Saturday, February 18, 2012


I have experienced an interesting attitude change since starting grad school.

Ed (my ex-boyfriend, with whom I still share an apartment) and I are in grad school together, as most readers of this blog know. Before coming here, we'd had one class together at my undergrad institution, and that was when I learned that we have similar classroom styles (as students), except that his style is more extreme. We both tend to ask more questions (and answer more questions posed by the professor) than other students, and are prone to...well, sort of acting as though we are the only student in the room and can just freely interact with the prof without regard to what s/he is trying to accomplish with the class.

In the math pedagogy class that I took, our professor once gave us a list of problem student types, one of which he called "Mr. Non-Sequitur," giving the example of that guy who always asks you how such-and-such relates to fractals. At the time, this reminded me of Ed, who will often ask tangentially related questions.

Last year, I found Ed's classroom behavior pretty obnoxious, and worried that mine was obnoxious as well. But then this year, I observed that, in talks, many of the professors in our department behave exactly the same way. Whether the speaker is internal or external, they will interrupt with questions, make nitpicky corrections, and ask about strange tangents. And, though there is no way to put this on my public blog without risk, I will say that the professors who act this way are some of the ones I respect the most (independent of their behavior in talks). This is also the talk-watching style of the genius among the grad students of our department.

Maybe this is normal, socially appropriate behavior for my discipline.

I was curious what would happen when Ed took another class with our pedagogy professor, who is a bit strict in his classroom management style. Would he quash Ed's interrupting tendencies? The answer turned out to be a pretty big no. If anything, I think he appreciates being interrupted, nitpicked, and asked weird questions. He told me once that we were his best class in many years because we are so engaged and challenging, and I think he also gave private positive feedback to Ed once.

So I have basically totally revised my opinion of this style of behavior, and now think it must, indeed, be socially appropriate in our field. This led to an interesting conundrum recently, however, when one of my cohort gave a talk.

The talk was very interesting. At one point, though, Ed stopped the speaker to ask, basically, "So what?" He didn't use those words but wanted to know about the motivation for something she was talking about. She didn't have an answer right away, and he said, "I just think I would get more out of this if I knew why we were talking about it."

I felt like it was a bit over the top, given that she is our friend, is a bit early in her career (like we are), and may not have been completely confident in giving the talk. I wouldn't have pushed her in that way myself.

Now, I think Ed just asked the question because it was on his mind. But I wonder...maybe it is our job to socialize each other by asking these kinds of tough questions, even if it makes the speaker uncomfortable. You could argue that we should refrain so that our friends can be more comfortable, or that we should intentionally not refrain so that they can toughen up and not be stymied in (e.g.) a job talk later, when someone in the audience is of this more obnoxious cast.

Fortunately, our department has a good mix of people who like to speak up and people who don't, so I guess it will all just average out. But these are just some thoughts I've been having lately.

1 comment:

Sally said...

In my program, we are explicitly being socialized to ask these kinds of questions at talks (and the professors exemplify this behavior at the talks). At our brown bag sessions, in which one of the grad students presents work to the rest of the grad students (no professors), this is the tenor of the talk as well. So I'm curious to what extent this style of interaction is normal/typical/appropriate in academic settings more generally.