Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Off Message

Here is a comment from my teaching evaluations for a medium-sized, mid-level course for majors in Science:

she is so kind and sweet :)

Well, that's.. special. Except that I wasn't trying for a "kind and sweet" kind of impression. OK, maybe "kind" -- I do try to be kind. But "kind and sweet"? No.

I don't mean to be ungrateful, but.. ick.

Sure, the alternative is worse: mean and bitter. But I have fangs and claws! I hiss when annoyed!

Last year I wrote about my surprise when a student hugged me after a final exam, to thank me for helping her (a lot) during the term. I worried that I was getting too "mom-like" and less professorial -- not in the stereotypical sense of being remote and detached, but in the awesome way of being authoritative and respected.

Can someone be "kind and sweet" and authoritative and respected?

The student who thinks I am "kind and sweet" wrote no other comments. Perhaps soon we professors will all have Facebook pages for our courses and, for our teaching evaluations, students can "Like" us (or not).

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's not the "kind and sweet" that I find irritating, it's the reactions when you put your foot down. So when a kind person is firm, they're re-labeled as a horrible.mean.vindictive.awful.person but someone who hasn't been labeled "kind" is simply being "fair" for asserting a consistent standard.

I also think, in academia, there is such a disconnect between Profs personal lives and those of undergraduates that are not motivated towards academia (e.g. preparing for the job market). It can be easy, under the pressures of deadlines/grant-writing/dept politics to forget just how much guidance some 20-year olds still need. When a Prof takes the time to make teaching about teaching (instead of a check on their annual todo list) it is refreshing and, well, kind.

Anonymous said...

oh quit being a grinch. that comment could have nothing to do with you - maybe the student's author prof this semester was a real jerk.

Anonymous said...

I worried that I was getting too "mom-like" and less professorial

Careful, are you perhaps internalizing a dislike of the feminine derived from a sexist culture? What exactly would be wrong with being mom-like?

Good male professors come in all styles, from strict authoritarian (father-like?) to best-buddy types.
As far as I know we never worry in which category we fall so long as our teaching is effective.

Anonymous said...

Without knowing anything about the students in your class, I might put it down to language. For students whose native language is not English (or not the language of instruction), it can sometimes be difficult to express subtleties. Adjectives are particular difficult - many adjectives that would seem very similar to a non-native can have very different connotations. In the classes I teach most students are non-native English speakers, and I try not to read too much into the phrasing in the teaching evaluations (which in some cases can be downright odd).

That may not apply to your particular situation, but still I wouldn't read too much into what is essentially a positive comment. Although I agree with you, that in certain contexts the description of a female professor as "sweet" feels a bit uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

You'll be surprised how kind and sweet people are actually respected, as long as you are strict and fair at the same time. I tried it out on a bunch of teenagers when I was working a a summer school and it works a dream. They know that as long they work within a limit they can pretty do whatever they want. I'm strict but I get told that I'm kind and sweet at the same time. So, it's a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Don't flatter yourself FSP, "kind and sweet" to some of these college girls is equivalent to an average person. And if that was their only comment how do you think they evaluate your class as a whole?...fun an exciting?

Anonymous said...

Maybe that was the student's way of saying you were approachable and helpful. I don't think undergrads are likely to write "she was so authoritative"; but, if you weren't in control, they likely wouldn't have anything positive to say at all.

Anonymous said...

I think that students (and the rest of the world?) have different standards of behavior for men and women that manifest themselves in these sorts of comments on evaluations. Also professionalism is not really a category for them yet and so they have a limited set of concepts and words to explain our behavior.

Anonymous said...

I had profs (male and female) during undergrad who I thought of as "kind and sweet", although I never would have written it quite like that on an eval.

Did I think of these folks as maternal/paternal? - probably a little bit, yes.

Is that a bad thing? - no, I don't think so.

I think many 19-20 yr olds will have slightly paterntal feelings for a middle-aged mentor. I would take it as a compliment.

