maelia8

How to respond to an email calling me out?

Recommended Posts

After the lecture today for the course I'm TAing this semester, I received the following email from a student:

"Hi! Could you please not surf the web while sitting in the front row? Your screen is extremely distracting. I mean, come on. You're a grad student. You should know better." (No other salutation or closing)

Laptop use is allowed during this large lecture (it's co-taught and the professor who isn't lecturing sits to the side and uses his laptop as well). I am not this student's TA (his section is taught by a different TA), so I don't know him personally. The sites I was "surfing" were for for time-sensitive grant submission, fact-checking during lecture, and work-related email - not social media or video streaming. I would never use my laptop for such purposes during a grad seminar, but this is an undergrad lecture in which I am already very familiar with the material and only take minimal notes. 

I found the email to be extremely rude in form, and as to the content, I don't see any reason to stop using the internet during lecture when such use is allowed by the professor lecturing. How should I write the student back? I want to politely inform him that it's 1) none of his business what I do on my computer, 2) he should check his tone when writing to instructors, and 3) if motion on screens bothers him, then maybe he should sit in the first row to avoid the experience. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I think there are a few ways I might respond to this student. I'm not saying I know the best response since I haven't had this happen to me before, but I have done similar things as you (although I generally sit in the back instead of the front):

1. I might just ignore the email. I might be tempted to respond to the rudeness but I might also consider not justifying their rude message with a response.

2. I might call them out on their rudeness but I would not defend myself. I might write, "The tone and content of your message is not appropriate. Do not write to your instructors in that way again."

3. If I feel like making it a teaching moment, I might write something like "The tone and content of your message is not appropriate. I will discuss this issue further when you rephrase your message." When/If they do write back, I'd arrange an in-person meeting with them at my office hours and let them know why their message was not appropriate. I may also then take that time to explain the work you are doing and that it's not any of his business.

If you do #2 or #3, you may want to also let the professor know what you are doing so that they have your back in case the student whines to the professor as well. (Or you may also consider letting the professor know in any case, just because they should know one of their students is acting this way.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

(P.S. I should add---although I have never received email like that, one of my friends did in their first year of TAing and these suggestions were strategies I thought about when I heard about this scenario so that I would be prepared if someone in my class sent a rude email complaining about something they should not complain about).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Honestly, I would probably ignore the email. I had a student make a similarly rude remark (though not about laptop use) as they were all packing up to leave last week and deflected, mostly so I wouldn't respond negatively/angrily. I don't bother trying to teach students how to write proper emails anymore (long story on that one) nor do I try to correct their tone (which they can always say you misinterpreted/misconstrued since you can't actually *know* whether they meant the email as a joke or not). 

What I would do is talk to the professor, DGS, or someone in the teaching center to see how they'd respond. If this happened today, I'd also definitely NOT deal with this over the weekend, but that's because I have a policy of not replying to student emails outside of normal business hours. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Update: I asked the other TA about the "student," and they didn't know the name either - either it's a student using a fake name and an anonymous yahoo account, or a "community member" sitting in on the lecture. Either way, the fact that the person wasn't willing to use their own identity indicates to me that this isn't about their learning experience, it's pure pettiness. Considering this development, I think I'm just going to ignore the email. Someone who won't use their real name or contact you directly isn't trying to inform you of a concern, they are just trying to make you feel bad.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I would probably not respond to such an email, especially given the updated information in your second post. However, I would like to say that while there is nothing wrong with using your laptop in class if the professor allows it, I do think it is much more considerate to the other students in the class if you do not sit in the front row when doing so. The exception to this would be if the majority of the class is using their laptop to take notes, which I suppose is much more common than in my field (usually, at most one student is using a laptop in my classes). Still, I think if you plan on doing anything other than taking notes, it is less distracting to the other students if you sit nearer the back - seeing the screen changing can interrupt my focus even if I am trying to ignore it, and I imagine I'm not the only one. Your suggestion that the complaining student should sit in the front row as well so that they cannot see you is assuming that they are the only person distracted by your screen.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@MathCat In this particular case, about 80% of students are using laptops during lecture, so pretty much the only way that this person could avoid looking at any changing screens would be to sit in the front row. I sit in the front row because that is where TAs were invited to sit at the beginning of the course - I'd switch to the back row, but I have extremely poor vision, even corrected, and would then be unable to see any text on the slides :( I will try to cut down on the number of times that I switch windows, though, as I'm aware that that flicker is the most annoying part for people who are bothered by screen distractions.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Wow. Just wow. Why am I not surprised that the student who sent this email is male and you're a female TA.

I agree that not replying is the best way to go in this situation. He's trolling you in between memeing "dicks out for Harambe" and participating in some stupid reddit discussion. He wants a reaction. Preferably he wants a reaction that he can share with people who are just as arrogant and grubby as he is. 

Don't change anything you're doing. Don't change where you're sitting. You have a right to use your laptop, and you are exercising that right. Seriously, if you ever figure out who this is, you need to make a point of sitting in front of him for the rest of the semester and smiling sweetly the entire time. 

ETA: I have to admit that I'd be tempted to reply to the email with "No. Tough shit, sweetheart. Find a new seat." But that's not something I would recommend doing. I also don't think you should go to your DGS or the professor about this. Though the email is anonymous in nature, and therefore not coming from a position of integrity, I'd be worried that they might take the complaint seriously and ask you to retreat to the back of the lecture hall. And that's the last thing you want--for the trollish student to know he's gotten the best of the situation, or for him to think he actually intimidated you into changing your behavior. 

I'm guessing that he has been reprimanded before for using his laptop inappropriately, and he's chafed that a TA can sit there looking at (seemingly unrelated) sites when he got in trouble for watching Sports Center or playing Minesweeper. Some students get very angry when they feel that they're being held to different standards than their TAs or professors. They feel that TAs and professors are using their status to get away with things. They don't realize that they should just put that energy into studying.

