Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How to Talk to Students Without Getting in Trouble, Part II

Another important rule of interacting with students is that, no matter how close your relationship with a student is, it is never a good idea to comment on the student's weight or physical attributes. I had this male professor who kept bugging his female students with questions like, "How much do you weigh? Have you been gaining weight? Are you sure you don't eat too much?" I am blessed with having a very healthy attitude towards my body, so whenever this professor greeted me with "You are getting really fat, Clarissa. Why are you so fat?", I had no problem responding in a jocular tone, "Well, I never be as fat as you, professor" or "You know how much I admire you, so I'm trying to emulate you and get as fat as you are." However, students who had body image issues or even had a history of eating disorders suffered greatly. 

It's a good idea to avoid touching students when it isn't absolutely necessary. There was this professor who really liked my hair. I like my hair, too, and I understand how one might feel the compulsion to touch it. However, it would get really annoying to be sitting at the library or working in the stacks and feel somebody grab my hair and tug it. I'm especially sensitive to people touching my head, so it was extremely annoying. I couldn't do the same thing to the professor to teach him a lesson because he had no hair I could tug.

Self-deprecation is a tool that many professors use to show students that they are human and to make the students like them. I, however, believe that self-deprecation is counter-productive in the classroom. Not only all of my colleagues, administrators, staff members and janitors are completely 100% fantastic, but so am I. If there is something that I don't know or forgot to do, I just say so without engaging in a self-deprecating rant that would only make everybody feel uncomfortable. Students are not my therapy group and it is not their job to make me feel better about myself. 

It is often hard to keep one's cool, especially at the end of the semester when work accumulates and tempers get frayed. I saw a very soft-spoken and polite colleague last week yell at a student in a way that made even me feel scared. I'm sure that the student really messed up to make the professor this angry. I also think that yelling is a completely normal and healthy way of venting one's frustrations. However, I believe that it is only permissible to yell at people who have no problem yelling back at you. When you have a person who is powerless in their relationship with you, raising your voice is just abusive. When I feel that I'm about to explode, I just leave and take a walk around the building while trying to breathe very deep. This usually helps to contain the anger. Blogging about it is another great venue of releasing pent up anger.

You can find the first part of this post here.


Spanish prof said...

I am one of those who engages in self deprecation. I would object to your characterization of it as "rant" and "therapy". I'm more of a one-liner self deprecating professor. IT elicits quite a few laughs, and then we move on.

Clarissa said...

I was referring specifically to people who produce long rant and then seem to expect some kind of reassurance from students. Everybody starts feeling extremely uncomfortable in the process.

As to making jokes about myself, I do that all the time.

Spanish prof said...

Then we are on the same page.

Clarissa said...

Aren't we always. :-) :-)

PamBG said...

Where I am employed, repeated comments about someone else's weigh or looks would be considered harassment. I guess theses people are devoid of common sense and courtesy.

Rimi said...

To construe comments on weight as harassment would appear remarkably devoid of common sense in my culture :-) That's cultural difference for you, I suppose.

When I went to my school's Founder's Day service six years after finishing school, teachers gushed over my job and my friend's loveliness. One of them chuckled and told her, "You would be a hit in modern modelling! I'd try my luck there if I were you -- then we could see you on our magazine covers. Just you, not the riff-raff around you". And she winked hugely at the rest of us. We all burst out laughing. My friend is a very pretty, willowy person, but when we were younger people did often wonder if she wasn't ill, because of her slender frame.

Another teacher asked a former classmate very worriedly, "Why have you become so fat, X? Is there something wrong? Thyroid? Do you eat too much junk food? My son has seriously damaged his digestive system with all the alcoholo and junk food. Stay off it! And lose some weight. Morning walks should do it. Keep your muscles well-oiled, you're so young!"

I was freshly back from the US, and while this old warmth and affection made me very, very happy, I could just imagine how they'd be interpreted half way around the world :D

Clarissa said...

Different cultures require a very different kind of distance between people. One of the (many) things I have always hated about my own culture is a lack of distance between people. It is such a joy for me to live in a country where I know for a fact that nobody will show up at my place on a Sunday afternoon expecting a five-course meal or make nasty comments just because they can.

Rimi said...

It's strange I never noticed before, but when X tells Y she visited Z, Y will usually ask, "And what did Z [or Z's parents] feed you?"

There are no nasty comments, though. Unless you judge comments like, "Look at you! When did you lose so much hair?" by western standards and find them malicious or mean. In fact, it's a thing of horror to be rude to one's hosts. They'd never hear the end of it.

Clarissa said...

Could you give an example of what would be considered rude?

Rimi said...

I could, but why would I? :-)

Sorry, that was a flash from English classes in middle school. 'Could you' is aggressive, 'would you' is a polite request, 'should you' is critical, etc.

Biggest rudeness, refuse to eat or drink at a host's place, without any dramatically extenuating circumstances, such a severe ill-health. You're indicating you're hosts are of a social group (class, caste, religion) that you would consider demeaning to eat with.