Anonymous said...

Can someone be "kind and sweet" and authoritative and respected?

I understand your trepidation, but I think you can. In fact, if anything I'd say that's what to shoot for. I just went to the 60th birthday symposium for one of my science mentors. She is a combination of one of the nicest persons I ever knew and one of the best scientists (NAS, HHMI, etc.). In her case there is no contradiction.

Mark P

New Asst. Prof. said...

Admittedly I'm very early in my career, but I do think it is possible to strike a balance that would a.) elicit that comment, yet b.) maintain authority and respect while being known as someone who academically challenges her students. I'm fortunate to have had some fabulous FSP mentors along the way who clearly embodied both.

GMP said...

A while ago, I saw a male colleague's Rate My Prof evaluations. One said "He is such a sweetie!" :) Which he actually is. He's a kind and mellow guy, but also extremely smart, and that came through in the comments as well. They said he was not arrogant and was approachable and was a great teacher. So I think being referred to as kind is not necessarily bad...

But on the other hand, I totally get why a female faculty would not want to necessarily be considered maternal. I have seen studies that show that people referred to as "businessmen" or "businesswomen" are both perceived as highly competent. In contrast, people described as "mothers" and "wives" are stereotypically perceived as not technically competent. So I feel that's what FSP's concern comes from, that the comment she received reveals that she's being stereotyped into a role that comes with a built-in presumption of low techical competence.

I must say that I am not too crazy either about being referred to as kind or sweet or otherwise motherly; if I need to choose, I would prefer an adjective from the bitchy part of the female descriptor spectrum.

Anonymous said...

Some students come in with a mental stereotype of a FSP, sometimes informed by other experiences and sometimes not. The student may have had the FSP from hell, like one I encountered as a graduate student who told us in no uncertain terms that her gender was incidental and under no circumstances was she interested in mentoring, teaching, or even being seen talking to us during pre-colloquium coffee (not that we had asked...)
Used to live in Lincoln NE. People raved about how nice it was after they visited. Most had such negative and low expectations that they were invariably pleasantly surprised when they found that it is really a pretty nice place. You can't interpret comments like that from your perspective - without knowing what caused the student to say that, you can't tell what it means about you. Yet another reason why teaching evaluations are useless as usually construed.

Anonymous said...

One of the best things about going to a small liberal arts college was the opportunity to develop personal relationships with my professors - which required that they be human beings. Could I describe some of them as kind, sweet, supportive, friendly? Yes. Did I respect them as authority figures and scientists? Yes. All courses/professors being otherwise equal, what may set you apart is personality. For many students, it is a relief to have an intelligent, authoritative professor who is also approachable.

Anonymous said...

I got called sweet once as well. Since I'm not a sweet person, by any stretch, I took it as yet further proof that students have poor judgment. Like I needed more proof.

And for those of you who think there's no conflict between being mom-like and respected as an authority figure ... just wait until your father comes home! He'll set you straight.

Azulao said...

Slightly off topic -- saw a license plate frame recently which pretty much made my day:

"You call me a b*tch like that's a bad thing."

I agree with other comments, I think it's a limited language issue and not that you are actually a lollipop prof.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to lighten up a little and stop reading too much into this. It was a compliment. I doubt the student meant it as anything more complicated than that.

Anonymous said...

One thing that most people are forgetting is that descriptions by others have completely different meanings to the exact same descriptions you may use on yourself. There really isn't any point in delving too much in semantics or you would just drive yourself crazy trying.

Anonymous said...

The commenters who say things like 'lighten up' etc. don't seem to understand blogs and the use of anecdotes to discuss a broader topic, not just complain or obsess. There is a real topic for discussion at the core of this little anecdote, and the substantive comments on this are also interesting.

Clarissa said...

My students keep referring to me as "cheerful" and even "cheery" in their evaluations. And it's making me very angry. I've started questioning myself about whether I should change my teaching style dramatically in order to avoid being perceived as some kind of a cheerleader.