Edited by Bumblebea

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm going to disagree respectfully with the other responses on two points.

First, there's nothing out of line in the student's email. He/she made an observation that was partially accurate and expressed a preference. The fact that the feedback was offered anonymously is not a big deal. (Disclosure: when I T.A.-ed, I offered anonymous feedback forms.)

Second, the student's observation was partially accurate. The grant and the email were relevant to your interests as a graduate student, they were irrelevant to your job as a teaching assistant. By focusing on other things, you may have missed opportunities to do your job more effectively. The lecturer may have gotten something wrong, or left the students scratching their heads in confusion, or nodded their heads in thoughtful silence, or have missed the point--all of these scenarios might have been opportunities for you to support your boss and, more importantly, your students.

IMO, the facts that the student isn't one of yours, that you were in policy, and that a professor also uses his laptop do not trump the fact that you put your priorities ahead of your students'. The fact that you can do so does not mean that you should. (Your point that you'd never do in your own class what you did in the lecture is telling. [Disclosure #2: I got my B.A. from where you are now and that level of nuance...yikes...that's a can of worms you don't need to be carrying in your backpack.])

Here's the thing. Academic history is a profession in crisis. Part of the crisis is due to the growing distance between professors and their students (undergraduate and graduate). Another part is due to the fact that graduate students often treat interaction with undergraduates as an annoyance rather than as an opportunity to build public confidence in the craft and its practitioners.

The following is worth exactly what you're paying to read it.

Were I in your situation, I would either position myself so that no one could see what I was doing on my laptop or I would restrict my laptop use to tasks directly related to the class. (FWIW, in lectures, I generally stood in a location where I could see the lecturer and most of my students while taking notes.) 

Depending upon my frame of mind, I'd either offer an invitation to the student to talk it over in person or I'd not acknowledge the email. 

In any conversation with the student, I would acknowledge but not apologize for my laptop use. I would make no promise whatsoever or say anything that could be misconstrued as one. I'd then write a memo of the conversation and email it to my boss. (Disclosure #3: I currently work in the private sector in an industry where it is all about customer service...and risk management.) I would then treat myself to something with caffeine, vent colorfully about the whole thing, and then get back to the stacks. Where I'd do more venting.*

Going forward, if you don't want to receive anonymous emails, distribute a sign up sheet on which students will put their school email addresses. Explain that you will only accept messages from accounts ending @yoursschool.edu and everything else is going into the trash. Say it's because of the latest disclosure about Yahoo! or the FBI raid. Before using this tactic, please make sure that it is permissible with your boss, your department, and in policy. If you can't make the transition this semester, see what you can do for next semester.

 

_______________________

*A true story. Early one semester, I received some blistering criticism on an anonymous response form. Livid, I spent some time trying to figure out who wrote it. I then went to my boss's office and vented. "The worst thing about it," I sputtered, "is that it's true." He laughed, I left ...and went back to trying to figure out who wrote it. I did. And I also made the adjustment the student suggested. Live and learn. Or something.

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 10/6/2016 at 6:06 PM, Sigaba said:

I'm going to disagree respectfully with the other responses on two points.

First, there's nothing out of line in the student's email. He/she made an observation that was partially accurate and expressed a preference. The fact that the feedback was offered anonymously is not a big deal. (Disclosure: when I T.A.-ed, I offered anonymous feedback forms.)

Nah. The fact that the email was sent anonymously--and from a fake account, no less--means that it's not worth dignifying or thinking about. 

If we're going to teach our students anything about post-college life, we have to stress that integrity is key. If you can't make a complaint in person or under your real name, you can't expect an audience to respond to your problems. You can't expect people to drop everything to come and troubleshoot your issues when you refuse to air those issues under your real identity.  

Quote

 

IMO, the facts that the student isn't one of yours, that you were in policy, and that a professor also uses his laptop do not trump the fact that you put your priorities ahead of your students'. The fact that you can do so does not mean that you should. 

The OP used their computer to fact check the lecture and check work-related email. That does not qualify as someone "putting your priorities ahead of your students'." I actually think it's telling that you immediately jumped to the conclusion that the OP is somehow abusing their power or shirking their duties as a TA. If laptops are permitted in the lecture, then the TA can certainly use them for this purpose. 

Moreover, TAs are not in the same position as their undergrads. They come in already knowing the material, for the most part, and they're there to grade papers and lead recitation sections. They answer to the professor, not to the students. The students are not the TA's boss. As long as the TA is fulfilling the duties that the program and professor specify, then they are doing what they're supposed to do. Students do not get to dictate how a TA should comport him or herself during lecture, just as they do not get to tell TAs what to wear or where to sit.  

Quote

 

Here's the thing. Academic history is a profession in crisis. Part of the crisis is due to the growing distance between professors and their students (undergraduate and graduate). Another part is due to the fact that graduate students often treat interaction with undergraduates as an annoyance rather than as an opportunity to build public confidence in the craft and its practitioners. 

And you have absolutely no cause to apply this "crisis" to anything that the OP has done. Nowhere in their original post did the OP reveal that they think interacting with undergrads is an "annoyance." In fact, the OP came to this forum to ask, in good faith, how they should proceed. Nothing in the original post should allow you to assume that they conduct themselves in a manner that's anything less than professional with their students. 

Moreover, your assumption--that this TA's interaction with students--is somehow deepening the gulf between undergrads and professors--is pretty unsubstantiated. You're implying that this undergrad--and perhaps others--will somehow be "lost" to the history profession because of the OP's laptop use. Well, I hate to break it to you, but anyone who sends an anonymous and petty email to their history TA about laptop use--perfectly harmless laptop use at that--is probably not enamoured of the history profession anyway. I'm guessing we didn't just lose another potential history major because of the OP's laptop. 

