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This is a phrase that I have heard on multiple occasions, both on this forum and in real life. But what exactly does that mean (in reference to talking about students)? When I hear this, I can't help but imagine a group of emeritus professors with grey beards sitting around in a room gossiping about the latest incoming student, with pipes in hand. An image that is both comical and scary if true, although hopefully far from accurate. So what I'm wondering is:

  1. When do professors typically discuss students (performance or otherwise)? When they are going out to lunch with other colleagues or after committee meetings...?
  2. What do the conversations usually revolve around? By that I mean are these conversations typically strictly professional, or are they more gossipy in nature like you would expect at some workplaces?
  3. Have you ever been in or heard conversations that were "malicious" towards certain students? Like warning other colleagues off on advising someone?
  4. Are these conversations more likely to be positive or negative? Do profs tend to spend more time praising star students or complaining about the non-star students?
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    It mostly means don't be any more memorably stupid than you must be... – keshlam Aug 6 '15 at 1:28
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    This probably originates as part of the student tendency to not recognize their Professors as social beings, working their way through social networks and obligations, just like everyone else. In some sense one may even say students fail to acknowledge them as human beings. You seem a little guilty of this, in fact. Secret bearded cabals? Really?! Professors engage in socialization, and manage a work environment with coworkers and customers (students, namely), in much the same way and degree that everyone else does. – zibadawa timmy Aug 6 '15 at 3:35
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    More worrying than the fact that they talk is the fact that professors used to be students themselves and know that "I read that paper but can't remember the details" really means "I know I'm supposed to have read that paper, but haven't" as well as other similar things... – ping Aug 6 '15 at 4:16
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    Emeritus professors are retired. They don't sit around and talk about students any more. – ewormuth Aug 6 '15 at 4:44
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    What is "malicious" about warning a colleague about a student? There may be cases (hopefully very rare) when this is warranted. – Sasho Nikolov Aug 6 '15 at 15:57
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  1. Since students are a big part of our life, we discuss students both in casual situations (e.g., lunch) or professional settings (e.g., committee meetings). Of course you shouldn't think students are all we talk about, and discussions about students mostly only come up in committee meetings when they're relevant.
  2. The conversations are mostly professional, particularly the ones in meetings, but some things you might consider "gossipy" I would consider professional, e.g., where a student is going for grad school. (As a department, we have an interest in what our students do afterwards). Not that there is not no gossip going on, but at least I personally am not so interested in it, and I don't know too much about the personal lives of most of my students. Most "gossip" is about other faculty.
  3. Well, faculty often discuss about bad experiences with/performances of students with other faculty. Sometimes to get advice, sometimes to vent, and sometimes because the student has done something amusing. Sometimes the student's name is used and sometimes it is not. In my department, I think the student's name is not normally used in the case of undergrads unless it is in a professional context (needing advice or reporting a possible problem student). But we don't often give explicit advice like "stay away from this student."
  4. In general, I think people have a tendency to spend more time complaining than offering praise. However, at least at the undergrad level, when names are used, I think it is more often to speak positively or neutrally of students than speak negatively.
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    Note: my experience comes mostly from mid to large sized universities. At small schools, where the faculty and students all know each other, I can imagine there's a lot more gossiping going on in both directions. – Kimball Aug 6 '15 at 2:46
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In general, we talk about students' performance and how they are digesting certain materials. The latter is important because it allows us to calibrate our delivery to a given cohort of students.

As for the former, we flag top performers and problematic students; not so much those that failed once or twice, but consistently failed or those who always have an excuse to skip assessments or pretend to be sick during exams. As for the top performers, we may want to recruit them for projects or encourage them to go into research.

If a student approaches me for a project, then I would definitely talk to other Profs who have taught the student to get a bearing on the student's abilities.

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I can provide some student perspective. I remember once I unexpectedly met my advisor, who was a chemistry professor, in an airport when I was flying back. The next day I bumped into a physics professor I knew of, and he asked me how my flight was yesterday. There was no way that he could have known my flight except by gossiping, since I did not tell anybody I was coming back. In another occasion, I went to talk with a math professor about grad school, and he inquired about some of my work done in the psychology department. Again, he must have known this through another professor, since I had never discussed it with him before.

There are also many other less obvious situations where I suspected that the professor was aware of my academic performance with other professors through "words on the street". Overall, I think these examples show that professors do talk with their colleagues about students. The topics can be as serious as the students' work or as trivial as the student flight back to college. The occasions in which they talk can be as formal as a faculty dinner and as informal as a quick chat down the hall way.

