Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bob from Bennington has this cheery warning: There is no place to hide

Helicopter parents don’t just land in classrooms.  One if hovering in my research lab right now.

I agreed to let Vincent, a freshman, work in my biology lab.  he was polite and seemed to know something about the work that I do.  His transcript showed that he did well in his fall classes.  Everything seemed to check out.

We met in my office for about an hour to talk about research.  When he left, I heard two other voices say, “I’m so proud of you, Vincent.”  I didn't realize at the time that those were his parents, waiting outside my office the entire time, listening in to our conversation. [cue ominous music]

After a week, I picked up the phone to hear, “Vincent isn’t satisfied with the pace of his training in your lab.  He’s very smart.  I would like for all of us to meet and discuss this.”

I actually agreed to this with the hopes of laying down the law with mom and dad.  I started by saying that I do not like meetings with parents so they should not plan to schedule another one.  If Vincent doesn’t like working in the lab, he should talk to me.  Now go away.

What they heard was, “I don’t like scheduled meetings with you so feel free to stop by unannounced.  If Vincent is unhappy, I will discuss this with you, the parents.  I look forward to talking with you daily.”

It turns out that Vincent really wasn’t good at much of anything.  He cleaned glassware.  Lots of glassware.  He did a few experiments unsuccessfully and did nothing to contribute to the project.  He didn’t even last the whole semester, although I tracked his time in the lab based on the number of times I spoke to his parents.  That would be seven.

The silver lining was that everybody in my research group bonded over this and we have several long-running jokes based on Vincent and his parents.  We moved on with our research and thought about more pleasant things.

Last week, I’m walking to my lab and I see dad, waiting for me.  “I see that you added new research article to the bulletin board outside your office.  Why isn’t Vincent one of the coauthors?  I’m sure there’s a way to correct this.”

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

Bob from Bennington



  1. My undergrad had a constantly growing preamble:
    I'm so busy, I have my 1st bio lab, a paper to read for psych, and a problem set for calc due this week.
    I'm so busy, I have 2 bio labs, a paper to read for psych, 2 problem sets for calc and an english essay due this week...

    She routinely touched things while I screamed "stop stop stop" "stop don't touch that don't touch it" "Stop, Jen just fucking sto... fuck you're like a 3 year old why don't you stop?" She pointed to a perfect bullseye pattern a certain kind of really tuned up laser makes when everything is perfect - she said it was a fingerprint - I said "No, that's not what that is, it's fine, it's caused by.. no don't touch it!" as she stuck a greasy wrench in the beam and ablated wrench crud all over it and ruined the day's work. Everytime she entered the lab, something broke and time was lost.

    One time she skipped the preamble and jumped right in with:
    My midterm progress paper for research is due Thurs, so can you just write up what we've been doing and give it to me by Wed so I can practice it before the presentation?

    We had a great laugh about that.

    Whenever she showed up, we hit Napster (remember Napster?) with The Offspring queued up for her arrival:

    Then, at the end of the semester, after doing nothing, she told us this awesome story:
    I never passed orgo I lab because I got an inc. and then the professor made it an F. So I need this research class to graduate because I talked to [undergrad program coordinator] and he said it would be ok since I passed lecture and all of orgo II, so obviously I didn't miss much even though the professor felt he had to fail me because I was missing some labs {if intro bio was any indication, "some" meant "all of the"}, so can you just give me that data now so I can turn it in?

    This is when I had enough. I flipped out on her. I said there is no way research in a laser lab is an appropriate substitute for orgo and that [undergrad coordinator] must have been high or looking down her shirt when she asked. I told her that if she got an inc, no one "changed it" to an F, she failed when she never bothered to make up the work and that her whole life was going to be failure if she didn't change. I told her I wasn't "giving" her anything BUT.... and it's the "but" we always regret - I'd give her one last chance to get data. I asked her when she could come. She told me when she could come. I said "that sounds early. I have to spend 1 entire day taking my experiment apart and 1/2 of the morning putting yours together anyway, so can you come at lunch instead? Then I know you won't miss the bus or feel sick in the morning, ok?" "yes, I swear, thank you" "you HAVE to come, because then it will take the rest of the day to get you something you can use and then I'll take another day and a half to put my experiment back together - and the only reason I'm sacrificing 4 days for you is because I want you to graduate because after this semester I am not losing another minute of progress or another dime of the supply budget on you, do you understand? This is your absolute last chance and if I look out the window and witness, with my own 2 eyes, space aliens abducting you on your way in, you're still fucked because it's your last chance NO MATTER WHAT!" "I will be there!"