More significantly, I'd like to see some sources that substantiate your claim that academic history is "in crisis" as a discipline precisely because of poor teaching, poor relationships with undergraduates, and mistreatment of undergraduates by TAs. Because, as someone who also works in the humanities, I have to tell you that the humanities are in crisis for reasons that have very little to do with our teaching. Students aren't going to college to major in humanities anymore for economic reasons. Universities aren't admitting as many humanities students because they're trying to build STEM and business schools. Blaming professors and TAs for the crisis in the humanities seems like another way to diminish the work that we do, and a convenient passing-of-the-buck to the people who deserve it the least. 

Quote

 

Depending upon my frame of mind, I'd either offer an invitation to the student to talk it over in person or I'd not acknowledge the email.  

Since the email was anonymous, I'm not sure how this would work. Should the OP reply to the anonymous email and ask them to come to office hours and unveil themselves? Or should they tell the entire class what happened and ask the anonymous emailer to please come forward? That seems like a lot of energy wasted on a student who couldn't be bothered to lodge a complaint under their own name. TAs have their own work to do. Devoting so much time and energy to a rather minor (and probably trollish) complaint is counterproductive. 

Quote

 

In any conversation with the student, I would acknowledge but not apologize for my laptop use. I would make no promise whatsoever or say anything that could be misconstrued as one.

Again, I'm not sure what this conversation would accomplish. If the point isn't to apologize, then I'm not sure what purpose such a meeting would serve. Are we validating the undergrad's feelings? Are we sending them a message that you can go ahead and send a petty and anonymous email and get someone to rearrange their afternoon to deal with your minor complaint?

Quote

 

I'd then write a memo of the conversation and email it to my boss. (Disclosure #3: I currently work in the private sector in an industry where it is all about customer service...and risk management.) I would then treat myself to something with caffeine, vent colorfully about the whole thing, and then get back to the stacks. Where I'd do more venting.

Honestly, I think most professors would be utterly mystified to get this kind of memo ... about a student who sent an anonymous email to a TA because the TA was fact-checking during a lecture. Uh, most of my professors/bosses would have asked me if I had too much time on my hands or if I was finished with my dissertation already. 

Moreover, TAs and professors aren't in "customer service." Our students are not customers, and we're not trying to manage risk. 

Edited by Bumblebea

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 10/6/2016 at 3:06 PM, Sigaba said:

I'm going to disagree respectfully with the other responses on two points.

First, there's nothing out of line in the student's email. He/she made an observation that was partially accurate and expressed a preference. The fact that the feedback was offered anonymously is not a big deal. (Disclosure: when I T.A.-ed, I offered anonymous feedback forms.)

Second, the student's observation was partially accurate. The grant and the email were relevant to your interests as a graduate student, they were irrelevant to your job as a teaching assistant. By focusing on other things, you may have missed opportunities to do your job more effectively. The lecturer may have gotten something wrong, or left the students scratching their heads in confusion, or nodded their heads in thoughtful silence, or have missed the point--all of these scenarios might have been opportunities for you to support your boss and, more importantly, your students.

I also want to emphasize a couple of things about these two points that are related to @Bumblebea's response.

First, you mention twice, in both points, the partial accuracy of the student's comment/observation. However, whether or not the student's comment was accurate is not relevant to either of your points. That is, whether or not the email was out of line has no relevance on the accuracy of its contents. Whether or not the OP was performing their TA duties has nothing to do with whether or not the student is accurate. I think in academia, sometimes, people tend to value the content of the message over the way it is delivered. Delivery matters and being accurate/correct doesn't make up for the fact that someone was rude.

It is 100% inappropriate for a student to call out any TA like this. Period. I wrote my first response without knowing that the student's email was anonymous, but with this information, the only action I would recommend is to ignore the email and not give in. That is, I would not change my behaviour at all. Carry on as if it never happened. The most likely interpretation of the intent of this unsolicited anonymous "feedback" is to bully the TA and make them feel like they do not belong here. Unsolicited advice disguised as "feedback" is a type of micro-aggression and does not belong in our workplace.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, TakeruK said:

I also want to emphasize a couple of things about these two points that are related to @Bumblebea's response.

First, you mention twice, in both points, the partial accuracy of the student's comment/observation. However, whether or not the student's comment was accurate is not relevant to either of your points. That is, whether or not the email was out of line has no relevance on the accuracy of its contents. Whether or not the OP was performing their TA duties has nothing to do with whether or not the student is accurate. I think in academia, sometimes, people tend to value the content of the message over the way it is delivered. Delivery matters and being accurate/correct doesn't make up for the fact that someone was rude.

It is 100% inappropriate for a student to call out any TA like this. Period. I wrote my first response without knowing that the student's email was anonymous, but with this information, the only action I would recommend is to ignore the email and not give in. That is, I would not change my behaviour at all. Carry on as if it never happened. The most likely interpretation of the intent of this unsolicited anonymous "feedback" is to bully the TA and make them feel like they do not belong here. Unsolicited advice disguised as "feedback" is a type of micro-aggression and does not belong in our workplace.

