Monday, May 12, 2008

Meeting the Family

When I was an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college, on various occasions my parents met some of my professors. This was fine with me. My mother still has a plant in her backyard that she grew from a cutting given to her by a former professor of mine. I have no idea how or why they ever had a conversation about plants, much less exchanged plant material, but the evidence exists in the backyard of my ancestral home.

When I was in graduate school, I don't think my parents ever met any of my professors, nor did I want them to meet. Similarly, my mother never met my postdoc supervisor, nor did I want them to meet.

When I was briefly a professor at a small liberal arts college, I met the parents of many of my students. I met some at the beginning of the year, I met some on a Parents Weekend type event during which I was expected to be in my department on a Saturday for various festivities and informal conversations, and I met even more of them at graduation in the spring. This was mostly OK with me, and even kind of fascinating. What were the parents like of the student who cried all the time? What were the parents like of the student whom I had enjoyed supervising in a research project? What were the parents like of the student who spoke openly of her relationship with her drug dealer?

Perhaps my memory is failing me, but I don't recall meeting (m)any parents at my previous research university. At my current university, however, there are graduation events in the department, and these are attended by graduating students and their families. Professors are expected to attend. We are reminded about this expectation repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the main social event, and we are lectured on proper behavior: We should not attend the event and talk only to each other or show up only to graze at the buffet. We should mingle with the parents and say nice things about their kids. We should not throw food, disconnect grandma from her oxygen tank, or mention that cheating incident.

A few years ago I had a traumatic experience at one of these events. I walked into the room, and was immediately invited to sit with the family of an undergrad who had taken two classes from me and who had spent the entire year whining, complaining, and blaming others (including me) for her poor grades and lack of effort. I found it difficult to think of nice things to say about her, but I managed to say "It's so great that Sara is graduating", which was a completely sincere statement because I was glad to see her go. I met her fiance, who expressed some doubts about the usefulness of a college degree and made disparaging comments about Ph.D.'s and cushy professor jobs (tenure, summers "off", lots of vacations). I met her mother, who asked me if I thought her daughter was too fat. I met her father, although he did not speak, and I met her wheelchair-bound grandmother, who didn't feel well but who, when she complained, was told by her family to "shut up".

Most families are not this ghastly, of course. Most are very nice, and it is great to see so many proud relatives and their happy graduating students. Even so, when I go to these events, I come prepared with excuses to leave early and/or suddenly:

- I left something running in a lab and if I don't get down there in a few minutes, the entire building might explode;

- I forgot that I have a highly contagious disease and should not be at a social gathering; and/or

- I have to go finish calculating and uploading grades so that some of the students in this room can actually graduate.


BrightBoy said...

Wow, it's hard to believe that any family could be so appalling.

I love what you said to them, though: "It's so great that Sarah's graduating!"

Anonymous said...

Your evocative post reminded me how fucking glad I am that I don't have to deal with any of that crapola.

Anonymous said...

I cringe at the thought of meeting people like that.

I also cringed whenever my parents had to the opportunity to meet one of my professors. My dad has this lovely tendency to be horribly sarcastic at times, and it often comes across badly. Fortunately, he behaved himself most of the time, and I was very touched when my research advisor told my parents that he thought I would make a wonderful scientist. (This particular advisor was the one who was always so on top of things that I always felt like a slacker whenever we had weekly meetings. I figured that he thought I was a slacker, too.)

Angry Professor said...

Oh. My. God. I am so impressed with your restraint!

Anonymous said...

Huh. I thought those departmental graduation receptions sounded like a great idea for the students. It hadn't occurred to me someone might try to mandate professor attendance, which sounds stupid to me.

Graduating students often wish there were a good way to include other students in their festivities on the great day without asking them to sit through the long slow horror of the commencement ceremony, and the department reception offers a chance for that. People eat, chat, take pictures with the cap and gown, and get back to work with a minimum of inconvenience.

Mandating attendance for anyone just turns it into another piece of drudgery.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this is funny. I had a good laugh.

Anonymous said...

i "Professors are expected to attend. We are reminded about this expectation repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the main social event, and we are lectured on proper behavior: We should not attend the event and talk only to each other or show up only to graze at the buffet."

Every year, this place has a research award day for the graduate students where they present their research and get a buffet at the end. No parents are there. I wish that the professors were coached on this though. They really needed it. Only half of them showed up, none of them congratulated the award winners and they all talked with each other. Since they didn't get anything for the graduate students except for grilled meat with some buns and potato chips, they didn't feel like grazing around the food table for too long and all left after half an hour.

It was truly awful and I guess it shows how much the department hates its graduate students. Or something...

chall said...

hm, my parents never met with my professors when I was an undergraduate. When I finished my graduate work and defended my thesis however - they met my professor and the other professors and the co-supervisors at the defence as well as the dinner that follows.

Did i mention this is tradition in northern Europe, aka Sweden and Finland anyway...

After the defence the newly awarded doctor has a dinner party where all the friends, family and coworkers show up. It is custom for the supervisor to give a present and to get one from the PhD... as well as the 'person responsible for the interrogation [we call him 'opponent'] being at the dinner too.

It is so common back home but alas, so interesting to see the faces of the invited 'opponent' from another country when they realise that we all have dinner, drink, dance and give speeches to the new PhD :) It is a good way of ending on a happy note even if the actual graduate process might have been gruesome or a little strained.

Meeting family outside of that setting? Nah...I don't really see the point. And I wouldn't know what to say if someone asked"is my daughter fat?" or [that I have been asked by a parent as a TA] "Is my son hung over often?" ...

Anonymous said...

I read your blog religiously -- thank you for writing it! In a few past posts, you alluded to your brief stint teaching at a small liberal arts college (SLAC). I was wondering if someday you could devote a post to that experience. I am starting as an assistant professor at a SLAC this fall after spending my college, grad and postdoc years at large, research universities. I would find your thoughts on your experience to be informative (even though I can tell that it was not a good experience from some of your prior posts). Thanks!

Female Science Professor said...

I have talked about it a bit in the distant blog past, if that helps at all.

The_Myth said...

The only parent I ever met was for a problem student too.

She seemed so sweet, even telling me I taught her son's favorite class.

As she spoke, I kept thinking, "If this is his favorite class, why did he miss 2 out of 3 days every week for the past month? Why does he always talk to the girl sitting next to him when he knows it distracts me and I've chastised him for it? Why doesn't he study or pay attention in class so his assessment grades aren't so mediocre?"

Needless to say, he was *very* upset when he failed his final paper and only got a D for the course. I wonder what his mom thought about his "favorite class" then?


Cath@VWXYNot? said...

My parents never met any of my supervisors after my undergrad days, which is probably a good thing.

At my undergraduate graduation, someone had the brilliant idea of bringing lots and lots of wine to the department's pre-party. My parents were kind of quiet, but my gran had a lovely time talking about books with my biochem professor (the building was named after my gran's favourite author, Catherine Cookson, and she got to hear all about the dedication ceremonies). Many of our professors, and one in particular, imbibed a little too much and took a slightly weaving path to the front of the hall for the subsequent ceremony. The students were all too terrified of falling over and stayed sober, a first for one of our department's functions.

All par for the course in the UK!