Y u do this
April 16, 2010 1:47 PM   Subscribe

You are in grad school and your professor gives out an assignment that seems to have very little relevance for the topic of the class. Is it appropriate to ask him/her, in a very polite way, what they see as the connection between the goal of the assignment and the topic of the class?

Let's say for example it's a class in Feminist Theory and the assignment is like... read this paper by an Economics student and identify and fix any errors (typographical and factual). Now imagine the paper is badly written and is about a deep and confusing subject that has nothing to do with Feminist Theory as described in the syllabus.

One feels like sending an email saying "Hey why are you making us do this?" would be kind of presumptuous without a pre-existing friendly relationship. And "you're in school so suck it up and do it" isn't really helpful in this context.
posted by amethysts to Education (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
But you could play stupid and say, "I know there must be some connection between the class and this assignment, but I'm just not seeing it. What should I be looking for?" Sort of in an "oh wise one, please help your confused student see the light" way.

Is everyone in the class supposed to read it, or just you? In that case you're probably being taken advantage of. If everyone's supposed to do it, it might be an assignment in general essay revision.
posted by musofire at 1:52 PM on April 16, 2010

Haha no, this was an assignment given to everyone, for a grade, not in the spirit of "Let's all do the teacher's busywork so she doesn't have to". It just has zero to do with the stated purpose of the class.
posted by amethysts at 1:54 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you think of any reasons why this would be relevant, at all? Maybe the professor wants you to get a handle on reviewing papers for journals where you might not know much about the content, for example (although reviewers shouldn't be doing typographical editing or fact-checking). Still, I would come up with a few plausible scenarios first as to why the professor might have you do this assignment that is not relevant for content but could be relevant for context. Then, you could go one of two ways. Either go to their office hours to ask about it personally (because a friendly exchange is a lot easier to have face-to-face if it could be perceived as confrontational; it's all about body language and a smile, which is hard to convey via e-mail). Or, you could send a friendly e-mail like this:

Dear Professor ___,
I have been working on the most recent assignment on fixing typographical and factual errors in the article _____ by ____. I am struggling a bit with understanding how the paper fits into the larger scope of feminist theory. I understand that the purpose of this assignment could be so that I get experience in editing and fact-checking content outside of my field, which could be helpful if I am a reviewer for a journal (and insert other possible contexts here), but I am still wondering how the assignment fits within the context of our class. Would you be able to explain this so that I may better complete the assignment for your intended purposes?
Thanks very much,
posted by k8lin at 1:56 PM on April 16, 2010 [8 favorites]

I think it would be something very important for any humanities grad student to be able to do a coherent analysis and edit of another person's work or their own as is needed. IANAGS (grad student) but the GF teaches plenty of grad students who couldn't write a coherent paper to save their lives. It seems to me the point of the assignment is to remove you a few levels from something that is personal to you and have you work on understanding the editing process. Too often grad students get so attached to their own papers that they can't take criticism. This assignment removes you from any personal and/or emotional attachment to the material and makes you face the basic structure.
posted by JJ86 at 1:57 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it is totally appropriate to ask, in a polite way, about the rationale of assignments.

You might say something like, "I'm a bit confused about the assignment. Can you explain to me our ultimate goal with this assignment/what a successfully completed assignment should do/look like? Do you have any advice about how to apply our recent discussions/readings to this task?"

Or perhaps: "So, I got started on the assignment, and I've found such-and-such errors, but I feel like I'm missing something. I'm having difficulty with the paper because I don't have a background in economics [or whatever] so I'm stuck -- what would be your advice about how to proceed from where I am?"
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:58 PM on April 16, 2010

one of my grad school classes would have the professor droning on - sometimes interestingly but as often pointlessly. I felt it was a wandering waste of time and asked the associate director (academic, and a tenured prof) in charge of the curriculum what was the point of john's classes if this were so. he actually told me that there's a certain leeway granted to professors in grad school (or at least at ours) to not necessarily always be on point or structured or focused narrowly. is yours a humanities course or a science/engineering/math type course? if the former, then you may not have much luck with your grouse. just sayin'
posted by infini at 1:59 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're in grad school, and one of the things you're supposed to do (at least in the US, your culture may vary) is ask questions. Be polite, and consider asking the question during office hours, but do ask.

