ask a scatterbrain: gifts from grad students

A reader writes:

Dear Scatterplotters,

It’s Thanksgiving time here in the US and, as graduate students, we often feel pretty thankful towards our committees, letter of recommendation-writers, and so on. Often, we want to express our gratitude somehow, but it’s not at all clear what might be an appropriate way to do so. For example, would it be appropriate to give your letter-writers chocolates or homemade candy as thank yous? In general, what are some guidelines for appropriate gift giving?

~Thankful Grad Student

27 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: gifts from grad students”

  1. While small gifts or something homemade are appreciated and don’t make me feel uncomfortable, my favorite expression of gratitude, whether I’m giving it or receiving it, is a heartfelt thank you note.

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  2. Jessica is right. I find it awkward at best when students give me anything at all. If you really want to express your gratitude, take your professor out to coffee sometime after you graduate, but until then a note is the limit.

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    1. Mauss would say that gift-giving creates a sense of reciprocal obligation. I’m of the feeling that this is precisely why people (including myself) are uncomfortable with it.

      Personally, I gave two or three gifts to my advisor (none of which cost more than $15) the entire time I was in grad school and am uncomfortable with gifts of over token value from either grads or undergrads but will accept them if I can’t figure out a way to refuse without it being even worse. Most recently I talked to somebody who was interested in grad school and managed to beg off on accepting a rather nice chocolate set on the (accurate) grounds that I’m a bit paranoid about my nut allergy, though mainly I was just uncomfortable with it.

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      1. My personal experience is that the boundary between the things I’m “paid” to provide to my students and the things that are “gifts” is fuzzier than the thread makes it seem. Don’t I give students gifts that go unreciprocated?

        (N.B. I am *not* suggesting the students I work with send me gifts.)

        Also, I don’t want to antagonize anyone, but I’m curious about the seemingly arbitrary distinction between a handwritten note and a handmade cookie (or whatever). Why set the terms of the exchange in this way?

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      2. I see I can’t edit my own comment, so I’ll add an addendum: I’m not so concerned about the “fuzzy boundary” issue. So, I’d redact that if I could. But I am interested in what makes a note different than a cookie.

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    2. Jenn Lena. I agree that cookies, bookmarks, and other inexpensive trinkets are also ok as thank you gifts and raise no concerns. I just don’t want to set up any expectation that students should give any kind of gift, because a handwritten note is just fine and a trinket does not convey any more gratitude than a note. It’s note like you get a note for an ordinary reference letter and a cookie if it was more trouble to write or some other hierarchy of exchange.

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  3. I agree with Gabriel. The reason we don’t want gifts is that they may be confused with bribes. Anything that could possibly be construed as quid pro quo is out of bounds. Handwritten notes are nice.

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  4. This thread reminds me a bit of when the “I love you” virus was going around, and I didn’t get it.

    More seriously, I find the hardest gifts to gracefully receive or dodge, as the case may be, are from scholars from East Asia. At last count, I have received 4 sets of chopsticks, two intricately decorated boxes, some Korean Christmas tree ornaments, and a lifetime (to a coffee drinker) supply of tea. I can’t help but think that it would have been a worse cultural faux pas to reject them, even if as politely as possible, than to accept them in the first place. Of course, I probably also erred by not reciprocating with equivalently valued gifts.

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  5. Jenn: I think that the thing about thank you notes is that they signal the end of an exchange. You did something I am thankful for and I’ll take a moment to express that gratitude. The receiver is not supposed to do anything else in return (of course, anyone who wrote a thank you note to their Aunt Debbie for an ugly birthday sweater knows that thank you notes are more complex than this, but it’s the general rule).

    A gift, on the other hand, feels like it opens the door to an exchange relationship or continues one in a more formal fashion. Like Gabriel was saying, it obligates the receiver. That said, if it’s clear that it’s an expression of gratitude for past acts, it shouldn’t have to. I think this is where things get blurred.

    For what it’s worth, I didn’t give any faculty gifts in graduate school. When I graduated, I gave each committee member a personal, inexpensive gift.

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      1. I’ll admit I was being a little indirect with my question about notes v. cookies. My personal observation is that my middle class students are likely to see thank you notes in the ways implied and stated in the thread. My sense is that my less advantaged students do not. I am wondering about how our expectations of gifts are related to habitus…and issue that, I think, krippendorf begins to get at with the aside about East Asian scholars.

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    1. replying to jenn lena: I don’t follow your point. Are you saying working class students are more likely to feel obliged to give a gift? Or just more confused about what the norms are?

      The most important thing I think students need to know is that the hardest letter to write is the first one, and asking the same professor to write multiple letters is a very small favor relative to the first letter. I was horrified to learn that some students thought it was such a big imposition to ask for a letter that they spread the asking around and never ask the same person twice. They need to be told a) it isn’t an imposition to ask for letters, it is part of a teacher’s job, and it does not require doing a favor back and b) they SHOULD ask the same person for multiple letters.

      Regarding gift-giving customs of East Asian students I think professors should both recognize cultural differences and explicitly teach East Asian students our customs and norms. That is, don’t take offense at being offered an inappropriate gift, but explain why it cannot be accepted in our culture. And people responsible for orienting new international students ought to explicitly explain such normative differences.

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      1. Also to Jenn: I’m with you on class (and cultural) differences in expectations of reciprocity and entitlement to professors’ time and attention that might lead to differences in gift-giving. However, I’m not sure that I see confusion about the meaning of a thank you note.

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      2. @Jessica: Fair enough. I’m only reporting that some of my students have been confused by the fixation on thank you notes.

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  6. Gratitude from graduate students?
    1. Pay it forward. Pay attention to someone more junior than you and try to help them with their work. (This is the MOST important. Ultimately, it could help make academia more humane and smarter.)
    2. Pay it backward. When it will help someone on your committee, read something of theirs in progress and offer the kinds of comments you most appreciated.

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  7. btw, a closely related point is the curious custom of feeding a prospectus defense. i’m now used to this but it initially struck me as very odd and i’d readily see us return to the no food equilibrium that prevailed when i was in grad school.

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  8. I feel compelled to disclose that I accepted the gift of a book AND A CARD from a student today. The book is a signed copy of Lisa Vanderpump’s recipe book. I felt no hesitation accepting it. The student’s grade will not be affected by her having provided me this hilarious and generous, thoughtful gift.

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