Appropriate Gift for a Professor
April 26, 2016 3:06 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend an appropriate gift for a professor from an auditing (ie, non-credit and ungraded) student.

My friend is a retired professional whose hobby is auditing college physics classes. This school year, he's audited an upper-level two-course sequence from the same professor. These courses don't usually attract auditing students. My friend doesn't take exams, but does work on some of the problem sets, and I think the professor corrects those for my friend's benefit. My friend would like to get a thank you gift for the professor.

The goal is an appropriate gift without awkwardness. Ideas include:

-gift card to a restaurant
-donation to the nearby physics research institute in professor's honor
-basket of baked goods from nice local bakery

The gift etiquette I know for this situation is for students who are much younger than the professor and are receiving a grade for the course. In that situation, money and alcohol are extremely the wrong choice, which is why I suggested the baked goods and nixed the first three. But maybe the etiquette is different here?

We're in the US, at a four-year college. I would love some guidance on an appropriate gift from the professors of AskMe. Thanks!
posted by Snarl Furillo to Education (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Starbucks card.
posted by michaelh at 3:10 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Prof here. Suggestions for your friend:

1) Write a signed letter for the professor's file, especially if the professor is at assistant or associate level (these are v. helpful for promotion).
2) Thank-you card. Really, we don't get these all that often.
3) Baked goods are fine, preferable to alcohol (you can leave out some baked goodies for your colleagues in the department; leaving out alcohol is...problematic).
4) Inexpensive gift card (max. $25 or so).
posted by thomas j wise at 3:13 PM on April 26, 2016 [12 favorites]

Gift certificate for food / beverage, depending on preference and how well he knows the professor.
posted by Dashy at 3:14 PM on April 26, 2016

And a resounding second to thomas j wise's wise first point. For we pre-tenure faculty, a thoughtful letter to the department chair is much more valuable than money or food.
posted by Dashy at 3:17 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I will second thomas j wise's suggestions for a letter to the department chair/for the professor's file and/or a thoughtful thank you card. Either/both of these would mean way more to me than any other option. Another thing I really appreciate is when students follow up later with what they're up to -- could be as minimal as sending an email next year when you come across a cool news article that reminded you of the class.

Personally, I find any gifts with cash value pretty awkward, regardless of the student's status (definitely no alcohol - among other things, you have no idea whether this guy even drinks!), although something like low-value baked goods would be fine.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:41 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thank you card to the professor. These are treasured, for reals.

If he wants to give a tangible gift, I would definitely go for something that can be shared with the admin staff and the graduate students (who may be the ones actually grading the problem sets, depending on the size of the class): cookies, bagels, etc.

If the professor doesn't have tenure yet and your friend genuinely feels that he was an excellent teacher, a letter for the departmental file would be great (if he was like "the guy is really nice but only a so-so teacher" not so much). For small classes where everyone basically likes the professor, I've also seen a single enthusiastic student make teaching awards happen by suggesting to the other students that they nominate the professor. Often there aren't that many votes for departmental awards and so even a small bloc can be quite effective, and a teaching award is something that you can put on your CV forever.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:49 PM on April 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh no! A letter in my file saying I'm a good at teaching would tank my chances at tenure; all that energy should be going into research. (I'm kidding...kind of).
posted by chevyvan at 5:01 PM on April 26, 2016

Best answer: A very nice 75-ish year old audited a course of mine. He'd lost his wife recently and explained he was taking my course since he needed "something to do." On the last day he gave me a bottle of whiskey.

It felt a little awkward sneaking the bottle out in my briefcase but was also very memorable and made me smile.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 5:46 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a professor. My favorite things are personal notes, good evaluations (although that does not apply here), and I've had some students give me Starbucks cards (I usually have a cup in class with me) but honestly that makes me feel a little weird.

If this is a research centric school the teaching stuff could actually hurt him if he isn't tenured yet and on the tenure track. I was nominated for a teaching award during my first year on the tenure track and it definitely precipitated an unhappy discussion with my chair about my "focus." Sigh. So honestly you might want to tread lightly on that one.
posted by sockermom at 5:47 PM on April 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yes, absolutely. Specific thank-you card. Depending on the institution, the professor may wish to include it in a promotion/ tenure package, or just quote from it next time they're writing about their teaching accomplishments.

I'm pretty sure I did receive a bottle of wine from a student, once, after I'd written a recommendation letter for them for some sort of summer program. I don't think this is out of line, as long as you wait until after the class is over, though obviously it's more thoughtful if you figure out whether the professor in question drinks.

