Friday, November 7, 2008

Folly and Fools

"The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools." -Herbert Spencer

Because I teach in a program that trains our students to practice a health/medical discipline, part of that training is developing appropriate professional behavior. Patients and other medical professionals with whom our students will work don't want to deal with inappropriate behaviors like dressing in revealing clothing, eye rolling, clock watching, or inappropriate topics of conversation (like smoking pot) from our students. It is also important for our students to develop a calm, friendly, and competent manner that puts their patients at ease and engenders respect from other members of the health care team.

In order to help our students recognize behaviors that may be counterproductive we meet with them and discuss their professional behaviors. Each semester the faculty meets together and discusses the concerns we have about students' professional behaviors. Then each advisor meets with their individual student advisees and offers both positive and negative feedback from the faculty about their professional behavior. Most of the time the student listens to the feedback and responds appropriately.

Unfortunately some of our students come from backgrounds where they could do no wrong, where they received no criticism, where their tender feelings were always spared from the ugly truth that they are not perfect (gasp!). So, sometimes things do not go so smoothly. Last year I had the unfortunate experience of offering some constructive criticism to one of our students that resulted in my program chair threatening me with disciplinary action.

The student, I'll call her Betty, is a smart, pleasant, and stunningly beautiful young woman with long blond hair and blue eyes. The faculty felt that she also has the unfortunate habits of giggling a lot, flipping her hair, and asking questions that give the impression that she is not paying attention. In other words she can come off as an "airhead". This is not an image that her patients or coworkers will appreciate. When I met with Betty I began by offering her some positive comments about her professional behaviors. Then, I told Betty that some of the faculty had observed that she tended to giggle a lot and at inappropriate times, flip her hair, and that sometimes she did not appear to be paying attention in class. Betty did not seem to understand what I was saying so I tried again. I told her that it will be important for her patients to have confidence in her and that those behaviors would not help her patients to trust that she knows what she is doing. Betty still stared at me with a kind of confused expression on her face. So, I said, "Well, I don't like this word, but what I am trying to say is that these things may give the impression to other people that you are an airhead." At this Betty began to cry. She said she didn't want the faculty to think she was stupid. I told her that we do not think she is stupid, that we know she is a good student, but we want her to be aware that those behaviors are not going to work well for her as a clinician. Betty didn't say much else and left my office soon after.

The next morning she went to the program chair in tears and told him that I said that the faculty said that she was an airhead and that she did not appreciate being insulted like that. My chair believed her, and without discussing it with me first to get my side of what happened, he brought it up in front of the whole faculty at our regularly scheduled meeting later that day. He said that he was very upset that a student felt so insulted and that he would not tolerate the use of such hateful language. Without naming me he then threatened to turn the offending faculty member over to the social justice office for their offense. I am not the most assertive person in the world but I knew what really happened so I had to say something. I told him that I knew what he was talking about and that the student had not given him the whole story. I explained what happened, including that I did not call her an airhead but that I told her that even though I don't like the word that we were concerned that she may be perceived as an airhead because of the behaviors in question. I told him that if he wanted to turn that into the social justice office that I was fine with it because I was confident about what I had done. He immediately backed down from his threat and the entire faculty proceeded to engage in a circular argument with him that you will appreciate if I don't tell you about it. During this argument I remained quiet and struggled to maintain my composure because I was angry and when I am angry I tend to cry and I didn't want to do that (it's unprofessional you know).

The next day after I calmed down I knew that I had to talk to my chair about what happened. I asked that in the future if a student came to him with a complaint about me that I would appreciate it if he would give me the courtesy of asking me about it before he assumed that the student gave him the full story and that he ask me about it in private rather than anonymously reprimanding me in front of the whole faculty. I also told him that it concerned me that instead of encouraging the student to consider the feedback and apply it, that he did some figurative "hand-holding" that didn't help the student realize that her behavior could be a problem. He listened to me and apologized for not bringing the issue to me first. He tends to pride himself on being "student centered" though, and I don't think he agreed with me that "hand holding" is not what a student needs in these sorts of circumstances.

When we don't teach children that constructive criticism is okay, and in fact that it is for our benefit, we are setting them up for a lifetime of self-centered stagnation. When we walk on eggshells around children and are not lovingly honest about the areas that they need to work on we are not doing them a favor. I often tell my students that it is okay to be wrong, that all you can do is to do the best you can, and when you know better you do better. The only way to learn and "do better" is to recognize where you have gone wrong.