Honestly, as a TA, I agree with you that the email sounds rude, but, as a student, I do not think it is problematic with regard to the content. I remember that many years ago when I was an undergraduate I wrote some similar stuff to one of my profs, and obviously this prof was upset by the uncourteous style of my email. He then taught me to write in the appropriate form (with salutation, closing, better tone, etc). Well, obviously I got better respondences from profs since then, because the style is more courteous and formal. But now I am in graduate school, and I actually witness some profs do not follow these conventionality of email courtesy. They write something like "hi.XXXXX" or simply "XXXXXX PERIOD" with no salutation, closing, etc. While I feel profs writing stuffs like these are rude, it is hard for me to justify to say the content they say via such a format is problematic.(Of course, I do have bad perception over profs writing stuffs in such a way, and feel like to steering clear of in the future when possible ). So, maybe the OP could respond, by simply citing that XXX behavior is not prohibited by the regulations of xxx university. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, historicallinguist said:

Honestly, as a TA, I agree with you that the email sounds rude, but, as a student, I do not think it is problematic with regard to the content. I remember that many years ago when I was an undergraduate I wrote some similar stuff to one of my profs, and obviously this prof was upset by the uncourteous style of my email. He then taught me to write in the appropriate form (with salutation, closing, better tone, etc). Well, obviously I got better respondences from profs since then, because the style is more courteous and formal. But now I am in graduate school, and I actually witness some profs do not follow these conventionality of email courtesy. They write something like "hi.XXXXX" or simply "XXXXXX PERIOD" with no salutation, closing, etc. While I feel profs writing stuffs like these are rude, it is hard for me to justify to say the content they say via such a format is problematic.(Of course, I do have bad perception over profs writing stuffs in such a way, and feel like to steering clear of in the future when possible ). So, maybe the OP could respond, by simply citing that XXX behavior is not prohibited by the regulations of xxx university. 

The email was sent from a fake, anonymous account. In other words, it was a message that the student didn't want to communicate under his or her real name. From that fact alone, I can infer that it was not simply discourteous but deliberately meant (as @TakeruK said) to bully the TA. 

The email's phrasing isn't what's problematic. Its phrasing, coupled with its anonymous delivery, is what makes it problematic. And by "problematic," I mean a bullying and trollish bad-faith gesture. You can't separate the content from the anonymous delivery under a fake account. Honestly, I'm a little surprised that people are trying to act as apologists for this student. I imagine that none of us sent anonymous emails to our professors or TAs as undergrads to tell them to stop sending rude emails without a salutation or proper closing.

Also: I mean, come on. You're a grad student. You should know better -- isn't discourteous; it's a provocation. 

Edited by Bumblebea

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
17 hours ago, Bumblebea said:

Nah. The fact that the email was sent anonymously--and from a fake account, no less--means that it's not worth dignifying or thinking about. 

If we're going to teach our students anything about post-college life, we have to stress that integrity is key. If you can't make a complaint in person or under your real name, you can't expect an audience to respond to your problems. You can't expect people to drop everything to come and troubleshoot your issues when you refuse to air those issues under your real identity.  

The OP used their computer to fact check the lecture and check work-related email. That does not qualify as someone "putting your priorities ahead of your students'." I actually think it's telling that you immediately jumped to the conclusion that the OP is somehow abusing their power or shirking their duties as a TA. If laptops are permitted in the lecture, then the TA can certainly use them for this purpose. 

Moreover, TAs are not in the same position as their undergrads. They come in already knowing the material, for the most part, and they're there to grade papers and lead recitation sections. They answer to the professor, not to the students. The students are not the TA's boss. As long as the TA is fulfilling the duties that the program and professor specify, then they are doing what they're supposed to do. Students do not get to dictate how a TA should comport him or herself during lecture, just as they do not get to tell TAs what to wear or where to sit.  

And you have absolutely no cause to apply this "crisis" to anything that the OP has done. Nowhere in their original post did the OP reveal that they think interacting with undergrads is an "annoyance." In fact, the OP came to this forum to ask, in good faith, how they should proceed. Nothing in the original post should allow you to assume that they conduct themselves in a manner that's anything less than professional with their students. 

Moreover, your assumption--that this TA's interaction with students--is somehow deepening the gulf between undergrads and professors--is pretty unsubstantiated. You're implying that this undergrad--and perhaps others--will somehow be "lost" to the history profession because of the OP's laptop use. Well, I hate to break it to you, but anyone who sends an anonymous and petty email to their history TA about laptop use--perfectly harmless laptop use at that--is probably not enamoured of the history profession anyway. I'm guessing we didn't just lose another potential history major because of the OP's laptop. 

More significantly, I'd like to see some sources that substantiate your claim that academic history is "in crisis" as a discipline precisely because of poor teaching, poor relationships with undergraduates, and mistreatment of undergraduates by TAs. Because, as someone who also works in the humanities, I have to tell you that the humanities are in crisis for reasons that have very little to do with our teaching. Students aren't going to college to major in humanities anymore for economic reasons. Universities aren't admitting as many humanities students because they're trying to build STEM and business schools. Blaming professors and TAs for the crisis in the humanities seems like another way to diminish the work that we do, and a convenient passing-of-the-buck to the people who deserve it the least. 

Since the email was anonymous, I'm not sure how this would work. Should the OP reply to the anonymous email and ask them to come to office hours and unveil themselves? Or should they tell the entire class what happened and ask the anonymous emailer to please come forward? That seems like a lot of energy wasted on a student who couldn't be bothered to lodge a complaint under their own name. TAs have their own work to do. Devoting so much time and energy to a rather minor (and probably trollish) complaint is counterproductive. 

Again, I'm not sure what this conversation would accomplish. If the point isn't to apologize, then I'm not sure what purpose such a meeting would serve. Are we validating the undergrad's feelings? Are we sending them a message that you can go ahead and send a petty and anonymous email and get someone to rearrange their afternoon to deal with your minor complaint?

Honestly, I think most professors would be utterly mystified to get this kind of memo ... about a student who sent an anonymous email to a TA because the TA was fact-checking during a lecture. Uh, most of my professors/bosses would have asked me if I had too much time on my hands or if I was finished with my dissertation already. 

Moreover, TAs and professors aren't in "customer service." Our students are not customers, and we're not trying to manage risk. 

I think you need to reread what I actually wrote.