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    Yes, I've had similar experiences as a student, some of which I'm still not sure if I'm imagining things. One memorable occasion was when my work boss asked me about a scholarship I had applied to that I certainly had never talked to him about. I do know though that he is best friends with the husband of the PI down the hall from our lab (who I've also not told) who then knows my PI. That's a lot of people that needed to have talked about me for information to be exchanged, and I'm not sure if I want to know what else was said... – Cornyvita Aug 6 '15 at 1:47
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I can give a worst-case scenario from a staff perspective: All departments will talk about students to some degree in most higher education establishments. By bulk they tend to be general observations or discussion of where support is needed, or where somebody needs particular investment in time to reach their potential.

There is certainly no best practice when it comes to talking about students generally, both in work hours and out-with, but recorded messages such as email and intranet are generally a big no-no as it can be recovered at a later date as part of a SAR. Now this would suggest that professors/lecturers are of the mind that what we say can be malicious or more conductive to personal intent of harm rather than objectively making things the best for every student, both emotionally and academically.

Things tend to reach a breaking point when dealing with problem students. We had a situation where a mature student returned to University for a career change in a new subject in order to gain the correct 'letters' to pursue a career they had already achieved relative acclaim in over a number of years. Indeed, in some subject areas they were better known and more respected than some of the staff that then found themselves appointed to teach the student.

Some staff had prior knowledge of the student whilst others were oblivious. As the department was quite small then it compounded the level of discussion on students between the close-knit staff, and especially so when so few students take it forward to honours. What I found was that the semester started off with insightful ideas from the student which were unexpected by some staff. This led to hot discussions over coffee about the gratitude of having a potential once in a lifetime innovator on our hands. Over coming weeks two of the staff actually started a campaign of complaints of arrogance about the student and the pestering of staff.

By the time of coursework grading there was a complaint lodged by the student about an essay where they were marked as a Low B when the student (who had marked work and worked in editing journal articles previously) suggested the essay could be no less than a mid to upper A. Naturally with an appeal in place another member of staff marked the essay and corroborated their colleagues result. It later turned out that the student was externally upgraded to nearly the topmost grade and the report was that the bulk of the downgrading relied upon staff not understanding the essay's concepts and questioning the style of English, and the verdict was that the English used was erudite and the use of unusual words which were very specific and relevant were considered the most economic use of English. In other words the student was using such good English and novel ideas that instead of lecturers realizing a dense read on their part with new research ideas, they mistook the work for poor grammar and making hyperbolic conclusions not supported in published literature.

Like most establishments we employ blind-marking, yet the amount of background staff communication led to the student's identity code being 'shared' which probably impacted on the marking. I think with this scenario the lesson became apparent that regardless of the reason and expertise of the experienced staff circle, the human drawbacks of jealousy and lack of acumin ultimately infiltrated and led to the gross mistreatment of a gifted student. The student became aware of the unusual change in behaviour across the staff body, which alongside the complaint concerning the essay then led to a legal complaint and enquiry which lost the institution several tens of thousands of pounds and two dismissals of staff. The student is now at a certain more famous university and the establishment narrowly avoided a scandal in media. So yes, to answer your question; Staff do talk about students, and the worry for students is it only gets bad when we discuss problem students. Some students are generally resentful and wish to cause trouble, but sometimes the genius students get severe mistreatment at the hands of resentful staff.

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As for when, that would depend on the department. In particular, is there a scheduled student-evaluation meeting? In mine, there are about 5 a year, where each student is mentioned and the advisor gives a summary of problems and progress w.r.t. scheduled requirements (anyone can volunteer anything, though). This is for the entire faculty. For entirely non-problematic cases it takes about 5 minutes per student. "Problematic" would include someone reporting that X is struggling with important topic Y and maybe needs to shift focus from Z to Y. In terms of time spent, more time is spent talking about problems and specifically what to do about it; if someone gets an NSF fellowship and a couple of publications, we spend a couple of minutes praising the student (in their absence) and move on.

Faculty in a particular specialization will, in addition, "talk" on an ad hoc basis on topics like should X prepare a grant proposal on Y, does X understand Y well enough of do they need some tutoring; basically, the same topics as in the official meeting, but designed to head off the need to report a problem. Or, dissertation committee members will talk about the current chapter.

I've never encountered malicious talk, but I've encountered negative talk. The worst case scenario for a mis-performing student is that they can't work with their current advisor, and there has to be a discussion of what is wrong with the student, which leads to the question of whether a different advisor would solve the problem. Nobody has ever warned off other faculty, but they have made the nature of the problem clear enough that indeed no other faculty member would work with the student.

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