Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Routine Good

In the past week, I have received six (6!) academic thank-you notes of various sorts: some by e-mail and some by regular mail*. I am fortunate to know a lot of nice people, and it made me feel very good to be thanked.

I started thinking about all the ways that we professors have of "doing good" just in our routine, daily working lives. I have written about this before, but here are my current thoughts, based on my recent haul of thank-you notes:

Many of us write a lot of reference letters. We write letters for undergrads applying for internships, other jobs, and graduate schools. We write letters for MS students applying for PhD programs and jobs. We write letters for grad students and postdocs and colleagues applying for jobs and fellowships. We write letters for the tenure and promotion evaluation of faculty at other institutions, and we write letters in support of colleagues nominated for awards. If we tailor each letter to each application and if each individual is applying to multiple places, letter-writing can take a lot of time. Yes, it's our job, but it's one of those things that we don't really have time for but we somehow make time (because it's important). Not all those who request letters from us thank us (or even let us know the outcome of their applications), but some do.

Many of us put a lot of time and effort into trying to be good teachers. We get some feedback from our students for every course (in the form of teaching evaluations) and some students even say thank you at the end of the term, but when a student writes to say that a particular course convinced him/her to pursue a particular career and that they are very happy, that's even better. For me, this was especially nice to hear for the class in question because, in that same class, there was at least one student who absolutely hated me.

Many of us put a lot of time and effort into trying to be good advisors. Advising has many rewarding aspects to it, although it's typically best to take the long view and not focus on any one day or week or even year. It's particularly nice to be thanked after a student has graduated and has gained some perspective on their days as a student-researcher, or when a certain bit of advice turned out to be helpful.

Many of us try to be good colleagues. One of my thank-you messages was from a colleague who spent a sabbatical in my department, primarily interacting with my research group. This was many years ago, and now this colleague is on another sabbatical at another institution that is not so welcoming or stimulating, and so this colleague (whom I did not know at all before the sabbatical in my department) was reminiscing about the good old days of the previous sabbatical, and thanking me for the positive impact I had on their career. In fact, I benefited a lot from interacting with this person as well, and I gained a new colleague and friend, so it was win-win. Even so, I will keep this thank-you note because it made me very happy to receive it.

I also get the occasional thank-you-for-blogging e-mails, and those are nice, too.

Those were the particular circumstances of my recent swarm of thank-you notes, but there are other ways that we as professors can do routine good: by being thoughtful reviewers and editors, by serving on committees of various sorts (but especially for grad student exams), by visiting schools and judging science fairs, by attending (and not falling asleep in) talks by visitors to our department, by not snorting (too) loudly in faculty meetings every time a particular colleague speaks, and by making an effort to thank those who help us (administrative and technical staff, students..).

Most of these things are part of our job, and some of these things are time-consuming and can be quite tedious. Therefore, I think it's good to get a bit of perspective now and then and appreciate all the ways that we can have a positive effect, just in our daily lives as professors, even when we are otherwise feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by all the things that need doing, many of which probably should have been done yesterday (or last week).

I personally had a somewhat annoyance-filled day today, starting with an encounter with a patronizing plumber soon after I got to campus. But then I sat at my desk and saw my little pile of thank-you notes, and that cheered me up immensely. I had to stifle an urge to thank the senders for thanking me..

* And no, in case you are wondering: The thank-you notes were not all from females.


studyzone said...

I've received thank-yous from students regarding my efforts to be a good teacher (which were each a very pleasant surprise), and I've received thank-yous from my lab mates for my efforts to be a good/helpful colleague (also greatly appreciated). However (surprisingly? not surprisingly?), I have yet to receive a single thank-you for all of the letters of recommendations I've written (10 letters for 6 students since November alone). Nor did any of the student I wrote letters for last year let me know whether they got into their program.

Stephanie said...

I love sending thank you notes to profs and other teachers I've had. I know it makes them happy to be appreciated so it makes me happy to share my appreciation. Goodness all around.

I don't remember if I sent thank you notes or let my letter writers know where I ended up going for grad school. That was such a stressful experience, you can't blame the students for being a bit spacey when they are overwhelmed with deciding where to go for grad school for the next 5-10 years. I'm sure most of them were thankful, they just may have forgotten to communicate their thanks in the graduate school rush.

Susan B. Anthony said...

My students are surprisingly good about thank-you notes and even thank-you gifts: plants, tea, office decorations, etc. This was an unexpected benefit of becoming a professor, and you are right, FSP: feeling appreciated does make everything else just a bit easier.

Anonymous said...

I don't buy the 'OMG, grad school applications are so stressful and the decision is so huge that I don't need to tell my letter writers what my decision is or even thank them for helping me get into grad school' explanation. Once the decision is made, it would be good to take a break from being so (somewhat necessarily) self-absorbed and thank those who helped.

Anonymous said...

I've thanked all my rotation and undergrad supervisors for their time with me. It is usually done either immediately after I've submitted a report for the project with them or just after I've finalised where I would be going next. I think that it is quite important as it kinds of let them know that I've really appreciated them and it's just good manners. In a sense it also helps to remind me of all the investment/help that others have given me when slightly on a bad day.

Ψ*Ψ said...

I was tempted to send my undergrad advisor a thank-you note after writing all those letters (for grad school, then for fellowships).

But I sent him data instead. And then more data. And I'll continue that for the next four years. (I think he likes the data more than a note anyway.) Yay for collaboration!

Anonymous said...

I think it is the advisers responsibility to thank their students!

Anonymous said...

I thought you were going to discuss the service activities that we are often called upon to volunteer for, that are truly done as favors -- usually being a guest speaker, panelist, or presenter for different campus organizations, programs, your college, etc. I usually receive a real hardcopy thank-you note for doing these, which I do appreciate. Sometimes I even receive some kind of real gift, like a bag or water bottle -- these I could do without. A hardcopy thank-you note is very nice, and plenty of appreciation for me. These groups could better use the funds on the program!

It's worth some discussion on who participates in these campus volunteer activities. They take time, and they don't get you any glory. I do them because I feel that we ALL need to do one or two of these a year, just to chip in. We're so proud of all the groups and programs that our institution offers our students, but they rely on our input for success. In general, though, I feel that only a minority of the faculty do any of these, and it's always the same ones who end up doing a lot of them. The effort really should be more uniformly shared.

Anonymous said...

Dear (Grad Student),

I want to thank you for being my student all these years. I have found it very rewarding to show you how to do research; to write grant proposals to provide funding for you; to read and re-read and re-re-read your manuscript drafts, thesis chapters, conference abstracts, and proposals; to meet with you each week and share in your setbacks and triumphs; to give you advice about courses, research obstacles, and dilemmas; to introduce you to my colleagues so you could start making connections to help with your later career; and best of all..!!! writing 17 letters of reference for you in this past year alone!!! I tailored each one to the position for which you were applying, and I just want to thank you for giving me that opportunity to hone my letter-writing skills. Of course you don't need to thank me -- I was just doing my job. This is all about YOU!

Anonymous said...

You're welcome:)

Another anonymous one said...

I just want to thank you for giving me that opportunity to hone my letter-writing skills.

Oh, sweet Jesus.