Piemaker, PhD
October 31, 2011 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I have warm fuzzy feelings and inclinations to do nice things for people. Does this make me unprofessional? How do I talk myself out of it, if so? I'm in academia.

Today's case in point: I've just obtained the fifth and final member of my dissertation committee, and I consider the group a Dream Team. I feel so fortunate to be working with these amazing professors and pleased that they are giving me their time. I want to make them pies.

Literally. I keep thinking "peach, apple, blueberry?"

I understand that dissertation committee members are sometimes presented with stodgy professionally-oriented gifts after the defense, but my Americana FarmGirl roots just can't resist celebrating this milestone with a round of happy baking and a chance to show personal appreciation.

I'm not certain it would be considered inappropriate. I am in a very liberal field and a pretty friendly department. And who can hate on pie?

Has anybody had experiences with feeling this way or navigating academia in terms of amity and old-fashioned niceties, and conflicts with ivory professionalism?
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur to Human Relations (39 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I would absolutely love this. In my experience it is fairly common (although not universally expected) for PhD students to provide food for their committee members. A pie for each one seems like Serious Business though. How about cookies?
posted by grouse at 11:02 AM on October 31, 2011

You could always make pie for your meeting and then everyone can have a slice or two. Making five pies just seems like a lot.
posted by grouse at 11:02 AM on October 31, 2011 [6 favorites]

I have a friend who is a professor who is well published and well respected. She gives baked goods as gifts often! Bake away!! Can I get a sample? YUM! : )
posted by Yellow at 11:09 AM on October 31, 2011

This really depends on what you're giving and how you frame it. I know of some PhD students who have brought food (home baked or otherwise) to their dissertation meetings and/or defenses. Generally, this isn't a big deal.

But I also know of a PhD student who sent her committee lots of little gifts and was told by the head of the department to stop.

I think it's all about context. If you're supplying food for a meeting, I think that's not an issue. If what you're doing might appear to be currying favor, then just restrain yourself and send them all pies, cakes, etc. after your dissertation has been accepted and approved.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:16 AM on October 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

I serve on dissertation committees, and I would welcome a pie--I like that it is a time-investment kind of gift, rather than a gift with a specific dollar amount attached to it.

It's so unusual and refreshing that you are happy about your committee!
posted by umbĂș at 11:16 AM on October 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wait for a milestone - defense, end of year, something... And then go for it.
posted by k8t at 11:23 AM on October 31, 2011

five pies is way over the top. would probably make me wonder why you're trying to manipulate me if i was on the receiving end. one to share is a bonding activity.
posted by patricking at 11:23 AM on October 31, 2011

PS, putting a committee together isn't a formal enough milestone to warrent gifts.
posted by k8t at 11:23 AM on October 31, 2011 [6 favorites]

Yeah, it's really about context. I'm in an arts education field, so this kind of thing would generally be fine (considering the personalities of the professors involved). For my performance jury (end of semester exam), I brought cupcakes once, and they were very much appreciated. Especially since I was at the end of the day, and the last of 30 bassoons and oboes.
posted by SNWidget at 11:24 AM on October 31, 2011

Pie gifts (or any food, really) would have been welcomed in any of the academic departments that I've worked in. Leftovers were often given to hungry grad students, who appreciated it. Academics and staff brought in things all the time, to thank committees, on holidays, or just because they felt like making something.
posted by pinky at 11:24 AM on October 31, 2011

Let them eat pie!

But be prepared to be resented by every other candidate in your department for the next ten years, when professors talking among themselves are overheard to say something like 'remember how that brilliant Ambrosia Voyeur gave every member of her committee a pie after her defense?'

I'm a little surprised at your attitude, grouse, considering that you are the author of a certain MetaTalk comment notable for its piety and which I recall very fondly: "We could close the thread. Or we could have some delicious pie. I vote for pie."
posted by jamjam at 11:30 AM on October 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

I should also add to my above answer that my department is small, I know everyone on my committee pretty well (would be comfortable stopping by in their office to have a casual conversation), and I'm a well know stress baker, so they're already used to mountains of muffins appearing in the office during certain times.
posted by SNWidget at 11:31 AM on October 31, 2011

Rather than a big pie each, how about teeny pies - tarts? Make a platterful of different flavours, and the profs can nibble or gorge as they choose to, and it makes distributing leftovers easier, too!
posted by LN at 11:34 AM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the safest course would be to bring pies to some kind of department-wide event. Do you have a regular happy-hour-type thing, or aggregated monthly birthday party, etc, that the professors usually make an appearance at? An assortment of homemade pies would probably be the highlight of 2011, with no hint of currying favor because the whole department gets to share them. Maybe each prof could take the first slice of their pie, just to make it a bit ceremonial.

