The Worst Conversations You’ve Had As A Professor


Prodigal Academic, a science professor and blogger, lists the “worst conversations I’ve had as a professor.” They include:

  • telling a student who was stalking his TA to stop doing so
  • the first time dealing with a student who is literally crying over a grade
  • giving personal hygiene advice
  • being confronted with a screamer
  • telling a graduate student they won’t be getting their PhD

I remember the first time a student came to me in tears over a grade on her first-ever college paper. It was rather awkward, but I explained to her that it was because I thought her paper was good that I gave it an A-.

I find conversations in which the student feels compelled to reveal personal information in order to explain his or her performance as a student difficult. I don’t want students to feel like they have to reveal otherwise private details of their lives to me for the sake of, say, explaining why a paper was so poor, and I never ask for them, but I understand my students’ need to try to justify themselves. When I see that’s where the conversation is headed I tell them that they don’t need to provide me with any such details. Sometimes, I’m sure, this leaves them with the impression that I don’t care about their personal problems, which isn’t necessarily true; I don’t want to shut down a student who is reaching out to me for help. Sometimes it’s hard to find that sweet spot between being a professor who’s respectful of student privacy (when the fact that you’re in charge of their grade is the only reason they’d be sharing some personal information) and being a person who’s compassionate.

What are the worst (awkward, difficult, scary, inappropriate, etc.) conversations you have had as a professor? (In answering, please take steps to protect the identity of those you’re discussing.)

(Link to Prodigal Academic via Inside Higher Ed)

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Unknown Philosopher
Unknown Philosopher
4 years ago

Confronting a plagiarist always sucks. The worst case was the one in which the student said that what he learned from the experience was that he needed to be more attentive to what his uncle had taught him: “If you are going to cheat, be smart enough to get away with it.”Report

Darrel
Darrel
4 years ago

Where to begin? Here are just two, not the only terrible ones, but probably the two worst:

When I was an assistant professor, probably about 30 or 31, I encountered a student of mine in the parking lot. She was at least 20 years older than I was. She had been an outspoken student in class, but had been absent for a couple of weeks. I mentioned that I had missed her and asker her if everything was OK. She told be that things were not all OK. She had been absent because she had found her husband in bed with her daughter. Moreover, she informed that I was the first person he she had spoken to about this. Nothing in grad school prepared me for that. Instictively I walked to her the student counseling center and waited with her till a counselor could meet with her.

A few years later at a different university a student came to see me during office hours. He had not submitted a paper that was past due and had been absent for a week or more. He seemed a bit removed. I asked why he had not been in class and had not submitted the paper. Hequietly told the following story. He had been in police custody because he went out drinking with a friend. He went home to the friend’s place, both of them fairly drunk, and the friend produced a revlover. The friend spun the chamber of the revolver and told my student to point it at his head and shoot. Thinking it was all wierd and edgy joke, the student did as instructructed. The pistol fired and the student’s friend was dead.Report

EDT
EDT
Reply to  Darrel
4 years ago

Without meaning to pry, those two incidents are only “probably the worst”?

[Given that tone is hard to convey in comment threads please note that I am utterly serious and genuinely taken aback]Report

Darrel
Darrel
Reply to  EDT
4 years ago

Here is another one that stands out. I was even younger than in the first story, ABD, my first permanent job, at a community college. A female student, just a few years older than I was, used to visit me often during my office hours. She worked full time and had a disabled son. Her life seemed pretty hard. She would talk to me about her problems juggling things. She seemed to need to talk; so I never discouraged her. She saw me quite often during office hours. One day in the hallway she introduced me to her boyfriend. Shortly after that I ran into the guy at the gym. I went up to say hello. He looked at me and snarled that he never wanted to see my [email protected]#%ing face again after the way that I had destroyed his life. I looked at him uncomprehendly, but I could tell that he was very serious. So, I just walked away. The following week I went out to my car in the parking lot. The window was broken and a bolt had been driven into my ignition.

I’m glad you are printing these stories. It helps to prepare grad students for the world of teaching.Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
4 years ago

A student once initiated a conversation about a medical problem with his foreskin and solicited advice about whether he should get an adult circumcision done. No, I’m not kidding.Report

SH
SH
4 years ago

It’s nothing compared to some of the examples above, but the endless (45-minute! All him talking!) meeting with a student where he explained to me he was having difficulty focusing in class, because he spent class fantasizing about me, was memorable. It also occurred on the same day that I had my first ever confront-a-student-about-plagiarism meeting. Not my favorite day of teaching.Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
4 years ago

I had a memorable three-step interaction a number of years back, when I was doing some adjunct work.

1. Discovered a clear case of plagiarism. Confronted the student about it; in an extremely awkward conversation, I received a flat denial and no explanation of anything. Gave the zero.

