Never tell them how it was supposed to taste

Now that the first frenzied week of school is over here at my university, I’m enjoying a Friday afternoon in which I can  focus on fitting out my twink druid with heirloom gear rather than worrying what percentage of the total points available in the class will be assigned to attendance and participation. While my normal MO is to make sure that what happens in the classroom stays in the classroom (the classroom is like Vegas that way) so that my students don’t feel like I am going to ‘out’ them online, I do feel like I want to share a brief piece of advice to students — undergraduates and graduate students alike — about something that occasionally happens with students (although I’m not referring to any particular student here I promise promise):

Never tell them how it was supposed to taste.

I remember reading this advice in a cookbook some years ago. Only you know how the recipe was supposed to turn out, and only you are disappointed by how the dish you cooked currently tastes. Everyone else thinks it tastes just fine.

I bring this up for students who find they sometimes want to apologize for being late for class, for not doing the reading, for the quality of the midterm they turn in. Do not apologize — just turn it in, come to class next time, etc. etc. If you are really disappointed with the quality of the work you did, then why did you do that quality work in the first place? Why didn’t you get it sorted out? If there was something beyond your control that happened — your computer crashed — then I suggest just explaining this briefly to your professor and moving on.

If you feel really consumed by guilt by the fact that you smoked out, ate two large pizzas, and watched Iron Man three times in a row instead of writing your paper then, frankly, you probably should feel guilty. In this case what you cooked really does taste bad… but telling me that you know that isn’t going to change how it tastes. Guilt is you telling yourself that you know what the right thing to do is. Take the energy unleashed by that guilt and use it to shoot yourself at great velocity along a more productive and optimal trajectory. Do not let your hate and anger consume you, for that is the way of the Sith.

Sometimes — again, not yet this semester, but sometimes — I get students who explain to me about how sorry they are that they didn’t do X, Y, and Z correctly. Sometimes at length. I think that students who do this think they are doing emotional work to make me feel better. But in fact — and this is sometimes hard to explain — having to act all accepting and reassuring to students is in fact emotional work I have to do to make them feel better. Making me feel better is actually a selfish thing to do because it gratifies your need that I feel better, if you see what I am saying. In fact when students turn in papers late, or turn in poor work, the last think I want to do is perform acceptingness to make them feel better. Making me pretend to feel better about how good people’s intentions are is actually adding insult to injury. If you really want Love And Acceptance From Professor 1) do good work. On time 2) when you do bad work late, then remember: the moment you turn it in is the moment you begin to get to atone for your sins, turn a corner, start again, and begin doing good work. On time.

I don’t know — perhaps I am alone in this. Perhaps other professors feel differently about how best to manage turning in late/substandard work. I’d be interested in hearing what people have to say. Perhaps some people appreciate understanding that their students are penitent?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

16 thoughts on “Never tell them how it was supposed to taste

  1. It’s pretty good guidance, I’d say. And:
    _”Perhaps some people appreciate understanding that their students are penitent?”_

    …not exactly, but I do know that the inverse kind of hurts. That is, when a student stayed after class to say, “Yeah, I didn’t do that assignment. There was a big barbecue this weekend,” and then _stands there_ like I’m supposed to respond somehow — in that case, some penitence might be an improvement.

  2. Speaking as someone who has been on both sides of that conversation (I’m not proud of it), you’ve nailed it. That penitence speech is a bit like a filanderer confessing after the affair ended. It is meant to make them feel better, not you. After all, what difference does it make to you what they meant to do. You can’t grade intentions. You can only grade what’s in front of you.

    They need to swallow their disappointment and do better next time, learn from the experience of shame.

    Unfortunately, being a teacher is a bit like being a parent/therapist/priest.

  3. Is it just me aging, or is there more of this sort of thing these days? Back in the 90s I had way too much fear (of the professor) and pride (in my own grand failures) to mention such things in person. If I got a B, I assumed it was because I was a slacker, and I accepted it. I might gripe to friends, but I wouldn’t dream of bringing it up to the prof.

    But these darn kids these days just keep coming up with personal, confident, up-front assertions that they (1) disagree with my assessment and (2) even so are still willing to negotiate with me to make up for the low grade. I have to keep finding new ways to say “work harder and stop slacking”…

  4. Good advice.

    O my Professor,
    I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,
    and I detest those last couple shots I had the night before the exam
    because I dread the loss of that point cushion I had
    and the pains of a bad GPA,
    but most of all because they offend Thee, my Teacher,
    Who are all good, knowledgeable, and deserving of all my smarts.

    I firmly resolve with the help of Thy tutelage
    to confess my sins, whether you want to hear them or not,
    to do my penance,
    and to amend my study habits.

    Now, and I am not a professor, some of my profs did like to know why poor work had been handed in, especially if it were unexpected from a student. Whether or not they wanted an act of contrition to accompany that explanation, I’m not so sure.

    Also, Druid = Awesome.

