Tag Archives: academia

How to Survive: Students attempting to ‘freak’ you out

Students really enjoy trying to freak their tutors out. I think it probably makes them feel cool or smarter or better about themselves or whatever, and variations on this theme also seem to involve trying to make their tutors feel old, inadequate or poor. Of course, we are almost always all three. Anyway, I think at these moments, however stunned you might be (and I am usually pretty stunned) it’s important to try not to look like a fuckwit (thereby denying the student their jollies).

Recently, I had a student bail me up, and tell me that his bestie (who was standing beside him, grinning) was a poetry major, who delivered his performances via telepathy. This was supposed to mean he held a microphone to his head for three minutes while performing, and thought his poem for an unsuspecting (open mike?) audience. My student insisted the rustling coming from his microphone was his “synapses firing” rather than very obviously, his hair. In this instance, I went with it, grinning, and asking when and where he was next doing a reading, while being coy enough to not appear gullible. Or in other words, fight petulant irony with petulant irony.

Undergraduate students often think they’re being super original and fascinating when they’re not. I can forgive this of those who are straight out of high school because they’re young and silly and it’s all fun and games until someone loses a theorist. However, on occasion, as a tutor, you will be required to teach someone who is as old, or older than you. This shifts the teaching power balance in a pretty significant way, especially if that student notices, and decides to make an issue out of it.

When I was an undergraduate student, I witnessed a classics tutor in his late 20s being called a “young upstart” by a rather mature age student in my class. She was a retiree, doing the class for the novelty, and was upset by being failed for handing in half a page of dot points, in the place of a 1500 word essay.

One of my students recently told me she was old, but not as old as me. Which was a fascinating calculation considering she’d been in and out of university for several more years than I, thereby making her significantly older. Regardless of the mathematical situation, she felt like we shared a special ‘oldies’ bond that gave her license to giggle inappropriately and disengage from any theoretically rigourous discussion by observing that it was “stupid”.

Another variation on the freak out, where you really need to keep your head, is when your thesis supervisor or some other tenured member of faculty tries it. Usually, they will slip something along the lines of “when I was sunbaking nude on the weekend…” or “while I was snorting coke in the toilets at the conference…” into an otherwise tame conversation. This is a test. It is essential not to let your face register any affectation of shock, no matter how outlandish the original comment was. Otherwise, you will be considered puritanical, conservative and as dull as the undergraduates.

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How to Survive: End of Semester Drinks

This week was my final week of teaching for the year, as it was for many of us. This means that there were, and will continue to be functions at which you, as a graduate research student will be forced to drink with the undergraduates that you teach and/or senior members of faculty and permanent staff.

As there is never a decent budget (or any budget) for end of semester events, you will find yourself in a position where you are expected to buy alcohol for your consumption, and in many cases, the consumption of those around you.

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This is particularly galling, as undergraduate students and faculty staff members are inevitably in a more stable financial position than you. Especially as the end of teaching also means the end of your meagre casual salary for the next four months, and the beginning of careers in bar work, retail or unemployment benefits.

In the case of drinking with your students, all the usual techniques for avoiding purchasing alcohol will be detected in such an exposed setting, so it is best to give in, buy a jug or two of the cheapest beer the uni pub has to offer, and accept your place as the hero of all students with minimal outlay. The only issue that then presents itself is that you have to be seen to drink some of the beer you have purchased.

Faculty members tend not to demand alcohol en masse, but rather approach individually, so as long as you can avoid talking to some of them until someone else has gotten them drunk, you should be fine.

Aside from the financial obligations synonymous with the end of semester, there are also many social pitfalls. Most importantly, if you get a bit tipsy drinking the swill you bought your students, try to resist encouraging them to tell you about all the other tutors and lecturers they hate. Especially avoid confirming their cynical observations about your colleagues, no matter how accurate the accusations may be because they are usually the ones *kind* enough to employ you to teach, and they’re usually behind you when you are talking about them. Remember that students probably say the same things about you behind your back and some of them could be spies for your subject coordinator.

Similarly, at staff functions, try not to get drunk and let a fellow tutor or faculty member manipulate you into divulging who you’ve slept with, or hate, within your field. No matter how fun, gossipy and secretive it feels when you’re giddy on cheap gin, it always gets back to them, and the academic world is way too small for that sort of thing.