In an attempt to be less of a slacker at answering my FSP e-mails, today I am going to give quick replies to some that have been lingering in my mailbox for varying lengths of time. That way, I will feel more psychically prepared for 2011. My apologies to those who e-mailed me but did not get a reply, including in this post.
Because I am providing only brief responses here, feel free to leave a comment expressing interest in a future discussion involving a more detailed and thoughtful consideration of topics raised in the e-mails.
(Some of the questions below have been edited for length)
Question: What is your take on giving information about other grad schools one is applying to? Some schools make it mandatory, some make it optional. What is the purpose of that and does it work in the student's favor to list all other schools?
Answer: How can this possibly be mandatory? Perhaps I am showing my ignorance, but I was aware only that some graduate programs request information on the "competition", if applicants are willing to provide it. Others can comment based on greater knowledge of this practice, but I can't see how it would work for or against an applicant to list these (or not). Just because you apply to a place doesn't mean you will be accepted. I think many places just want to look for overall trends in the data of applicant pools, not track where any particular applicant has applied, but others should correct me if their program uses this information in a different way.
Question: Is having an open laptop during a talk disrespectful to a speaker and distracting to an audience, or are laptops a useful way of taking notes during the talk?
Answer: My personal opinion is that laptops or other electronic note-taking devices are acceptable during a talk. It can be distracting sitting next to someone who is type-type-typing throughout a talk, but if the typing is confined to jotting relevant notes or questions, I can deal with it. As a speaker, I assume that the open laptops are being used for a relevant purpose, although this assumption is clearly deeply flawed, as some people keep their eyes glued to their laptop screen throughout a talk, and occasionally laugh or smile at the screen at a time unrelated to anything in my talk that could be considered amusing (I think). That is rude.
Question (aggregate of a number of e-mails with different situations but similar themes): What do you do if you are a tenure-track professor and many of your colleagues, including your department chair, are jerks?
Answer: My advice, which is not that awesome or satisfying but is the best I can suggest for those in this difficult situation, is to do your work as best you can, don't let the jerks get to you or destroy your enjoyment of your job if at all possible, find as many non-jerk colleagues as you can (within or beyond your department and including administrators), protect your students from the jerks, build a strong record of teaching/research/service, and get tenure. Then you can decide what to do: leave or stay. If you stay, you can then decide whether to confront the jerks or just do your own thing, or take the long view and become a leader in your department so you can change things. Just don't become one of them.
Question: What do you do when a student writes to you, begging for a higher grade because [insert desperate reason]?
Answer: I can tell you what I do in these situations: I write back a short, sympathetic e-mail saying that I cannot and will not change the student's grade or give them an extra credit assignment. It is very sad when there is something important at stake for the student (e.g., a scholarship, financial aid, a chance to get into a desired program), but I try to forestall such unhappy events by giving students feedback throughout the course so that they know where they stand. I will help them if I can, before the final grade is determined, not after. The important thing is to be consistent and fair.
Question: I have been told that one should decline to write a letter of recommendation if that letter is going to be really negative, or at least tell the person requesting the letter that the letter will be negative, and give the person a chance to find someone else (or take their chances with your unflattering letter). Actually, I have two questions: (1) Should one decline to write a negative letter (might this not be important information?) or inform the applicant that your letter will be negative, and if so, (2) How negative is negative? What if my letter would have both positive and some negative things in it? How do I decide whether I am being unfair to the letter-requester if I don't tell them how negative my letter will be?
Answer: This is a complex question. For now I will just say that I think it's fine to write a 'balanced' letter (code for 'has some positive and negative things in it'). Ideally, the person requesting the letter has some idea about what you think of him/her, although I know that is really hard to determine because there are all sorts of complex issues and anxieties involved in that. Nevertheless, if you have provided critical input to someone (e.g., about their research abilities, writing skills, productivity), given them a not-so-good grade in a class, or otherwise given them an open assessment of their accomplishments and/or abilities, there is nothing sneaky about writing some critical comments in a reference letter. Those reading the letter will appreciate an honest and frank assessment, and, as long as your negative comments are written in a professional way and you believe the criticisms to be fair, you've done what you were asked to do.
Question: I am a graduate student and I have a 3-month old infant. I am doing fine, keeping up with my research, caring for my baby, and basically managing things as well as I can, although I feel that I am pretty much at the limit of what I can reasonably deal with. One of my office mates keeps complaining to me about how much work it is for him to care for his exotic reptile pet, which he fortunately keeps at home. Can I kill him?
Answer: I think you should seriously consider it and even make elaborate plans (in your head), but this might be something you want to put off until later, given that your plate is already full.
There are some other good topics for discussion in my inbox, and I hope to get to them.. next year.
10 years ago