  5. I learned this lesson some time ago, being a student, and remind every new class of students not to apologize. Never apologize. Same goes for we researchers when we deliver a less than satisfactory paper at a conference or seminar. You present what you produced, end of story, and cannot ask others to assist you in feeling better about it if it was crap.

  6. As a current college student who has engaged in much apologizing, I feel the need to throw in my two cents here. Although I cannot speak for other students, when I apologize for the lateness of an assignment, I’m apologizing for making my professor grade work that sticks out awkwardly (and alone) in their grading pile. As I realize that professor-ing is hard work, I honestly feel bad about making out of the way paperwork for someone I respect.

    Additionally, I’ve had many professors who genuinely want me to succeed in ways they know that I could were I to apply myself a bit more appropriately, and I feel genuinely bad when I fail them. I don’t, actually, want the professor to tell me that everything is all right; rather, I simply want to make it known to them that I’m actually taking their class seriously. So many students will do shoddy and/or late work simply because they have no respect for the professor or the class, and I want to assure the person who is putting their all into being the professor and teaching the class that I really do respect them, and that my lateness and/or lack of quality is reflective of only my own personal issues.

    /end of defensive post

  7. Just today I apologized for being 40 minutes late to the first meeting of my Urban Anthropology seminar. Coincidentally (actually I think it’s my psychic abilities) I had a dream about a month ago that I would be late to one of my first classes.

    I did end up sending an apology and an explanation to the professor – I just moved to Tennessee from Florida, and my Google calendar, upon switching over to Central Time, pushed my entries up an hour. Thankfully I caught this error at the beginning of the week, but for some reason I forgot to correct the time for this particular class.

    So I think, especially because this is my first WEEK of grad school, and I want to make a good impression (but not be a weirdo about it), that it was wise for me to apologize and explain what the heck happened.

  8. Well, if you goofed up and you know it, obviously there is nothing wrong with apologizing — just don’t turn it into emotional work for your professor is all I’m saying. In fact coming up to a prof after class, describing very briefly why you absent and then saying ‘it won’t happen again’ AND THEN NOT LETTING IT HAPPEN AGAIN is a great way to get a prof’s attention because it starts creating a track record. They key, of course, is the consistency afterwards, not the initial apology.

  9. As someone who newly has an office door to decorate with wise sayings and anthropology cartoons, ‘Never tell them how it was supposed to taste’ might well soon feature there….

  10. i find it surprising that everyone here is on board with advising against apologizing. I understand- but shouldn’t we stop trying to shape/regulate the sociality of university life. Lord, it’s inane enough as is. we need to stop with the misshapen dialogues between profs and students, not make them more bloody tacit.

  11. WTF? Is this bizarro world over here? If you don’t want late work, don’t accept late work. If you don’t want sloppy work, then give the sloppy work the grade it deserves.

    You enable your students — you can either enable them to take their work seriously, or to watch iron Man three times instead.

  12. I have to agree with MTBradley on this one. Somehow a post explicitly and publicly stating my thoughts on high standards has been interpreted as 1) An attempt to make the informal rules governing student-teacher relations more tacit and 2) taken to imply that I give bad work good grades.

    ‘WTF’ indeed. Perhaps I should write a post in which I discuss how much I dislike plagiarism — then posters could rail against me for my advocacy of the practice of handing in essays copied off the Internet.

  13. bq. I have to agree with MTBradley on this one. Somehow a post explicitly and publicly stating my thoughts on high standards has been interpreted as 1) An attempt to make the informal rules governing student-teacher relations more tacit and 2) taken to imply that I give bad work good grades.

    Hi, Rex — I apologize if I have taken your post as other than it was intended. If it is a mere satire that everyone gets but me, then please ignore my comments.

    However, if the post has serious content, I think it expresses a serious lack of communication about expectations in the classroom. The next-to-last paragraph describes some kind of mind game, with these rules:

    # Students sin.
    # Some feel guilty and unburden their souls to the professor.
    # An unstated social contract appears to require that you then offer a benediction.
    # But you are an Old Testament professor, and unwilling to reciprocate.

    Meanwhile, the preceding paragraph shows a condescending paternalism. Who are you to assume that your students’ problems amount to pizza and Iron Man? If I had to articulate a “high standard” the post promotes, it would be “Don’t bother the professor.”

    That’s a good subject for a satire, but my students work multiple jobs, have kids that get sick, invalid sisters and dying grandparents, not to mention malfunctioning printers and erased hard drives. Five percent or more have a learning disability. It does not serve them to trivialize their real challenges, and it certainly doesn’t deepen their interest in anthropology — an interest they’ve already demonstrated by enrolling in my course — to make them negotiate some passive-aggressive minefield.

    I don’t accept late work, regardless of reason. That’s my contract with my students, and it’s communicated clearly on the syllabus and in class. Result: No complaints and no excuses. They get their work done early or risk a failing grade. Starting early means they have time for proofing and revisions, or to get help with their writing if they need it.