Private pies seem a little ingratiating, at least to anyone who's ever baked one. (They're a lot of work!) If you really want to go the private route, something simpler like cookies would be better, I think.
posted by Quietgal at 11:45 AM on October 31, 2011

Speaking as an academic who left a loaf of homemade chocolate-chip pumpkin spice bread in the department THIS VERY MORNING (it seems to be departing at a gratifying pace), baked goods are hardly objectionable in professorial circles.

But I would wait until your committee has done something. In their position, I would be a little...not upset, but discombobulated about a relatively labor-intensive gift appearing for no apparent reason. Reserve gifts for individuals for when you've finished with the dissertation. In the meantime, bring all the pie you want to the department kitchen :)
posted by thomas j wise at 11:55 AM on October 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Rather than a big pie each, how about teeny pies - tarts?"

Or miniature pie in a jar!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:56 AM on October 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Back when I was in Library School, I took an archives course. I learned a lot, and I liked both the class and the professor, so I bought him a copy of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the only YA novel I know of that hinges on records management. Since final grades hadn't been released yet, I left it anonymously in his mailbox, because I did not want to "be giving gifts before the grade."

Food for meetings, definitely; gifts of whole pies? Wait until after the decision.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:09 PM on October 31, 2011

To me, "a whole pie" doesn't represent extra work, but I get how that's over-the-top.

Since my committee is from 3 different departments, and variously busy, travelling or on sabbatical, there won't be a chance to see them together until probably the defense, a couple years out.

I'm thinking a mini pie or other more token-size gift with a note for each sounds in line with the input I'm getting here.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:32 PM on October 31, 2011

I think a pie for every member is too much. Non-trivial gifts from students tend to make me uncomfortable because to some extent they reinforce the power dynamic. Of course the power dynamic is there and has to be accepted or at least reckoned with, but I'm trying to train future colleagues and personally prefer to minimize it. A pie at a meeting where people can have slices (and leftovers to the common area) is more reasonable, especially if you are known to be a stress baker. One idea might be to bake pies enough for the whole department (or your part of the department if the whole thing is big) and put them in a common area, but hand-carry slices to your committee members?

Some gift after the defense (but not actually at the defense, these days) is part of the culture at many places, and there if you had a smaller committee a pie for each member might be in keeping with this. But even in that context, 5 pies seems like a lot!
posted by advil at 12:32 PM on October 31, 2011

Oh man, I know that feeling (and in fact just quashed the urge to provide my committee members with homemade muffins at my qualifying exams), and I think others are right to say that five full-size pies is going to seem excessive, but wee pies might be reasonable.

On the other hand, it has been pointed out to me that this kind of delicious generosity can be damaging for early-career female academics, as it looks domestic in a way that might seem less than professional to some people, and may unconsciously inflect their sense of you as an academic, even while they scarf down your delicious foods. That might not be the case for you, but you may want to think carefully about the culture of your department before you get too liberal with the baked goods. This was kind of a crushing point for me (because I am definitely a stress baker and grad school produces a lot of stress and therefore an endless stream of cookies), but is probably still an important one.

Also: congratulations! Getting your committee together and being happy about it is such a good feeling.
posted by dizziest at 12:36 PM on October 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

And on the topic of tiny pies: these are amazing, and probably wouldn't seem too over-the-top. You could give a few of them to each committee member, too.
posted by dizziest at 12:38 PM on October 31, 2011

> early-career female academics, as it looks domestic in a way that might seem less than professional to some people

That's an important point. I know you also have a vivacious personality and a sometimes-dramatic way of dressing -- which is awesome, but might be held against you by curmudgeons. So to bust into the room with PIE! PIE FOR EVERYONE! might make it seem like you're not taking things seriously.

This is not fair, and I say this as someone who was called "Vintage Girl" by a classmate during grad school because of how I dressed. But them's the breaks.

