Friday, August 19, 2011

Can You Top This?

Recently, a colleague said to me:
I just had the strangest interaction with a student.
He was quite emphatic that this was the strangest interaction ever.

Knowing this colleague and many of his students, I was skeptical. Here is what happened:

He was talking to an undergraduate student about the student's summer research results. In mid-conversation, while my colleague was speaking directly to the student, the student fell sound asleep, sitting upright in a chair. This was not in a class; this was a one-on-one conversation in the professor's office.

Did the student faint or have another health problem? No, according to the student.

Did the student stay up all night working (or whatever) and succumb to sleep owing to severe sleep deprivation? No, the student claimed to be "quite well rested".

[Memo to students who fall asleep while in conversation with a professor: It's better/nicer to say you are severely sleep deprived.]

Fortunately, this colleague and I were en route to caffeine when he told me this story, otherwise I would have dropped off to sleep. He has that effect on people. Apparently.

Actually, I was fascinated. It would be weird and disconcerting to have a student fall asleep in the middle of a conversation.

Even so, I expressed my skepticism that it was the strangest student-professor incident he had ever experienced, and mentioned a few spectacular examples from the past. For each one of these examples, he said "Yes, but s/he was crazy." Yes... true.

His point is that this was the strangest experience he had ever had while interacting with an apparently sane and healthy student.

Have any of you ever had a (healthy, non-narcoleptic) student drop off to sleep in the middle of a one-on-one conversation? What did you do? Wake them up? Sit quietly and wait for them to wake up? Walk away? Put an embarrassing sign on their back? Call 911?

Year ago, some friends and I handcuffed a sleeping student to an egg-beater (the manual kind), but I was also a student at the time, so this was OK. Now that I am a responsible and mature professor, I might think about handcuffing someone to an eggbeater, but I wouldn't actually do it.

Please share your stories of strange (but not crazy/disturbing) incidents of professor-student interactions.

I have previously requested examples of the strangest things to happen in class, but now we are considering one-on-one professional interactions between professors and students. I am hoping to be impressed by a wide array of weird-but-not-too-disturbing incidents.

50 comments:

Anonymous said...

How about this: The professor suddenly loses temper over something. Grabs a bunch of papers on his desk, and throws them down on floor like a hammer hitting the nail, all the while uttering some crazy F words. The student just stands there shocked.

Yes, my professor does this kind of stuff.

PhD student said...

I have a co-supervisor who occasionally nods off during our meetings in the early afternoon. Fortunately I usually have two other supervisors who I can chat with as we wait for his dropping head to wake him again.

Anonymous said...

i'm in my 2nd year of ass. profship. i've had students ask me out, repeatedly. but none, fall asleep. maybe i'll have that problem in a few years...

Anonymous said...

What field do you work in? I wouldn't have handcuffs on hand in my lab.

Was the Professor on of those sleep waves guys?

Anonymous said...

I have, alas, been a student who fell asleep in a 1:1 meeting. I woke up after a short interval to an awkward silence, and then the conversation continued with no acknowledgement of the event except a slight... frostiness, which is a pretty mild response.

Anonymous said...

Posting anonymously to protect student's privacy...

I taught a small seminar where attendance was part of the grade unless the student had an excused absence. I was pretty lenient about excuses, saying that if the student contacted me before class to say "I'm sick," I'd take their word for it.

One day, class had just ended and I was still in the room, but the students had filed out. A young man who'd been absent that day rushed into the room looking extremely disheveled. "I'm sorry I wasn't in class; I've been in the bathroom throwing up for an hour." I took a step back. The student belched loudly and doubled over. "I know I was supposed to turn in my homework, but..." Another belch. I quickly said, "That's fine! Really! Please go home and rest! You are excused!"

The student went on to say that he didn't have a stomach flu or anything, he'd just consumed a large amount of coffee and gotten nauseated. He added, "I'm sorry, I know this is gross... BRRRAAAAP." I maintained that he was excused anyway, and thankfully he made it back to the bathroom before upchucking any further.

I've gotten various emails in the past that described students' ailments in detail, but never had an in-person demonstration such as this. It was... memorable.

plam said...

For some reason, I can't actually think of any strange interactions with students, only the usual range of annoying ones (e.g. begging for marks).

As sometimes happens, there was a student who was napping during the final. I suggested that this was not the best time to take a nap. He did pass the final, but got an INC due to flaking out on the lab.

jb said...

I'm afraid I have nothing to top this. I've had students who I've noticed spaced out while I'm explaining something, but none that actually fell asleep on me. Next time, take a photo immediately!

a physicist said...

When I was an undergrad, I got quite sleepy during some one-on-one conversations with my research advisor. I successfully fought it off, he was a nice person and good advisor and I had no desire to fall asleep. I think I was a little sleep deprived that year.

Most disturbing incident with a student: only one is coming to mind, and it's probably not that extreme. I interacted with a bunch of students one day (in an administrative capacity, not as a teacher). The next day one of the students left an envelope containing suggestive pictures of herself outside my door. Newly married at the time, I was a bit freaked out.

Ewan said...

One student (who started our conversation not with 'hi' or some such but rather with 'I can't *believe* you made me walk all the way down *here*') offered as her reason for not taking notes in class that it would interfere with her expensive manicure. She was perfectly serious (and immacculately attired, granted).

Anonymous said...

An undergraduate research assistant fell asleep while in a meeting with me (PhD student) and my advisor. It was a bit strange at the time, but a few weeks later he was diagnosed with Lyme disease.

Eileen said...

Context: I'm a female grad student, and I share a group office with several other female TAs, and by unofficial policy, doors always stay open during office hours.

I once had a male student come to office hours, put down his backpack, say hello, and completely take off his sweatshirt with nothing underneath. He stuffed his sweatshirt into his backpack, took out a tshirt, put that on, and sat down and started talking like nothing had happened. It was stranger for seeming completely innocent, (wasn't part of a come on then or later) and because it happened in front of several other TAs.

Anonymous said...

During one of my rounds of grad school interviews, I had a stomach bug and was exhausted. They wouldn't let me reschedule, so I went. I managed to fall asleep while I was talking during one of the faculty interviews. Not while he was talking. While I was talking. Despite that faux pas, I was accepted into the program.

CSgrad said...

The student claims not to have a sleep disorder, and to be well-rested, but I still wonder if they have one, undiagnosed. I was in that situation as an undergrad. If I had been getting 8 hours of sleep regularly, I would have claimed to be "well-rested" even if I could barely stay awake, because I associated sleep deprivation with not sleeping for enough hours. And of course someone with an undiagnosed problem is going to say that they don't have the problem.

If this happens repeatedly to the student, and happens in spite of supposedly getting enough hours of sleep each night, they should consider getting tested. My undergrad grades might have been a heck of a lot better if I'd realized early on that my sleepiness and inability to concentrate or memorize things weren't just "stress", and gotten treated.

Anonymous said...

I am a tenure-track professor (with 2 small children) who does not sleep nearly enough. When I am visiting another school to give a colloquium, and I am scheduled all day long with 30-60 minute conversations with all of the relevant faculty/postdocs in the host department, I have a LOT of trouble with the after-lunch slot. I have twice fallen asleep in one-on-one conversations with other faculty members. I was of course mortified.

I recently brought this up with a colleague at another conference, thinking she would be sympathetic. Her response was a story about a visiting senior faculty member who had fallen asleep during a one-on-one conversation in her office. She was mortified by the other side of the encounter.

Sigh... I guess we are all very, very sleep-deprived, and maybe it is not going to get any better post-tenure.

Anonymous said...

I have almost fallen asleep in meetings with my advisor. He's pretty engaging, but I generally get kind of drowsy when someone's explaining something to me, especially if I've lost track if the train of the argument.

I fell asleep in class all the time, even in classes where I'm not struggling or bored, do excellent work and with professors who are excellent lecturers and where I'm very interested in the material. Never worked that one out.

John Vidale said...

The incident that left the deepest mark was (of course) a football player. He came by, polite and formal, to tell me that he'd be missing a few classes for his trial for ambushing someone. I'd already read about it in the newspaper, and we chatted about it for a while.

Apparently a USC player was razzing a UCLA freshman player at a party, so this senior Bruin had to beat up the Trojan to show the freshman how to handle such situations. He said this as though it made perfect sense, and was the honorable thing to have done, even though the coach had to suspend him for a few games.

mjphd said...

FSP, why an eggbeater?

Phillip Helbig said...

"I once had a male student come to office hours, put down his backpack, say hello, and completely take off his sweatshirt with nothing underneath. He stuffed his sweatshirt into his backpack, took out a tshirt, put that on, and sat down and started talking like nothing had happened. It was stranger for seeming completely innocent, (wasn't part of a come on then or later) and because it happened in front of several other TAs. "

I don't get it. Please explain.

Anonymous said...

I'm another narcoleptic (or something). I always fell asleep in class, even if I cared about the material, took notes, tried to stay engaged by asking questions. My grad school peers made fun of me. I felt bad. I tried in undergrad to stay awake in one class by bringing some sewing, so that I'd stab myself with a needle if I started to fall asleep. This unfortunately did not prevent me from falling asleep: I just stabbed myself many times that hour. I never did fall asleep in a one-on-one meeting, though.

Strangest student interaction? Maybe the undergrad who tried to tell me, with a crazy stare, that the world was not continuous and so the idea of continuity used in mathematics was false. He was very young to be a crackpot, but there you go...

Anonymous said...

As a new asst. prof, I had a visiting seminar speaker (apparently?) fall asleep in my office during our one-on-one time. But...it was stupendously weird. I had been showing her data on my computer when her eyes closed and her head lolled forward...I wasn't sure what to do so I just kept talking about the data as if nothing had happened. Every so often, her eyes would briefly flutter open and she would ask me a fairly intelligent question about the data and then immediately close her eyes and appear to go back to sleep (head lolling forward) as I answered.

That was one of the longest half-hours of my life.

Anonymous said...

I ran into a professor in the hallway, and he started talking about his divorce and how he had recently been dumped by his girlfriend and was trying to win her back. It was unbelievably awkward.

Anonymous said...

I had a graduate student with exactly the same problem. He insisted he didn't have a health condition and I gave up trying to help as he wouldn't listen.
I don't think this was particularly strange, and don't recall telling people about it.
The strangest interaction I had was with a student looking for a rotation in my lab. I gave her a couple of papers to read so we could meet to discuss some ideas. She came to my office and told me she was extremely interested in something completely standard and trivial, which was part of the methods section of the papers. She then explained that she wanted to sequence DNA with lanthanide fluorescence using HPLC with a confocal microscope, and other randomly connected words that do not make any sense when put together in a sentence. I realized that she was picking words from different parts of the papers and creating a sentence, and suddenly realized I was living the same situation as the last scene of "The usual suspects", but with a much less intelligent person (if you saw the movie you will know why). Nothing she said made any sense whatsoever, and it was by far the most surreal experience I had in my life talking to somebody.

mathgirl said...

The worst story I had was not with a student, but with another professor. I was hosting my first ever visitor since I became a tenure track prof. He arrived after a five-hour flight, waking up early, etc, and we had a meeting right away. I was feeling funny and felt sleep during the one-to-one meeting.

That night, I discovered I was pregnant. Eventually I had to tell the visitor that I had an early pregnancy, as I did the falling sleep thing several times during the 5-day visit.

Anonymous said...

A reader said
"I once had a male student come to office hours, put down his backpack, say hello, and completely take off his sweatshirt with nothing underneath. He stuffed his sweatshirt into his backpack, took out a tshirt, put that on, and sat down and started talking like nothing had happened. It was stranger for seeming completely innocent, (wasn't part of a come on then or later) and because it happened in front of several other TAs. "

I don't understand this either; I wouldn't think it is big deal. I can top this story though. I was a postdoc sharing the office with another 5 or 6. One of my male office mates came into the office, and while discussing a work-related issue with me (female) proceeded to take off his shirt, shoes and pants, and then change into his bike shorts and jersey. All this just a couple of feet away from me. I had a similar experience with another guy from the same European country before, so I just laughed and continued to discuss the science as if seeing my lab mate in his underwear was the most normal thing in the world.

Anonymous said...

Like CSgrad, I'm concerned that this student may have some sort of undiagnosed medical problem. Maybe he was not asleep but rather having a seizure? Mild seizures can look like the person has simply "zoned out" or briefly become unresponsive.

Anonymous said...

Bizarre off-the-wall behavior by students should be taken seriously and NOT ignored. It is possible that this student has narcolepsy and should be evaluated. Other seemingly crazy behaviors (talking gibberish) could be a psychotic episode brought on by drugs or schizophrenia, which can surface when a person reaches their 20's or so. I don't think it's anything to joke about.

Maybe I'm sounding overly sensitive, but what if someone had been concerned about a student such as Jared Lee and did something about it? True, not all crazy people can be diagnosed and treated before they go off and hurt themselves or someone else, but we can at least be more vigilant and take some appropriate course of action when it comes up.

Dr. Sneetch said...

I knew a student with a sleeping disorder. He used a wheel chair because it had become so severe he never knew when he would fall asleep. Knowing this student and his disability and having thought about what to do should he fall asleep in class and looked all this up, I would suggest the student in question get a health check-up soon. It may be the early stages of something.

Anonymous said...

My PhD advisor fell asleep in one on one meetings regularly. We all joked about it. The problem was that sometimes he wasn't asleep and would suddenly ask a really hard question with his eyes closed. We never knew what to do when he closed his eyes!

Anonymous said...

My advisor has narcolepsy AND sleep apnea AND a doctor phobia, so I've gotten pretty good at handling his ubiquitous nod-offs. I used to take it personally, but now I can just roll with it. I did learn to never ask him to look at images in the dark microscope room again. He can't last more than 30 seconds awake in there.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, students are just really tired. No need to call the ambulance. I bet the student just didn't want to admit to a long night of partying or whatever. I think people forget that blog posts present just a small view of experiences. Certainly these professors and others interact with the student and readers don't need to make a diagnosis based on what is described here. Yes, I know, someone is going to have a tragic story about how if only their professor had done something when they (student) fell asleep in the office or lab, they wouldn't have developed a terrible chronic disease that progressed until it was too late to stop it from having horrible horrible consequences. So we should all overreact every time just in case.

Anonymous said...

I think it is interesting that the post specifies that narcolepsy was not involved and wants to know if anyone had this experience NOT involving narcolepsy, and somehow this inspires people to share their narcolepsy stories. That's fine, that's what happens on blogs, but I wonder if it's like saying "Don't think about pink elephants" and then of course you do the opposite.

James Annan said...

In Japan it's considered de rigeur to fall asleep at work. Those of us who stay resolutely awake are regarded with some suspicion as probable slackers :-)

There are one or two who have perfected the skill of sleeping through a seminar, then waking up at the end to ask a piercing question.

Anonymous said...

How would you know student is not narcoleptic? Maybe they're simply not aware that they are. Could it also be epilepsy? Or drugs? It sounds more medical than "strange" to me.

Anonymous said...

OMG, a sleepy undergrad. Definitely a medical situation, no matter what the student says.

Shannon said...

Two stories (not mine - from colleagues):

1) Colleague 1 attended our institution as an undergrad. Had one of the professors fall asleep while he was lecturing. So boring, he lost interest in his own lecture!

2) Colleague 2 had a seeing eye dog barf during the middle of his lecture. What do you do? Person who is helped by said dog can't clean up because she's blind. Do you leave it and have it stink up class? Do you stop class and clean it up yourself? Luckily, a friend of the woman stepped up to fix the problem.

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad, I recorded "well-regarded" classroom lecture series for re-broadcast on the university FM radio station. Before broadcast, each lecture had to be reviewed by the professor, who sat listening in the recording studio, while I went away. Sure enough, one day I heard loud snoring from the far studio - and the professor had fallen asleep to his own lecture...

Anonymous said...

The story above, about the visiting seminar speaker fainting/nodding off in a meeting with the host prof, is one of the weirdest I've ever heard. I'm trying to imagine it: the seminar speaker came to the campus for a speaking do, met with the host prof to review some data. During the meeting, the visiting speaker momentarily lost consciousness and the host professor "just kept talking about the data as if nothing had happened."

Huh? This is someone who's obviously not well sitting right in front of you. Why not ask the person whether they need a break or a glass of water or something? Maybe they were too nervous/intimidated/sick to admit they needed a break. Sheesh, how creepy.

Anonymous said...

The strangest "interaction" I had with a professor was when an eccentric, avuncular geograph prof had a research trip that prevented his attending the first three days of class. He resolved things by videotaping himself delivering the lectures. Now, this was in the VCR era, so the lighting and quality were bad enough to begin with. But for some reason he decided to tape himself in extreme closeup, so that the wide-screen TV showed mostly the lower part of his face and the occasional glint of his glasses. Gleefully oblivious, he taped all three lectures in this way. Oh, and he also shouted way too loud, as if he were making a wax cylinder recording. We laughed so damn hard.

NeuroPostdoc said...

Um, it took ~10 years for my sleep disorder to be diagnosed & treated--spent all of undergrad practically non-functional (falling asleep in class, meeting with someone, while driving, etc.), but would have sworn that I was getting enough sleep at night (during a sleep study I do actually get enough sleep at night, but still fail the multiple sleep latency test the next day, without narcolepsy). It would have saved me a lot of grief & unproductive years if anyone had considered a sleep disorder when I initially presented with excessive daytime sleepiness instead of immediately labeling me as depressed. The student should definitely seek medical attention, especially if it has occurred more than once. Alternatively, the professor may just be really boring... ;)

Anonymous said...

"The story above, about the visiting seminar speaker fainting/nodding off in a meeting with the host prof, is one of the weirdest I've ever heard..."

To clarify: I wasn't the host prof, but just someone on their "to-meet" list. The visiting prof had gotten up at 4am their time to catch a flight in that morning and lamented at the beginning of our meeting of how exhausted they were (I should have included this detail in the original post, I now realize). This was a Big/Famous person and I was a new asst. prof and I was embarassed to call them out on it. "Dudez you just fell azzleeep?!?"

Anonymous said...

"This was a Big/Famous person and I was a new asst. prof and I was embarassed to call them out on it. 'Dudez you just fell azzleeep?!?'"

Ah, that makes more sense then!

BrownieCentral said...

I can't top it, but in my first meeting with my boss of my first 'real job' after college, she fell asleep. Turned out she was narcoleptic ... I just didn't know it at the time. Needless to say it was extremely Awkward!

Anonymous said...

It is amazing how many FSP readers have or know someone with narcolepsy. It is not a common condition. I just looked up the data for diagnosed vs. likely-have-it, and even if you go with the projected number, it seems that a disproportionate number read FSP. Are academics more likely to be narcoleptic?

Anonymous said...

One of the professors who works with my advisor tells the story of a few unfortunates who did not have the intestinal (esophageal?) fortitude to get through their defenses without upchucking.


One of my friends (different school) says that her advisor fell asleep while she was taking her oral preliminary exams.

bsci said...

I was in a one-on-one grad school interview when the professor fell asleep. He probably had 20min interviewees coming in and out of his office all day, which can't be the most exciting thing, but it was still more than a bit disconcerting. Strangely enough, I was still accepted into that program & got by degree there, but didn't work with that professor.

Anonymous said...

Had a student appear to be awake and lucid and standing up, but started speaking to me in their native(to me, foreign) language of which I knew not a word. Student seemed a little glassy-eyed but otherwise physically fine. After a couple rounds of "I'm sorry, can you speak English" and unintelligible responses, student left the room. Turns out student was having a seizure, from an as-of-then undiagnosed brain tumor.

Kevan said...

I actually have seen my boss fall asleep in the middle of the slot pits in Vegas... all this while attempting to put his next coin into the machine. If we put his priorities under a microscope we would find he needs more sleep and possible a visit a sleep study/ clinic to have get a sleep ap machine.

Anonymous said...

I have BEEN that student, but it was right after getting off a red-eye from Toronto to Paris. It was really embarrassing to fall asleep in the middle of a conversation with both my advisor and our collaborator that we just flew overseas to meet!

Anonymous said...

I had a committee member who was a bit of an outlier, background-wise, from the rest of my committee. For my defense, I put in a slide specifically for him. During the defense I got to the slide, looked over at him, and sure enough, he was asleep.