But it is complex. Keep in consideration the following, however.

a) professor normally gets to decide, with no interference or oversight, what makes up the course material, and it would be hard for you to show that a professor was wasting your time in any way that would work out well for you.

b) you have relatively little power as a student aside from changing classes or schools

c) you may want to work with this professor, or someone they know, in the future.

Short form: unless you've been getting an entire semester of "hey, do the prof's unrelated work and wax their car" assignments, it may be best to view these assignments as charitably as possible.
posted by zippy at 1:59 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

My experience with grad school suggests that it would be pretty common to ask for more info and even some guidance on what the prof is looking for. I have seen this so often I can't even imagine blow back from someone trying to do a good job with something & not understanding... Mind you, my department is full of nice people... I'm not sure if the same would be true in a douchebaggier place.
posted by ServSci at 2:02 PM on April 16, 2010

I should have mentioned that a query was already directed to the prof about a technical question on the assignment....(kind of like "I can't find alot of errors here, what am I looking for exactly?") which somehow makes another questioning email even more uncouth..right? You're all providing some helpful perspectives, thank you.
posted by amethysts at 2:11 PM on April 16, 2010

Maybe it's the professor's idea of some kind of sick test, to see if you can apply the theory you have learned and discussed. Perhaps you're supposed to argue why you're not the student's mama.
posted by contessa at 2:12 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is it actually a class in Feminist Theory? I remember a similar assignment in a gender theory course where I could not imagine for the life of me why I was reading a piece of seemingly unrelated literature only to realize the next class that it was a discussion piece for how gender seeps into the most unrelated of topics. I would do the assignment and then look critically at it from the perspective of your class. Remember that everything you are doing is from a lens of "X." Strap on your prof's paradigm and have a wack at it.
posted by elationfoundation at 2:12 PM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Let's say for example it's a class in Feminist Theory and the assignment is like... read this paper by an Economics student and identify and fix any errors (typographical and factual). Now imagine the paper is badly written and is about a deep and confusing subject that has nothing to do with Feminist Theory as described in the syllabus.

There is some kind of feminist issue buried in the economics paper, and the prof is hoping that you will be astute enough to find it. Do you really think it's possible that a poorly written economics paper doesn't have some kind of gender-related bias in it somewhere, especially when the analysis is being done at a grad school level?

(I know it's possible that economics and feminism are just placeholders here, but really, it makes no difference.)

If you do the work, and can't find any such thing, and then the assignment is discussed in class, and nothing related to the topic of the class comes up in the discussion, and it looks like the prof is going to go on to the next thing, then ask what the connection was. Note: this won't happen.

Ask prematurely, and you get to be the one who springs the rhetorical trap in which the prof says what I said above, and then forever remembers you as the student who had to ask.
posted by bingo at 2:14 PM on April 16, 2010 [10 favorites]

somehow makes another questioning email even more uncouth..right?

Not necessarily, unless your prof is a real jerk.

Another option: Talk to your fellow classmates and ask them what they think about the assignment. Maybe someone will have had some insight that you haven't.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:20 PM on April 16, 2010

I would just be honest and not beat around the bush. Being an adversarial jerk to your professors is not good, but you don't have to genuflect 500 times to ask a simple question. The reason they hire professors to teach you instead of just handing you a textbook is so that there is someone to help you if you don't understand.

I would complete the assignment, go to the professor's office hours, and simply tell them I had a question about the last assignment, and ask (in a non-adversarial/non-hostile tone) how it relates to feminist theory/the material we've been studying in class.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:20 PM on April 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's absolutely acceptable. In fact, if you don't see the connection, I'd say it's almost intellectually required. Polite confrontation between student and teacher is a good thing, and a good professor should be pleased that you're asking for justification.