I vote for a plate of tarts. I will take the pie off your hands.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:03 PM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding dizziest and the corpse in the library, above - it sucks, but I've read advice to female professionals to avoid baking goodies for the team, having a treat dish on your desk, and general "feeding" behavior because you don't want people to think of you only as a nuturing mom figure and not a professional coworker. I don't want to spoil the pie plans! I just want to throw this out there as another thing to consider.
posted by cadge at 1:36 PM on October 31, 2011

I'm sorry to say that this falls into the "can't really help, but possibly would hurt" category, mostly because it doesn't really come at a socially/professionally conventional point for thank-you gifts.
posted by yarly at 1:39 PM on October 31, 2011

Agree with those above that it would be inappropriate, both because it is not really an appropriate point in the process for gift-giving, and also because as noted above, a female academic bringing in baked goods, unfortunately, generates a negative impression. I am in a bit more of a male-dominated field, but in my experience, none of the older established female academics I have worked with have ever brought in baked goods made themselves (only occasionally purchased baked goods, to celebrate maybe a paper being accepted or something).

As for how you justify it to yourself - well, if I had agreed to be on your committee, I would want to know that I was giving my time to someone who was fully committed to their thesis work. In my field, taking a few hours to bake on an evening or weekend would be a few hours you could be analysing data, writing, preparing for next week's work, etc. Wasting time making elaborate (yes, pies are elaborate to your average joe) baked goods shows that you're not really putting in the effort that I would expect of a fully engaged grad student, and that could be viewed as a bit of a slap in the face - why should I be putting in my valuable time for someone who's wasting theirs on trivial domestic pursuits? Not that your committee thinks this way at all, just that thinking from this perspective might help curb your urge to bake (which I fully share - I just save my baked goods for housemates :).
posted by aiglet at 2:30 PM on October 31, 2011

If I were on your committee and you gave me a pie, I would think, "Why is she giving me a gift just for doing my job?" Or maybe I would think, "Okay, that's nice, but what I really want from her is a dissertation chapter -- why'd she spend time on this instead of that?"

Yes, it's nice to give pie... But there is no social obligation to do so, since you are dealing with professionals, and it may raise questions about your commitment to doing your actual work. And I agree with others who are bringing up the unfortunate gender issues.

I wouldn't have this response after your dissertation was done. I know that's years from now, but I think you have to wait.
posted by meese at 2:52 PM on October 31, 2011

It also occurs to me that since you are (apparently) a nice, positive, extroverted person, you might not understand how, paradoxically, being overly nice can actually work against you when dealing with the rest of us (i.e., grouchy introverted misanthropes).

An unbidden favor, such as a gift at a non-socially accepted time, can create a subtle dynamic that actually ends up alienating people. This is because a gift obligates the recipient to engage in a certain socially constructed form of extroversion ("oh wow, thanks, aren't you nice!"), even if they don't feel like it, at a time when they don't have a standard social narrative in which to fit it (e.g., birthday, Christmas). Thus, going forward, interactions with them may be stilted because they're trying to avoid the discomfort of having to be unnaturally nice to you. In short, a gift can impose emotionally on the recipient, which makes them think of you in a negative rather than positive way.

For evidence of this dynamic at work, take a listen to this old TAL, where they do a little experiment that proves that nice waitresses get fewer tips.
posted by yarly at 3:19 PM on October 31, 2011

I've had professor give me baked goods. I've given them backed goods and they raved about it. Tasty stuff :)
posted by Neekee at 3:51 PM on October 31, 2011

Two major points: if you send them something that is time-consuming simply for agreeing to be on your committee, you're sending the message that you don't believe you're worthy of faculty members agreeing to perform a basic part of their job. Not merely that you're not worthy of them carrying out their responsibilities--you're acting as if you're not even worthy of the time it took them to consider the request and agree to do their job. It's not the domesticity that concerns me--it's the implied self-deprecation.

It's also kind of...getting up in their grill with your own personal needs and ways of expression. You seem to be thinking like this: "I am appreciative of others and kind and down-to-earth: I bake people pies." (You also contrast "old-fashioned niceties" with "ivory professionalism" and "stodgy professional gifts." Consider what this implies about people who don't express themselves similarly to you. Not very nice, is it?)

