’tis the season

You don’t have to be an economic sociologist to understand that as a professor, it is not straight forward to get gifts from students. It’s that time of the year (or maybe one of those times in addition to the end of the academic year) when gifts might appear. What to do? I haven’t developed a formal policy about this, but maybe I should.

My preference is for students not to give me gifts. And if it were to come up, I would say no ahead of time. But it doesn’t usually come up (people don’t usually say: “I’ll be stopping by to give you a gift.”) and it’s awkward and rude to reject something when someone’s already giving it to you. So what to do?

This year, I received a very nice card from an undergraduate student whom I have mentored considerably and who was expressing an appreciation for that. With the note came a gift card to a local cafe whose value I have not checked. I am not grading this person, but I am writing letters of recommendation for graduate school. (I had already written the letters when I got the card.)

I also received something homemade from a graduate student. This student is in the beginning of our program and may become my advisee so we are looking at years of interaction ahead, but no classes with me right now and thus no grading. I got the impression that this student gave something to several faculty, but also shared some of these goodies with peers.

In both of these cases, I accepted the gift. But I also don’t want to set a precedent. I certainly wouldn’t want other students to think that this is in any way expected. I don’t think other students know about these incidents so I’m hoping this won’t be an issue. But I’m uncomfortable with all this. I haven’t had too many such cases so far in my career so I haven’t had to deal with it much, but if this is the start of a trend then perhaps I should start thinking about it more.

I could see being more strict in cases where someone is in the midst of taking a class with me and I have to assign them a grade. But that’s just one of many related situations that may come up as evidenced by the above examples.

41 thoughts on “’tis the season”

  1. Gift giving has not been a big problem for me and I don’t see any trend across my 25 years. Years ago I had a Chinese graduate student who kept giving me expensive gifts that made me very uncomfortable, and she was very hurt when I asked her to stop doing it. The problem has not recurred since with any other student. I’ve had a sprinkling of small gifts here and there, but rarely anything that seemed to be out of line.

    It is a lot of trouble to write letters of reference for undergraduates, and a significant fraction of students send thank you notes for this. A few over the years have included some token gift as well, but usually nothing of great value. Some of my graduate advisees over the years have given me “interesting objects” from their international travel. These are people I have had significant relationships with, and the gift (while certainly not expected) was pleasant to receive.

    As regards people who bring in homemade baked goods and pass them around, I see this more as part of how some people like to create community in a work place, and would not worry about it at all.

    I agree that we want to make sure that students don’t feel obliged to give gifts and I would rather they did not for all the reasons that they make you feel uncomfortable, but I’m not worried about any trend.

    The one thing I do worry about is that some of our graduate students have told each other that the student should bring food for the faculty to the oral defense of a thesis or dissertation. Some have brought quite elaborate spreads that were whole meals, not just token snacks like a couple of cookies or something. This did make me very uncomfortable and I would like to stop whatever network among the graduate students has been spreading that idea. So if you are out there, no you don’t have to feed your dissertation committee. We bring our own coffee and sandwiches if it is a mealtime, and most of us don’t really need to add extra sweets to our diets.

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  2. olderwoman – your bit about not presenting a spread at the dissertation defense is good to hear. I was actually told this by a faculty member in my first year of grad school. “It’s not required, but it’s nice to give back to the people who have been working hard on your behalf all those years” is what I was told. Stupid as it sounds, it’s caused back-of-the-mind mild level anxiety ever since. What if someone’s lactose intolerant or allergic to nuts or whatever? What if my “spread” looks cheap? Anyway, it’s good to hear.

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  3. The one thing I do worry about is that some of our graduate students have told each other that the student should bring food for the faculty to the oral defense of a thesis or dissertation. Some have brought quite elaborate spreads that were whole meals, not just token snacks like a couple of cookies or something. This did make me very uncomfortable and I would like to stop whatever network among the graduate students has been spreading that idea.

    Yeah, I’ve seen this too, on a smaller scale. It’s ridiculous.

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  4. ab: good grief! I never knew a faculty member had said such a thing! No wonder this is going around! Yikes! Maybe privately you can tip me off about who said this.

