What should I do about this prof?
August 27, 2010 9:08 PM   Subscribe

ProfessorFilter: I screwed something up with a professor from college (a few years ago) and I want to make it right. Lots of details and beanplating.

In undergrad, I had a professor who is one of those guys who takes an interest in his student's welfare, sometimes to a ridiculous degree.

He's a "character". He's an adjunct, not full-time faculty, and quite unhappy about it. He is incredibly disorganized, chronically late, sometimes gets inappropriately angry and yells at his students... but has a heart of gold and really goes out of his way for everyone. This is why he's sometimes hours late -- he is helping one student and runs late on appointments. He also (I heard from a fellow student) holds grudges for a long time.

I was kind of immature (no, really immature), had lots of social anxiety and ADD issues -- and I think, no, I know, that I screwed him over. I don't know what to do.

- I had a conflict with one of his (higher-ranking) colleagues. I had tried to do two internships at the same time, one in the program she runs and one in another program with a different professor, and she thought that I wouldn't pay enough attention to hers -- before it had even started -- and kicked me out. He tried to take my side and get her to accept me back in, at some risk to his reputation. It didn't work.

- He gave me a recommendation that he said was a bit too kind about my abilities, saying that I would "pay him back later". I'm not sure what that meant.

- I took a short-term research position with him to complete a project that was years overdue (his fault). It was so disorganized that I couldn't understand it, he was always late or missing when I needed help. He had promised me the job because I needed money that summer. In the end, I didn't complete the project (I feel really guilty) and I didn't bill him either. So I was out the money and took out loans that summer.

- He helped me with a research project by giving me lots of contacts. He wanted me to send all of them a copy of my work, but I didn't want to (I didn't think it was very good). So I just sent a thank you note to them by email. He doesn't know this and probably forgot about it.

So, now I'm going to visit the area and I want to make it better somehow. He is quite well-connected among alumni (because he's such a helper) and I don't want to have an enemy.

But I'm scared about how I behaved (avoidantly, stupidly) and don't know what to say, if anything. Maybe I should just let it be until I have a specific reason to contact him? How do I find out how he feels in a professional way? But I don't want to come to him in a year and ask for his help or something without having healed the relationship.
posted by alternateuniverse to Education (18 answers total)
 
Just to clarify (and not to answer), what exactly is the problem? He was nice to you, and gave you a recommendation and a job, but you didn't live up to the recommendation and you didn't complete the job?

How old are you now?

Personally, I think you burned the bridge. He gave you a chance to prove your worth, and you failed. Now you need to find someone else and succeed.
posted by jrockway at 9:17 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do you anticipate having to ask for his help, eg for a reference for grad school?
Typically grad schools want to see references from full-time faculty if possible. (In my field; might be different in your field.) Also it sounds like he would have to say that your research project didn't pan out, in the letters. So if you have another prof you could use as a reference, that might be a better choice.

I mean, sure, email or go by his office to say hi, how're things going, I'm back in the area and wanted to drop by and say thanks for all your help, I was flaky but I appreciated you going the extra mile to help me. Nothing wrong with that. What else are you envisioning?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:20 PM on August 27, 2010


None of this sounds that bad to me?

Look, you didn't force him to side with you or to write an overly generous recommendation, and despite what he said, you don't 'owe' him for that. And I doubt that he harbors resentment there. The job you didn't do but also didn't get paid for seems a little more, though not appreciably more, serious. But I doubt he much cares.