    It’s not perfect, but it’s fair — the student who spent five hours on my assignment instead of reading to her daughter won’t see me give an extension to the kid who would rather watch the big game.

  14. I have to admit I have now completely lost track of what people think my post was about. I have explicitly states that “obviously there is nothing wrong with apologizing—just don’t turn it into emotional work for your professor” because 1) the flaws you see in your work may not be apparent to others 2) making other people do emotional work to make you feel better is self-indulgent and ungenerous even though it may appear to you to be the reverse of that and 3) the best way to expiate a sense of guilt is to use it to create positive motivation in the future. I still think that’s good advice for school, cooking, and lots of other things in life.

    You won’t be surprised, John, to find that I have trouble recognizing the image of me that you paint. I’m not sure how asking students to behave like adults constitutes “condescending paternalism” or a “passive-aggressive minefield” or, even more bizzarely, “a serious lack of communication about expectations in the classroom”. I don’t think there’s anything in this post at all about my policies for late work, grading for attendance, or setting expectations in my initial class sessions. But apparently as a professor I have created a “mind game” which my students must learn to play? These sorts of generalization are just not warranted by the data.

    To be honest, though, I think there is something fruitful that could come out of John’s comments — namely, a comparison of some of the background assumptions that subtend our two approaches to teaching. I’ll say a bit more about that now, even though it is pretty far off-topic from the original subject of this thread.

    Like John, I teach at a public university where students work multiple job, and raise children (sometimes by themselves). Contrary to John’s expectations, every semester I get an email from the wonderful Kokua program at our university about the students in my classes with learning disabilities and how best to accommodate them. In addition, in Hawai’i there are other challenges that students face: they often come to me under-served by the public school system, and sometimes (especially men) struggle with peer pressure which sends the message that you can get good grades or be authentically local, but not both. Also, because of the military presence in Hawai’i my students often struggle with deployments (their own and their spouses), and reserve duty.

    Luckily, no one I’ve taught has yet lost their lives or the life of a loved ones while taking a class with me. Still, I’ve had a student apologize to me for not turning in a midterm because they spent the night in a battered women’s shelter, and I’ve also had to explain to Pacific Island students of mine that they need to sit down with their parents and explain to them that they will not succeed in college if they take off three days of classes a week to go with the whole extended family to take auntie to the hopsital for checkups and treatments.

    The question, then, arises of how to deal with the challenge of the challenges that some students face. In my post I discussed mostly ‘easy cases’ of student failure where students have just flaked. But there is also another form of ‘easy case’: that in which students have life issues which are seriously jeopardizing their academic career. In these cases they need to get to a councilor to help think about whether school is, emotionally and/or financially, is the right thing for them to be doing at this moment of their lives. The challenges they face are not easy, of course, but my decision about how to deal with their problems is — this sort of serious work on student well-being needs to be left to professionals, not me.

    The real issue (which John seems to think has not occurred to me before) is ‘hard cases’ where students do have pressing life issues more serious than flaking but not so serious that they need to be escalated to the councilling center.

    John’s solution is to create very bright and clear boundaries and, apparently, never to cross them. I see this as part of a wider trend to try to codify or legalize the teacher-student relationship — to regiment hard cases away. In extreme cases this takes the form of syllabi with elaborate small print, contracts, legalistic language etc. which I am sure many teachers and students have heard about or seen in action.

    I must admit this is not my method. True, I err on the formal side. When students skip class to welcome their wives and husbands back from deployment, they lose attendance points in my class. Although my personal style in class is informal — indeed, because of this fact — I work hard to let students know that I take academic propriety seriously and that I expect them to become excited about what we study (as I am) but also professional in the adherence to deadlines and attendance requirements.

    However, although we probably have broad agreement about the importance of setting expectations for your students (even if he couldn’t see that in my original post), I think we do differ about the degree. I do not believe you can regiment away hard cases — teachers, like many people in positions of authority, need to provide structure and expectations for their students. But they also need to be flexible and prudent. I do accept late work, for instance, for certain definitions of ‘late’ and certain reasons for tardiness.

    I think perhaps that is the real difference between John and myself: what he sees as a ‘passive aggressive minefield’ I consider the normal condition of the teaching relationship: an awkward mix of intimacy and professionalism in an institution that is at once meritocractic but also strangely inegalitarian. It sounds like he is willing to settle for ‘fair’ and give up ‘perfect’ but I must admit that I aspire to be more than just a fair teacher. Such an ambition has its own risks — such as engaging in the lives and emotions of my students in a — but it also results in greater rewards for both my students and myself. And above all I think it is a more honest in its recognition of the complex and ambivalent nature of human life and education than an approach which seeks to legislate away the grey areas.

    Perhaps this picture of the difference between us doesn’t do justice to John’s pedgagogy — in which case I guess you could say turnabout is fair play! But more importantly I’d be interested in hearing from him, or anyone else, about the distinction I’ve drawn.

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