23

I’m an undergraduate student and want to teach a workshop next semester, so I’m working with my school’s administration to get help with room reservations and stuff.

I have been bounced around between a few different head professors. Finally, I found the right one and got this email requesting my help with tutoring their friend’s daughter for an assignment:

Charles, I got your information - requesting to [start workshop next semester]. Let us talk about it in the coming days.

On unrelated note, my friend's daughter is [doing undergrad at X school]. She has requested for assignment help - private tutoring. If you have a hour or two today or tomorrow, it will be great to help her. This assignment is due [at time]. >

[Friend's daughter's name], if you have worked on these problems / have partial answers, you may want to share so that we can review and respond. Best wishes.

Is this weird? Will I get in trouble for cooperating?

11
  • 14
    Looks very strange. I would simply (politely) decline the tutoring and get back to the business at hand. They did specifically write unrelated so it's not rude/weird to expect to do exactly that. A quid pro quo type arrangement is unexpected and unprofessional. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 16:50
  • 2
    For the question, could you clarify what "teach a workshop" means? Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 16:50
  • 2
    That is strange. But, do you think may be the professor only ask to see if you want to take a second job (tutorial) on the side (and he does not mean to force you to take the tutorial job) ? Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 17:12
  • 15
    Is it an opportunity for a paid tutoring gig that the prof is just passing along or more of a quid pro quo?
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 19:29
  • 4
    There is a risk if you DON'T cooperate then your relationship with this professor is screwed, so regardless what "should" or "shouldn't" be happening, you need to evaluate how much the relationship with this professor is worth for finding rooms/running your workshop, and if for any reason that is worth lot, I would go ahead and help with this Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 16:46

7 Answers 7

40

Yes, it’s wildly inappropriate for a professor to make such a request of a student who needs their help.

You can cooperate if you want, but maybe consider whether you want to be the kind of person who lets other people with more power manipulate him into doing their bidding. If this was a matter of life and death I might see a dilemma, but in this situation I have a feeling you could get your problem solved in a variety of other ways that don’t involve being a party to this sort of shady transaction. Good luck in any case!

8
  • 12
    I came back here to make this comment and I see that Buffy has written something similar in the comments on the question itself. While I agree with your answer, I wonder whether there's a misunderstanding. What would you, i.e. Dan Romik, think of OP asking how much this gig pays, alternatively writing, "My usual tutoring fee is $xx.xx per hour. OK?" That is, is there a misunderstanding caused by the juxtaposition of two unrelated requests?
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 19:53
  • 2
    @BobBrown I don’t see any ethical issue with OP offering to do the tutoring as a paid gig (assuming that’s a paid gig they’d actually be interested in), if that’s what you’re asking, but I don’t see how that’s related to your last sentence. There may be a misunderstanding, or there may be a savvy manipulator who is careful enough to leave themselves the exit route of claiming a “misunderstanding” in the event someone finds fault with their behavior. Which of those two scenarios is the true one is unknowable given the currently available information.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 20:35
  • 8
    (Regardless, the professor should not have sent an email phrased in such a way, even if the reason he sent it is utter cluelessness rather having unethical intent. So I stand by what I said about the behavior being wildly inappropriate.)
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 20:38
  • 6
    Intent is not an element to professional ethics violations, only an aggravating factor. Failure to understand that they are in a position of extreme power (handling an active request) and throwing in an "unrelated" major request is unethical, period. The minimal not-clearly-unethical would be (1) sending the request under separate cover (2) as a paid offer. Why on earth is the friend's daughter on the email?
    – obscurans
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 13:01
  • 2
    @obscurans interesting, but could you support your claim about intent with a reference? Just adding “period” at the end of a sentence does not automatically make it true, period.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 15:42
30

The thing that makes this email strange (and a bit inapproriate when juxtaposed with the fact that you need them to help you) is that it does not specify the tutoring to be paid work, and therefore implicitly looks like a request for free labour. If the professor intended to offer you an opportunity for paid tutoring work then they probably view that as an opportunity for you, rather than a request for a gratis service.

So yes, the email is strange, and it is a bad look. It is possible that the professor just did not take due care to give all the relevant details and didn't notice this when sending. I would recommend interpreting the email charitably, and assuming that the professor hadn't thought about the appropriate amount of money for the tutoring because they see it as a transaction that does not involve them. Alternatively, perhaps the professor does not know how much money the friend intends for the tutoring, and so expects you to get the ball rolling on money discussions if you're interested in the work. As to how to proceed, if you want some paid tutoring work, you could pick an appropriate figure to charge and then write back and offer to tutor for that amount; if you don't want the tutoring work, just decline or ignore the request.