The thing with our teachers is that WE think about them and what they think WAY WAY MORE than they think about us. I think that is all that's going on here. Want to open things up again? Don't apologize. Thank him. Thank him sincerely and seriously for his mentorship. That will be more than enough.
posted by liketitanic at 9:27 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hmm, could you clarify what you want from this professor? Or what you did that actually screwed him over? If I were someone who went out of my way to help anyone and everyone who crossed my academic path, I don't think I'd be all that put-out by one particular person not living up to the help I'd wanted to give ... this may be one of those cases where you're imagining a problem based on the premise that the other person is focused on you far more than they actually are in real life. I don't mean that in a derogatory way - I've been quite relieved at times to realize that certain professors have so much going on in their life that my "letting them down" really wasn't a thing at all to them - but it is still worth considering ...
posted by DingoMutt at 9:30 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems like there are two possible things going on here. One, perhaps you looked up to this guy and don't want him thinking badly of you. If this is your concern, it might be worth getting in touch with him, and simply apologizing for being flaky etc., but not with the expectation that there will be any results or effect of this. But honestly, odds are as an adjunct he deals with many, many students and you are just one flake among many.

Two, it sounds like you are worried about negative consequences of him thinking badly of you. Here, I think there is absolutely nothing to worry about --

I think, no, I know, that I screwed him over.

If you describe the way you were involved with him correctly (It was so disorganized that I couldn't understand it, he was always late or missing when I needed help.), you did not. A combination of his incompetence and bad choices did, if anything. As someone who has directed undergraduates on research projects, I can tell you that it isn't especially easy to do, and if I don't do a good job of it, I don't blame the RA. If he thinks otherwise, he isn't reasonable enough that you're likely to be able to do anything about it. Re the conflict with his colleague, that was his choice, and not really very politically astute of him anyways.

He is quite well-connected among alumni (because he's such a helper) and I don't want to have an enemy.

If a professor were to think of every student who acted flaky as an enemy, well, they'd have a lot of enemies. And I think you may be overestimating the pull that he might have. In the scale of academic power structures, this guy is at the very bottom (something undergraduates often aren't fully aware of). Honestly, the way you describe his interaction with students and colleagues, I don't know that he is likely to get much further. But as long as you don't expect a letter from him (which there is probably no way to get, at this point), how can he affect your life again?
posted by advil at 9:34 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


So it seems like the answers are:
- Don't bother contacting him
- Apologize
- Just thank him and catch up

How do I decide which to do?
posted by alternateuniverse at 9:47 PM on August 27, 2010


I'm a little perturbed by his "pay him back later" thing. By chance are you female? (Or is he gay, and you male?)

And how long ago was all this? Are we talking last year, or 20 years ago?
posted by ErikaB at 9:53 PM on August 27, 2010


Do it like this..

Go by his office and say Hello. Tell him something akin to " I knew I was going to be back in town a few weeks ago and started thinking about all the people I wanted to visit. When I started thinking about our friendship , some things just kind of flashed across my mind and I thought maybe we could talk about them.. then either apologize or just ask if he was upset and if there is anything you can do to fix it.
posted by lakerk at 10:01 PM on August 27, 2010


Is there anything that you actually need from him? Letter of reference, maybe? (But as has been said, those are more valuable from tenured faculty, unfair though that is.)

If not, I'd either forget the whole thing, or just say "hi" in the most benign way possible, and not mention one word about these past issues that are bothering you. (And if this really keeps eating at you, please consider therapy -- minor things from back in the past shouldn't take up this much of your mental energy.)

If you really, really need the letter... well, first, maybe reconsider. He sounds unprofessional and flakey, and you'd be better off not involving yourself in this. But if you are really needing this, then the magic phrase is "would you be able to write me a strong letter?" There are a lot of legal reasons someone may feel obligated to say "yes" to writing a letter even if they don't like you; the phrase "strong letter" is code for "is this going to be glowing and positive?" which you can't really ask directly.

tl;dr: He sounds like a weirdo and I think you should move on with your life. If you do get a letter from him, doublecheck that it is going to be positive and even then be a little suspicious.
posted by Forktine at 10:41 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


He sounds like a weirdo and I think you should move on with your life. If you do get a letter from him, doublecheck that it is going to be positive and even then be a little suspicious.

I agree with this and with what everyone's said above. You didn't screw him over. He has acted unprofessionally towards you.