    2 days after my experiment was put back together, she shows up and says "Sorry I didn't make it the other day, my boyfriend was giving me crap about needing space and I was too upset to drive. Did you take that data for me?"

    She never graduated.
    My advice: Make an Offspring channel on Pandora.

    1. Indeed.

      Sometimes I'm very glad that my research (and any research likely to be done under my supervision) involves nothing more delicate, dangerous, expensive and/or complicated than paper and pixels. The worst my students can do is commit plagiarism or copyright infringement, both of which would waste a bit of my valuable time, but that's about it. Come to think of it, I suppose they could also do harm to unique, irreplaceable documents if they decided to darken the door of an archive. Thank goodness for digitization.

  2. ps - this was my mentee when I was a gradflake - that's how I didn't get fired for saying the program coordinator must have been looking down her shirt

  3. Oh Wombat, I feel for you! I had a student hire who was a native , a language I also speak and write. We were trying to get a dual-language publication out and so I asked him if he could translate our paper into . For money, on project time. Sure, he said. The weeks went by, I kept inquiring, yes, yes, it was coming along. He finally turned it in, and he flipping used Google Translate (!) on the text! It was so bad and I didn't have time to translate myself, so the ENTIRE dual-publication idea died. Speakers of just have to deal with the English paper.

    1. They're definitely not making grad students like they used to (witness also Amelia's rant of a few days ago). When I did some freelance reference-work writing a year or two ago, the number of emails reminding us not to do things I'd never dream of doing (e.g. copy and paste from, or copy the structure of, a wikipedia article) was alarming. The qualification for this job was at least an M.A.,and, although the writing was definitely formulaic, our names were going on the published result. You'd think that would be enough to guarantee a reasonably professional product, even if the pay was meager (and, since it was piecework, more meager the longer one took to complete a piece).

  4. Whoa: I'm so glad that the most physical damage my flakes can achieve is to jam the printer or forget to staple.

    On the topic of parents, does anyone tell them "Sorry, this is college and without FERPA authorization, I cannot talk with you?" I spent a whole year last year fending off a parent whose son refused to sign a FERPA waiver, which meant I could not talk with her about him. She camped out in front of my office once a month trying to cajole me into sharing info or trying to get me to like her son more by sharing "cute" stories about him from childhood. I finally had to flat out tell her: "Your presence here is disruptive." Her son was thoroughly embarrassed by her showing up (we are on a residential campus) and I felt really bad for him.

    1. You should have told the same stories in class (of course, if the student was there) as if they happened to your own child, or to some child you supposedly know. Although you would never have mentioned the real name of the kid in question, your student would have recognized the stories and asked his parents to stop sharing them with you. If he asked you how you heard the stories, for example, of course you would have told him the truth.

    2. He knew she was there and that she was sharing such stories, and would come apologize to me about her showing up.

    3. This sounds like a case of a mom with mental health problems that manifest as extreme helicoptering, and like her son is well aware of the problem (and actually has a pretty good idea of how to set and maintain appropriate boundaries, while realizing he can't control her. I feel for him; it sounds like he may eventually have to put even more distance, physical and/or psychological, between them, so that he can live a normal life).

  5. What Songza theme would go well as The Entrance of the Snowflake?

  6. I avoid this problem, since my lab looks so scary, no sane person wants to set foot in it. Come to think of it, though, helicoptering this severe isn't exactly sane...

  7. "I'd like to help, Mr. Copter, but the rules of publication are kind of restrictive these days. The journals all require everybody to have one or more predefined roles in the project or we can't include them as an author on the paper. There are checkboxes for study design, execution, analysis, preparing the manuscript, and maybe a couple others, but there are none for breathing, wasting our time, not showing up, or breaking shit. My hands are tied. Sorry."