Throughout my post, which, in fact, came after a substantial period of reflection, consistently suggests what may have happened and what opportunities may have been missed. I also made the distinction between the activities the OP mentioned; the grant and the work related email as opposed to the fact checking. By referring to how a professor might react, you're missing a key point-- the OP is a graduate student, not a professor. The fact that you decided time and again to overlook such modifiers, qualifications, and distinctions is on you.

IRT dismissing an email because it is anonymous is, IMO, a reason but not an excuse for not taking a student's concerns seriously. In the Ivory Tower, a lot of attention is paid to disparities of power. Why is it okay to talk about such disparities in some instances but not others when we don't like the content? Might it be that the person who wrote the email was lashing out because he/she was too intimidated to have a quick face to face during office hours? 

IRT the "real world," if you want to go that route, that's your decision. I do know that a lot of non academic types don't think that the Ivory Tower is a part of the "real world." They are increasingly involved in where their kids go to college, and what they study. They believe that academics are indoctrinating their kids rather than teaching them. If you want to feed into that dynamic, that's your choice. Ultimately, there's more of them than there are academics, if the terms of debate are real versus not real, they're going to win and those making a living in the Ivory Tower in the social sciences and the humanities are going to lose.And if you're going to teach students about the "real world," one should note that customer service (which is sometimes telling people "no, you can't do things that way) and risk management are big slices of the pie.

In regards to the conversation, the invitation, if carefully worded, can go one of two ways. It can be phrased to call out the person in such a way that they're shamed into silence. Or it can be phrased in a way that the student would come to the OP's office hours and say, "yeah, that was me," and then some teaching/mentoring might follow. You never know when the most defiant undergraduate is actually a highly motivated student who is considering following the same path as the OP. If one were to go the route of "If the message isn't phrased just so, the message is going to be ignored," an opportunity to find out will be left on the table.

In regards to the not apologizing, that would be part of the lesson. In my experience, which includes managing Teamsters, being face to face with drunks who mistake me for a cop, things can go a lot better when one listens, even if one doesn't agree or if one doesn't apologize. To paraphrase William G. Bowen, listening to others carefully and responding thoughtfully is a sign of respect. For me, things go better when I keep this concept in mind. YMMV.

One last point. I think you should check your tone. I addressed the topic, the OP, and the other responses--including yours--from a place from respect. I would like to continue to do so. How about you?

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
17 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

In regards to the conversation, the invitation, if carefully worded, can go one of two ways. It can be phrased to call out the person in such a way that they're shamed into silence. Or it can be phrased in a way that the student would come to the OP's office hours and say, "yeah, that was me," and then some teaching/mentoring might follow. You never know when the most defiant undergraduate is actually a highly motivated student who is considering following the same path as the OP. If one were to go the route of "If the message isn't phrased just so, the message is going to be ignored," an opportunity to find out will be left on the table.

I agree with you that in an ideal world, the anonymous student and the TA can have a conversation and sort things out. Maybe the student had good intentions but very bad delivery and therefore just needs someone to guide them the right way. But, maybe the student really is just a bully and/or a troll. 

In my opinion, this is a situation where the TA has a lot more to lose than to gain. No one (not my professor, not my students, not my colleagues) should expect a TA to open themselves up to further bullying because there might be a teaching moment there. 

I do admire and see the appeal in trying our very best to reach out to every student. However, because certain demographics receive more bullying than others, I believe that the attitude that TAs should suffer these offenses in order to teach our students results in unfair distribution of this extra teaching load. Groups that are more often on the receiving end of these types of emails are going to disproportionately spend more of their time teaching/mentoring in this way. So, I think advice like the one you are giving is harmful to academia, because it increases the disparity between the majority and the minority groups.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

If I got an email like this from one of my students, I would probably not respond (I'm not sure how that would really improve things), but I would definitely think about what the student is trying to communicate. I think the request to not surf the web in class is legit, no matter if the tone of the email isn't as polite as possible. I don't think the student wrote you that email just to troll you. You can deal with the tone by not responding, but seriously, do think about whether other students could feel this way as well. As a grad student TA, you are supposed to be a role model for students. If students can look over your shoulder and see you not attending to class-related material, that says to them that you're 'checked out' and don't care. It doesn't matter that it was grant-related or work-related. It's not a part of your job in that space; it's an active detriment to it. 

IMO, they are probably using a fake account because they're afraid of retaliation, which doesn't delegitimize their message. There are a lot of TAs that might judge the student or treat them differently after offering this kind of feedback. 

So I guess I'm saying you should not talk to this student, or try to find them (they clearly don't want to be found), but do think about why they sent the message, and maybe talk to other TAs? Do they also sit in the front of the class and surf the web? What does the professor think about non-class-related laptop use?

Edited by Butterfly_effect
misspelling

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 hours ago, Butterfly_effect said:

they are probably using a fake account because they're afraid of retaliation, which doesn't delegitimize their message

This is a good point. The student obviously was sending unsolicited suggestion/criticism to the OP. In higher education settings, unsolicited criticisms are generally not welcomed by the department, and in some cases may result in adverse consequences against those who dare to raise those issues and ask for improvement. The student may send the email under his/her .edu email account, but, in order to do so, he/she must use some sort of academese/legalese (i.e. formal polite language in a style that could best be described as probably "Oxbridge" style of communication) to express the intended suggestion, so as to overcome the first common fire-back called "rudeness". Such language use, unless the student has been communicated with such language for years, will be hard for an undergraduate to employ.

Potential retaliations commonly seen include lowering attendance grade, lowering grades for open-ended questions for which the TA has quite a lot of a discretion, etc. The student, who may have already sensed potential retaliations, when trying to send out a quick message without having the trouble of framing the message in academese/legalese, sends the message anonymously, and I think the anonymity is quite justifiable, given the culture that many departments and TAs do not appreciate "unsolicited noises" at all. 