On 'nasty comments': a guest might say, "Goodness, Rimi, look, your wall-paint is flaking! Did you not use a good brand?" That would not be rude. I might respond with, "What kind of a miser/fool do you think I am? I used X brand! Can't trust anything these days though, can you?". This would not be rude either. In fact, this might be a very jocular exchange.

On the other hand, if someone said, "This is what using cheap paint gets you", it would be rude, but not "never come to my house again" rude. This person is making an assumption about her host, and her satisfaction at the host's misfortune shows she's not very invested in the host's welfare.

Another form of host-guest rudeness people unthinkingly indulge in is constantly comparing their host with themselves. You show them a new lamp, they wax eloquently on the gorgeous lamp they bought for a song five years back and which their help so carelessly broke and blah blah. You tell them your daughter has landed a new job, they'll respond with, "Oh have I told you about my sister's son? He was practically coaxed and cajoled into his dream job! The management LOVES him!" Basically, instead of politely or sincerely applauding someone else's good fortune, you try to upstage them and steal their moment in the sun.

Of course, people can be more overtly rude, like, "Oh I just met your new son/daughter-in-law and s/he is so ugly!". But people would consider that kind of rudeness a form of insanity. No 'normal' socialised person would ever speak like that.
(It's perfectly okay to say though, "Honestly, though, your son/daughter's spouse is not as good-looking as him/her". And then smile)

Rimi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clarissa said...

I find this fascinating, Rimi. In my culture it is precisely the comparing your host with yourself (among the examples you mentioned) that will not be considered rude. At least, I saw it done a hundred of times and nobody batted an eyelash.

Would it be rude if a guest started saying that there is not enough food and s/he is starving, so is it possible at least to have a piece of bread in this house (after a lavish meal)?

Is it rude to bring your small pets to another person's house unannounced?

I'm asking to compare to my culture.

Rimi said...

Are you familiar with the concept of nimakharaam [Urdu word, possible Persian or Arabic root]. Haraam means 'forbidden', although it can be used more diversely, and namak/nimak is salt. It means being treacherous to someone who has fed you, whose salt you have eaten -- and that is a deeply contemptible kind of treachery. Salt here pretty much stands in for all food, because it's difficult to cook or eat most things without salt.

There is therefore a deep cultural connection between food, and gratitude/politeness and loyalty. And by extension to the host-guest relationship. It is said in our country that the guest is like a manifestation of god, which is an exaggeration but basically means, you will treat your guests the best possible way. Not necessarily in the most expensive possible way, but with warmth, politeness, and comforts to the best of your abilities. The guest should reciprocate your warmth, and make the hosts interest their own. That's also an exaggeration these days, but the idea that you will not insult or harm someone who has received you under her roof and fed you is deeply ingrained.

About pets, I'm guessing that would be very strange, unless the host loves animals and has asked for the pet to be brought along. But then, having cutesy pets (dogs, cats etc) is not really part of the culture. People often have domestic animals they love very much, but they chiefly have economic roles -- cows, bullocks, poultry etc. And till recently, the idea of ownership (this is MY dog, MY cat) wasn't widely held. Several houses fed stray cats and dogs and birds, even named them, but did not claim them as theirs or keep them in their houses.

It is VERY rude if a guest says there isn't enough food, unless she says it to mean the opposite, in jest. For example, a relative of mine would often say, "Terrible meal. Couldn't even get some decent rice -- probably have to go home and eat again" after a very satisfying meal at someone else's place. But he said this in a clearly mocking tone, so it was really a compliment in the reverse. His hosts would go along with it and say, "We couldn't help it, we're so poor! And we're such terrible cooks!"

Clarissa said...

I find these comments fascinating, Rimi. Your culture and mine are obviously very different but at the same time, there are many things that they see in the same way.

If my parents have North-American visitors, my mother always prepares an elaborate meal because the attitude to guests is exactly what you describe. And then if people just dismiss her efforts by saying, 'Oh, thanks, I'm not hungry', she just feels completely lost and wonders what she did to upset or annoy them.

Also, if you go to people's place and there is no meal provided (tea and cookies or wine and cheese aren't considered a meal), it is considered a statement of contempt your hosts have for you.

Of course, since the attitude to food is so different, attitudes to body weight used to be different too. Sadly, this is now all changing because we have started to follow the ridiculous Western standards in this respect.

Rimi said...

Yeah, us too, sadly. In fact, though I know you're not Russian, I had an interesting experience about food with an elderly Russian lady.Let me put up a post about it and link to this, because I love the back-and-forth here, and I'd like it close at hand later, for re-reads or referencing :-)

You've written some other posts about your mum's treatment of English-speaking guests too, and I'd love it if you could dig up the links and post them in my comments when I'm done.

Clarissa said...

I'm very glad that you are going back to blogging. Many people will surely thank me for nudging you towards that. :-)

Rimi said...

Some already have. They've trotted over to your blog to discover the miracle that is Clarissa, and now read you fairly regularly. Pity they don't comment.