It's not "Betty's" fault that she looks like a walking Barbie doll and that coupled with a giggling and inattentive manner she will likely be incorrectly perceived as less than competent and intelligent. But the patients' perceptions matter and Betty can learn to behave in a manner that will give her patients confidence in her abilities. Not doing so is "her fault" and it would be my fault if I didn't give her the feedback she needs to make the adjustments, regardless of if she chooses to accept it or not.


Ame said...

you are so right.

there is appropriate behavior and inappropriate behavior. if we do not teach our children the difference, we do them a huge disservice which we all, as a society, end up paying for in one way or another.

HUGE kudos to you for standing up for yourself!!!!!!!

The Learner said...


We call it the "grandma test". If I wouldn't want the student to take care of my grandma then there is some isue we need to deal with.

Elusive Wapiti said...

I wonder: how many profs have quit under this fellow's "student centric" leadership?

Kinda reminds me of the anti-maxim "the customer is NOT always right", and the movement in business for companies to look after their talent and go tell a more-trouble-than-they're-worth client to go p!ss off if they are threatening the harmony of the workplace.

Mayhaps Barbie never had someone lay it out for her like that? That her looks and her hair-flipping have opened all the doors for her until this point? That everyone around her was so much more interested in ingratiating themselves to her that they didn't give it to her straight?

The real question I'm interested in is: are you willing to do that again, knowing what you know now about the lack of support you will receive from your boss?

The Learner said...


I would guess that this student has had a lot of things go her way because she really is a very beautiful girl. It is better for her that she hears that kind of feedback from me than from a future boss, her clinical instructor, or worse, from a patient. Ouch, patients will let you know if they think you are somehow incompetent. When I first got out of trainig a lot of my patients asked me if I was still in high school. I vividly remember one enormous biker guy recovering from a head injury grabbing the front of my sweater and pulling me so I was face to face with him as he lay on a gurney and asking me "what are you, like 16 years old?" I learned to project a more mature image so my patients could have confidence in me. I want to help my students learn how to project a competent image too.

I've been at this Uni for a little over three years and no one in my division has quit in that time. But, we have a very hard time recruiting faculty and unfortunately there isn't one person on the present faculty who truly trust or respect him. It is quite odd for me because I have been quite blessed to work for some great bosses that I greatly respected.

are you willing to do that again, knowing what you know now about the lack of support you will receive from your boss?

Yes, I'll do it again. If I wasn't willing to, I think I should not be teaching. I'm not training these students to do advertising(not that there is anything wrong advertising). Their competence and behavior is going to matter a lot in the lives of their patients and I take that very seriously.

MarkyMark said...


Such is the attitude of the vast majority of modern women! Maybe now you can understand why I rant so much about them.

As for little Barbie Doll, if she doesn't straighten up & fly right (and I wouldn't expect her to, since she has no incentive to do so), she's in for a RUDE awakening once her looks start to fade-a rude awakening! She'll no longer be able to use her looks to get her way anymore, because she'll no longer HAVE them.

I hope & pray that she doesn't find a guy gullible enough to marry her; God help the poor SOB! Actually, if he's stupid enough to marry Miss Barbie Doll, then he deserves whatever heartache he gets from her.

As for your boss, try to get some compromising information on him; maintaining a 'blunder file' might not be a bad idea. He's a snake in the grass! He's also unprofessional; you never, never, ever dress down a subordinate in an open meeting like that-never! No, you want to have enough on this slimy SOB that you can torpedo his career if he pulls something like this again. I found it rather telling that you said that NONE of your colleagues truly like, respect, or trust him. Be careful; be VERY careful!


The Learner said...

Hi MarkyMark,

It is not unusual behavior among my students, but many of my students take criticism much better than this young lady did. I don't know if I think it is a vast majority or not. I think some of it is a cultural/generational thing where personal responsibility is lacking.

I would guess this student isn't fully aware of what advantages her appearance may get her. I am sure she is just accustomed to it since society worships beauty as much as it does. It is a shame for this girl because she is intelligent and capable and would not need to rely on her beauty to get by. By not realizing that she is actually also doing herself a disservice.

I am very careful around my boss because I don't trust him for a variety of reasons. He has had multiple grievences and complaints filed against him, and his superior knows he is a dufus (actually it is embarrassing for my department). But, it is very hard to fire people in power in an academic setting so I doubt he is going anywhere soon.

Jonathan said...

Love the quote at the beginning. I may have to swipe that.

Dufus. Now THAT's funny.

The Learner said...

Hi Jonathan :)

I swiped that quote came from Walter Williams' home page.

Glad to amuse you!

The Learner said...

Oops, I meant to say either "I swiped that quote from..." or "That quote came from...", not both squished together!