Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The 5 worst conversations I've had as a professor

All of these involve aspects of being a TT professor that I never considered until they came up. Forewarned is fore-armed!

5.     Student with boundary issues
        My second year teaching, I had a student who stalked his (female) lab TA. I was unsure what his deal was, but it turned out he had major boundary issues. We had to discuss appropriate and inappropriate behavior after he was unable to understand why finding a large and angry male student standing right outside her research lab door late at night when she was alone, was not expecting him, and the building was nearly deserted might be upsetting and fear-inducing. Apparently, he had been standing there for hours after a late afternoon appointment with the TA ended. The discussion ended the creepy behavior, but I wonder about that guy.

4.     First time failure
        My very first semester teaching, I had a student crying in my office after I returned my first midterm exam. He had never failed anything before in his life, and had no idea how to handle it. I had no idea what to do. I gave him a tissue, gave him some ideas about how to go ahead from here, and resolved to think about strategies for crying students BEFORE handing back exams next time. Since then, I've had many more students crying in my office (I get crying students of all genders--maybe I am a cruel professor?), but have coping strategies pre-planned.

3.     Personal hygiene
        This was really the most embarrassing thing I've had to do thus far as a professor. Pretty early into my time at ProdigalU, I was sharing student office space with a much more senior colleague who was traveling extensively over the summer. He had a visiting "student" (I think he may have been a professor in his home country, but had student status at ProdigalU) who had terrible body odor. It was very hot. The office had 6 people in it. My students were very upset and asked me to do something about it. So, I had to have a discussion about personal hygiene and cultural norms with a man much older than myself, who was clearly seriously annoyed at having to talk to me at all, let alone about the topic. No one ever tells you about that one before you start the job!

2.     Stalker student
        My most frightening conversation was with a student who was clearly having mental health issues, and kept screaming at me and refusing to leave my office. Luckily for me, my colleagues noticed something was amiss, and called someone to take her to student services for help.

1.     Leaving without a PhD
        The very worst conversation I've had in my office was when I had to tell a student they would not be getting a PhD with me. It was necessary, but painful on both sides. In retrospect, I let a bad situation go on too long, which was not good for me, my group, or the student. In the end, it all worked out. The student now has a job they really like, and was not cut out for PhD research anyway. It is very difficult when it feels like you are killing someone's dream, and worse when they have been working with you for a while and you really like them.


xykademiqz said...

Ah, the personal hygiene. I have had to have "the talk" probably close to a dozen times already. With not one, not two, but three students I have had to have the talk *more than once.* (You'd think having it once would be embarrassing enough for any student, but apparently not.) Before the first time I had it, I checked with the dean of students at the college and university levels, and they both said it's fine to have the conversation about the expectations in your lab, especially if what the student is doing is affecting the work climate (literally!) for others or can also hurt the student (in particular, his career prospects).

Funny Researcher said...

I was very close to having a hygiene conversation with a student. I narrowly escaped but I am sure it will come up again with another student (or may be this one).

Anonymous said...

As a dean working with faculty, I was advised by a peer that I should have a conversation with a faculty member about her personal hygiene, especially since we would be meeting weekly for 2 hours in a small, badly vented room as part of a personnel committee. I asked my peer dean (who was a woman) why she thought I (a man) would be more successful in this conversation than she had been. Eventually, I didn't do it, and none of her peer faculty members would, either. She was cheerful, insightful, great to work with, and she smelled. No one chose to deal with it. Not my only failure as a dean.


Just out of curiosity, and if you don't mind divulging, why was this student not cut out for PhD research, and how did he or she get as far in the program as he or she did?

prodigal academic said...

Anon: I don't really blame you. It is really hard to discuss personal hygiene with someone else.

Sebastian: I don't really want to discuss specifics here about a student. I will say that things went on longer than they should have due to my inexperience as a mentor. I would handle things differently now after more years under my belt.