Ask Antimony is the Science Buffs advice column, aiming to serve students from CU Boulder and beyond. Have a question that you want addressed? You can use our contact form. Submissions can be anonymous, and all questions are posted with names and identifying details removed. We accept questions related to work, relationships, and everything in between.
I’m a teaching assistant, and I’m frustrated by lapses in attendance the day after a big snow dump. How do I deal with students who skip homework (or even skip class) when ski season opens?
Bummed out by Ski Bums
Dear Bummed Out,
Your frustration is completely understandable, but student ski schedules don’t fall under your purview as a teaching assistant. As a TA, your job is to provide an environment in which students can learn, not to manage their priorities or their efforts. These students clearly have different priorities than you would hope. But that isn’t reason to get mad at them or get bummed about your teaching—just let their grade reflect the fact that their time and efforts ended up elsewhere. (This definitely works best if your expectations and the consequences for attendance are clearly stated in the syllabus, so keep situations like this in mind next time you write one.)
If your student sees the grade and realizes that maybe they do care after all, be ready to have a frank discussion about how they can’t exchange regrets for a better grade. This would be an excellent opportunity to talk about how they can manage their time differently in the future.
If they don’t care about the academic fallout from their ski weekend, no worries! They got to have fun prioritizing that pow, and you have one fewer lab report to grade, allowing you more time for the things you’d rather be prioritizing. Heck, it might even give you time for one more ski run!
I’m in my fourth year of grad school and am applying for internships outside of academia. My boss doesn’t support these pursuits and—based on his past record—I worry that he won’t write me good letters of recommendation. How do I ask other faculty members for letters of recommendation without upsetting my boss?
Repressed but Recommendable
This is a tough one. In academia, leaving the academic track can be discouraged, implicitly or explicitly. And principle investigators can be unhappy with graduate students who are thinking of leaving academia for other careers or who are thinking about taking time off to explore other options. It’s a bummer that you think your PI is in this camp of professors, but it’s good to hear that you have people who do support your ambitions and will write you a letter that’s more generous!
If you know your boss certainly won’t write a good recommendation, maybe you should let him or her know that you’re applying for these internships without asking them to write a letter of recommendation. That way you won’t run into any awkward situations where your boss learns that you’ve applied before you’ve told them, but they also won’t have harmed your chances of getting the internship. Alternatively, you could explicitly ask them to write a “supportive” letter—if they refuse, then ask other professors. If you think the worry is more that they won’t put the time and effort into writing a thoughtful, polished letter of support, another (slightly shadier) option would be to offer to write up a draft of the letter yourself, “to give them a sense of the format.”
Also keep in mind that your department is just like any other group of people who work together: they all have different opinions and probably know how the other professors act and feel about this topic. I’d say that if your boss has a reputation of writing bad letters or not supporting his or her students, other professors are likely aware of this. They might understand if you asked for a recommendation letter from them but asked them not to mention it to your boss.
Whichever direction you choose, good luck.
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