2
  • 7
    To add to this answer, why would any professor extort a random student to obtain something that is of entirely marginal benefit to them? Does anyone actually believe that a friend's daughter's homework assignment is so important to this professor that they need to bend a random student's arm over it? A much more likely explanation is that it didn't even occur to them that their email could be construed this way. Yes, the email is weird, but so is reading it as an attempt at extortion. Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 20:47
  • 5
    @AdamPrenosil: I agree 90% with your comment (+1), but there are sometimes cases where managers in enterprises add on little jobs for their subordinates (or others like students who need their help) that go beyond the scope of legitimate work for the employer. Yes, the benefit is marginal (e.g., pick up my dry-cleaning, feed my cat, tutor my friend's daughter) but this type of practice is not unheard of. I think that's why people look at an email like that with suspicion.
    – Ben
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 21:16
6

Yes, I consider the message weird for several reasons.

  1. Apparently, the message is addressed both at you and the professor's friend's daughter. This is very inappropriate, as it's a breach of privacy: it is of no concern to the professor's friend's daughter that the professor and you are in negotiations about teaching a workshop.

  2. Since the message has been addressed both to you and the professor's friend's daughter, she is aware of the fact that the professor has asked you to help her. This is an impolite act of the professor, because he's put you into a potentially face-threatening situation: as the recipient of the request is immediately involved, it may be harder for you to refuse than it would be otherwise.

  3. Even though the passage of the message in which you're asked a favor is prefaced by "unrelatedly", the message may be read as an implied quid pro quo – as you say in the title, it may be interpreted as asking you a favor (to assist his friend's daughter) in the expectation that you feel obliged because you have received a favor (support in teaching a workshop). If this was indeed the intention, would be very unethical behavior, and you may even argue that it was a kind of extortion given the power imbalance between the professor and you.

  4. The message doesn't mention payment – only "private tutoring". This omission is either unprofessional (if it was simply an oversight) or exploitative (if the favor is indeed intended as unpaid tutoring).

What I would do in response to a message like this is this: I'd simply delay my answer until the deadline for the assignment has passed. Given that all this appears to be on very short notice, a delay of a day might be enough, and would still be within a completely acceptable response time. Then, in the reply, I'd say something along the lines of

Sorry, I was kept very busy yesterday due to [valid reason that doesn't reflect negatively on me]. I sincerely hope that [professor's friend's daughter] was still able to complete the assignment without my assistance.

The rest of my response would be about the workshop, and not the tutoring offer.

1
  • 3
    Nice answer and +1, but about your suggested email reply, I would not advise OP to either apologize (“sorry”), explain or excuse the totally normal delay in response time (“I was kept very busy”), or address the friend’s daughter’s tutoring need in a way that implies that OP might have been willing to help had it not been for being busy (“I hope she was still able to complete the assignment without my assistance”). When someone tries to manipulate you, just say no or ignore the request and you minimize the risk of getting drawn into their web of manipulations in the future.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 20:42
6

The key problem I see is that while the OP is not getting a direct response to their question, just the vague suggestion they'll "talk" in the "coming days", the (unbelievably) "unrelated" question of tutoring his friend's daughter comes up to be done in the next day or two.

This seems like an almost explicit condition for talking to the student.

There's the breach of confidentiality as well, but I'd personally consider this a disciplinary hearing level of abuse of authority. Someone working for me would be have their work emails checked for a pattern of such abuse in the past. I'd be contacting former students to see if they were put under similar pressure.

At the very minimum this would (from me) generate a formal warning letter related to ethical appearance as well as practice. It's not enough to be ethical, you have to be seen to be ethical in such a position.

"She has requested for assignment help - private tutoring"

"This assignment is due [at time]."

These are absolutely shocking lines. It's practically an admission that the professor expects the student to complete the assignment for her.

We've seen many scandals about wealthy people's kids having work done for them and even having exams done by other people. Let's not be naive about how bad this email looks.

And I don't think anyone in a position of power like this gets much benefit of the doubt. They should be avoiding this exact kind of communication like the plague.

In short, this (IMO) stinks.

Someone suggested it's a marginal benefit to the professor, which is not really true as it could be a case of arranging free "tutoring" for someone else in return for some other favor. That, I regret to say, is how some people conduct their "business".

