71

TLDR: I am attenting a seminar where the grade is based entirely on a talk I hold. The responsible lecturer fell asleep during the talk multiple times, and I am worried about my grade, feel insulted and am unsure how to communicate these issues.


For a seminar, I was required to hold a 45 minute-talk about current department research in front of the course. The corresponding researcher attends this talk as well.

Together with the lecturer (the instructor for this seminar), they grade my talk, which amounts for the entire seminar grade. The researcher can make comments about how accurate the presentation was, but the ultimate choice of grading is with the lecturer.

During my talk (actually not too far in), the lecturer fell asleep for a bit for the first time, for only a brief period. Now this happened on multiple occasions during my presentation, and it has happened during someone elses' past talk on an earlier date as well.

I find this highly insulting, since I have spent a lot of time reading up on the topic and practicing to hold the talk.

Since the lecturer did not hear or see my entire talk, I am worried that grading may be affected in addition.

The lecturer is notoriously busy (which I assume to be quite common) and stressed, but both issues should not affect me or my grade in my opinion. Also, he may have had stress-related health problems in the past, which could be a reason for him to pass on caffeine consumption. I see that this may be a reason for his tiredness, but again I cannot possibly account for it and I should not be graded differently because of it.


I want to communicate the following two issues, how can I approach this situation?

  1. I feel insulted by the lecturer falling asleep through my graded talk

  2. I am worried about him falling asleep could influence my grade


On a side note, I really like the lecturer otherwise, but I am afraid that making a comment like "please reconsider your sleep schedule" whould be considered highly inappropriate (and rightly so). Recommendations on this matter will be appreciated as well.

  • 2
    This extended discussion has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 12 at 19:19
  • Not sure if this applies here, but in some countries, like Japan, closing eyes during someone’s talk is actually a sign of deep concentration on the talk/sound. – Tofig Hasanov Nov 14 at 11:14

11 Answers 11

86

The first thing to note here is that sleeping in such situations is often not a voluntary action, but a physiologically unavoidable response to the situation the body is in - many people die every year after falling asleep at the wheel of a car. I don't think you'd describe the results of that on other people in the car as "rude". In general, if you are in this state of involuntary somnulence, then no amount of caffeine will change anything.

You do not know the circumstances in which this lecturer is in: casual lecturers or adjuncts may be working several other jobs, or may have insufficient income to afford rent and therefore a proper place to sleep. Permanent folks may have so much work that they literally don't have time to sleep and complete everything they are required to do. Or they might have a young child or as you say, mental health problems. My point is these things may not be voluntary choices for the person concerned.

If i had a dollar for every student that fell asleep in a lecture that I had spent days preparing...

But....

None of this is your problem. You deserve not just to get the correct mark for your work, but also the feedback that will help you improve - after all, you are there to learn, not to get grades. As others have said, wait and see what the feedback is (and really you want proper feedback, not just a grade). If it's fine, then I'd wait and see, but even if it is - if this becomes a pattern then it might be in everyone's interest, including the faculty member's (depending on how understanding the Chair is), for people to know what is going on.

  • 58
    Professors are supposed to be role models in academia. If you're insulted by students falling asleep in your lectures, which has no professional consequences for you, then how can you say the OP shouldn't be insulted in the reverse situation, which could have far greater consequences for them? – knzhou Nov 11 at 18:45
  • 34
    It was a light-hearted (probably ill-advised comment). I'm not insulted students falling asleep. Disappointed perhaps, but not insulted. And I absolutely agree the student needs to not be disadvantaged by the professor's behavoir. But I'm sure taking it as an insult, when no one would "choose" to fall asleep on the job is the a productive approach. We wouldn't be insulted if someone broken their leg. – Ian Sudbery Nov 11 at 22:08
  • 44
    I can’t believe what I’m reading here. Of course once someone is so tired that they can’t help fall asleep it’s not a voluntary thing. However, getting in that state in the first place when you still have responsibilities is entirely their own fault. Everyone is busy sometimes. Quite frankly I’m flabbergasted you wouldn’t consider someone falling asleep behind the wheel ‘rude’. Rude is the least word I’d start to describe them with. How many other people have died because someone crashed into them after falling asleep? – Sebastiaan van den Broek Nov 12 at 6:44
  • 78
    "If i had a dollar for every student that fell asleep in a lecture that I had spent days preparing..." You do -- it's called a salary. ;-) – David Richerby Nov 12 at 8:47
  • 40
    @DavidRicherby, I don't get paid that much! ;) – Ian Sudbery Nov 12 at 10:12
24

I would advise patience, wait until the grades are out.

