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Author Topic: "Miss Manners" for Grad Students?  (Read 9135 times)
bookwurm
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« on: June 09, 2010, 4:33:21 PM »

I never thought that graduate supervision would cast me in the role of Miss Manners.  In her correspondence and in person, "Paula the PhD student" is woefully lacking in social graces.  Her emails lack opening and closing salutations.  I have yet to hear or read a "please" or a "thank you" from her.  She makes statements and demands rather than requests.  Some of them are minor (such as "I need that title from you again" or even just "I need that title again, " instead of "I've misplaced that reference you recommended during our last meeting.  Would you please remind me of the title?").  Others are major demands for special treatment or concessions of various kinds or reinterpretations of university rules (all of which she seems to find constraining and illogical). 

I'm thick-skinned and don't personally mind if Paula is less-than-gracious.   And I'm senior enough and tired enough to think that maybe grad student social development is beyond my remit.  But then I remind myself that one of my tasks as her supervisor is to prepare her for academic life.  She's already offending and upsetting many of the people she encounters. She isn't going to fare well in this job market if her manners don't improve.  My attempts to model good email manners and to practice all the social niceties in her presence don't seem to be making an observable impact on her behaviour.

Dear Forumites, have you similar tales of egregious rudeness in your supervisees?  What have you done?  Is there a book I can leave discreetly in her mailbox?  Even were I to lend her Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice volumes, I'm not sure that she would recognize herself as the offender.  Or should I just be blunt with her about the likely consequences of her behaviour (e.g., "Paula, your emails to me are rude.  You can't operate like this in academia, nor in any realm of life, without experiencing negative consequences").  Or should I just let her hoist herself on her petard? 
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crowie
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« Reply #1 on: June 09, 2010, 4:35:15 PM »

You should be blunt but not unsympathetic and, as you said, phrase it in terms of consequences of her actions. 
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der_gadfly
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oy vey


« Reply #2 on: June 09, 2010, 4:38:36 PM »

I am not sure that your Paula is ever going to 'get it', whether you are blatent about it or gentle.

Some people just feel that terseness is good because it keeps communications short and to the point.
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lizzy
a person who likes to believe that what comes around goes around and a
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« Reply #3 on: June 09, 2010, 4:39:32 PM »

I never thought that graduate supervision would cast me in the role of Miss Manners.  In her correspondence and in person, "Paula the PhD student" is woefully lacking in social graces.  Her emails lack opening and closing salutations.  I have yet to hear or read a "please" or a "thank you" from her.  She makes statements and demands rather than requests.  Some of them are minor (such as "I need that title from you again" or even just "I need that title again, " instead of "I've misplaced that reference you recommended during our last meeting.  Would you please remind me of the title?").  Others are major demands for special treatment or concessions of various kinds or reinterpretations of university rules (all of which she seems to find constraining and illogical). 

I'm thick-skinned and don't personally mind if Paula is less-than-gracious.   And I'm senior enough and tired enough to think that maybe grad student social development is beyond my remit.  But then I remind myself that one of my tasks as her supervisor is to prepare her for academic life.  She's already offending and upsetting many of the people she encounters. She isn't going to fare well in this job market if her manners don't improve.  My attempts to model good email manners and to practice all the social niceties in her presence don't seem to be making an observable impact on her behaviour.

Dear Forumites, have you similar tales of egregious rudeness in your supervisees?  What have you done?  Is there a book I can leave discreetly in her mailbox?  Even were I to lend her Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice volumes, I'm not sure that she would recognize herself as the offender.  Or should I just be blunt with her about the likely consequences of her behaviour (e.g., "Paula, your emails to me are rude.  You can't operate like this in academia, nor in any realm of life, without experiencing negative consequences").  Or should I just let her hoist herself on her petard? 

As her supervisor, I'd have the conversation. I would present it as conventions in communication that others expect. In the job search and on the TT, we have to have some respect for the expectations of others.

Then I'd give her Ms. Mentor's book.
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I get cranky in the evenings.
august_leo
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« Reply #4 on: June 09, 2010, 5:24:35 PM »

You need to have the conversation. Otherwise, if Paula gets a job or post-doc it will be "Doesn't Bookwurm know how to train people?" and "didn't Bookwurm teach you this?"

Just say, in person, "You need to start writing emails more like the emails you receive from me, Chair of Dept, Prof. She Admires, etc. (don't use students as examples). For example, you should say 'please' and 'thank you,' start your email with an opening and include a sign-off. Email is MAIL. And it is a very professional means of communication. You need to start practicing professional email manners, so you can do well on the job market."

Honestly, it sounds like her emailing is a symptom of something else. Not taking responsibility for her own actions (e.g., "I misplaced that reference, can you tell me the title again?") is another symptom.
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Your environment sounds vaguely toxic.  Or maybe just characteristically British.
I heart august_leo.
kshenko
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« Reply #5 on: June 09, 2010, 5:37:57 PM »

This has become a prevalent problem in our dept.  With my BA and MA-level students, I have a handout (which I think I lifted from some website) about effective professional communication, and I indicate in my syllabus that I won't reply to unprofessional e-mails (as defined in the said handout).

