Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hiram. Pissed.

I've been meeting with students this week to work WITH them on rough drafts. This is not unusual. We sit on the same side of a table with a rough draft and collaborate on ways to improve the draft based on notes we make during topic and outline meetings earlier in the process.

I had 15 of these 15 minute meetings scheduled yesterday. 6 of those people failed to show up, and instead sent me emails with a version of this message: "Sorry, I can't make it. Here's my draft. Can you read it and give me notes?"

To those folks I wrote this: "No, I can't do that. Our meetings are always collaborative. We meet to work together on the essay. I'm not your editor or your proofreader, and I'm not going to sit in my office alone (or at home) and work on your paper. I'm happy to reschedule your meeting if you'd like."

This morning when I got to school I had this email in my box from my chair:

"Hi, Hiram. I got a call from Xxxxxx Xxxxx (a freshman advisor) who tells me you're refusing to work with a student. I know that many stories have two sides, so please make yourself available this afternoon some time to come and talk to me. Let's try to avoid any problems."

You can't believe how fast I hit DELETE, and how quickly I plan on leaving campus after my 11 am class.


  1. Maybe offer a skype conference (during normal working hours) as an alternative? No, it's not quite the same, but the share screen feature works pretty well for conferencing, and offering it shows flexibility (and allows you to not say "no," but instead to word it as "if you're not able to come to campus..." and then offer an alternative that *should* be comfortable to "digital natives," or whatever we're calling them these days).

    No, you shouldn't have to, but I've found that offering an alternative that accomplishes (most of) my purposes while still requiring the student to make considerable effort, rather than directly saying "no" to the request that attempts to shove the work into my lap, sometimes works (sometimes).

    Or there's always just writing that you need to reschedule the conference, emphasizing its positive aspects, while ignoring the student's suggested alternatives. The key, I think is not actually saying "no," while perhaps being a bit deaf/dense to what the student is actually asking for.

  2. Good gravy, that's infuriating. My condolences, Hiram.

  3. Don't say "no" say "You have to come in and sit down with me to go over the paper. That's the assignment."

  4. It occurs to me (although I use the approach, and recommended it above), that "don't say no; just redirect and don't say 'yes' either" is advice long given to women dealing with unwanted sexual requests, and often doesn't work out very well for the individuals involved, or the culture at large. Redirection can still work sometimes, I think, but the need to consider such tactics definitely says something about the power relations involved (and our place in the power hierarchy). At least reiterating the requirements of the assignment (without the "no," but also without a lot of explanation/justification) as MA&M suggests, retains some authority.

  5. Hiram, you know everybody loves you--including your department chair. S/he might just be swamped and wrote a more terse email than s/he ideally would have preferred to have written. Find a safe place, give a loved one or best friend a call so they can reaffirm your awesomeness and dissolve any insecurity, and then call your chair and essentially do what MAaM suggested: Admit no wrongdoing and instead clearly state that you're going to welcome the student and work WITH the student to help them succeed as much as the student possibly can. Better yet, email the student before contacting the chair and tell the student all that warm positive stuff. Pretend that the "No" email was never sent. Don't acknowledge its existence. If it comes up, deflect. Move on. You are better than those moronic fucktards. Don't let them make you defensive. Don't let them fill you with despair. You are awesomeness incarnate. Onward!!!

    1. I agree with the need to regroup and respond to the chair (who at least sounds like (s)he was trying to be fair, if a bit dictatorial in the "please make yourself available" part of the email). Since the email Hiram sent to the student sounds pretty reasonable (even if it does contain that dread word "no"), I'd be inclined to forward it to the chair, perhaps with a mention that a number of students missed conferences, and that I'd be offering chances to reschedule (or clarifying the need to attend conferences as scheduled so that the whole class doesn't fall behind, or whatever is the case) to the whole class. The chair definitely needs to be answered so (s)he can help in dealing with the situation if necessary (and to keep general good relations, assuming same exist), but the more I think about it, the less I'm inclined to reward a student for running to an advisor to get a professor to do what he wants, rather than dealing with a professor directly (the first rule of grade complaints in my department, which has been strictly enforced by every chair I've had, is that the student has to have tried to work the matter out with the professor, and they have to have come to an impasse; this isn't a grade complaint, but I think the same rule applies. I'm also inclined to treat chairs as my allies until they unequivocally show themselves to be otherwise; I don't know the whole history between Hiram and this chair, but based on the email alone, I, too, would assume that (s)he might still back me up if provided with the requested background information, even if the background was requested in a less-than-diplomatic manner). The student has already received a perfectly reasonable answer from the professor, and now owes a response to the professor. If the advisor (once provided with full information about the professor's willingness to work with the student, and the reasonable boundaries the professor has set thereon) needs to coach the student through the process, so be it; that's one of the things advisors are good for.