Giving to the nearby physics research institute wouldn't seem very personal, if the professor doesn't have a formal position there. However, a charitable gift to the professor's department could be really thoughtful. Most departments give small scholarships, hold outreach events, or throw the occasional party, and very much appreciate having flexible funds. Maybe some student volunteers need a T-shirt, or something? Making a gift like this usually entails talking to the department chair, though in many departments asking the administrative assistant for advice first would be wise.
posted by yarntheory at 5:49 PM on April 26, 2016

Oh and this:
Another thing I really appreciate is when students follow up later with what they're up to -- could be as minimal as sending an email next year when you come across a cool news article that reminded you of the class.
is SPOT ON. I am not exaggerating when I say that my favorite thing about my job is when former students tell me that they are doing well, that they are using what they learned in my class in some way, or that they thought about the class in any capacity after it was over. Spectacular.
posted by sockermom at 5:50 PM on April 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

Mr Toad is a prof. He would love a thank you letter/card. He got a fancy(ish) pen once that he really likes and actually uses. He also gets country-specific little gifts from international students sometimes that can be fun - laquered chopsticks, a pretty coaster...Starbucks card would be perceived as weird.
posted by The Toad at 7:27 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Personally, as someone who teaches in the US and interacts with auditing students, gifts with monetary value would seem very strange and uncomfortable. (I can't imagine a gift card whose value could possibly be worth the social awkwardness of receiving one from a student.)

In order of escalating effort, a thank you note, a signed and dated letter to the department chair, and a nomination for a teaching award are all great ideas and unquestionably appropriate.

But, don't forget, the statement "I showed up for all of your classes even though there's absolutely no reason I had to" is already a pretty awesome compliment. Having students like your friend in a class is incredibly gratifying. A smile and a verbal thanks, and perhaps a follow up email every year or two, is plenty. Anything more is far above and beyond the call of duty.
posted by eotvos at 8:33 PM on April 26, 2016

Best answer: In case it isn't obvious why the thank you card is so meaningful, every professor I know keeps all of the cards and letters they get from students. Old box, drawer on the desk, somewhere on hand. When I have a bad day, I pull out a couple of those cards and look through them. I was helping a retired professor with some old files last year and he showed me boxes and boxes of old cards and letters. He kept them all.
posted by one_bean at 8:56 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

As a professor, I absolutely agree that the best thing would be a thank you card. To speak to the worry about it hurting them at a research-intensive institution, I think you can avoid this problem by giving them the card / letter directly. If it would be helpful, they can decide to include it in their application. If it wouldn't, they don't have to share it. Either way I'm sure he'd treasure it a great deal. Your friend sounds like someone I would love to have in my class!
posted by forza at 9:33 PM on April 26, 2016

Best answer: Card to the prof, not a letter to his/her chair. The prof can use the letter for evidence of teaching excellence then later or not depending on politics. Besides what others said, the other reason they might choose not to is that they may have gone above and beyond for the auditing student and sadly that could actually get them in trouble. When I had auditors I was not meant to correct their assignments as they "hadn't paid for that level of assistance" and even though I was actually happy to do so, it could be seen as spending time on something that was not actually part of my job, instead of the work I was being paid to do. Sigh.

Personally, none of those gifts from a student who was not taking the class for credit would make me uncomfortable, but you can't know if the prof drinks, so I'd skip the bottle of wine. Most of my colleagues won't eat home made baked gifts from students for fear of poisoning (God, I wish I was joking) but that's probably not a consideration here, and you are talking about bought baked treats anyway. I think that would be nice. They can share them with their colleagues if they like and it's a low-key way to let people see that you are doing a good enough teaching job that your students appreciate you.
posted by lollusc at 11:38 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have some treasured gifts from students that couldn't have cost more to $10, like a coffee mug and a tote bag. I especially love the ones that are physics-related, or refer to an in-joke from class, or from the student's home town.

A thank you card or note is also just lovely.

I'd feel a bit awkward receiving alcohol, though, unless it was a student with whom I'd had a really close relationship, but perhaps I'd feel differently if they were a nontraditional student and not a 22-year-old!
posted by BrashTech at 5:34 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The last time a retiree sat in on one of my courses (History of Renaissance and Reformation Europe), he gave me a nice thank-you card and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. I was not expecting either, and greatly appreciated both!
posted by brianogilvie at 10:20 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for your input, everyone! I read my friend the answers over lunch and he settled on a basket of bakery treats from a local bakery (which has a bit of a reputation as a "good social gift" bakery), delivered to the professor's office. (I believe he already donates directly to the department as his "tuition.")

The prof is already tenured, but I'm going to encourage my friend to send a card or note over the summer.

Thanks again- it was nice to hear your auditeer stories, and to know there wasn't a firm rule to follow, just our (and the Mefi prof club's) good judgment.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:10 PM on May 12, 2016

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