In fact, one of the more senior TA sent out a guide to all TAs (including me) in my department, and asked us to forward that guide to all of our students so as to make sure that they write emails in an appropriate style. I knew he sent out the guide in good faith. But the style of writing really obscures the real issues raised in the email. I feel that the criticism over method of delivery or style of writing or the tone sounds more like an excuse to ignore the issues (probably legitimate, depending on the regulations of the university) raised in the email. 

6 hours ago, Sigaba said:

More significantly, I'd like to see some sources that substantiate your claim that academic history is "in crisis" as a discipline precisely because of poor teaching, poor relationships with undergraduates, and mistreatment of undergraduates by TAs. Because, as someone who also works in the humanities, I have to tell you that the humanities are in crisis for reasons that have very little to do with our teaching. Students aren't going to college to major in humanities anymore for economic reasons. Universities aren't admitting as many humanities students because they're trying to build STEM and business schools. Blaming professors and TAs for the crisis in the humanities seems like another way to diminish the work that we do, and a convenient passing-of-the-buck to the people who deserve it the least. 

 

6 hours ago, Sigaba said:
Moreover, TAs and professors aren't in "customer service." Our students are not customers, and we're not trying to manage risk. 

I beg to differ on this point. If part of the duties of TAs and professors are not customer service, what exactly is the relationship between TA and professors, and students. More importantly, it sounds ridiculous to ask students to pay for their tuitions and fees, and, when they have complaints, they are told that you paid but sorry you are not customers. I went to a private school for my undergrad, and I was not graded/taught by even one TA throughout my undergrad career. In fact, mistreatment by TAs against undergraduate students is more common and widespread than you are willing to admit. First thing first, many TAs,especially in non-top tier state universities, are underpaid. So, generally, it is hard to expect the underpaid TAs to devote much of their time and attentions to their students, because they work for what they are paid for. Second, you need to understand how ridiculous class size could be in some undergraduate schools. Some, especially state/public universities, have lower division classes as large as 500 students in a single lecture. I just cannot see how the tuition they pay worth merely 1/500 attention from the Prof and TAs. Schools are oversizing a single lecture into a huge lecture hall to maximize revenue of tuition from a large pool of students. Look, essentially, the poor relationships with undergraduates derive from the mismatch between the financial input by these undergraduate and what they can get out from a huge lecture hall. Isn't this a problem? Well, as a TA, it is not a problem for me, but, as a student, and as a person, it is definitely a problem, even if this is a problem that we may not be willing to recognize at all, not to say solve it. 

As for your comments for students aren't majoring in humanities, I have some other thoughts. First, humanities, with the exception of philosophy, rarely reflect on whether the discipline is worth studying or not. I was a humanities major when I was an undergraduate. I witnessed too many professors teaching non-philosophy humanities cannot give coherent thoughts. Simply put, many humanities disciplines cannot be subject themselves to the scrutiny of rationality. Find a work of literary criticism, and I can guarantee you that you will find tautology in this book. Not sure why authors did this kind of thing, but they did it anyways. You asserted the great value of humanities major (some, such as philosophy, do have great values.), but how are you going to explain the fact that so many past graduates in subjects such as comparative literature, English, history, etc, can not get a job, after paying so much tuitions (probably by taking tons of loans) and spending so much time working through 4 years in the subject? 

They just cannot stay hungry with no food whatsoever, and continue enjoy the works of Dickens throughout the week. STEMs and business schools deserve more support, because they generate better results for the students at least in terms of their career. In fact, humanities subjects such as history are like a blackhole that sucks funding into the discipline, and barely, if ever, produces some tangible improvements of the material lives of those who work in the discipline and those who provided funding to support the discipline. STEMs are much better at making their case to their sponsors to persuade sponsors' to support them.(bottom line, STEMs proposals seem to have better agenda as to what to do, why do what is planned to do, etc). After all, you cannot just ask support and then tell those who support you that they should not expect something (probably more than what you get from them in terms of value) back from you. This is also true for student tuition. You cannot ask students to pay their tuitions and fees, and then tell them that they are not customers. If you are working in a non-profit organization that is not a university , you are not going to treat those who sponsor your organization (i.e. the patrons) in the way TAs treat students, aren't you? Then, why do you assert that students are not customers? Can a university continue to run, professors and TAs continue to get paid, if all students in a university refuse to pay their tuitions? 

 

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, historicallinguist said:

As for your comments for students aren't majoring in humanities, I have some other thoughts. First, humanities, with the exception of philosophy, rarely reflect on whether the discipline is worth studying or not. I was a humanities major when I was an undergraduate. I witnessed too many professors teaching non-philosophy humanities cannot give coherent thoughts. Simply put, many humanities disciplines cannot be subject themselves to the scrutiny of rationality. Find a work of literary criticism, and I can guarantee you that you will find tautology in this book. Not sure why authors did this kind of thing, but they did it anyways. You asserted the great value of humanities major (some, such as philosophy, do have great values.), but how are you going to explain the fact that so many past graduates in subjects such as comparative literature, English, history, etc, can not get a job, after paying so much tuitions (probably by taking tons of loans) and spending so much time working through 4 years in the subject? 