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  5. What if someone’s lactose intolerant or allergic to nuts or whatever?

    “He’s not breathing — call a doctor!” “But we’re all doctors!” “I mean a real doctor.”

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  6. Having relatively recently jumped through the defense hoop, i can speak to the committee treats expectation from the other side. It was definitely both one of the things, that – before my day came – i heard from other grad students was a definite expectation; then was also one of the most uncomfortable parts of my defense when i actually complied (simply with coffee, juice and donuts). In the end it felt like cheap bribery. Were i to have it to do over again (even before hearing folks here squash it here) i would have skipped it altogether, whatever potential social-risk be damned.

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  7. In my husband’s department, they have taken to telling all defending students NOT to bring food to their defense. It’s now against that department’s policy. Apparently the ‘custom’ was causing all sorts of grief.

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  8. Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen food at a defense. I can see how this issue would cause anxiety, as if there wasn’t enough of that during defense-time already!

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  9. I’ve received few gifts over the years — a couple of cutesy home-made thingies, and a Japanese student gave me a sake cup set. I’ve been mostly on the other side in these last several years as a parent of a kid in school. The parents usually gave a collective gift, and maybe there were some who also gave smaller, individual gifts. But three years ago, schools chancellor Joel Klein instituted a Scrooge rule: teachers aren’t allowed to accept gifts except those of little value ($5 or less).

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  10. I also struggle with this issue. I have a couple of students who routinely give me gifts –these are usually small, but not always, and often their parents have picked them out. I have tried to resist, but they insist that it is part of their culture (thus their parents thinking about buying me gifts). When my partner worked at a hospital, they had a similar problem with patients giving gifts. They came up with the rule that they could only accept gifts that could be shared with the whole staff –so food basically.

    At Stanford, grad students brought food to defenses. Usually, friends of the student defending would get the food so the defending student did not have an additional worry. It felt very awkward, though, as if you were trying to distract your committee or dull their senses by infusing them with sugar. I am glad that no such norm exists in my current department.

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  11. Let me also voice a strong vote against students feeling obliged to bring food to a defense. Cookies or something, fine, I guess. A spread, awkward.

    The best way to thank a faculty member for their hard work on a thesis or dissertation is to reflect thoughtfully on their comments. The only times when I have felt resentment about serving on student committees–and, lo, this has been rare and not involved any known readers of this blog–is when I felt like I had spent time reading and thinking about a student’s project and the student wasn’t interested in what I had to say.

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  12. In response to Jeremy’s comments: is it bad form to record the defense? You get lots of smart people in a room talking about your work. It might be handy to have an accurate account of the interaction…

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  13. I suppose now might be the time to mention that my pop center provided a lavish spread (including champagne) post-defense for all students? **ducks** Seriously, if any treats are going to be provided, that seems the way to go–it should be a celebration for the student! If I had graduate students, which I don’t, I’d like to think that if the department weren’t providing goodies, I would do something for my advisees…

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  14. Our defenses were open, and there was a tradition of fellow grad students coming in and taking good notes for the one defending (the defender? defendant?). Recording seems like it would be a reasonable extension of that practice, though I’ve noticed that academics sometimes get weird about having recorded copies of their remarks floating around in a way that is quite different from their attitudes toward written remarks.

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  15. From the grad student folklore at my department, I learned that there was at one time pressure among the grad students to bring elaborate spreads to their defense. In order to combat this many years ago, the department instituted a policy that they bring a simple cheese-and-cracker plate at every defense (and provides soft drinks, I think).

    But champagne sure sounds good.

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  16. Another point about food is that if the student brings it, you feel obliged to eat it, even if you just had lunch/breakfast and are watching calories. A double dose of awkwardness. Sounds like centralized announcements of norms & customs are the way to go. I’m going to suggest this to my chair.