3
  • 1
    You're making a lot of speculative inferences based on next to no information and treating them as fact. The inference from the fact that the prof writes "This assignment is due [at time]" to "an admission that the professor expects the student to complete the assignment for her" is particularly strange. Yes, people in positions of authority should take care to appear ethical in addition to also acting ethically, but you're taking the uncharitable interpretation to the extreme imo. It's not even clear that the professor has the authority to deny the student's request if they are displeased. Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 14:02
  • 2
    @AdamPřenosil We're going to have to agree to disagree. My view is that basically all of these statements individually are "bad smelling", so to speak, but the combination is just awful. I find it hard to believe any of us would not be furious to find someone under us wrote such an email. Remember it's not enough to not be caught doing something unethical, these days you have to have a clean appearance as well, and this is a long way from clean looking. Many businesses would fire someone on the spot for such a letter. YMMV of course, but that's my view. Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 14:19
  • 1
    Even if it were of marginal/no benefit to the professor, it's still a wildly inappropriate way to make such a "request" for all the other reasons you pointed out. If anything, it would be even less clear why the professor is doing this if they're getting little or nothing out of it.
    – V2Blast
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 21:12
1

Of course this is inappropriate: Someone in a position of power is demanding a personal favor from a subordinate in exchange for doing their own job. The "unrelated note" they mention is not actually an unrelated note, in the same way that it wouldn't be unrelated if you said, "Sure, I'd be happy to tutor your friend's daughter. On an unrelated note, I'm going to busy next week, and it sure would be nice if I got an extension on the upcoming homework assignment." (Or, on the stick rather than the carrot side, "You've got a nice business here. It sure would be a shame if something were to... happen to it.") It's a quid pro quo outside the normal professional relationship a professor is supposed to have with their students.

That having been said, the professor may just be unaware of how unprofessional this is. They're in a position of power over their subordinates; undergrads and grad students are completely dependent on professors and have very little recourse in situations like this. Maybe they're used to getting undeserved perks or think they actually deserve them. (For that matter, I've run into more egregious demands along these lines, though they're not things I can post about in public.)

Unfortunately, there's not much you can do in this situation--- which is exactly why it persists. You can decline, but that's possibly going to sour your relationship with the professor and block you from getting the workshop. (And no, the professor isn't going to explicitly say that they're denying you the workshop for that reason, but that doesn't mean it isn't actually the reason.) It may also sour your relationship with other professors; they do talk among themselves, and you're not going be around for those conversations to defend yourself. Going to the head of the department or other administration figures would be a waste of time; no department is going to throw a professor under the bus for an undergrad without much more egregious and much more explicit evidence.

So, unfortunately, that means you're stuck deciding whether teaching your seminar and cultivating good relationships in the department are worth a bit of sleaziness and graft. It's unfortunate, but welcome to academia.

1
  • 2
    "Sure, I'd be happy to tutor your friend's daughter. On an unrelated note, I'm going to busy next week, and it sure would be nice if I got an extension on the upcoming homework assignment." – I would be very curious to see how he'd respond if the asker did reply with that... (Though I wouldn't actually recommend replying in this way.)
    – V2Blast
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 21:14
0

Just apply Hanlon's razor here, and be positive.

If you are interested in the private tutoring, you can write (of course adjust to the specifics):

Thank you for the reply I am happy to join. Let’s talk end of the week.

About the private tutoring, I am glad to help, and tomorrow looks good. Should I negotiate the rate directly with (daughters name) or (friend name)?

Only send this reply to your professor, so if Hanlon's razor failed and he wants out of that, he can do it in a facesaving way.

-2

Academicians are often very busy people. I interpret this as he sees you are suitable for tutoring since you are interested in that workshop and take action. Thus he refers you to that person as a possible tutor. One email to you both probably means I don't want to get involved, do whatever you want. When there is exploitation going on, you will receive a different email while the other person gets something else.

I am almost sure what he/she is after is to get rid of this chore, not to get a service for free. I sometimes get requests like that, though I will, in person, advice my student not to do it for free, just to make sure they will not misunderstand it. It is not a direct favor, but I am just trying to get rid of the request and in the meanwhile I am giving better students a chance to earn some bucks. I think this might be the case here.

I think it will be a good idea to take on the task, asking some tutoring charge, something that is not excessive (if you ask too much it will strain the relationship between your professor and his/her friend) or immediately respond you will not be able to help due to some reason. Only accept if you are sure you can handle the task.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .