Monday, June 02, 2008

Nice and Sweet

When traveling in an unfamiliar place, it can be helpful to have a guidebook, preferably the kind that also attempts to explain cultural traditions and local customs. I wonder if a similar concept could be used to facilitate communication between professors and students.

Example: During a meeting to discuss a student's research, if the student's only response to a professor's comments, explanations, or questions (such as "So, what do you think?" or "What are your thoughts/ideas/opinions?") is of the mono-word sort -- e.g. "Sweet" -- some assistance with the cultural/age divide might be useful for both professor and student.

A guidebook for professors could explain that this is a normal expression used to indicate a positive response (synonyms: awesome, cool, nice) and could be interpreted to indicate comprehension on the part of the student and therefore does not necessarily mean that the student is inarticulate and/or did not really understand what the professor said. The expectation of a more specific response that includes complete sentences may be unrealistic without further attempts at conversation and gentle encouragement of the student to express an opinion or ask questions. If these further attempts fail to elicit even a question such as "Could you repeat that in a way that makes sense?", or even "What did you just say?", then it might be reasonable to conclude that the student has no further thoughts on -- or interest in -- the issue at hand.

A guidebook for students could explain that the professor can probably handle an expression such as "Sweet" as an initial response, but it is likely that additional words are like totally expected owing to the professor's long immersion in academia and possible inability to interpret speech that sounds like a text message. Many (but not all) professors adhere to the quaint custom of speaking in complete sentences, whether or not these sentences are intelligible. If the mono-word response is the result of lack of comprehension of any/all or what the professor just said, perhaps a professor-student phrasebook would be useful. That is, just as when traveling in a foreign country, phrases such as "I don't understand. I don't speak much/any professorese. Could you please repeat that?" might come in handy and could be memorized before visiting Professorland.

I hope this doesn't sound patronizing. I am writing about this because I have been encountering this "Sweet" response a lot recently. When I encounter "Sweet" and words of that ilk in response to attempts at discussions with students about their research, it has briefly stopped me in my professorial tracks each time. Each time I wonder what the
mono-response signifies -- interest or lack of interest? lack of ideas? lack of an ability to converse? none of the above? And each time I conclude that I have no idea, but that I should find a friendly but firm way to indicate that a one word response, however awesome, does not a discussion make.


Anonymous said...

I often have the opposite problem: students who ramble incoherently without ever coming to the end of a sentence. I can't say anything without interrupting them, and it is hard to avoid sounding a bit rude when I do so. I sometimes try to explain that when one asks a technical question - especially of someone one doesn't know - it should be as short as possible, preferably one (not too long) sentence.

Anonymous said...

Schweet post!

One of the issues I spend a great deal of time handling is the tendency for trainees to nod their heads in agreement when they haven't the faintest fucking clue what I am talking about. Like so:

PP: "Blah, blah, blahbity, blah..."

TRAINEE: {nodding the whole time}

PP: "You with me?"

TRAINEE: "Oh, yes!"

PP: "OK, then. What the fuck did I just say?"

TRAINEE: "Umm, err. Schweet!"

This reminds me of another trainee phenotype that hinders effective communication and, hence, the conduct of science.

I had an interesting discussion with one of my trainees a few weeks back concerning his behavior in the laboratory when we get into intense discussions of our science. Whenever we start to discuss his data or his experimental approaches or techniques, he totally stiffens up, and puts up a huge barrier. As part of this, he does not even listen to or address the content of what is being said; he just keeps spraying out poorly-thought-out personalized rebuffs that do not even address the content of what we are discussing.

This is, of course, an untenable attitude to adopt in the context of an enterprise in which the goal is to gain access to some reasonable description of the nature of objective reality. His problem is that he thinks that any critical analysis of his data or experimental design/technique/approaches is an attack on his person.

And he is exceedingly vested in appearing to be personally "correct". This means that once he takes a position, he then holds onto it like it is a life preserver and he is a shipwrecked sailor.

He was all the way up to his neck in this nonsense, and was completely preventing all possible dispassionate and reality-based analysis of an important experimental situation. Finally, I emphatically said the following to him:

PP: "Dude, this shit is not about *you*. Nor is it about *me*. It is about accessing reality. Now calm the fuck down and stop taking every single word said about your data and your experimental design/technique/approaches personally."

PP: "You got me?"

TRAINEE: "Schweet."

Anonymous said...

"Sweet" doesn't bother me. It usually indicates enthusiasm. A bewildered look and silence is bad.

The response that makes me completely and utterly insane is, "Interesting." It has a totally neutral meaning, in theory, so it can be used for, "I like this and find it interesting," or, "I can't think of anything else to say because I think you're a total numbskull but have enough tact to not want to hurt your feelings." I usually use it to cover up the "numbskull" response myself and therefore wonder if other people are doing it to me. (The first few times my husband said this to me, things got "interesting".) :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I never used the word "sweet" with my advisors. In such conversations, my monosyllabic response of choice was "okay...", which usually translated roughly to "I understand the sentence you just spoke as an individual expression, but haven't really clicked on what that means for the larger picture of my research... but maybe if you keep talking I'll get it."

I like to think that I'm older and wise now, and have learned to ask clarifying questions...

Jennie said...

are "like totally"

I'm finishing up my Ph.D. this summer and will be 30 this fall. Although I do use words like "sweet" and "awesome" I would never think about using them in a professional setting-unless possibly with my primary adviser in a non research context.

Anonymous said...

Sweet! Awesome post, yo.

Kidding aside, one of my problems is that I too-easily adopt the language quirks of those around me. I have to be careful about how I talk to my colleagues and elders. If I don't watch it, I sound like my students. I always enjoy a good new exclamation, but I don't like thoughtless speech.

