Alina Avanesyan
Among the redwoods -- Muir Woods

Would you be so kind...

– November 17, 2012

In my very first evaluation that I received from my students here in the US I saw this comment: she is very straightforward.

I wasn’t sure what that meant. At first I thought it was just a language thing: I didn’t have a large vocabulary during my first year of doctoral study, so teaching was often difficult. Sometimes I wasn’t sure how to explain a concept, sometimes I didn’t know how to ask a question, or make a comment, or ask students to do this or that – using the right, appropriate words. These things seem simple enough, but for me they were not simple, especially during my first semester of teaching in a new country.

Very straightforward. Was I not polite enough? I certainly didn’t mean to. In my next semester I tried to use words like “could you please”, or “would you like” more often. However, another problem came about: now every time before asking students to do something I had to think about how to ask them. Since I was still working on improving my English (and still working!), that took some serious effort! But it seemed like I was solving the problem.

Today it is easier for me to talk to my students. I am much more comfortable answering their questions, helping them when they are wrong and encouraging them when they are right. I know I try. However, when it comes to giving them specific feedback on grading, my hard times return.

I thought about this over and over, trying to understand the roots of the problem. I think it cannot be just language.

Maybe it’s a culture thing? After all, I’m from another country. I recalled the time when I was a professor in my native country and realized that I never worried about how to communicate with my students. And here’s why: the important thing was the amount of knowledge the professor had. The amount of knowledge meant authority; how to share that knowledge with the students was secondary. And overall, the teaching process was more strict: students didn’t have much freedom; they didn’t change advisors, committees, research topics, or their majors very easily – if at all. That must have reflected on the way professors talked to students and how students talked – or, better, listened – to their professors.

But I think there’s something else – not just using the right words. After all, memorizing the words I should (or shouldn’t) use with students didn’t really help much. So here’s my “big idea”: I think the words reflect how I see myself, my status – comparing to how I see the status of my students, and what I think of them. Do I think that I know everything on a given topic much better than they will ever know; and does this give me a special right to talk to them from this position of superiority? Or do I think of them as future colleagues who just happen to be studying what I had studied earlier, and maybe later some of them will know this subject deeper than I do – after it becomes their research area? Essentially, it is a question of respect: the more I respect my students – the easier it is for me to talk to them. Even when I need to provide detailed feedback on harsh grading. Because I think that, for them, obtaining such feedback is very much like, for me, obtaining feedback from my professors on my own research: they always want me to change this or that, but I also know they want to help me and they want me to succeed. Right?

And thus, the problem of finding the right words slowly went away. But I still need to work on my vocabulary.