Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Ask the Administrator: Gifts from Students
One of my students from last year came in today and gave me a t-shirt that he had gotten for me on his vacation. I do not currently have any grading responsibility for this student, and I don't expect to, but it's not impossible. I have written him a letter of recommendation, and I would happily do so again, if asked. I'm sure that this student meant it entirely innocently. There was no ulterior motive. He just likes me and wanted to say "thanks." So, is it appropriate for me to have accepted this gift? If not, what do I do now? I don't want to insult the student by returning it. Should I just quietly donate it to Goodwill?
As always, you are welcome to post this on your blog, and solicit advice from your W&W readers.
Ironically enough, it's the well-intentioned, innocent gifts that cause the most heartache.
Most colleges have some sort of ethics policy, or conflict of interest policy, about gifts. Those policies are usually fairly specific, often identifying a minimum threshold beneath which the gift is considered too trivial to worry about. (The ones I've seen usually set a cutoff around 25 dollars, give or take.) HR departments usually have the specifics at the ready. If a ten-dollar t-shirt falls below the 'de minimus' threshold, you're fine.
The fact that you aren't grading the student is certainly helpful, too. The standard of “it's not impossible” strikes me as far too rigorous, since it could conceivably apply to just about anybody. (For those of us who work at open-admissions places, that's literally true.) Some colleges have 'fraternization' policies (that is, sex) that draw the line at grading responsibilities, and your case would meet that standard. I say if you could sleep with him, you can accept a t-shirt from him.
That said, there's often a world of difference between what's legal and what's right. And sometimes being a little extra careful can actually result in a teachable moment, if you do it right.
I worked briefly for a VP who gave conspicuously expensive gifts to all and sundry, and who encouraged others to do the same. Over time, a culture had developed in which elaborate gift-giving, both up and down the chain of command, was both expected and inappropriately binding. I wanted nothing to do with it, which my involuntarily chilly response communicated clearly enough to offend him. Since it became clear that I couldn't simply opt out of the system, I did the next best thing, which was to communicate (and act upon the idea) that any gifts should be trivial. After a while, we got down to a few chocolates at Christmas, which struck me as about right.
Depending on the gift, sometimes there's also the option of sharing it with the department. (That works pretty well for flowers and candy and the like.) For t-shirts, though, that's probably not the best route.
The fear of giving offense is real. Back at PU, a perfectly lovely professor gave me a congratulatory card and a small check when TB was born. I returned the check, sheepishly explaining that since I did her review, I couldn't accept it. I don't know which of us was the more embarrassed, but it struck me as a reasonable price to pay for keeping things above reproach. (After I left PU and TG was born, she sent another card with a bigger check. I laughed out loud when it arrived.)
In my teaching days, I occasionally had students bring in editorial cartoons that they said reminded them of me or of my class. Some of them wound up on my bulletin board, and I'll admit that I didn't feel much ethical conflict over that. If anything, I was gratified that the class was making enough of an impression to spill over into random moments. Your case strikes me as similar to that.
Or maybe I'm just becoming jaded. Vox blogosphere, vox dei, so I'll turn it over to my readers. Wise and worldly readers – what say you?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
I think a T-shirt is an absolutely reasonable gift from a friendly student, especially after the context of the semester. But if it's making this correspondent feel uneasy about the relationship, I'd wonder if there is maybe some basis for feeling uneasy. Is this student personally encroaching? Do you constantly have to set boundaries for him? If you can imagine him calling your house all next year while heavy-breathing and talking about how he picked out that T-shirt just for you, don't take the T-shirt. There is no need to set some universal law, though, just because you can imagine some other student being creepy about giving gifts.
So, do you feel the T-shirt is symbolic to this particular student of your relationship? Is it symbolic to you?
(Also, it's pretty standard in many American elementary schools to give gifts to the child's main teacher, so there is at least some teacher-gift-giving embedded in American culture.)
But re: "The fact that you aren't grading the student is certainly helpful, too. The standard of “it's not impossible” strikes me as far too rigorous"
Yeah. I live in a small city where everyone knows EVERYONE, and I've only been in town four years (so I don't know EVERYONE) and teaching for two, and I've ALREADY had students who are kids of people I know socially, students who work for the same volunteer organizations I do, students whose parents I do business with, even, it being open admissions, students whom I knew socially before they were in my class. (Even, really randomly, a student who graduated high school with my youngest brother and then moved to where I was teaching!) It's a very incestuous little town -- my husband and my dean's husband judge moot court together at another nearby school. My dean volunteers with my neighbor. It just goes on and on.
At first I worried about it being weird having students in class that I knew from elsewhere, but so far it hasn't been. The fact is that when I'm grading, I'm grading far too many things in a row to worry about how I'm treating individual students. And so far nobody's tried to take advantage of the relationship, and students I know personally have worked hard enough that none of them have earned crappy grades that would make me feel awkward.
I did have one student whose family I knew casually go somewhat off the rails during the semester, but I did what I always do -- bounced her (very nicely) to student services.
I have also, at places I taught a long time ago, had to deal with the foreign student. I discovered, to my surprise, that gifts to one's professors were considered almost obligatory (you wouyldn't believe the ceramic elephant I got), albeit of low-to-no real value. My solution was to give these things to my department (didn't work with the pink-and-green floral silk tie, but since that had negative value...).
I might add that I have known faculty who not only accepted gifts, but sort of let it be known that they would be happy to receive them. This strikes me as wholly inappropriate, to say nothing of coercive.