With my doctoral students, I actually consider it to be part of my job to teach them that, in order to establish and maintain collegiality, they should follow certain rules in communicating in professional/academic settings.  So, when they lack "polish," I'd have a heart to heart.  I phrase it in terms of me giving them tips on establishing and maintaining collegial relationships with colleagues, and they almost always take it well.

But I did have a student w/ Asperger's who took offence to that.  Still, though, from what I understand, they can learn to include a "Hello" and "Thank you" in their e-mails--although it might not come naturally to them...

Oh, also, I concur w/ what august_leo says about this being beyond her "language."
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mellonia
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« Reply #6 on: June 09, 2010, 7:04:17 PM »

I concur with what others said about having a wee chat about this. 

In response to your feeling that grad student social development shouldn't be your problem--I hear you.  But, here's one way that a colleague got students to hold up their end of the relationship better (I know that isn't really your point, but bear with me a moment).  He pointed out all of the things he did, including teaching, service at the U., his work with the public, and the fact that he had x students (let's say 5).  He pointed out that in contrast, the student had fewer demands on their time, if only because of the lack of service obligations, and only one person--the advisor--to deal with, not 5.  The advisor said, basically, I'm the center of your universe, but my universe is split 5 ways.  That means the student better do a good job at maintaining the communication and the relationship, because if the student doesn't, where is the advisor going to spend his time--with the one poor/annoying communicator, or helping out the other 4? 

Multiply that times all the other people the student wants things from.

So, basically, appeal to self interest.  Then if the student doesn't improve, well, they aren't the center of your universe, luckily, even if you are the center of theirs.
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polly_mer
practice makes perfect
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Have you worked on that project today?


« Reply #7 on: June 09, 2010, 7:19:21 PM »

Ooh, I like that idea, Mellonia.  I'm gonna steal it.
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I've joined a bizarre cult called JordanCanonicalForm's Witnesses.  I have to go from door to door asking people things like, "Good evening, sir!  Do you have a moment to chat about Linear Transformations?"
terpsichore
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« Reply #8 on: June 09, 2010, 9:18:42 PM »

As others have said, it's a good idea to discuss this with the student, in your role as mentor.

If e-mail is the main problem there is a book on the subject: Send, by Shipley and Schwalbe. It goes into exhaustive detail about this and related subjects (appropriate and inappropriate use of Cc:, Bcc:, useful and useless subject lines) with examples, some of them amusing. It's aimed at a corporate setting but applies to any professional situation.
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bookwurm
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« Reply #9 on: June 10, 2010, 4:28:18 PM »

OP here.  Thanks so much for all this great advice and confirmation that I need to have a heart-to-heart with her about professional conduct.  I had already tried Mellonia's idea about pointing out how many students are orbiting around me (without the great analogy, though).  It didn't work with her, although it has worked in the past with other students.   Thinking about the larger context and other things I know about her, I agree with Leo and kshenko's point that the email issue is symptomatic of larger problem (although I'll also buy the book recommended by Terpsichore).  Maybe we'll start with email etiquette (and keeping track of references) and build up to the bigger issues in the next few months.  Thanks again, Forumites!
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cranefly
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« Reply #10 on: June 10, 2010, 5:22:29 PM »

I got schooled here my first year. My colleagues had different expectations and, being a generation older, different conventions of 'acceptable'. One  sent me an email with something like, "I'd appreciate it very much if, when you send me an email, you do it like this". It made me more aware that maybe everybody felt that way and didn't have the nerve to say so, so I changed the way I wrote emails to everyone (except friends). I wasn't rude like this student, and I know my Ps and Qs, but the idea holds.... she clearly has a different understanding of acceptable behaviour. Just tell her that she can talk like that to her friends, but the expectations you have are different.
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Oh yeah--Professor Sparkle Pony. "Follow your dreams, young genius, and you will meet with success!" Students eat that up.
professor_pat
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« Reply #11 on: June 11, 2010, 1:24:45 PM »

I'm thinking this sounds like someone with Asperger's. If that is indeed the case -- or even if it isn't, really -- I think the best approach would be to be simple and straightforward, nonjudgmental: just passing along information with specific instructions about what to do instead.
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To me, forums are more of a relaxing period in which the poster can allow himself or himself to be lost in a sea of wonder.
obprof
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« Reply #12 on: June 15, 2010, 11:18:30 AM »

I have a colleague who had two students who did some of these things. Nice guy.

In one case, he was able to give very specific instructions about how to behave (e.g., every email you send should have a salutation and a signature) and the guy improved (but still has some problems).

In the other case, he did his best but the guy is still hopeless.

I think it's worth giving it a shot (you can frame it as "you need to know this if we are going to work together" and "I am telling you think because I want to work well with you").

But really, her behavior is up to her, and not really a reflection on you.
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post_functional
These Villains Captured Courtesy of Your Friendly Neighborhood
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« Reply #13 on: June 15, 2010, 4:42:14 PM »

But, OP, you're supposed to be impressed with how economical the communication is, along with how grim and determined she is in the pursuit of her goals.  Like Batman.
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Action is his reward.
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