When I was a grad student, I was in a professor’s office when an undergrad stopped by to give the professor an art card as a thank you for writing a recommendation letter. The professor kindly turned down the gesture. At the time, I thought that, as the offering was little more than a greeting card, such a denial was not worth the effort. The professor pointed out that a line has to be drawn somewhere.
I agree. But I’m unsure of two things: where to draw the line and how to explain the line to students, particularly when cultural differences may play a role. I’ll describe a few situations that have come up.
I am on the graduate committee for a Ph.D. student along with 3 other faculty. This involves sitting in on qualifiers and exams and helping to make decisions on their course of study and progress. Immediately after a qualifier exam some time ago, the student came to my office with a puzzle – having seen that I have a small collection of puzzles on my bookshelf – and offered it to me with a thanks for the exam. I turned down the gift, explaining that it is not appropriate for me to accept such gestures when I am in a position of authority. This week, I came back from a week’s vacation to see a gift bag hanging from my office door. The gift bag contained a card from the same student and alluded to the fact that the bag must have recently contained (a thief in our midst!) the same puzzle. The student thought it would be ok for me to now accept the present. I have emailed the student and explained again that I should not receive gifts. Unfortunately, this time, there is no gift to return!
The Ph.D. qualifier exams here are 2 hour oral exams. Not the most exciting thing. It seems to become tradition that the student bring food for the examining committee. This seems to vary from a few cartons of cookies to full-on home-cooked meals with catered coffee from our building’s coffee shop. Some may argue that bringing your committee a few doughnuts and coffee may be a nice gesture, and this, apparently, is how this tradition started. However, it seems to have gone much too far. Of course, I don’t feel that the committee’s decision would be swayed by the quality of the food provided – if anything, better food may draw a failure from the committee so we might enjoy such a spread once more. A line should be drawn, but how? I would argue that nothing should be brought. As faculty, sitting on such committees is part of our job. We know that the meeting will be 2 hours and are perfectly capable of bringing our own sustenance. Any line above zero is particularly strange. ‘A student may provide no more than $10 worth of sustenance purchased at the building’s coffee shop.’ So is a student expected to spend $10? Now a student has to bring coffee for the lofty professors? Any line above zero should be funded by the department, not the student. That would be great, but I don’t see it in the budget.
Finally, my own Ph.D. student and I have an interesting relationship. We are very close in age, live around the corner from each other and have a fair amount in common. We also both enjoy baking, although I don’t find I get to as often as I once did. We’ve exchanged various food items in small quantities, usually eaten during meetings – neither of us can go more than an hour without eating like constantly foraging squirrels. On the recent occasion of my entering old age, she brought me a small batch of (delicious, creamy, homemade, peppermint, white-chocolate) fudge. Perhaps I should have declined the gift, which I felt a little over that ill-defined line, but I didn’t. I have to say – it made great fuel for a recent bike trip.
What do you do in such situations? Am I too strict, not strict enough for your taste?