Of course, you might not have a good professor.
posted by painquale at 2:25 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, of course you should ask your professor. In my experience as a humanities grad student, asking for information is always worth doing. Nobody's going to hold it against you, nobody's going to be startled or annoyed, you don't have to apologize for doing it or take the submissive OH-YOU'RE-SO-SMART-AND-I'M-SO-DUMB tone that others are recommending — just ask! Stop by office hours and say "Hey, I'm confused by this assignment. Is there a feminist theory angle here that I'm not seeing?" Be friendly, treat it like a conversation and not a confrontation, and listen to the answer you get. Everything will be fine.

And on preview...
I should have mentioned that a query was already directed to the prof about a technical question on the assignment....(kind of like "I can't find alot of errors here, what am I looking for exactly?") which somehow makes another questioning email even more uncouth..right?
...no, it's still fine as far as I can see.

Look, if you don't mind me asking, what are you worried about anyway? Making your professor mad? Suffering some sort of retribution? Looking dumb? It seems pretty clear to me that you're overthinking this, but we can do a better job of talking you down if you let us know what end of it you're overthinking. :)
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:26 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd put it in terms of how you are to relate the assignment to the class in your work.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:26 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just ask. I'd probably say, "I feel like I'm missing something, but I can't figure out what ..."

I've had students ask me about the rationale for assignments and usually once they understand the rationale, they're able to do the assignment better. I don't mind the question at all. On a couple of occasions, after hearing the rationale, I've had a student say, "But would it do that better if the assignment was X?" to which my response has been, "I think you're right, let's do X." Because, yeah, on a couple of occasions my students actually came up with a more interesting question than I did that better assessed their grasp of the material. I'm not too proud to steal from students and keep using that assignment thereafter! :)

But yes, it's totally within bounds.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:31 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think bingo's diagnosis is likely the correct one. That argues for just doing the assignment. The other suggestion would be to chat with the other students: is everybody as mystified? Somebody might have an explanation.
posted by Beardman at 2:39 PM on April 16, 2010

I wish I had you for a teacher, Eyebrows McGee.
I guess what I'm afraid of is hurting the teacher's feelings and/or coming off as impertinent or for implying that she gave us a really stupid assignment. Or coming off as lazy because i don't want to do this irrelevant thing (although I really don't want to do it).
Also, for the record, feminism and economics are placeholders, but you're right to suggest that I look harder for the link before assuming there is none. Which I usually try to do, but this professor has come off as a little air-headed before.

I need to get better at thinking of and including all the details in my questions.
posted by amethysts at 2:44 PM on April 16, 2010

I would not put it past a teacher in a class like this to give students an assignment that seemed really ridiculous and them come back with this as a lesson in how it felt to go through .

So maybe the point is to analyze your feelings about doing this work while you're doing it.

Or at the very least, maybe that's what you can get out of it while you're working on it.

posted by gracedissolved at 2:48 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Er, this is how it felt to go through (something). I forget I can't use angle-brackets here!
posted by gracedissolved at 2:49 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

2nd asking WITH completed assignment in hand. If you still don't understand at that point, maybe you ARE missing what the prof was trying to do there. "I'm not seeing the connection with the course in the assignment I just did, so I'm afraid maybe I missed something?" would go over a lot better than (paraphrased) *whine* This has nothing to do with this class, do we really have to do this? (and it's hard to not sound like that until after you've done it)
posted by ctmf at 2:49 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have taught grad classes where most of the students were barely literate (engineers). I have sometimes set this type of assignment early in the class, although I always explained its goals and the importance of literacy/written communications in career advancement.
Personally, I would always rather have a student ask about the goals of an assignment than complete it in puzzled resentment. But do be polite - I have had far too many students (who were way less informed about current practices in the field than they thought they were) telling me that an assignment was c^@p because it did not use their technology application of choice.
posted by Susurration at 2:52 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm thinking along the same lines as elationfoundation and bingo. Identifying and fixing typographical and factual errors in a paper in an unfamiliar field would make you look closely at how writers in that field (or at least this one) use language and present arguments - something you might other ignore, but nevertheless be influenced by. It would make a lot of sense if the class was in fact in feminist theory.