If he was so disorganized you didn't know what you were supposed to be doing at your job, that he didn't pay you for, well, that is seriously messed up.

Of course he should write you a glowing recommendation; there's no "payback" for that. That is an insane thing to say.

If I were you, I'd avoid this guy at all costs. All the more so since he has a reputation of being unstable. Sure, he probably doesn't care about what happened, but if you don't need anything from him, don't reopen contact. And if you do need a recommendation, ask a tenure track professor even if they don't know you as well.

Oh yeah, the way he intervened with a colleague to get you the internship back was also crazy. None of this reflects badly on you, but it screams *crazy* and I bet that he has a reputation in his field as a crazy person.
posted by vincele at 1:24 AM on August 28, 2010


What on earth did you do to "screw" this professor "over"?

- I had a conflict with one of his (higher-ranking) colleagues. I had tried to do two internships at the same time, one in the program she runs and one in another program with a different professor, and she thought that I wouldn't pay enough attention to hers -- before it had even started -- and kicked me out. He tried to take my side and get her to accept me back in, at some risk to his reputation. It didn't work.

What does "It didn't work" mean? If it means that you weren't accepted back in, then that's unfortunate but not something you're to blame for. If it means that you were accepted back in but didn't do well, that's also unfortunate but shit happens. When he decided to support you, your professor must have realised that either of these things might happen.

- He gave me a recommendation that he said was a bit too kind about my abilities, saying that I would "pay him back later". I'm not sure what that meant.

So? Based on what you wrote here he gave you the recommendation out of his own free will, and you're under no obligation to "pay him back". From your description, if anything, he screwed you over by giving you the impression that you were indebted to him for his recommendation, while you may very well have preferred him to be honest and realistic about your abilities.

- I took a short-term research position with him to complete a project that was years overdue (his fault). It was so disorganized that I couldn't understand it, he was always late or missing when I needed help. He had promised me the job because I needed money that summer. In the end, I didn't complete the project (I feel really guilty) and I didn't bill him either. So I was out the money and took out loans that summer.

Again, shit happens, and you did a very decent thing by not billing him (while possibly it wasn't even your fault if the project wasn't completed successfully).

- He helped me with a research project by giving me lots of contacts. He wanted me to send all of them a copy of my work, but I didn't want to (I didn't think it was very good). So I just sent a thank you note to them by email. He doesn't know this and probably forgot about it.

And you had every right to act as you did.

So, now I'm going to visit the area and I want to make it better somehow. He is quite well-connected among alumni (because he's such a helper) and I don't want to have an enemy.

Again, what for? Unless you killed the guy's cat and didn't tell us about it (in which case it would probably be better to avoid all contact) what is it that you need to make better?
posted by rjs at 2:48 AM on August 28, 2010


I am another professor who has supervised undergraduate research. I agree with the people above that it doesn't look like you have anything to apologise for.

You have to realise that undergraduate research is a crap shoot. Undergraduates are inexperienced, busy, and easily distractable. From your description it sounds like you had the best of intentions, spent quite a bit of time on the project, but weren't able to get it finished. This happens. It's a risk that a prof willingly accepts when hiring an RA.

My vote is: If you liked the guy and want to see him, stop by and say hi. Otherwise, do nothing.
posted by sesquipedalian at 3:38 AM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Prof here, although not in the sciences. I see nothing here that amounts to "screwed him over"; in fact, I was thinking some rather unkind words about him in your description of the "disorganized" research project. If the working conditions made it impossible for you to do anything, then that's his fault, not yours. And you'll "pay him back later" for an overly nice recommendation? Huh? Letters of rec are not a quid pro quo.

At the risk of sounding brutal: you're assuming that, after a dozen years, he remembers who you are. It's very likely that that's not the case.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:20 AM on August 28, 2010


He gave me a recommendation that he said was a bit too kind about my abilities, saying that I would "pay him back later".