2. Got an earful from the student’s mother about how her child had NEVER been accused of anything like this before and how DARE I try to ruin their life. She also had some choice words for me with regard to my personal and professional conduct—she’d done a little internet research and discovered that I had a facebook account, which is something no respectable professor would have. (You may think I’m exaggerating, that she really was complaining about something she saw on my facebook page, like if I had a picture of me doing a keg stand or something. No.)

3. Turned the whole thing over to my department head (yay!). Learned later that he’d just had the student re-submit the assignment for full credit (boo!). Moral: making a big fuss works, especially if you’re dealing with low-status contract employees like I was at the time.Report

KWG
KWG
4 years ago

The conversations about death and illness, often coupled to why a student hasn’t come to class or handed in assignments, are always the most difficult, and I’m never sure if I get them right. I just try to listen and if possible (or necessary) recommend talking to a counselor on campus.

On a more humorous note (and let me preface this by saying I teach in a rather conservative country; I have several similar stories, but this was my first experience):

I had a student become visibly upset over Sartre’s discussion of bad faith when I was teaching Existentialism (the passage in question is the discussion of the woman who accepts a date with a man and pretends not to know his true intentions, thus causing her to live in bad faith). Ignoring the sexism of the example for the moment, as I discussed the text in class, a woman in my class became visibly more and more upset.

After class, she came to talk to me, and began by saying: “I know this is strange to say to your professor, but I think I am pregnant.” It was my second year as a professor, and I genuinely didn’t know what to do. I understood why she would come to me – where I teach, the culture is such that you couldn’t talk to your female friends or parents about this, and students often feel more comfortable talking to a Western professor of the opposite gender (who they think won’t judge them).

I suggested that she come to my office, as I genuinely did not know what else to say, to talk in private. After we sat down, she said that she had been performing a sex act on her boyfriend (I will censor the details here) and was worried she was pregnant. Let me just say that the act in question was such that it was extremely unlikely (if not impossible) that she became pregnant. We talked for a while and she left, reassured I thought. She came back the next day, worried again. This time, I suggested she take an over-the-counter pregnancy test to assuage her fears (as it seemed simpler in the long run). She did (and was not pregnant). She came to talk to me several more times, and it became clear that the real tension was between her religious upbringing and how she wanted (or had chosen) to live her life. I tried to recommend a secular counselor as I felt out massively out my depth.

I do chuckle when I think of that story, but I also use it to remind myself to be sympathetic even when I am tired or annoyed with a student.

Report

Dien
Dien
4 years ago

Two stories:
(1) I was a TA at the time and I wanted to be the cool TA, so I gave my students my home number telling them to call me if they have an emergency. I was mostly thinking of missing class, etc. This was before the days of email and I was young.
I got a phone call at midnight on Sunday. A student called to let me know that he would be missing class on Monday because his friend and him just got jumped. The assailants took a metal baseball bat to his friend’s head. His friend was now bleeding in his dorm room. I urged him to call the police (and I did the same after hanging up) and to get medical help as soon as possible. I was also worried that he might have been under the influence. The police showed up and found an empty room but they called me back to say that there was blood all over the floor. Apparently, my student had taken his friend to the hospital who spent the night there.
(2) I had a student in my healthcare ethics class who was particularly vocal about her views against abortion. It was in the Bible belt so this was not entirely uncommon. She came to my office once and told me she was pregnant and was considering having an abortion. I realized that she had to be fairly lonely to come to an immigrant, older, Chinese, Northeast liberal academic whom she hardly knew for advice. We talked for over an hour and continued to have a number of heartfelt conversations. It was difficult because I am not trained to give personal advice but I felt compelled by her desperation.Report

David Pena
David Pena
4 years ago

my very first time teaching a philosophy class as a grad student (I was watching phil of bio) I had a student who wrote a horrible paper on why sociopaths are the acme of natural evolution and should be the new philosopher kings.

He came to my office hours and revealed to me that he was recently diagnosed as a sociopath, thanks to a court-ordered evaluation. He also revealed to me that we was the person behind a very public controversy that made national news in the US in 2011…which led to the court order in question. I googled him and sure enough it was true. That was him.

He also told me after class one day that he really thought he was superior to others because he wasn’t “bogged down by empathy, which serves zero purpose”. And he was “the lion of the world.” He then tried to fist-bump me. I wasn’t having it. Report

Sara L. Uckelman
4 years ago

I’m sure I’ll have many worse over the years, but one of the most awkward (and hilarious) conversations was the advising meeting where the student confessed to me that he was on his last pair of underware because the washing machine in the house he lived in with 6 other guys had been broken for weeks.

I mean, why tell ME this?Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Sara L. Uckelman
4 years ago

Ugh, *underwear.Report

Ghost
Ghost
4 years ago

I have so many. Few as insane as Darrel’s, but there is one that involves a kid being kidnapped and held for drug money (it had nothing to do with me, honest).

I had to tell a kid* not to tell her teachers that they had nice figures and bubbly personalities. I think it was a cultural thing. She thanked me for the information. I am still friends with the student to this day.