Just do it - it's probably more an exercise than an assignment. If it's not followed up by a lecture drawing on your experience of looking at it and editing it, then your professor is weird. But I think it's probably something like that.
posted by nangar at 3:00 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's impertinent at all to ask for clarification about what you should be focusing on in an assignment.

I would probably do it in person so there's less of a chance of it being misconstrued, though.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:53 PM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just to point out--the example provided in the OP sounds like an exercise to improve writing skills, one where you're asked to improve a piece of writing that is outside your area of study, I've had to do that once or twice before.
posted by polymodus at 3:56 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not knowing what the subject and assignment really are, I wouldn't be surprised if it's got to do with basic knowledge. Most likely writing, as some others have mentioned, but not necessarily.

I had a biology class in undergrad where the prof kept giving us extremely simple geography quizzes and the like. It really annoyed me because I couldn't see the connection between the diseases we were studying, and these questions. Then one time we had a quiz where we had to match up 10 cities with their location in the world. There was a map of the world, and numbered dots, and you matched them to a city. I was really angry at the teacher for making us waste our time this way.... and then I heard two girls behind me trying to figure out which dot Paris was. THERE WAS ONLY ONE DOT ON THE WHOLE EUROPEAN CONTINENT. I was never angry at that teacher again. Some things you should just know by college. Maybe it wasn't the professor's place to use that sort of test, but I honestly can't blame her using that as a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
posted by Caravantea at 4:06 PM on April 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

to ask for clarification about what you should be focusing on

In some cases, when the assignment seems to vague, I totally agree. I think in this case, that phrasing would just be a transparent hint that you don't think it's relevant. Double insulting to the professor - once because you're questioning the teaching method as a mere student, and the second time for not just being "man enough" to ask what you want to ask. At least, I would feel that way, if I were the professor. I'm normally a real nice person, but I know that wording would inflame my inner hostility. (perhaps that's why I'm not a professor)

"What should you focus on? You should focus on identifying any typographical or factual errors in the text I assigned. Then, you should focus on correcting them. You should focus on having that done by the day I'm going to focus on collecting your work. Is that clear enough?"
posted by ctmf at 4:08 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

once because you're questioning the teaching method as a mere student,

If your professor has the attitude that you're a "mere" student then there's not much you can do. If basic respect doesn't exist then just do the assignment and don't attempt to communicate.

and the second time for not just being "man enough" to ask what you want to ask.

I dunno. If someone asked me that question I wouldn't assume that they were asking anything other than "What should I be focusing on in this assignment?"

I think there's a tremendous amount of bruhaha being posited on asking a simple question. Professors are not terrible beasts of myth and legend. They're just folks.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:21 PM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

You're probably right, TMNL. Pet peeves, I have them. As the OP's professor, I would also have no problem at all with straight-out "why am I doing this?" (Though I still think doing it first then asking is better.) It's the waffling euphemisms that drive me nuts. I don't think "correct the errors in this" is broad enough or difficult enough to understand to need "focus."
posted by ctmf at 4:30 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wish you felt comfortable revealing the actual subject of the course, but if it is Feminist Theory, or something equally politically sensitive and likely to provoke opposition from inside the institution and without, you may have a prof who's trying to undermine the course itself.

If so, he is probably doing so with the tacit or active cooperation of the department chairman and the administration, and his aim is to reduce enrollment in the course to the point it can 'be drowned in a bathtub' (to borrow a phrase from someone who would not object to it's application to Feminist theory) without undue fuss from any quarter.

You should be able to tell by finding the founding professor of the course and asking her if she's still alive, or looking in the student newspaper around the time it started, etc.. You should certainly read your professor's published work with a view to gauging how valid he thinks the subject matter is.