If the lecturer was actually asleep then that may or may not be something to deal with.

However, if the lecturer was not asleep but not looking at you and perhaps reading the papers on the desk or similar you may be starting something you should not.

Again, patience and see how it goes.

  • 2
    Thank you for your response! I am rather certain he was at least nodding off, and other students confirmed this as well. – Jonas Schwarz Nov 11 at 16:01
  • I would add that researcher was present for the presentation, and it could be that the lecturer defers to the subject matter expert with regards to grading. – Chad Nov 12 at 22:18
  • 9
    I disagree; waiting until grades are out risks looking like you are motivated by getting a poor grade, rather than getting a potentially unfair grade. If you wait then people will question why you didn't say anything at the time. – dbmag9 Nov 13 at 10:14
  • 1
    @dbmag9 So why not ask this of the other answers that also say wait? Perhaps you should post this as an answer yourself and see what the opinion is of the community... – Solar Mike Nov 13 at 10:21
  • 1
    @SolarMike I posted the comment while at work, and hadn't scrolled further down than your answer. I don't mean to suggest that your recommendation of waiting is any worse than anyone else's recommendation of waiting. – dbmag9 Nov 13 at 20:22
20

I understand your frustration with a part of your audience sleeping through (some part) of your talk. As many other answers mention, this is unfortunately not an unusual experience for anyone presenting in academia. Members of the audience have different lifestyles and indeed different situations and sometimes the sleep deprivation takes the best of us. It is alright to be frustrated about it but please try not to feel insulted - there is really no evidence that this fact was in any way a response to the quality of your presentation and research.

As for your second question, why do you think the grade will be adversely impacted? If I were the lecturer in this situation, I would feel terrible about it and I would probably be inclined to "make it right" for the student, so I would consciously or subconsciously raise the grade.

  • 5
    In addition, often the lower-level researchers are the one's that in practice provide the feedback that counts and the lecturer may largely rely on that fellow researcher's assessment anyway. – Frank Hopkins Nov 12 at 0:49
  • 4
    The issue is not that "a part of the audience" fell asleep. The issue is that the part of the audience who was specifically responsible for assigning the student's grade fell asleep. – David Richerby Nov 12 at 8:49
  • 5
    @FrankHopkins: Seeing that the OP is located in Germany, this remark might be a crucial point that is worthy of being made into an answer of its own. My impression is that in parts of German academia, in particular when it comes to teaching, there is a very pronounced culture of having one person (usually a professor) be formally solely responsible for a certain task, but someone else (usually a doctoral candidate or a postdoc) doing the entirety of the actual work, including being entrusted by said professor with making the actual decision (or at least being the only one who has all the ... – O. R. Mapper Nov 12 at 10:23
  • ... information and therefore is the only one who can immediately suggest a meaningful course of action, even if the professor has to officially sign off on it). – O. R. Mapper Nov 12 at 10:24
  • 5
    "there is really no evidence that this fact was in any way a response to the quality of your presentation and research.": this, exactly this! I remember being in a conference once and listening to a talk I honestly found fascinating. I really wanted to hear it, it was excellent. And yet, I was falling asleep. This had nothing to do with the talk and everything to do with the fact that it was late, I was tired and there wasn't much oxygen in the hall. – terdon Nov 12 at 18:55
10

About your grade

Granted, you are likely not getting the best assessment of what a fair grade for you would be. But in any decent place, the professor knows he is at fault and won't let his fault put you in trouble. If you are expecting to graduate with some kind of special honors, I'd have a friend put in the word about this to this teacher. If you are afraid of failing this class (which from my experience, is very rare in presentation-only grading systems) then unless you made very crappy slides and handed them for evaluation, you should have nothing to worry about.

About feeling insulted

Vent to some friends, as you have every right to be be insulted. But what do you actually expect that should happen? Have you ever seen a student apologize to a teacher because he slept during his class? Well, it happens, but I've never seen the other way around, even though teachers have struggled to keep awake during presentations of mine.

