Gas station without pumps

2013 October 3

Was I too harsh?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:03
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Yesterday in my grad course, I responded rather tartly to a student question, and have been going back and forth in my mind ever since whether I was too harsh.

At the beginning of every class I ask for questions from the students, and I take all sorts of questions.  One, very appropriate question at the beginning of class yesterday was how to hand in the first assignment on Friday.  I explained the procedure I wanted followed (paper copies of the program that I could mark up, with the file name for the programs on the paper, so that I could copy and test the programs).

About five to ten minutes later, a student who was late for class asked exactly the same question.  Not wanting to repeat myself, and not wanting to encourage students to arrive late, I replied something like “If you had been here on time, you would have heard the answer to that question. Ask someone in the class to explain it to you, and try to arrive on time next time.” Note: I don’t remember which student it was who was late—I have a terrible memory for faces and I’ve not learned any of the names yet in the class—I think that there were 3 students who were late that day.

While this response probably had the desirable effect of encouraging the student to attempt to be prompt, I’m afraid it might also have squelched the student’s (or, worse, the students’) willingness to ask questions in future.  I rely very heavily on student questions to guide what I say in the grad course and what details I cover, so reducing student questioning could be a serious problem.  I did get several pertinent questions later in the period, so I know I did not make everyone afraid of asking questions, but I’m a bit worried that I’ll only get questions from the most confident students in the class, rather than all of them.

I’m wondering whether I should do a general apology to the class for my response to that question at the beginning of tomorrow’s class, explaining that I really do want to encourage questions, or whether I should let it slide and just take questions as normal without remarking on it.  Note: Wed was only the third meeting of the class, so students are not necessarily settled in to a routine yet—what I do could still affect student behavior. Also, I don’t need to be loved by my students, but I do need to be fair, and to be seen as being fair, so that students will respect my judgements of their work, even when my assessment is not as favorable as they are used to getting.

I’d appreciate suggestions from my readers.



  1. Hard to know from text – tone of voice makes a huge difference. The words are not excessively harsh.

    Comment by kcab — 2013 October 3 @ 20:58 | Reply

    • I sometimes sound critical even when I’m trying to be gentle and supportive, so tone of voice was not likely to have been perceived as gentle.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 October 3 @ 21:04 | Reply

  2. My father in law died when I was a grad student at Stanford Business School. I minimized the duration of the funeral trip (possibly even making it too short a trip) so as not to miss too much school. When I returned I went straight from the airport to a class, arriving the class 20 minutes into a 90 minute class. The professor had no idea why I was late, nor did he know I had made an extra short trip just to make it back to at least part of his class. The professor openly glared at me when I took my seat in the back of the room, clearly annoyed, everyone noticed. I never told him why I was late, but I will always remember the complete disconnect — me believing I had sacrificed greatly to get to even part of that class, and he annoyed at me for coming in late to his all important class. Our relationship from my perspective was never the same after that. I had diminished respect for that otherwise very fine professor.

    Perhaps it’s worth a mention in class that you expect on time arrivals and will always start the class on time, but you understand that coming in late could at some time during the semester be unavoidable. State that perhaps your response to yesterday’s duplicate question was a bit judgmental and that you don’t want to in any way discourage questions from all students, even those who for some reason may arrive late. You won’t re-answer the question in class, but you won’t snap at the questioner, either, and in fact will help ID another student who will give an answer after class. (Given it’s the third class, the affected student may not even be comfortable asking an unknown classmate for help.)

    The fact that you are mulling over your comments says a lot about your sensitivity to your students – admirable.

    Comment by Sally Thoman — 2013 October 3 @ 21:08 | Reply

    • Yeah, I was thinking along those lines. I don’t really mind students coming in late occasionally—life happens—but it could become a problem if students who come in late expect me to repeat stuff for them.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 October 3 @ 21:47 | Reply

  3. The text of your response is completely reasonable, and I think it’s entirely appropriate to respond the way you did. Especially early on in the term it’s important to set expectations and that includes gently reprimanding students when they don’t live up to the standards that they need to. I think it’s good to ask “If the student did this in a job situation [arrive late to a meeting & pester the boss with a redundant question] would their behavior negatively impact them?” If so, then I think it’s important to follow up on it in some way.

    That all being said, tone of voice / body language can make a big difference with this sort of thing. I think the key is to use language that makes it clear what you’re expecting (like you did) but then use tone of voice / body language to indicate to soften the message. E.g., smile, stay relaxed, and maybe finish by asking the student to confirm that they’ve heard & understood you ( “Does that make sense?”, or “Ok?” or something similar – like you would when you’re answering a technical question and want to confirm that they got it). Definitely make sure to move on afterwards so it’s clear that you’re not holding a grudge (unlike Ms. Thoman’s glaring professor).

    If it happens again you can/should use more forceful tone of voice & body language to indicate that yes, you’re really serious about this.

    Comment by Mike — 2013 October 3 @ 22:49 | Reply

  4. I am just now at the Grace Hopper Celebration, the first time I have been. The one thing that hit me was how different the question and answer period is after the talks. The questions are very different (all from women) from most questions at other conferences and other venues… they range from personal, behind the scenes questions, including simple, yet philosophical, questions (eg, “why are you doing this?”) to questions on methodology. Some questions show that the questioner has some misunderstandings. But every one of the questions has been answered by the speakers (some MacArthur Genius award winners!). No question is too stupid, and every question is treated with respect and a chance for a conversation…not just a “teachable moment” but a real conversation.

    I presume that many of these questions are not asked in more intimidating circumstances (eg, the regular classroom).

    I suspect that it doesn’t matter whether you apologize or not. What matters is, going forward, do they hesitate to ask a question? Do they have to stop and think “Is this a stupid question?” If they do, then I fear that we are missing some really great places for conversations. What I learned: leave lots of time for questions, and make this time a dialog about the big and small picture.

    Comment by Doug Blank — 2013 October 4 @ 05:54 | Reply

  5. I would clarify to students that 1) I want students to arrive on time, 2) I will refer redundant questions to other students, and 3) I want questions, even if they are potentially redundant. I would rather refer a redundant question than miss an original one, so keep asking. I would keep it this simple.

    Comment by Miguel F. Aznar — 2013 October 4 @ 12:02 | Reply

  6. I would apologize, but that’s me. I think explaining the situation will help them see that you care.

    Comment by suevanhattum — 2013 October 4 @ 14:17 | Reply

    • I ended up doing something close to what Miguel suggested, emphasizing that I did want questions, and that it was better to be late than to miss entirely. I then did a very interactive class, where I tried for a more or less Socratic approach to get out the definition of a probability function and of a stochastic model (which for this class is just a computable probability function). We started building a stochastic model of DNA sequences, but only got to the point where they had proposed a model that summed to 1 over strings of a fixed length—I asked them to think about how one might generalize to strings of any length for Monday. (A DNA sequence is a string, not an infinite sequence.)

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 October 4 @ 18:55 | Reply

  7. “Good question. Who here in the class can answer that?”

    Comment by Tim Erickson — 2013 October 15 @ 19:29 | Reply

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