You say that the humanities are useless, but lemme tell you, you could definitely benefit from Comp 101 /:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
37 minutes ago, ExponentialDecay said:

You say that the humanities are useless, but lemme tell you, you could definitely benefit from Comp 101 /:

First thing first, I was saying some humanities (e.g. philosophy) are useful, but some (e.g. comparative literature) are not. The prescriptive grammar I studied in comp 101 from what Steven Pinker called "language mavens" only turned out to be the target of criticism in my linguistics class. The problem here is that people in humanities (again, with the exception of philosophy) won't even entertain the possibility that the subject they study may not worth studying after all. I know it may be disturbing, or possibly making you feel sad to reason and then realize that XXX subject is not worth studying after all.  But the mere fact that you want some subject to be useful does not mean it is actually useful. If some subjects (e.g. say, Tibetan studies) were so useful, why are so many people in administrative posts (for example, the dean of my college who is working on downsizing some of the programs by not refilling the tenured posts after the incumbent are retired) reluctant to allocate funding to support these subjects and their programs? The deans are not freshmen who just got into college. They know what they are doing. If it were only the students who choose not to major in and therefore support humanities subjects, then maybe it is because of ignorance. But when both the administrators (i.e. dean, provost, etc) and the students frown upon the value of certain fields of studies, I guess it is the problem of the field and people working in the field should reflect on the problems of the field and try to find solutions to solve the problems, not blaming those outside the field who point out the problems. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
11 hours ago, Sigaba said:

I think you need to reread what I actually wrote.

 

I think you need to reread the email that the student sent to the OP. An anonymous email scolding a TA is a bad faith gesture. It really was not a plea for the TA to remove distracting material from the lecture hall. It was not written as though it came from a student who feared retaliation.

Moreover, I read your post carefully the first time. There was no misunderstanding on my part. Perhaps you need to reread mine, as you have distorted my points here. For one thing:

Quote

 

IRT the "real world," if you want to go that route, that's your decision. I do know that a lot of non academic types don't think that the Ivory Tower is a part of the "real world." 

I'm don't understand your point or how it's relevant. I never used the phrase "real world." I said "post-college life." So I'm not sure why you're attributing to me a belief system that I clearly do not espouse. Or are you insinuating that I don't understand "the real world" and its exigencies and demands?

Quote

 

Might it be that the person who wrote the email was lashing out because he/she was too intimidated to have a quick face to face during office hours?  

I guess we'll never know, since they decided not to behave in a direct and mature way, seeking out the TA or professor to handle this matter. That's is the problem with anonymous communication, and that's the life lesson the student will have to learn here, I suppose. If the student does have a "real issue" with laptop use (doubtful because laptops aren't that distracting in lectures--especially when 80% of the class is using them), then they've lost credibility and the high ground in this exchange. And, as I pointed out, post-academic life (much like academic life itself) does not smile kindly on those who don't conduct themselves with integrity in situations like this one. It makes no difference if we're in the Ivory Tower or the "real world." Disrespect doesn't win you friends and allies in either place.

Quote

 

One last point. I think you should check your tone. I addressed the topic, the OP, and the other responses--including yours--from a place from respect. I would like to continue to do so. How about you? 

My tone was nothing but respectful to you and my response was neutrally worded. However, I did find it somewhat troubling that you made all kinds of assumptions about the OP's conduct and their relationship with their undergrad students. I also think it's telling that you think your original post was generous and that mine--calling you out on your rather baseless assumptions about the OP--was out of line.

I'm also extremely bewildered that you think the OP's conduct (which was not wrong in any way whatsoever) is somehow contributing to the gulf between undergrads and professors, and that this gulf is somehow contributing to the decline of the humanities. I see no evidence that backs this up.  

Additionally, I don't appreciate your trying to use "the tone argument" to here. It's typically used to shut down honest discussion. In fact, most of us who are criticizing this student's behavior aren't taking issue with their tone but their mode of delivery. A grubby email sent by from a student's email is one thing. An anonymous email sent to a TA telling them that they "should know better" is another thing entirely. It's wrong, it's bullying, and it is not worth the time of day, frankly. 

Quote

 

They believe that academics are indoctrinating their kids rather than teaching them. If you want to feed into that dynamic, that's your choice.

I have no idea what you're talking about or how I would be feeding into any "dynamic." You seem to have a pattern here of projecting all kinds of attitudes and opinions--first in response to the OP and now in response to me--that are inaccurate

Honestly? An anonymous and trollish email sent by a student is not worth all this hullabaloo here, and it's not worth the energy you want the OP to commit to it. I assume the OP has moved on. I think you should too. You're recommending that the OP sink an inordinate amount of their time fixing a situation for a student when they don't even know who that student is. The OP is a graduate student with a limited amount of funding and time to get through school. Their self-preservation is important. It should be important to all of us, really--much more important than the feelings of the student who decided to bully their TA by writing an anonymous email..As @TakeruK said, what you're recommending is maybe even harmful for the OP since it would open them up to additional bullying and more invisible, emotional labor. 

If you choose to interact with students this way, and you choose to address every minor student complaint by bringing talking them over with students and then writing the professor a memo afterwards, then that is completely your choice. But please don't try to make the OP feel that they "missed an opportunity" to do the right thing simply because they are not willing or able to dignify an unwarranted and somewhat hostile email. It's not right of you to  do that. The OP did nothing wrong.   

And seriously? IT'S A LAPTOP. It's a laptop in a place where laptops are allowed, and it was open to the ever-so-unexciting pages detailing grant applications and university email. The OP wasn't watching Sports Center. They didn't bring a puppy into a lecture. They brought a laptop to lecture and they used it. The student was not distracted because a laptop was open to a boring page of text in a lecture hall where 80% of the students have their laptops open. I'd bet a handsome sum that not all those laptops are being used to take notes, and I'd bet an equally handsome sum that the student emailer is also getting an eye-full of Twitter and Facebook from the other students around him. But that, as far as we know, doesn't seem to be a problem for this particular student. Only the TA's boring screen. Gee, I wonder why.

Edited by Bumblebea

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
12 hours ago, historicallinguist said:

First thing first, I was saying some humanities (e.g. philosophy) are useful, but some (e.g. comparative literature) are not.

Who's defining what's useful? The answer here is: "you".

rs ago, historicallinguist said:

The prescriptive grammar I studied in comp 101 from what Steven Pinker called "language mavens" only turned out to be the target of criticism in my linguistics class.