If the teacher does come to apologize to you, what would you respond? "It's okay"? From what you've told us, I think it's not. "Take better care of your sleep schedule?", he should know what to do in this regard and what he can't do, and better than you know. "I appreciate the apology"? Still leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth. The only good response I could think of, would be in the case where you could suspect him having some rare/uncommon disease that might have been undiagnosed (some people for instance have dark marks on their necks, which are often dismissed for poor hygiene, but they're actually a sign of diabetes, quite dangerous if nobody ever points it out to them). But that is not the case, is it?

My point is, with regards to feeling insulted, leave it alone.

Another thing to consider

There are several presentation techniques that help preventing a sleepy audience. Have you used any of them? You could have:

  1. Moved from side-to-side of the class every now and them, forcing the audience to move their necks.
  2. Modulated your voice tone, so it changes every now and then and during sentences (thus achieving the opposite of a mono-tone/monotonous voice).
  3. Fake coughed, stomped your feet or made any other annoying noise (poor tactics, but work when someone is nearly falling asleep).
  4. Prepared a few jokes (don't tell them unless you really need to re-engage the audience, but have them up your sleeve), a laughing classroom wakes up the sleepy ones very well.
  • 2
    Upvoting for including techniques that engage the audience, skills that should be mandatory for every presenter. – Chad Nov 12 at 22:13
  • 3
    @Chad: To be fair, there are much better methods to engage the audience, the examples I've mentioned are just the ones I believe to excel at waking up the audience. – Mefitico Nov 13 at 12:14
7

The poor guy has to listen to dozens of presentations like yours, and most of them are going to be boring. When you go into real life and give presentations to your managers or your customers, they are going to fall asleep if your presentations are boring. When it comes to grading or assessing you, it will come down to "this presentation was so boring, I fell asleep".

It's your job to make it sufficiently interesting that your audience stays awake. Work on your presentation technique.

  • 7
    It's the profs job to listen to listen to student's presentations and give feedback and grde, even if they are boring. While it may be understandable that a proff can have private problems which make them sleep it is never a student's fault. – user115896 Nov 12 at 11:55
  • 7
    Also your grading scheme "I fell asleep, so the student has done something wrong" is weird, especially after reading the other answers. – user115896 Nov 12 at 11:56
  • 4
    I don't know from the question to what extent they are assessing you on content and to what extent on presentation technique. I'm just telling you that in the real world, if you're pitching for a contract and your customer falls asleep, you've failed. – Michael Kay Nov 12 at 14:36
  • 4
    @MichaelKay: Okay, then you've failed in the real world. But that has no relevance to the question (except that one could argue that the prof has failed). The student is there to learn and get feedback. (Moreover, a prof who falls asleep because of personal problems should not a student fail because of this -- the real world customer may think differently.) – user115896 Nov 12 at 16:13
  • 12
    @KonradRudolph: As someone who’s fallen asleep in plenty of conference talks, I find it’s much more affected by the time of day, proximity to meals or coffee breaks, ambient heat/humidity, how much/well I slept the night before, and other incidental factors. The quality of the speaker is in there somewhere, but it’s far from the dominant factor. – PLL Nov 12 at 19:36
6

Wait. Yes, it is insulting or at the very least rude, but ultimately as long as you pass there is no problem... But I do hope you have recorded evidence of your presentation and of the public in case you dont pass. In which case you can demand a revision of your grade based on the lecturer falling asleep multiple times.

You mention that the lecturer seemed very busy, that is not a problem, you dont need your eyes to hear and he/she could have been listening to you, which isnt necessarily rude, it could have been that the lecturer was was fact-checking stuff or taking notes on your presentation. Falling asleep however is rude even if the person was super tired and make an effort to arrive to your presentation. You don't know and we don't know how interesting your topic was either, but sleeping it out is a lack of respect for the speaker.

Yet, as long as it does not affect your passing grade then swallow your pride and move on. Your main objective for the lecture was to get a passing grade. Just that.

In usm, wait til you see your grade. If you pass decently 'good work, well done, move on' , if you dont pass, then thats when you act, but be sure to have lots of evidence.