For example, if you gave me even a mini-pie, rather than having shared pie on offer at a meeting, proposal or defense, where I could simply admire it (I love pie!), I'd be between a rock and a hard place. I plan my eating carefully, as a drop-off in my blood sugar is a big trigger for seizures. And that's not your business. Pie would put me in the position of either telling you or thanking you for something that I couldn't use and would have to pass along...with the extra effort of trying to avoid you finding out, lest you feel badly about it. Moreover, I'd be opening myself to future baked gifts. Individual pie would be a hassle, and not something I'd experience as a nice personal gesture of appreciation--though I'd recognize the intent and how you identify yourself and I would appreciate that. But you see how--similarly to what yarly notes--even though you went to the effort of making the pies, I'd be the one putting in the social effort.

Baking (and gift-giving) is just one way to express appreciation and consideration of others' work. It happens to be one you're more comfortable with, and that you tie to your identity. It is far from the only way to express those underlying traits and feelings. (For example, asking this question and for other perspectives, rather than simply going full-bore ahead is also considerate and thoughtful.)
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 4:30 PM on October 31, 2011

Academia is full of nit-picking curmudgeons who have had all their souls leached away by too much peer review. If you're the kind of person who bakes pies to say thanks, bake pies for your committee. It's either that or live your life pretending to be someone else in desperation for the acceptance of old men.

Maybe go for cupcakes, though, then they can just have one or take a few home. No big deal.
posted by cromagnon at 5:15 PM on October 31, 2011

Smaller items are better, lest they wonder why you are baking more than writing. Are you sure this isn't a procrastination technique? It would be for me!
posted by bluedaisy at 5:34 PM on October 31, 2011

Give them pies, as long as you can also be certain you will regularly give them draft chapters. Otherwise, when it gets to the point when they are hounding you for writing and you are avoiding them, they are going to mutter bleakly about how you are probably off baking pies.

Also what other people said about how female academics have to work extra hard to not be seen as domestic motherly types who will take on all the admin work and the touchy feely student mentoring and shit and how baking feeds right into those stereotypes. This is not really a concern for you yet, but if you ever end up in a TT job, do not bake anything for anyone. Ever.
posted by lollusc at 5:54 PM on October 31, 2011

I know this will probably be too late, but something to keep in mind for the future....since you are in academia, the absolute BEST day to give a pie is on PI DAY, as in March 14, get it, 3.14?

I am not a math nerd but other math nerds brought in pies on this day.
posted by Pademelon at 7:02 PM on October 31, 2011

Having warm fuzzy feelings and the inclination to do nice things does not make you unprofessional. I do nice things for my labmates everyday, and pay extra attention to make life easier/more pleasant/less unpleasant for the members of the lab who I cherish.

Baking is a bit of a no-no, though. Different people have different food tolerances and tastes. There's a notoriously useless member of my lab who'd bring baked goods (time she should have spent practicing the presentation instead of baking) when it was her turn to do a lab meeting presentation - people would take a portion out of politeness, but many would only take a nibble and discretely dispose of the rest.

Not saying that what you make isn't tasty, but food - especially sugary foods, in this having-overate/health-conscious environment - might not be the best way to thank your committee.

If you knew a bit more about your members, a small gift afterwards might be more appropriate; if you know that one of them likes teas, you could gift them a small sampler of something high-end. Or if you knew one of them had a sweet tooth, then you could bake a pie specifically tailored to them. Or if you know one of them likes Scotch, you can get a gift cert for a local Scotch bar (or if you had the money, a bottle/half-bottle of something nice - anything you can get in a mini-bottle isn't worth giving). Or someone who likes their coffee, something nice from your esteemed local importer/roaster. Or if you know they like $ethnic cusine, ask around for the best that's local and invite them for a meal there, your treat, especially if you want an opportunity to speak with them one-on-one. Or heck, ask them what their favourite $ethnic restaurant is and whether you could treat them out as a thank you, and as an opportunity to talk about "x."
posted by porpoise at 7:58 PM on October 31, 2011

I may not know academia, but I know you pretty well.

You're already totally over the top. I know that, you know that, Your Dream Team probably already knows that - and they wouldn't be there if they weren't into it and they couldn't already see the real depth beneath your often sparkly surfaces. And you're in a field full of known characters.

I don't think pies (especially widely shared ones) is going to harm you nor your dissertation.

And knowing you, you've probably already observed if they're vegan, gluten free or if they other dietary restrictions, and if not you'd probably ask because that's how you roll.

And perhaps you could just ask and be direct, but as an assertive, non-passive aggressive statement something like - "I'm very excited and grateful that you've agreed to be on my committee. I would like to bake you a pie or treat if you didn't mind. I enjoy baking things and sharing food."