Anonymous said...

I've received that on teaching evaluations as well. As a TA, it doesn't bother me, but if I were young, female, and a professor, it might IF I felt like my authority wasn't respected. However, I think it's pretty clear from the class behavior as a whole whether you have an issue with that--and if you didn't sense that, I wouldn't worry about it. Also, I would echo the earlier commenter about students whose first language isn't English--I have often gotten some odd comments on my evaluations for exactly that reason.

Anonymous said...

Some undergrads just don't have the vocabulary to express themselves properly. And when you fill out the course evaluation at the very end of class, it's tempting to just jot down an unexplained perception and flounce out the door. Since this student didn't bother to substantiate his/her claim or add any concrete examples of how you are "kind and sweet," I'd just dismiss it entirely.

Anonymous said...

I agree with FSP, this student clearly shows disrespect for FSP. I do not have any respect for kind people. My advise for FSP: find out who this student is and vandalize their car and/or apartment to gain the respect you deserve. It is sad that students these days need to be reminded they MUST respect us...or else!

SamanthaScientist said...

Did the student think they were signing your yearbook or something? Did it also say, "Hope you have a great summer! Can't wait to see you next year! K.I.T.!"

Patchi said...

I hear you... I was at a friend's seminar once and the professor in front of me turned to her neighbor at the end of my friend's talk and said "She is so cute!" I sure hope nobody comes out of my science talks saying that about me!

zed said...

I would find that comment icky- a perfect description. It's not horribly offensive or anything, just not what I would be hoping for if a student felt s/he had to summarize my teaching in one sentence.

Anonymous said...

I'm a native English speaker and female postdoc in a competitive field. The post and many comments here surprise me: I do not see "kind and sweet" as anything other than a compliment, and I'm bothered so many people suggest it might incriminate FSP's cognitive abilities or professional authority. Sharp minds aren't so hard to come by; sharp minds accompanied by a generous demeanor are rare and wonderful. Except perhaps in scientific writing, our personalities show themselves in our professional activities. As an undergrad, I know I searched out mentors who appeared professionally successful AND kind, because I wanted to see how I didn't have to sacrifice the latter for the former. There are enough assholes in science. "Kind and sweet" doesn't mean "uncritical, noncompetitive, and unambitious." It implies you try to help those around you, which is the real way to get Science (not just your science) done.

Micro Dr. O said...

I'm not sure, but I'm highly suspicious that there's a generational thing going on here. For the past ten years, I've heard friends of mine that teach high school talking about how their students have changed - becoming less "scared" of their teachers and more buddy-buddy with them. I don't know why this is happening, but I think it might be time to brace for more and more students talking to/about professors this way.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I think you need to lighten up a little and stop reading too much into this.

Yeah! Lighten up, bitch! Smile, sweetie!

Anonymous said...

This post got more anonymous comments than almost any other post, it feels like. Interesting.

Female Science Professor said...

:)

butterflywings said...

I like anonymous 6.36 comment. Yes, being a nice person does not exclude being intelligent, ambitious etc.
I would be bothered personally by being called 'sweet' though - it isn't a word I would want people to use about me (in the work context anyway). But that goes back to the 'women can't win' thing, we are expected to be *either* mean career bitches or appropriately sweet but not to be taken seriously. But that *shouldn't* be the case.

Aurora said...

I agree with FSP's concern and Anonymous #1 (first comment).

The problem for those of us who are called kind and sweet, is that we also get called a lot of awful names when we have to put our foot down on something.

The urge to constantly chacterize our personalities is strong. It is one of the clearest indicators that gender discrimination is alive and thriving in academia. Eventually when an FSP gets to be 60+ she will be around long enough for people to settle on one description. But too many FSPs are pushed out of academia like this.

I think this post touches on a bigger issue than appears on the surface.