  6. The weak link in all of this (apart from the student) is the academic adviser who contacted your Chair. A key skill for a good academic adviser, in my opinion, is to act as a critical filter in these sorts of situations.

    The first thing the adviser should have done was ask the student to pull up the email in question so the adviser could actually see what you said to the student. Having seen the email, the adviser could then have asked questions like, "Did you have an appointment to see Hiram? Did you miss that appointment? Why did you miss it?" A competent adviser would then have made clear to the student that, if you blow off an appointment with a faculty member, you don't then get to demand that the faculty member make special accommodations for you.

    I understand that students sometimes (often? always?) fail to give the full story to academic advisers, but for that very reason, the advisers should learn to develop a good bullshit detector, and should be careful about jumping to the conclusion that a student's story is the unvarnished truth of the matter.

    If I were in your shoes in this case, Hiram, I'd write a very short email back to my Chair, including the email/s that I had sent and received relevant to the situation, and would make very clear that I was not, in fact, "refusing to work with a student," and that if the student wants help, s/he needs to come to my office during regular office hours.

    I'm often happy to take extra time, or go out of my way to accommodate students, but if you take advantage or screw with me like this student has done, my good nature is not likely to prevail.

  7. Dude, forward a copy of your email to the chair. Highlight the sentences:

    "Our meetings are always collaborative. We meet to work together on the essay."

    Politely point out the impossibility of refusing to work with a student in an email that insists on working with the student. Even more politely, ask the basis of Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx's assertion that you refused.

    Drink Scotch.

    1. In other words, exactly what DA said, while I was busy typing! (Great minds etc etc.)

    2. Indeed. DA's right that the academic adviser is a key player, and has shown hirself lacking in skills necessary to do hir job well. (S)he should certainly have elicited more and better information from the student. Failing that, (s)he should have approached the faculty member, not the chair, to seek more information, because (s)he should have realized(as the chair did) that additional information was probably needed to form a full picture of the situation, and that the faculty member is the most direct source from which to obtain that information.

      I'm not sure whether this "adviser" is a fellow faculty member or an administrator whose job is advising, but I rather suspect the latter, because the contact-the-chair approach suggests a world(university) view in which the chair is the professor's boss, and needs to get him in line if a student (customer) is dissatisfied, rather than a more collaborative model where professor, advisor, and chair are all professionals working together to help the student take the actions necessary to get an education. In this model, the chair doesn't belong in this conversation at all, at least not in the early stages, since the student isn't the chair's student (at least not for this class), and the adviser's job is to help the student communicate better with the professor.

      Or, to build on Bubba's point below, the adviser is guilty of wasting the chair's time. (Of course, another feature of the current administration-heavy university is that career administrators have very little respect for faculty/administrators' time).

    3. I'm picturing the adviser as a 23-24 year old with an education degree.

    4. The time necessary to complete a checkered undergrad and possibly M.A. career that generated the adviser's ability to "connect' with undergrads (not a complete crock, but there needs to be some maturing/widening of perspective in there, too) might argue for closer to 25-26, but yeah.

      But sadly, the adviser could also be a middle-aged person who just loves the students (they're so young and eager and idealistic and enthusiastic, but also quite fragile, and it's the job of "educators" to "support" them).