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  17. Rachel, that was not the only difference in treatment of demographers vs the soc-only students downstairs. The bitterness has faded, eventually we get over it.:)

    I think Jeremy makes a really good point: what really matters is that students care about our comments. Just recently, I made a copy of handwritten comments on a student’s paper, because I felt like I was repeating myself. I want to have a record now to see whether the next version incorporates the important comments or completely ignores them without any justification as to why they were ignored.

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  18. Seriously, if any treats are going to be provided, that seems the way to go–it should be a celebration for the student!

    Yeah, when I defended, I got the gifts (at the party afterwards). Not the other way around.

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  19. Yeah, that was a fun tradition at Princeton: parties thrown by fellow students. Poor Josh and Sandra were busy that summer of 2003 with only a few weeks between Nina’s and my defense. Awesome parties though, and you’re right, some great gifts.:)

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  20. I had friends who wanted to plan a party for after my dissertation defense, but there was no freaking way I was allowing any kind of talk of a party until after it was done in case something calamitous happened. I take nothing for granted.

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  21. If you ask me, it’d make more sense for the faculty to bring something to share at the defense. The student is the one who ought to be congratulated. You don’t bring presents for the guests at your own graduation party, do you?

    Furthermore, lest we forget, the faculty members (denials and claims of altruism notwithstanding) are actually being paid to be there. Not sure we need to go farther in extracting (through informal senses of obligation) more anything from the students.

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  22. BM: Regarding getting paid to be there, to what extent is that true? I assume this varies from place to place, but to what extent is there anything more than very indirect credit for serving as the third person on someone’s committee? I put thesis and dissertation committees on which I’ve served on my CV, but I’ve always thought of that as kind of a quixotic thing on my part. (Chairing dissertation committees is a whole different matter.)

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  23. but to what extent is there anything more than very indirect credit for serving as the third person on someone’s committee?

    I would say that this sort of thing is just part of the job description and to that extent, yes of course you are being paid for doing it. You have a reasonable amount of discretion when it comes to signing up for those kinds of responsibilities, but it’s not like I’d expect any extra salary for doing it. In some systems (outside the U.S.) work as an external reader of dissertations does in fact come with some cash attached, but this is because it’s not part of your job description. Whether one’s work in this regard is properly recognized internally, in the informal give-and-take of good citizenship/departmental service seems like a separate issue.

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  24. Eszter: After a concern similar to your own, I’ve asked a graduate student to submit with the paper revision (in this case, a Master’s thesis) a cover letter of the sort one might send to a journal. The content should provide a justification of the new draft as a response to the committee members’ comments. This “requirement” can be couched as professional training (as it is, indeed, just this) and I find it can not only ease any tensions (on either party’s part) around revisions, but can enhance the quality of the relationship.

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  25. jlena, that’s an excellent idea. I use an intermediate step of having the student circulate a document summarizing the recommendations and concerns s/he heard at, say, a dissertation proposal defense, along with proposed revisions, to the committee members before signing off myself.

    One of the challenges for advisor and student alike is keeping track of the flow of successive drafts of manuscripts (e.g., dissertation chapters) and the comments made by multiple readers. I have a colleague who is developing a web-based platform for managing this process, which involves a permanent on-line chronological repository of drafts, a mechanism for inviting others to comment on them, and permanent storage of the comments as well. I piloted the software in a doctoral writing seminar this term, and although this particular product needs a lot of work, it has a lot of potential. (It might help if the techies building the platform were actually doctoral students themselves.)

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  26. Interesting discussion. It looks like presents are not an issue per se. I guess if they’re small it’s okay. I certainly do appreciate cards that thank me after a dissertation defense, but I wouldn’t call that a gift per se so that’s never posed a problem.

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  27. The thing is, just about everything in the job description is something you only get indirect credit for. Last time I checked, after you get an article in ASR they ask YOU to pay THEM! I’m pushing it too far here, but there are all kind of obligations in the job that range a great deal in terms of how much credit you get and how much you “get paid” for doing them. But, you are in fact getting paid to do them. If you are in a department with graduate students, part of your obligation as a faculty member is to serve on thesis, dissertation, and orals committees. Some people can squirm out of it some or even most of the time, but we all know that those people are not fulfilling their obligations and in fact aren’t doing their jobs properly. If you don’t do you fair share of these, you are getting paid to do something you aren’t doing. Therefore, those who are doing it are getting paid to do it.

