Today’s students were introduced in grade school to instant messaging and Facebook; immediate access is the new cultural norm. The formal barriers between student and instructor in the university world have come down, with no real etiquette to replace them. Students expect instant replies, not a five-day wait until office hours on Tuesday.

Ok, who are these students exactly?  I’ve known the odd student or twelve who seems to think I live in the classroom we meet in (which often isn’t even in my department’s building, though I suspect this assumption is a holdover from high school, where classrooms double as teachers’ offices), but I have yet to meet an 18-year old so oblivious to social norms that they expect, nay demand, instantaneous responses to every electronic missive.  And if there are such socially inept individuals trolling our college campuses, are there numbers so vast that we must institute university policies to stop them from taking over their instructors’ lives as this article suggests?  And are these instructors so spineless that they feel they need an institutional policy to protect them from ever having to enforce pretty reasonable interpersonal boundaries with their students?

I suspect, in fact, that this sense of obligation is coming not from the senders of these student emails but from the receivers.  Since I spend most of my day staring at Word documents that stubbornly fail to fill with felicitous prose on my preferred schedule, I do understand the OH HERE IS SOMETHING REQUIRING MY ATTENTION CAN’T LOOK AT YOU WORD DOCUMENT impulse.  Email can be one of those simultaneously welcome and hated distractions.  But the beauty of electronic communication is that you are free to set your messages aside for later or even ignore them altogether, and for the most part, no one is going to walk in your office and scream at you for doing that.  Remember:  the task or person in front of you is more important than the person trying to get to you through your inbox or your iPhone.

Thankfully, one of the profs interviewed in the article has more than a shred common sense:

“I rarely check my e-mail after I leave the office at 5:30 and before I return the next morning,” she said. “If I do check it at night, I generally do not respond to student e-mails until the next day. Almost the only exception I make to this rule is that I will answer e-mails at night if I am traveling.”

One way she limits e-mail messages, she said, is to direct students to an electronic blackboard where she posts general answers to common questions—or sometimes other students do. She also explains the course requirements to students upfront, including the e-mail guidelines spelled out clearly in her syllabus. Finally, she said, “I know how to say no, and I’m not afraid to do so.”

Right on.  Personally, I am a fan of observing “normal business hours” both for mental health and “saving the marriage” sort of reasons.  At the beginning of every semester, I always tell students that I do not answer email after 6:00 pm and that it may take me 24 hours to respond to questions.  It is also perfectly reasonable to be specific about what sort of business you are willing to conduct over email.  I refuse, for example, to give feedback on early drafts of assignments over email, because exceptionally nervous students will sometimes cope with the discomfort of the writing process by asking me to approve every sentence, and enabling that behavior would be a waste of my time and an actual disservice to them.  I also refuse to deal with grade disputes over email, explain missed content over email, and calculate what Johnny needs to get on his final essay to score an A.  My syllabus, schedule, and copies of all handouts are available on my course website, so students who fail to respect these boundaries will get one of the following responses:  “Check the website” or “I’d love to talk to you about that.  Come in during my office hours on Xday.”

I have never had a student complain about my availability as an instructor, either to my face or in my course evaluations.  In fact, the vast majority give me the highest possible score in the “Cares about student progress” category. So, I’m skeptical about this need to institute university policies in order to keep the exceptionally needy ones at bay.  While somewhat different in the way they were socialized, eighteen to twenty-three year olds are actually human beings, many of them very sophisticated ones.  Developing healthy relationships with them means treating them like human beings and behaving like one yourself, and negotiating access and boundaries in both professional and personal relationships are perfectly normal human behaviors.  If some student just doesn’t get this, sack up and take them down a peg.  It isn’t the job of university administrations to keep instructors from ever having to be the bad guy.  Remind those students that there are boundaries to their relationship with you.  You will be doing them a huge favor by doing that.

Comic found at Language Log.