    5. MAaM, I'm picturing a 23-24 yo with a marketing degree.
      Retention, yanno!

  8. from a reader:

    In addition to the short email to the Chair, including the email/s that had been sent and received relevant to the situation, I wonder if it might not be a good idea to forward/CC that email to the Freshman Advisor. They should know “the rest of the story” especially if they are a bit green and accept everything that a student says as gospel.

  9. A ton of this depends on context. What is Hiram's relationship with his chair? Is his department/college emotionally toxic, or not? What's this particular class like? Does Hiram know the advisor well? etc. . . .

    I was thinking of things from the perspective of an administrator who is juggling shit from 50 different faculty members today. What the administrator (department chair in this case) appreciates is not fifteen minutes of explanations and justifications; rather, they love just having the faculty member acknowledge the message and say, "I'll take care of it." Done. And they're thinking, "Good. One more fucking issue off my plate. Thank you, Hiram."

    And then later next week when you happen to stop by the department chair's office in a casual way with a cup of coffee (or bourbon) for hir, show hir the email and explain things (if s/he's up to listening).

    Still, though, a lot of this certainly depends on the context.

  10. All this advice is so good there's no point in my adding to it. But I'm curious, Hiram. Has this student expressed any fondness for bacon jalapeƱo mac and cheese?

  11. Imagine if they said this at work to their boss--"Sorry, I can't make it to the meeting, but here is my written proposal or my PowerPoint presentation. Could you please type up comments/suggestions/corrections and send them to me in a Word document (in addition to the minutes for the meeting) so I can make any necessary changes? Thanks!"

  12. I got over my snit and went back to campus after a nice lunch with people I KNOW love me...LOL.

    And I found my chair and went through it all as even-handedly as possible. It was not great at the beginning because I was still a little hot at the misunderstanding.

    That's what the chair called it, a misunderstanding.

    I said, "How about the advisor calling me first? How about the faculty member getting the benefit of the doubt? Is that so abnormal?"

    And there was some bristling and some softening - for both of us.

    It'll be okay, but I resent that I had to do anything about it. I'd be happy to talk to the student had the advisor kicked it back to me. I'd even have given the info to the advisor. I resent that it went higher than that.

    All the advice given here, as usual, was great.

    1. Glad it worked out. There's a lot to be said, I suspect, for being able to retreat to one's home, and the bosom of one's family, in such circumstances, and then return to campus. I couldn't do that, at least not without using up a significant chunk of the day driving. I tend to think of large universities in large metropolitan areas, like my own, as offering greater privacy, but perhaps that's not always the case?

  13. It's interesting to me that there doesn't appear to be a process in place.
    That a freshman adviser goes straight to a chair for this seems like a lack of training / common sense (or both).
    If I were the chair, I'd be pissed, but not with Hiram.

    Totally understand the resentment. Is there no way to find out what advisers are supposed to do in situations such as these?

    1. It's interesting. I've been in every position in this 4-person interaction. I have to agree that the chair should (in a perfect world) have the most level-headed approach.

      A: H refuses to work with one of his students.
      C: Did you witness this or is it the student's spin on it?
      A: Well, the student said...
      C: What did H say when you confronted him with the allegation?
      A: Well, I haven't talked to him yet but...
      C: Get back to me if you two can't work it out, but before you bother H with this, have the student show you whatever evidence they have. You'll learn that students possess a remarkable capacity to interpret in ways that work out best for them, and they believe the fantasy so sincerely that they can be quite persuasive in retelling it. Don't be taken in by their bullshit; it's not good for you or for them.

  14. While I was teaching, I frequently got messages like that from my department head and the assistant DH. As far as they were concerned, if a student complained about me, anything and everything they said was true and there were be no rebuttal.

    In addition, I was expected to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Anything less, including some semblance of a private life, was seen as "not being helpful" to the students.

    Never mind that I might have set up an appointment with the student and he or she didn't bother showing up. Forget that I might have re-arranged my schedule in order that I could have some free time to help them. Was I expected to simply sit there and twiddle my thumbs while I was waiting for someone who not only didn't bother to come but made no effort to let me know or, maybe, arrange for another appointment?


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