Anonymous said...

Partly a response to Physioprof, partly to the topic in general...

I totally understand the frustration with the "nodding student" phenomenon. It drives me nuts when undergrads do it. But, I find myself doing it as well - I think generally it's considered polite to nod to encourage the speaker to continue talking. Like, if I don't quite get something, but I expect that what they will say next should clear it up, I will nod or say "mmhmm" occasionally.

I've tried the opposite approach with an advisor once (open skepticism/confusion on my face when I didn't completely understand something) and that totally backfired.

Bah! Personal interactions are hard!

Unknown said...

"nod their heads in agreement"
Although this wasn't really an issue in your example, PP, I learned in a communications seminar that some people (usually women) nod their heads to show they are listening, not agreeing.

Unrelated: I remember asking a professor for confirmation on some issue, saying (without really thinking about it) "So that's cool, then?" And with a straight face he said back "It is." but he seemed confused.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha...I have to traverse and often act as a bridge between the professorial and colloquial with my friends and colleagues, so this post really made me laugh with amusement and recognition. However, I am willing to bet that a lot of those "one word" responses come from males of the species, as I have had similar conversations with my sig o, where I feel like I am constantly having to elicit complete sentences/follow up "can you please expand on that?" sort of leading. I think it may be a function of the other person feeling a little out of their element (scientific constructive criticism, relationship/feeling conversations) and trying to participate but not sure exactly how much to venture or risk...

Ψ*Ψ said...

I usually prefer "super awesome" to "sweet."
Seriously, though, students may be intimidated. I know I was terrified of coming off as an idiot at first...and consequently didn't say much at all.

Ms.PhD said...

I think I've actually never heard a student use "sweet" in the way you describe, which I find baffling, too. I guess I would need more context to know if that's more likely to be the "oh shit, that means I have a lot more work to do" sarcastic usage?

The place I've heard 'sweet' most often is on Southpark. I'm thinking especially of the Ethernopian episode (a classic) but they use it all the time.

Anyway this post made me laugh. I always wonder which technology/slang is going to really blow my mind someday far in the future, the way the popularity of body piercing baffles my grandparents. They just never saw that becoming a trend. I wonder what language or dress would be so wildly different from anything now that, a few decades down the line, it would drive me to say "Why on earth would anybody want to do that??"

Anonymous said...

On the tangentially-related the topic of informal speech:

A couple years ago I was at a faculty candidate's job talk where the candidate said the following:

System of study A is like System of study B, but on crack.

Multiple people in the audience whispered to each other "What did (s)he just say?"

This person did not get a job offer, but I think it was for other reasons too.

Jones said...

FSP, you are writing a guidebook for us crazy undergraduates (translates to thank you.)

Anonymous said...

Lisa > I usually nod my head to say that I am following - neither agreeing not listening... (well of course I have to be listening to nod in understanding and I can also be agreeing, but my nodding usually means "I follow you. Go ahead.")

Anonymous said...

I was surprised by this... I'm a graduate student and my adviser uses monosyllabic words with ambiguous meaning just as much as the grad students in the group.

"Sweet" and "cool" are the favorites, but "nice" comes up too.

Anonymous said...

If the only word the student says is no longer than 4-5 words it is hard to tell if (s)he knows or not. From this point of view, the use of expressions like sweet, awesome, nice, etc, should be limited to situations when one is sure it won't be misinterpreted.

On the other hand, I hate it when someone with an advanced degree (PhD, or PhD students) start using fancy words to describe everything, like that makes them smarter or better. I think this practice has a lot to do with undergraduate students not learning as much as they could/should in the classroom. A clear example: why are some papers so hard to read? Maybe they should throw in a few nice, awesome, cool here and there.

Anonymous said...

The one that drives me crazy:

"My bad"

Mark P

Anonymous said...

out of my experience students usually say "sweet !" or "nice!!" when they are thinking "What the hell is this *person* talking about? I didn't listen to a word!"

EcoGeoFemme said...

I have one mentor who often explains complicated concepts to me. He'll be talking and I'll think I'm following along. Then he'll say, "so we can do X if we just measure Y!"

I stupidly say "wait...what?" But I think that conveys much more than "sweet". :)

Am I a woman scientist? said...

I had to laugh at this post, although given that I will be teaching in the spring I should probably be taking notes.

I have a 19-year-old (half) sister who fits your description to a T... monosyllabic responses which convey no meaning. She also calls me "lady". I have NO idea what that's all about, although I guess it is a better term of affection than the one she uses for her friends....

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

The use of "Sweeeeeet" hasn't reached epidemic proportions yet here in UK, but we are normally a few years behind you with that sort of thing anyway.

I have to agree with anonymous that the ramblers are the ones that really annoy me.

Anonymous said...

First off the popularity of "sweet" originates from the character of Cartman on the show South Park, but is so common that many students who don't like/ don't watch South Park have picked it up too.

Here is the perspective on "sweet" from a newbie physical science graduate student (just finished first year), and who has a penchant for discussing research with urban slang.

I find myself uttering "sweet" after an information overloaded response from a professor. In this case "sweet" means I'm interested in the explanation/ideas the prof is conveying , but can't quite formulate a more intelligent comment or ask clarifying questions that will not totally embarrass myself. These are the sort of sessions where I understands all the words being said, but I would really like a remote to pause time and think about the implications (or look up some basic fact I should really remember). Thus the semi-cryptic response is my way of telling a professor I'm almost at your level and what you've said has engaged me in a positive manner, but if you start asking me probing questions at this time you'll make me really uncomfortable.