Bagelsan said...

This reminds me of the "so-and-so's wife" introduction in the post above; the problem isn't that "sweet and kind" is applied as a label (just like there's nothing particularly awful about being married to someone) but you don't want that to be your defining characteristic, either. If someone had one thing to say about me as a professional I would not want it to be about my marital status or my kindness.

karl said...

I personally strived to make my profs cringe in awkward discomfort when I wrote their assessments. I am glad others carry on in my proud tradition.

Anonymous said...

I think a good question is whether or not someone who isn't kind and sweet can be respected. Perhaps it is my southern roots... but being kind to people goes hand in hand with being respected. For me, I find it rather difficult to respect cold and detached people. Being approachable and liked doesn't make you a welcome mat to be walked over and disrespected.

Anonymous said...

People are always writing things on my liberal arts evals like "kind, sweet, caring, approachable". Obviously, doesn't help me refine my courses or make me feel like a badass scientist. BUT...I teach in a department with other profs teaching similar intro sections, and mine seem to be the most "popular" (though I have tended to assign more challenging coursework and have longer/tougher exams than others - not sure if the perception of my personality is a significant factor in this "popularity" or not). Of course, a primary motivation of mine to have "popular" sections is to attract good students and to recruit decent research students early in their careers, which is going pretty well so far...maybe it's not such a bad thing to be perceived in this way? May depend a bit on what students are looking for and at what point they find themselves in their academic careers?

Beaker said...

I have been gorging on feminist blogs recently. A point that comes up over and over (and over again) is that in our culture (North America) men (generally, heterosexual white men) are considered the norm or benchmark, and women are thus implicitly as well as explicitly defined as "other" or "less."

I would tend to assume that the students who commented FSP is kind/sweet and hugged her meant their comments/gestures positively, but I completely understand the "ick" reaction.

In a non -sexist world, being "kind" or "sweet" or helpful to a student would be a risk-free positive. But for FSP and her female colleagues, these terms come with the ever-present potential downside of gender stereotypes overpowering the perception of FSP & co. as competent scientists/researchers.

To that, I say "ick" indeed.

(I'm someone who started out in science (before defecting to arts and later becoming a medical writer), and one of the main reasons I got a 94% in first year calculus was my professor, who was "kind" and a "sweetie." But there was no downside to him being perceived as such.)

I suppose all we can do as individuals is continue to converse, blog and slog away, and where feasible, challenge the bullshit.

One of my oldest friends, now working at Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, has faced discouragement and sexism ever since a high school guidance counsellor tried to steer her away from the math and science courses she loved simply because she was female. She dealt with all sorts of BS through her MS degree (pun not intended) and eventually made it to JPL where she managed to complete a second MS in computer science while working full time.

Every woman who is a success in science is an antidote to sexism and bullshit.

Congrats to all of you.

Science Groupie, aka Pharmawriter

clfflur said...

Whether I agree or disagree with you, FSP, I have to thank you because this blog always makes me think about the topics that you consider. I wanted to share this...

As an undergrad, I attended a small, private, non-research intensive university. The environment, not only in my department but also in my school/college, was such that there was a significant amount of interactions between the faculty and students. I became friendly with one particular emeritus professor who continued to teach on occasion despite his status. He knew that I had a particularly busy semester at one point, which included TAing two consecutive labs for him on the same day. A few weeks into the semester, he started to bring me a bagged lunch and 'made' me take a break to eat it. Several years later, I thanked him for this, and other things, in my PhD thesis. He left quite an impression on me.

Last week I read in our alumni magazine that this professor passed away early this year. My first thought, honestly, was that this professor was so kind and sweet to me (and then this post entered my train of thought). He of course also taught me important scientific and networking skills, but so did my other professors.

I guess what I'm saying is: sometimes it's the little things, like a bagged lunch (or whatever it was that caused your student to leave that particular comment), that impress us, and I don't think that's a bad thing.