  • 3
    as long as you pass there is no problem --- The OP is concerned with the grade, not just with passing or failing. – Dave L Renfro Nov 11 at 18:56
  • 1
    @Heutl Yes, most presentations are recorded in camera and/or in the cellphone and various people normally do so. more so if it's an important talk. It can be the school that then adds the talk/conference to their youtube channel, the students showing it to their family or for memories, or even for paranoid reasons like catching on record any problem that may happen, which then serves as evidence. – deags Nov 11 at 20:53
  • 1
    I have never seen anyone in a "normal" student seminar (not conference talks etc.) seen recording a talk, so I'm quite surprised! However, I guess the questioner cannot change now the fact if it was recorded or not. Hopefully the other students stand up for them! Otherwise stellar answer! – user115896 Nov 11 at 20:56
  • 1
    Additional info: I have not recorded the talk, and the grade will probably be above the pass/fail-range. – Jonas Schwarz Nov 12 at 6:38
  • 1
    @Heutl It has become very common to records talks; even normal classes are recorded because that way students can later revise the lecture for anything they missed (and prove that the teacher did/didn't teach something). I've seen too that the recordings are uploaded to a Google classroom/drive folder or shared via whatsapp. – deags Nov 12 at 17:54
3

My suggestion: Go talk to him. He is probably pretty embarrassed about having fallen asleep, and would be appreciative of you not drawing wide attention to this incident.

So, arrange a meeting - now, not after the grades are published. In that meeting, tell him what you told us, and how you feel about it. Let him offer an apology and a solution regarding how you should be graded. Don't rush to agree or disagree immediately, tell him you need to think about it. And - do think about.

Now, if he gets angry, denies it, yells at you or threatens you - talk to your student union and then lodge a formal complaint.

Also, if you can coordinate your actions with the other student during whose presentation the lecturer slept, that would be great. It would strengthen both of your positions and credibility.

2

(I'm German as the questions author is too, and studied computer science at FU Berlin.)

The situation is less complex than your intuition tells you:

It is, on an abstract level, very simple. Much of what happens is nice for various reasons, but not actually relevant.

The sole purpose of the presentation is that you, personally, learn to give a good lecture. How good you do is usually documented in terms of a grade, but that fact is not relevant for you during the process. The final grade is relevant, but you do not need to know how it was derived. To illustrate that, the grading person may always give a good grade, for whatever reason. That can happen after he listened your presentation with great attention, even posing good questions during the presentation. Or he may sleep during the whole presentation. Or, for this example, even sleep behind a half transparent mirror so you do not even know whether he is there. You would make some assumption how the grade was derived, but that is irrelevant for the result. All that is perfectly fine.

If there are other students in the seminar, it is perfectly normal that they are your audience. You do not need to worry about the grade, because he knows if he is missing information that is useful for grading, and has tho assume the positive wherever he is missing information. It's not your responsibility. For example, you may hold a presentation, with the lecturer being awake in the beginning and at the end. While he is awake, you give a good presentation to the audience you prefer. But while he is asleep, you mess up a couple of times. In this situation, it is legitimate to let him grade based on beginning and end. Except if you feel it is not legitimate, and explain to him what happened.

Note that in all this, it is not actually relevant what the lecturer does. Theoretically, the audience could be a single mannequin, which only exists to make it easier to imagine the presence of an audience. (No audience at all would be pretty hard to handle). You see that you can fulfill the purpose of the presentation without an audience.

I can absolutely understand that you are not comfortable to have a practical experience like above. That is perfectly fine. But if you take the above into account, you can just disregard anything that does not feel right in the process.

And if you feel the presentation should be graded, you are perfectly competent to just do that yourself.

Now on your actual experience: There is no reason to feel insulted. Because no insult does exist. That he sleeps is unrelated to you, and you even know the very valid reason for it. He has the option to either listen to your presentation, while he already knows most of the content. Or sleep, and spend an hour actively discussing with and supporting a student. That student could be you. At least in the later case, you may agree that the second option is far better for you, and potentially for him too. I assume this may be a proof that there is no disrespect in the situation, because it is clearly the right thing to do.

Your case is actually much simpler, as your audience actually includes

  • a person responsible for grading
    • He will practically just decide for the other person where he is missing information
    • a negative influence on your grade could only happen if the person not sleeping tends to give lower grades, and the sleeping one does not object, even based on a single second being awake.
  • an audience that is sincerely interested in and gains objective advantages from listening to you.
    • I would call that an outright luxurious situation

Finally, I want to emphasize that there is nothing insulting whatsoever. There is n malice involved at all. And that, if in doubt, you even have the information to conclude that yourself. That conclusion would be perfectly valid in a strict mathematical sense.