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  28. Blue monster is right about the job description. Not sure anybody actually disagreed. But just in case people are really clueless, yes your job includes stuff that benefits students and the institution, not just stuff that benefits you personally. That is what you are being paid for.

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  29. PS I remember that back in the dark ages of the 1980s, we had a problem because students (especially women) would ask the young women faculty to help them with their dissertations but would put the high status men on their committees for reference letter name recognition. So we all agreed that we would insist that we be named as a committee member if we were giving significant help on the project. But that is not inconsistent with the point that being on a committee is part of the job. Just that if you are doing the job, you should at least have your name listed.

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  30. I appreciate the professional piety here, and I also myself say “it’s my job” when students thank me for various things. What I object to is the idea “this is what you are being paid for” just because it seems so plainly untrue. I might be in a weird position for this because I’ve been serving on student committees at a certain university that hasn’t paid me anything for 2 1/2 years, and I would just as soon not feel like a sucker. I just did a proposal defense the other day for somebody at a university that has never employed me, for which I have no expectation ever of compensation nor do I especially care, as that’s not what it’s about. There’s partly a sense of duty behind it, but it’s not a because-I’m-getting-paid kind of duty.

    The flip side of it is that “this is what you are being paid for” implies an obligation to agree to be any student’s committees if they ask, and I do not believe that I have signed on to that. (Or, if I have, I want some better idea of how that kind of job obligation works.)

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  31. Fair enough, as there are limits and helpful people such as yourself get asked to do a lot more than unhelpful people. There is one in particular for which you get lots of mensch points. The fun of being on student committees is working with the students, and forming ongoing relations with them. The unfun part, as you know, is when the project isn’t that good and needs a lot of help. Or if you are just doing too many of them.

    I always felt that when I did not have many advisees, I owed it to the system to do “charity” advising (by which I mean, advising on projects I have no interest in) for students who had no good person to work with. But when I am well above average in the number of advisees & non-advisee committees that I’m doing serious work on, I feel justified in being more selective about what I say yes to.

    I think you were in a structural situation where you got asked to do a lot of “charity” committee work because you are so good at helping people figure out their projects, so I can see why you got burned out. I had other kinds of folks in mind (and I suspect Bluemonster did, too), the people who will only work with students whose work feeds into their own or who repeatedly turn down any share of committee work.

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  32. Well, I don’t think it is part of your job to be on committees at universities other than your own. You’re not a sucker for doing them, any more than you are for doing any kind of charitable activity. But I do think it is part of your job to be on committees at your own university. It’s part of teaching in a graduate program. If it weren’t part of the job, then we could all say no to everyone and it wouldn’t be a problem. Clearly, that is not the case.

    It also does not mean you have to say yes to everyone either. We also have an obligation to teach courses, but we don’t have to teach everything we’re asked just because teaching is something we get paid for. But we do have an obligation to do some reasonable amount of teaching as a function of being employed by the university as part of the T&R faculty. The definition of “reasonable” is a bit more elastic in the case of committees, but the obligation does in fact come with the job in graduate departments.

    My problem with your logic, Jeremy, is that the flip side of it allows people to say “that’s not part of my job” and off-load the work on everyone else. I’m a lot more worried about that than someone thinking they cannot say no to anyone.

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  33. I appreciate the professional piety here, … What I object to is the idea “this is what you are being paid for” just because it seems so plainly untrue

    I don’t see the disagreement here. On the one hand, it’s just part of the job description to do this sort of work (being the 3rd person or whatever). So in that sense you’re being paid for it. On the other hand, no-one’s going to say this should be the bulk of your job, or misunderstand what you meant if, when faced with the umpteenth request to be person #3 on some random committee, you thought “I’m not getting paid to do this.”

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  34. OW/BM: Yeah, I can see the points here and hope I didn’t sound pissy before (although, believe me, I was pissy, but because of an entirely unrelated thing going on that may be subject of its own post).

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