Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Not Great Expectations

The FSP Statement of Purpose Awards Committee is still conferring, but so far we can state with confidence that many of the best (= worst) involve mention of childhood and emphatic statements about how great the applicant is.

The topic of today's post involves yet another of my experiences as a science professor who is also a student in an undergraduate language course.

In the 3rd year language class I've been taking, we had an in-class written final exam and an oral final exam, and those went pretty well, I think. This term, we also spent one class per week studying a related form of the language, and for that we had a separate, take-home final exam involving a translation exercise. We studied Language 2 (the related language) entirely in Language 1, so although Language 2 twisted my brain in strange and difficult ways, studying it has helped me with Language 1.

It sort of comforts me that the native Language 1 speakers in the class also struggled with Language 2, although I know I would have an easier time with 2 if I were fluent in 1.

Anyway, I spent many many hours on the take-home final exam, translating Language 2 into Language 1. I didn't count, but it was at least 8-10 hours over the course of a week. It was difficult, but in the end I was pleased with the result, although I know my translations are imperfect.

Before I turned in my translations, the professor said to me "I know this exam will be difficult for you, but don't worry, I am not expecting that you will do very well. Just do as much as you can."

It is always fascinating for me to have these interactions in which I am a student having a conversation with a professor about a topic (e.g. exam performance) that I might have with my own students. In this case, I know the professor was being kind and trying to relieve any stress I might have about the exam. She was saying "Don't worry", but what I heard was "I have low expectations for you."

I don't particularly like being the focus of low expectations, and I hope she will be pleasantly surprised when she reads my translations. Then maybe she will have medium-low expectations or maybe intermediate expectations for me. Either would be better than low expectations.

I did not directly ask the professor "So, how do you think I'll do on the exam?" -- she volunteered the information. When a student asks me how I think they'll do on an exam in a class I'm teaching, it can be difficult to get the response right in terms of not being too encouraging ("If you've really learned the material, you should be able to do fine on the final exam") yet not unreasonably optimistic ("Don't worry, it's easy and you'll do fine!") or too negative ("Well, you've failed all the other exams, so it doesn't look good for this one, does it?").

It's better not to make a guess about the difficulty/outcome of an exam except as is necessary to provide motivation to a student who is wondering if they need to study. When I am confronted with questions about exam difficulty/outcome, I prefer to answer instead by asking the students if they have anything they want to ask or discuss about the course material.

What I have learned from my recent conversation with my language professor is that telling a student, however indirectly, that you have low expectations for them may not actually be as comforting as the statement is intended to be.


quietandsmalladventures said...

as a student myself, in that situation i'm generally 1) relieved, swiftly followed by 2) pissed. then the questions begin: do they think i can't do well? can i actually learn this? have i really been doing that poorly? what is wrong that i am not doing as well as students xyz? what the hell?

i agree, it's never a comforting statement as (to me) it implies that you can't and won't master whatever skill set is being tested and the prof has basically written you off, imho.

Ms.PhD said...

Indeed. You never know if the professor is just being inarticulate, i.e. what she really meant to say was that the test was meant to be difficult so she doesn't expect ANYONE in the class to get all of it 100% (where "you" is the plural you, not the personal you)?

The example that sprang to mind for me was when I confronted my advisor and another postdoc about a potential overlap in our projects (i.e. direct competition).

The response was something along the lines of, "Well, you two won't be applying for the same jobs anyway, will you?"

I'm still baffled by whether the intention was to imply that one of us was much more qualified or capable than the other, or what. It was sort of said in the context of implying that our advisor believed we would be eligible for jobs in two totally different echelons, but which one was which remains unclear to me (and whether Advisor was right or wrong).

We were, in fact, postdocs for the same length of time, so it wasn't like we would be vastly separated as to when we would be applying for positions. The other postdoc ended up getting a job in a vastly different location than I would have wanted, but on the other hand, I am still a postdoc and he has a lab now.

Anonymous said...

emphasis on "I'm still a post-doc and HE has a lab now."