These days, if a student tries to give me anything of value (gift cards to restaurants seem to be polular), I return them, with a note, explaining why I cannn't accept them. Cards expressing gratitude for a course, having as they do no monetary value, I keep.
Gift-giving among faculty and staff is trickier. My current program has an annual "Secret Santa" thing, that extends beyond the winter holiday season. It's voluntary, and most people don't participate (I don't), but there are rules and limits. The first place I ever taught, there was an organized collection of cash program to give a Christmas gift to the college's president; the recommended donation was $5 (this was 1973), but with over 200 college employees, that added up. Let me tell you, that felt sleazy. (I was a non-contributor; I was in a one-year, leave-replacement position, and felt under no pressure. The institution does not award tenure, so permanent employees did feel a lot of pressure.)
I'd strongly prefer a culture in which gifts were not given or received because of a professional relationship. What happens when people become close friends outside of (in addition to) work is another matter; among other things, it's private, not public.
Ultimately, I think some people use "things" rather than words to express thanks, appreciation, regret, or just plain kindness, and this is okay. It's not like they're presenting us with Rolexes or skybox tickets to football games. I've always gotten the impression that these students have no expectations of their grades being affected by gift-giving. As long as the recipient gets a similar impression, I think it's fine to accept such small tokens.
I think tokens are okay. I am honestly more concerned with the "drinking with the students" issues I have seen, rather than whether the faculty accept a T-shirt or coffee mug.
I only bring this up, because the graduate student application forum from which I was pulling information highly recommended it.
I'm sure that doc's distinction is made with the most honorable of intentions, but I fear that the strict separation of professional and private can be very confusing and alienating for both the student and the professor and lead to far more confusing situations. If a student offers me an item from his home country and I act like he's either bribing me or seducing me, I'm acting in incredibly bad faith, and humiliating someone who certainly gets more out of handing me a wooden whistle than I get out of receiving it. Treating something that was never meant as a bribe or a proposition as some kind of low-minded self-interested curry for favor seems pointlessly hurtful.
Of course, I've never been offered gift cards, and I would certainly turn that down, as I would any money. That's not a personal communication of appreciation and good nature; it's a tip for good service, and it's inappropriate because I'm no one's servant.
Isn't it disingenuous to pretend that we don't have private relationships with our students? We don't have sexual relationships with our students, or criminal or manipulative relationships with our students, but I certainly hope that "private" means more than just "shameful." Lesboprof is right--actual inappropriate behavior is the thing to avoid; not something that some mind somewhere could see as a symbol of impropriety.
Of course, he was fairly close to my age, so it was much more like a thank-you between equals than anything else.
As a professor, my students occasionally give me hand-made things at the end of the semester; most recently a little rubber stamp carved in the shape of a Sri Lankan flower, or a hand-painted card. I love them. They help make the arguments with other students about why they got an A- instead of the A they were expecting endurable.
BTW: I once got my Ph.D. supervisor a bottle of Arak as a gift during a trip to Lebanon. It was meant to convey my thanks for his help and support in writing my dissertation. Before I read this post I had never thought that there were people who would view this as inappropriate.
I generally do not accept gifts from undergrads unless I'm done with teaching them, period. I have always been taught, and I hold with the idea, that it's important to avoid actions that could lead to accusations of favouritism. I also thing that, since I am the person in a position of power and privilege (yay alliteration), it looks and feels weird to accept gifts from peope who depend on me for grades. I do sometimes bring treats for class at finals, and even then, it's all or nothing.
It is tougher with older students, but they often understand better the need for making it known that you appreciate the gesture, but just can't take a gift. I make exceptions for a gift from an entire class, though -- as long as it's something like a mug. And if people bring food or coffee to share at a seminar, then that's fine, too.
I think it's entirely appropriate to give one's PhD advisor a thank-you gift. My advisor thought it his duty to treat his students to drinks or dinner at each stage of our careers. At the end, I think taking him and his wife out was entirely appropriate.
And I work at a place where we collect for our admins and custodial staff at Christmas. It kind of racks up (most faculty give between $30 and $60), but there are no bonuses for staff, and they make less than half what I do -- and they make our lives way easier. Of course, I think that that this is particular to our School. And I know that the administrative units do NOT do this.
I have received little gifts from students when I was pregnant just before I went on leave. They were small items, but significant to the students. They all indulged in advising me on what to name the babies. Both were named when I was in labor. I thought they were innocent gifts and it was acceptable.
I disappeared to stay at home with my children and have returned to work in a research university. I take my teaching assistants out at the end of the semester for lunch and give them give cards for bookstores, not excessive just enough to put a down payment on a book.
I have more recently received gifts from international students after a return from a trip and home, flowers after a reference letter. The trinkets are usually small but the flowers are not returnable from another continent. I think they are well intentioned. I shy away from situations that might not be as earlier as possible.
I gave very generous gifts to my advisors and a former department head at the conclusion of my studies and a round of letter writing so that I could secure this position. I think it was greatly appreciated and surprising to them, because there is a lot of work after the fact that is rarely acknowledged.
I think that if there is an occasion for the gift and it is not excessively expensive without strings it can be fine. I do try to treat all the students as adults and people so it starts to be natural for some people.
I have no problem with this. There was never any bribery or sinister implication or arrangement; these were gifts given simply because the students felt like giving them to me.