Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why do grad students like me when I'm mean and disrespect me when I'm nice?

Yesterday afternoon I had a delightful get-together with a junior faculty.  We met for tapas and wine, which is hopefully the way I can start to have all my meetings with other faculty!  Why meet for coffee when you can meet over delicious food (wine optional)?

She has been out on medical leave for a while, and is now concerned that senior faculty in her department aren't clear on her tenure clock. One of them mentioned her tenure case seeming "shaky."  But she still has 19 months before she has to hand in her file!  Geeeeez.  It all depends on the book, which needs to be in press by that time.  She definitely can do it.  I'm wondering if she is having that reluctance that so many of us do to "let go" of a manuscript.  Perfectionism can get you fired in this business.

The day before that, in addition to my two classes, I also covered a colleague's grad seminar.  She is out of commission for a month after surgery.  She had one of her advanced graduate students who has already taken the seminar with her running the class, but others in the department decided it was important to have a faculty present.  I agree. 

This would have been fine, except that her darling graduate students were my nightmare graduate students.  This one in particular made my life miserable.  Seriously.  Hateful. 

So I decided I would just not engage with hateful grad student during the seminar.  That is, being professionally polite, but not pretending that we actually were friendly or that I even remembered him very well.  I'm ordinarily very concerned to be personable, friendly with graduate students, so this took some effort.  But I think it was partly my friendliness that caused the problem in the first place--that is, led that group of students to be such hyper-critical grade-whiners. 

I have heard several colleagues mention that the key to gaining graduate student respect is to be mean to them, to be merciless.  I think there might be some truth to this, sadly.  I know that the grad seminar in which I was the most strict and aloof also gave me my highest teaching evaluations.

In the end, I don't have the mental or emotional bandwidth to tailor my treatment of students to meet such needs (to the extent they actually have them).  I generally like graduate students and want to enjoy my time with them.  So the most I've mustered is to play it cool the first couple weeks, and then lighten up.  That seemed to work for everybody last year.

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