In any case, walk softly until you know whose toes you're stepping on.
posted by jamjam at 4:34 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

If it's in a class in feminist theory, my guess would be that the prof is interested in whether you mark it as an "error" that the author uses generic masculine pronouns instead of gender-neutral pronouns. Just a guess, and I know nothing of the article in question, but that would be an easy feminist point to pull out of the grammar/spelling of an article in an unrelated field.
posted by philosophygeek at 4:35 PM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Maybe the Professor is doing an Obedience to Authority type of experiment? After the papers have been submitted he/she might say, "To all of you who think you would not have pressed the button had you been in Milgram's study, you could not not even ask me why I assigned you something that has nothing to do with the subject matter of this class."
posted by mlis at 5:07 PM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just ask. Be polite, but by all means ask. There's no reason it should remain a mystery, and chances are you're not the only one confused.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 6:10 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is post-grad, so I would assume that your teacher is looking for originality of thought, ideas and connections in your writing. I would just write the paper based on that, unless I thought the teacher was really air-headed and silly, in which case I would politely ask what they thought the connection was between the subject and the paper (and give a not-so-great review at the end of semester, if not complain beforehand).
posted by goo at 6:19 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ask the question, it's grad school not grade school so you should be able to talk freely to your professors. If I can't ask a professor or a coworker "what do you mean by that" without implying that I think they probably don't mean anything by it then one of us needs improved personal skills. Just be respectful.

But what do I know, I was almost never experimented upon in grad school, at worst the occasional gag "read all the instructions" bit.
posted by Wood at 6:34 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm disappointed they were placeholders, because I had all these crazy theories about how they were connected. Assigning "tough/masculine" subjects and looking for errors to a class of soft skills folks and assessing whether or not there were differences in the errors cited by male students vs. females students, or there was some sort of gender bias inherent in the research assumptions, or that it used historical data based on lower wages for women, or...

As a former grad school teacher, I often assigned things that could have been seen as unrelated as prep for a demonstration. Then, once I knew they spent some time on it, we'd do a class activity or lecture about connecting it to the subject material. I had my advertising students do a book report on a children's book (later tied to a lecture about mnemonic devices like rhyme, rhythm, alliteration in copywriting), a paper on their favor swear word (tied to buzz and the way people speak vs. the way people write) and a presentation on their favorite song (which I then had them analyze the commercial and moral purpose for the song's creation, tying it back to appropriation of subculture and selling coolness). After one or two assignments, the students started to do them without the eye rolls.

So, if this is the first assignment unrelated to the subject at hand, I'd do it and have a watch and see attitude. If this is not, I'd ask.
posted by Gucky at 7:30 PM on April 16, 2010

I haven't read through all the comments, but by the time you are in grad school, you need to get comfortable going to professors' office hours and asking these kinds of questions. Email is okay for quick questions and communications, but this sounds much better for in-person.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:47 PM on April 16, 2010

"I guess what I'm afraid of is hurting the teacher's feelings and/or coming off as impertinent or for implying that she gave us a really stupid assignment."

I certainly understand that, and that's why I personally would have couched this sort of question as, "I think I'm missing something, I'm halfway through the assignment but I'm having trouble seeing how it relates to what we're studying? And so I don't think I'm doing it quite right." or something equally hedge-y, when I was a student.

Now that I'm on the other side of the desk, as it were, as long as the question is genuine/respectful, it's not a big deal exactly HOW students ask. When a student is kind-of a jerk and goes, "What's the point? Why do I have to do this?" in a challenging tone that makes it clear they think my assignment is stupid, that's not so pleasant. (But, it still doesn't affect how I grade that student's work, although the student will get a curt answer and possibly a lesson in manners if they keep it up.) But a student saying, "What's the point of this assignment?" in a tone that makes it clear it's a genuine question? That's fine. I know they're not being rude.

(And, you know, I like to like my students, and I generally have a pretty friendly classroom, but me liking or disliking you has NOTHING to do with how I grade you, so even if you do offend your professor, as long as she's professional about her work, it's not the end of the world. And it's not like you can't apologize for giving offense.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:52 PM on April 16, 2010

You are paying to learn. You are allowed to ask questions any time you're paying for something. And you are expected to ask questions any time you're learning something. Turn off your AnxietyFilter and go for it.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:08 AM on April 17, 2010

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