2

Of course, sleeping on the job is a very unprofessional thing of the professor to do. But should you complain because of the grade?

First, as you are in Germany and are most likely not paying for your education, I doubt you find an institution in the university which takes your complaint and is able to do anything about it. You can probably only complain to the professor themselves. But should you do this?

If the professor does not realizise they were sleeping, they will probably not believe it if you tell them. This could give them a worse image of you which might result in a worse great.

If they did realize, they most likely do not hold this against you. I have seen professors sleeping (and even snoring) during student's talks and exams -- they tended to give some general feedback "The talk was good. See you next time." and give the best grade as they realize they made a mistake. Calling them out on their mistake would probably again make a bad impression and put the professor in a defensive spot.

Addendum: From the comments, it seems that some people do not believe that nobody would and could take the complaint. Indeed, this is my experience with German universities. It is (most likely) different in universities where students pay a lot of money. However, of course I don't know all German universities. So my advice to the OP is: Before you complain, think about if you know who to complain to. Is there any institution where you know there has been a change after a similar (!) (that's important) complaint (something of the same level as your complaint)? I assume no -- then my answer stands. If you could really think of such an institution in your university, you can ignore my paragraph regarding that. (Note that you certainly will have an institution which takes those complaints on paper -- this does not has to mean that something will ever happen).

  • 6
    claiming you can't complain about a free "service" is misguided at best – Alex Robinson Nov 12 at 17:25
  • 1
    @AlexRobinson: From my experience in studying in Germany, there is no authority you can reasonably complain to (except for sexual misconduct etc. or if the instructor is only a student). In countries where you pay for your education (or private universities in Germany) there is more incentive for implementing a quality process as the institution has an interest not to lose "customers". – user115896 Nov 12 at 17:44
  • @Heutl - In the UK, the student could discuss their concerns with their representative on the Student Staff Liason committee. But I concur that calling them out for snoozing could make the lecturer defensive. I would approach the subject as "When grading is the result of a presentation, how should I deal with a professor/instructor who is inattentive or distracted?" This approach includes a great range of behavior, without targeting a single professor or instructor. – Chad Nov 12 at 22:22
  • @Chad: Those committees exists also in Germany, but, as far as I know, they are toothless. At the very least, they are not likely to provide immediate, concrete help (the questioner does care about this concrete grade). – user115896 Nov 13 at 6:49
  • Could the downvoter please explain? My answer is based on my German experience. – user115896 Nov 13 at 19:44
1

I recently had a very important interview for a postdoc position. There were two professors in the interview. One of them fell asleep on multiple occasions. What shocked me was he fell asleep after asking a question and while I try to answer his question. I tried my best to keep him up by changing the pitch of my voice and it really helped. I was a lecturer at a university and had taught many courses. I learned about active learning methods before becoming a lecturer. The key to make your audience awake is on your hand. Just change the tone of your voice (low to high then to low), the audience will stay awake. Try other tricks to add some spice besides perhaps the boring hardcore science stuff. I wouldn’t feel insulted instead I would ask myself whether my talk was that much boring to make my key audience be sleepy.

  • This does not answer the question as the event already happened. – user115896 Nov 14 at 19:47
0

... You could always ask the presentation to be remarked by a different lecturer?

Being a former student myself, this option has always been common knowledge across the entire class if one is unsatisfied with the assessor.

Best act sooner than later, I recall remarking of work after being formally marked only able to reach a certain percentage (60% - or a 1:2).

  • Do you have experience with the German university system? I have, and frankly I cannot think of anyone who could and would grant this request. (Moreover, how should someone not present while the talk grade it?) – user115896 Nov 13 at 16:05
  • In the UK, typically the assessor takes notes and/or generally asks questions to gauge knowledge of the subject. Then after, between a week and a fortnight the formal mark is given back. If what you are saying is correct then I feel sorry for those studying at German universities that they cannot get a second opinion. In my personal opinion, asking it to be remarked by another assessor should not be considered beyond capability. – Danny Watson Nov 14 at 13:59
  • So, somebody else who grade them based on the non-existing notes of the sleeping guy? And yes, unfortunately this is the case in Germany. I am now instructor in a different country with a similar system -- it is really scary how powerful I am over the students. – user115896 Nov 14 at 15:42

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.