If someone offered to bake me a pie in a professional environment as a gesture of thanks I'd say "Hell yes. Thank you." and I'd still be able to be critical and objective and get the job done. It's just a pie and a gesture. It's not like I'm getting bribed with suitcases full of cash.

And if not pie - maybe something more useful/substantial like real food instead of or in lieu of pie. A batch of fresh home made hummus and good pita or something.

Is it professional? I have no idea.

Is it reserved? Hell no. Are you normally reserved? (Rhetorical! :) )

Is it nice? Does it express appreciation? It certainly is and does. I've never really had the act of bringing food to share with co-workers (whether superiors or colleagues) go wrong, but I generally work in IT where food (and sugar) is fuel.

I'm fairly confident you can pull that off sincerely without it being favoritism or brown nosing. And if you were going to brown nose, it'd be a lot more subtle than a homemade pie. Your colleagues probably know that. You'd be digging up super rare citations to quote, or finding a copy of a long lost film or script or something.

And the people who do mind (and hopefully don't matter) probably already think that your natural and sincere exuberance is brown nosing, anyway, so fuck 'em.

Anyway, pies or treats are totally you. I don't think it'll hurt you any. (I would also roll with what contraption advises. Homeboy is smooth.)
posted by loquacious at 8:37 PM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have never been in grad school, but I spent 1.5 years of my undergrad career in academic research labs, so hopefully I'm not completely blowing hot air:

People above have already made good points about the stereotyping towards women when the women are bringing in baked goods and being all nurturing. Okay, maybe your faculty is cooler than that. People have also made the good points about the social pressure of A Whole Pie. All right, maybe your faculty members aren't grumpy old curmudgeons like the ones I've seen.

Then there was the comment about dietary restrictions and whatever. Going entirely by loquacious's comment, s/he seems to know you well enough to know you can skirt that issue.

I've known a few profs in my time, and if I had presented them with a pie for landing on my dissertation committee, responses would range from "yay!" to "get back in the lab and do chemistry, don't waste time on this...BAKING". And yeah, the latter would be totally gruff curmudgeons. But if I had, knowing their individual tastes and food sensitivities and offered each of them customized pies to suit their diabetes or wheat intolerance or whatever else, as loquacious (who seems to know you well?) seems to think, ALL of them would raise their eyebrows and go WTF. Yes, it's very thoughtful to have a pie made entirely with gluten-free flour and Splenda instead of sugar to adapt to their tastes. But if they're not thinking "you're wasting time on baking when you should be working on your project", if you present 5 different faculty members with 5 different pies, they definitely would be. Especially since, as noted, they haven't really DONE anything for you yet. But you can't really UN-KNOW their diabetes and offer them a sugary cinnamon apple pie, right?

After the dissertation, go ahead and give gifts specific to the faculty members. At this point I would think it's overkill to make five pies for five faculty members without running into either the Stereotype, Social Pressure, and Personal Taste problems listed above. And even if you managed to miss all of it...even the coolest prof I've known would wonder how you spent your evenings making five customized pies for your committee, while appreciating the gesture.

You should have group meetings for your principal prof's lab, right? Weekly? Bring one pie to share. Committee member from Department X on sabbatical? When s/he comes back and you eventually drop in on him/her to discuss Important Roadblock In Thesis, bring some cookies to share (or drop it off in their lab, "hey I was in a baking mood the other day, make sure $Prof gets a piece--he just came back from Germany, didn't he?"). Or some variant of sharing among groups. I think that'd go over better than An Individual Pie.
posted by Hakaisha at 11:56 PM on October 31, 2011

Pie is wonderful, but I'd rather you spent the time on your dissertation.
posted by gingerest at 12:09 AM on November 1, 2011

It is totally typical to feed your dissertation committee when they gather.

An entire pie for each is a little...much. Logistically, it's kind of a pain in the ass, too, and can even be a bit embarrassing to explain. But an assortments of tarts is more manageable -- and then you have an excuse to make a few extra to encourage the sharing.
posted by desuetude at 8:52 PM on November 1, 2011

My sister used to have a book called 'Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office'. It was more of a corporate thing, and designed for those who wanted to be seen as super professional, so maybe not 100% applicable to your situation. It strongly recommended against baking or even having a bowl of candy on your desk, in order to avoid giving off any motherly or nurturing vibes.
posted by peppermintfreddo at 9:00 PM on November 1, 2011

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