I made my decision after consulting feminist philosophers. Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
4 years ago

I’ve had some bizarre conversations for sure (for instance, a student asking my advice on whether he should run away to Honduras with his 13 year old cousin with whom he was in love), but the hardest have to do with initiating conversations with students over what they’ve written in a paper. I have to initiate it, because what they’ve said seems to confer some moral/legal responsibilities on my part.

So, I once had a student in an ethics class who revealed in her paper that at some point in the (unspecified) past, when she was much younger, she had been raped – and that the trauma of that rape was such that she could not orgasm unless her own face was covered during sex. Really didn’t know quite how to start this conversation. There was clear evidence of a crime, but I had no idea about the application of things like statutes of limitations. Further, the adult student probably had reasonable expectations of privacy – likely why she thought it safe to tell me about it. However, it could easily have been a cry for help – legal help, psychological help, etc. Spent several days trying to work this one out.Report

Cathy Kemp
Cathy Kemp
4 years ago

An undergraduate in the third or fourth week of the first solo class I ever taught, when I asked, by way of small talk, about an incident over the weekend in which someone fired an automatic weapon into a dormitory lobby during a party, responded by saying “How did you know it was me? Even the police don’t know that.”

After this I’d put conversations with students being stalked and harassed by one of my colleagues.Report

nvss
nvss
4 years ago

My second year teaching I was at a very small college and a student in my advanced seminar of 15 undergrads passed away (not in class) due to a medical emergency. The students were all really close and walking into that classroom after the weekend and talking about it was one of the hardest things I have ever done–followed by the individual conversations about death with many students. The second last week of that class we had a visiting artist, which was supposed to just be a nice treat for a semester of hard work. We had had a few other visiting speakers and I had mentioned the student who had passed away to each of them (as a heads up because the class dynamic was a bit unusual). I didn’t with the last artist, and he ended up unexpectedly showing videos about death and grieving. I ended up with armfuls of sobbing 20-somethings. Thankfully the visitor was really empathetic and stayed for an hour long debrief with half my class, but man was I ever unprepared for any of that!

The worst one was teaching at a large research school. I had a huge class with multiple TAs running discussion groups. A student wrote to me that she was scared of her TA and thought maybe he was a terrorist (which it goes without saying he was not). My conversations with both her and the TA (as well as the other people who had to be involved because of the nature of the accusations) were perhaps the most dreadful of my life. Report

Michael
Michael
4 years ago

A few:
1. A student whose attendance was spotty during the first half of the semester stops showing up at all for the second half of the semester. At the very end of the term she emails me asking to meet up and discuss her performance in the class. I agreed, planning to just tell her she had no real option other than to take an F or WF since she’d done so little of the work. In our meeting she explained to me that a few years before, her father had murdered her mother in front of her, that he would be getting out of prison soon, and that she and her family were having to contort their lives in order to ensure her safety for the future. This was all very easily verified since the murder had made it into several papers. I’m glad I didn’t just blow her off in an email, and even more grateful my university has ways of handling extraordinary situations like this kindly.

2. In a course on the Philosophy of Sex, I had to explain privately to one student that the weekly discussion sections were not intended for personal confessions. Really that whole course was a minefield of awkwardness. I would never teach it again.

3. In a course on Science and Religion, a student turned in a paper one section of which briefly, and sincerely, argued in favor of genocide of non-whites. I’m skeptical of the recent pop-psych characterization of psychopaths, but as far as I could from our discussions tell she was totally unburdened by conscience or empathy.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
4 years ago

After 35 years, there are many, but will highlight some.

When I was an adjunct I had a female student who confided to me that she was undergoing tests for breast cancer and needed my support. Awkward, but I certainly gave it to her and, fortunately, turned out negative. But kind of a shock to a young teacher who was working as an adjunct finishing my PhD. Kind of scared me, and kind of was flattering that she considered me someone she could come to in an anxious time. I was, maybe 27 and hope I gave her advice that helped — which, as noted was moot, since she was fine after the tests.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
4 years ago

Sorry to add another conversation, but this one is funny. I had just used my in-office shaver to trim up before class, splashed on the after shave and was ready to go. Then a student who took three classes from me and knew me well, came into my office, took a whiff of my small office, and said, “Gee, professor, you shouldn’t drink in your office before class.” I said, “I didn’t, geez (x, no name), it’s after shave.” He responded, “If you say so, I’m on board.” 🙂Report

John
John
3 years ago

I offered free seminars to complement my weekly philosophy class. The university had no room to offer so about six of us met in the cafe. Slowly the conversations drifted to assessment and I explained the methods by which As would be given. For the rest of these seminars our interaction no longer focussed on philosophy but solely on how to get A grades. After that students would accost me and complain if they did not get an A. These dialogues took up more than half of my face time with them. I started to get nervous if I only awarded a B. This whole experience underlined to me how competitive American culture is – nobody can tolerate being just average.Report