My question is about interacting with students/colleagues, and criticizing them specifically, and to what extent a certain kind of criticism is productive. I hope this will not become about "students/academics need to develop thick skins" because, yes, there is a question of how to respond to (or ignore) experiences ("develop a thicker or thick enough skin"), but there is also a question of how to evaluate one's own or other's behavior ("should I do this? what are its merits?").

I'm not sure I have the language to explain exactly what I'm asking so I'll go with examples.

Example 1: I'm grading exams with a professor as a PhD student; we're in mathematics so it's a math exam. I come across something a student has written and have to second-guess --- it's not something I would have written --- I just don't think about this concept that way --- but is it actually wrong? Time is of the essence (kind of...) and I don't have a pen and paper in front of me so I simply ask the professor, "Is this true?" The professor responds emotionally, I would say, something along the lines of "Yes, of course, you should know that!" It wasn't even the words as much as the person's facial expression conveying scorn, disappointment, etc.

My feeling is: is the object of grading together accurately assessing the students' work or proving how smart we are/we can do it alone without help? In the end, it doesn't matter: I'm doing fine in my career and I accept that I'm a person who asks a lot of "dumb" questions. But I can't help feeling the professor's reaction was unproductive and I'm uncomfortable with the idea this is commonplace in academia. I mean, do I really believe I'm supposed to just know everything immediately off-the-top-of-my head and heaven forbid I should ask the person I am working with for their help? What was that interaction really about? You could say, "Doesn't this motivate you to do better?" but no, that only motivates me to be a better mentor than them, I don't think it made me a better mathematician/more knowledgeable about the subject/etc.

Example 2: I'm at a meeting with my faculty supervisor and another postdoc. At some point, I chime in with something (very simplified) to the effect that "2 + 2 = 3 + 1" and the supervisor looks very disappointed and responds in a condescending tone, "No, no, that's not it at all, 2 + 2 = 4." That's not what was actually said, but it gets the point across --- we are saying the same thing in two different ways. It's not the professor misunderstanding what I said that bothers me, it's the emotional part: why should he show disappointment in his face or talk in a condescending tone? Is that going to bring out the best in me? Will I respect him more for treating me that way? My point-of-view is no on both questions, especially the last one.

What do I miss, though? This seems common to me. Is there a silver lining here?

Example 3: Here I am the culprit. I'm talking to a student about some reading they did. I'm finding myself getting quite concerned that they're not at the level I think they should be at --- not just concerned, but peeved, probably because I didn't think the student and I should have been put in this situation in the first place (think: admissions). I start to imply by my tone and word-choice that I think the student isn't where they should be, but not in an encouraging way, in a peeved way (think: Example 1). The best words I can find is I'm kind of "putting them down": not in a completely unprofessional way, but more like I'm conveying implicitly, "You have a lot of work to do, I'm really surprised we're having this conversation." To me in the moment, it seemed like I needed to convey they weren't where they should be and how "bad" that is, but while it was happening, I started dialing back because I realized it wasn't fair to the student and could make our relationship less productive (not to mention I was being kind of mean!). It wasn't fair because we had just started working together; they were where they were in terms of preparation (we can't change the past); and, upon reflection, my job (without going into details...) was really to pull them up as far as we can go, not to give them unsolicited, tacit advice about how they measure up.

Immediately after writing this, my mind goes to the refrain, "Well, some will use the sense of outrage from being treated this way and use it as 'fuel' to work harder, prove 'em wrong, etc." But, again, that's a bit like the "get a thicker skin" point-of-view. I know what to do as the "victim," so to speak --- I have played the "I'm gonna use it for fuel" card plenty of times in my life --- I'm trying to figure out what is or isn't good leadership/mentorship/etc. and I just feel like I encounter what I think of as "unwise or regrettable behavior" (including in myself) quite frequently. I want to be a good mentor/advisor/etc. in the future.

But there's always a catch. It's all too easy! In the examples, I judged others and myself pretty harshly and it felt good, right? So, what do I miss about these interactions? What's the hard reality preventing this from changing, or what am I failing to acknowledge here? I worry something is missing. (Maybe I just need to focus on research and stop fretting about emotions/behavior/etc., but that's a dodge!)

As someone who is still junior in academia, how can I "defuse" these situations when they happen? Is it possible to convey to mentors/supervisors/more senior people that their behavior gives me pause/makes me think less of them/etc.? (I realize how much I am asking in that last question, but still! Part of the problem is I start to distance myself from people when this happens, to no one's benefit.)

  • 3
    About Example 1: I usually try to be polite, but while I'm grading papers my personality rapidly deteriorates. Jul 14, 2022 at 0:12
  • I am not sure. I have the feeling that academia infuse people with some sense of entitlement, so they ego grows infinitely and it is always the other people reactions to "neutral". Let's take example 2: you chime in. How exactly? we do not kwow, maybe you had a tone that came out as particulary supponent, or "better knowing", so the reaction was equally stronger. Example 1: maybe there were some disbelief in your question (beacuse you would not expect the solution to have that form) so the professor replied so strongly.
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 14, 2022 at 8:34
  • Pardon the question: are the interactions 1&2 woman (you) with man? I see a pattern (on the other side, not on yours, although in the previous comment I addressed your "possible" side)
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 14, 2022 at 8:36
  • @EarlGrey, alas, I am simply a sensitive man... However, yes, it does add insult to injury a bit to have these experiences and then think, "Aren't we supposed to be trying to do better for the sake of people from underrepresented backgrounds?" If I felt like more of an outsider (e.g., as a person from such a background), presumably these experiences would give me more desire/reason/etc. to quit.
    – user45103
    Aug 3, 2022 at 16:32
  • @EarlGrey, as far as your first comment, it's interesting... I have noticed multiple experiences where I have felt insecure and tried to voice my feelings looking for encouragement (e.g., "Well, hopefully I will be able to find a job next year...") and others have misinterpreted what I said as arrogance/gloating rather than insecurity/looking for encouragment. It's to the point where I'm trying to be more conservative about what I say around people I'm not close to --- my assumptions about what could lead to misunderstandings were too liberal --- and that includes asking fewer questions.
    – user45103
    Aug 3, 2022 at 16:59


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