I'm sure this is relevant to... something?

If some subjects (e.g. say, Tibetan studies) were so useful, why are so many people in administrative posts (for example, the dean of my college who is working on downsizing some of the programs by not refilling the tenured posts after the incumbent are retired) reluctant to allocate funding to support these subjects and their programs?

Are you for real? Have you even done the basic level of reading on the neoliberal university and the corporatiziation of the academy that would allow you to contribute to this discussion? This has to be a troll account, right?

when both the administrators (i.e. dean, provost, etc) and the students frown upon the value of certain fields of studies, I guess it is the problem of the field and people working in the field should reflect on the problems of the field and try to find solutions to solve the problems

This is actually true, though not in the way you seem to think.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
15 hours ago, historicallinguist said:

If part of the duties of TAs and professors are not customer service, what exactly is the relationship between TA and professors, and students.

1) Questions in English end with a "?".

2) The relationship between teachers and students is, surprisingly, a student-teacher relationship and not that of customer-client.

Edited by telkanuru

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
22 hours ago, Sigaba said:

IRT dismissing an email because it is anonymous is, IMO, a reason but not an excuse for not taking a student's concerns seriously. In the Ivory Tower, a lot of attention is paid to disparities of power. Why is it okay to talk about such disparities in some instances but not others when we don't like the content? Might it be that the person who wrote the email was lashing out because he/she was too intimidated to have a quick face to face during office hours? 

So I think both perspectives are pretty useful, and that @Sigaba's approach has a lot to recommend it when dealing with complaints in general, even if you disagree with its application in this particular case.

I've highlighted the above because it seems to me the key to the disagreement, i.e. what exactly is the power dynamic or disparity in the classroom. I think we can all agree on the fact that the (tenured) professor is at the top, but I'm not sure I subscribe to the suggestion that the TA has more power than the student. Yes, the TA has theoretical control over grades and disciplinary matters, but only insofar as they are an avatar for the professor. The question that every grad student asks of other grad students in my department before working with a new professor is "do they have their TAs' backs?" That is, if a student complains, will I be on my own against the administration? And the answer is usually yes; most professors want to save political capital for things that matter to them. In other words, in the modern university classroom, the disparities of power do not, as Sigaba suggests, favor the TAs, but rather the student. And this reality serves as the basis for @TakeruK's concern about student bullying. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, telkanuru said:

The question that every grad student asks of other grad students in my department before working with a new professor is "do they have their TAs' backs?" That is, if a student complains, will I be on my own against the administration? And the answer is usually yes; most professors want to save political capital for things that matter to them. In other words, in the modern university classroom, the disparities of power do not, as Sigaba suggests, favor the TAs, but rather the student. And this reality serves as the basis for @TakeruK's concern about student bullying. 

I think that @TakeruK was also responding to the fact that the OP is female and a member of a disadvantaged demographic. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that women who teach at the college level are often viewed as not really belonging in the classroom, and as not possessing the same expertise that their male colleagues possess. Many undergrads, male and female alike, approach interactions with female TAs very differently than they approach or perceive interactions with male TAs. 

Therefore, it's really impossible to look at this situation and not take the OP's gender into account, even if we don't really know for sure what motivated the student to create a fake email account and send this message. (And, as I've stated previously here, their motives aren't really relevant or worth considering, since the student couldn't be bothered to lodge a valid complaint.)

And frankly, depending on where this interaction took place and the university's rules regarding electronic communication, the student could very well be in violation of the student code of conduct. I've taught in places where using campus technology--the school's network, for instance--to create a fake account for the purpose of sending a disrespectful email would be regarded as a violation. Many universities require that students use only their official university email account when communicating with instructors. A simple google search on email policy brings me to Franklin University's student code of conduct, which states:  "Within the broad context of free academic discussion and debate, communications between members of the University community (faculty, staff, and fellow students) are expected to reflect high ethical standards and mutual respect and civility. The medium of communications makes no difference. Whether the communication is through face-to-face exchange, email, electronic bulletin board, chat room, telephone, audio bridge, etc., students must demonstrate respect for faculty, staff, and fellow students in all communications."  http://www.franklin.edu/student-services/campus-information/university-policies/student-code-of-conduct

Where I did my undergrad (a really long time ago at the dawn of the email age), an acquaintance of mine sent an anonymous and disparaging email to another person on campus. The school took this action very seriously. They tracked down the anonymous emailer and held a hearing about it. My acquaintance ended up on probation for an entire year. The message was clear: you do not use campus property to send anonymous emails. Anonymous emails are meant to intimidate people. They serve no other purpose.

Obviously I'm not recommending that the OP pursue this kind of action against this student. That would be silly--even sillier than inviting the anonymous emailer to office hours. However, I think that we need to be really clear here: sending a disrespectful anonymous email communication to an instructor or another student is not acceptable. Ever. There is nothing that anyone can say here that justifies this student's conduct. If the student feels that he or she is at some kind of power disadvantage here, then that's troubling, but it still doesn't justify sending an anonymous email. If the student is troubled by their TA's conduct and feels the TA is abusing their power, but they fear retaliation, then they have other resources that can aid them in this situation. Most universities have student advocacy offices. Most other universities allow students to make anonymous complaints through official channels. 

But let's be perfectly clear about this. By rationalizing and validating this student's behavior--by imagining this student as so intimidated by the power structure of the university that their only recourse is to send a disrespectful and bullying anonymous email--we diminish the work we do as educators and the rights that we have to work in a civil, productive, and non-hostile environment. Just because we have some degree of power here (power that's been steadily eroded, as @telkanurupoints out) does not invalidate our expectation of teaching in a civil atmosphere. Quite plainly, the student doesn't deserve the benefit of our doubt here. They threw away their fair shot by taking a crooked one. 

Edited by Bumblebea

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now