This is utterly unprofessional and wrong. A professional or academic reference should be an honest (if selective) reflection of the person's abilities. To not only be dishonest in his reference, but then act as if he'd done you a favor? That's totally inappropriate. He was essentially setting you up for failure and expecting gratitude for it.

I see how you could have acted differently for your own benefit, but what, exactly, do you think you could have done for his? You failing to live up to a lie he told about you? Not wrong. You failing to do work he asked you to do but then impeded you from doing? Not wrong, and you should have been paid for your time. You failing to send your portfolio to people he suggested you send it to? Not wrong, though maybe it could have benefited you to do it.

I suspect that this person is probably well-intended, and may have a good reputation, but he's not actually going to be able to help you and wasn't able to help you back in the day. The equation was supposed to go: you + nice professor = Help with your studies/career. What actually happened was: you + nice professor = ou spinning your wheels for a couple years. You wonder why it didn't work out like you'd hoped, and since your professor is so nice, you conclude that it must be because you did something wrong. You didn't. He's just not very good at his job.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:12 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Although we don't know the full context of things, I'd like to point out that a generous reading of "pay him back later" could simply be that you will succeed in life and make him proud.
posted by jasonhong at 6:41 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I share the opinion of people who don't see how you screwed him over. I once was a research assistant for a professor who outlined the project but then didn't make any attempt to meet with me again until the end of the semester (though I had been in touch with her several times). I accomplished very little, and felt horrible about it, but I also think that if it had mattered to her that I accomplish more, she ought to have provided more supervision--a monthly meeting to go over progress, even. I felt bad that I always put off working on her project to do some of the rest of the mountain of work I had, but at the same time I recognize that some of the responsibility was hers.

Your situation sounds similar.

Mine was about 10 years ago. I figure that's just water long gone under the bridge. I wouldn't expect her to remember me, or care much. I don't see that you owe this prof an apology, but I don't see that renewed contact would benefit you much. In your shoes (which I am, sort of), I'd just try to let it go. Stop by to visit him if he's someone you want to visit; be prepared to refresh his memory about who you are if needed. Don't worry about making anything "right." If you have something positive to say to him ("I really appreciated your concern for me," or whatever) say that; he'll probably appreciate it. But there's no hatchet to bury here that I can see.
posted by not that girl at 7:00 AM on August 28, 2010


I agree with others that this is beanplating. That said, in professional relationships, one doesn't only apologize because they were wrong. Apology is a method to repair a relationship.

Look at it this way -- have you ever been offended by someone apologizing? I doubt it. So apologize. It's obvious you believe you don't believe that you behaved appropriately. Explain that. Even if you didn't bill him, you didn't finish what you said you would. Two wrongs, and all that.

So apologize. It can't hurt. Let him take the lead on whether he'd like to continue the relationship. And make sure you keep in mind the risks that go along with this relationship as it moves forward. Just because you try to repair it doesn't mean you owe him anything, or need to be his employee again. Repair, but keep a safe distance.

And finally, no groveling apology. Hey, was in town, wanted to say hi. Also wanted to mention that over time I've regretted that I wasn't able to complete that project I was working on for you. I'm sure I was in over my head, but that doesn't change the fact that I didn't finish something that I agreed to, so I just wanted to apologize for that. It's not how I prefer to do work.

You'll be fine.
posted by bfranklin at 8:13 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yet another prof here. I don't see anything you need to apologize for. Undergraduates are sometimes flaky. We're used to it and don't usually bear any grudges -- you're still feeling your way in the world (grad students are a different matter since professors are usually a lot more invested in them for professional reasons).

Honestly, I wouldn't bother renewing this relationship. It seems like he has his own share of flakiness issues and you don't want to get caught up in them. It's also probable he doesn't remember you in any great detail, and it's unlikely he's going to badmouth you to alumni.
posted by media_itoku at 12:26 PM on August 28, 2010


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