Friday, September 23, 2016

Question: "Correcting brilliant students"

A question for all of you.


from:Grzegorz Kossakowski
date:Fri, Sep 23, 2016 at 10:51 AM
subject:Correcting brilliant students

Hi Jean,

I know from your tweets you're busy so I'll get right to the point. I'm looking for examples of academic teachers who try to edify brilliant freshmen students in hope to steer them away from the unfortunate path of a brilliant jerk. Based on your blog posts, I thought you might be the right person to ask and you would find the subject interesting.

I'm asking about this in context of a recent conversation with the head of algorithms and datastructure research at University of Warsaw. He's called here in Poland as father of our ongoing successes in ACM competitions. He have heard that University of Warsaw has a reputation of graduating people who are really good but not pleasant to work with and he's looking for ideas to correct that. I promised to try to help hence my email.



from:Jean Yang
to:Grzegorz Kossakowski
date:Fri, Sep 23, 2016 at 10:54 AM
subject:Re: Correcting brilliant students

Haha, you mean you can tell from my Tweets that I've been procrastinating work? ;)

This is a very good question. Hm! Could I turn this email into a blog post and solicit suggestions from people? This is indeed an interesting question to me and I don't know the answer.



joXn said...

This applies to undergraduates, and is specifically aimed at countering the kind of unpleasant environment that brilliant jerks foster.

Call out jerk behavior in class, of course. Set standards of collegiality in your syllabus. And then — refuse to write letters of recommendation for summer internships based on people's unprofessional demeanor.

I think the most important thing to keep reminding oneself is that We don't have to treat brilliant jerks as if they were "natural" STEM majors at the expense of the new people they drive out of the department. Raise the bar — they will have plenty of time to work on meeting it, since they won't be spending it on homework, and if they don't meet it, make them feel unwelcome.

Sergey said...

I think the change has to start with the advisor/teacher/mentor. Many students, when they come to classes, are still trying to make sense of the world, their values, communication dynamics, etc. They come for more than just formal education. Sometimes, they don’t even realize it. They think they only crave for knowledge…

So the attitude and relationships traits are often mimicked from the educators. This is especially true, when the educators are very accomplished and serve as role models. So to avoid and/or correct the problem, the educators should look at their own relationship dynamics with the student and the rest of the group they lead.

Unknown said...

Jerks will be jerks. Jerkiness decays with age, but we are talking decades in the best case.

They tend to injure three groups: (a) civilians, (b) instructors, and (c) the jerks themselves. They can't help it, so explaining this to them is of no use.

First you should evaluate if you can take it. If not then get rid of the jerk as fast as possible, you sanity is precious.

If you can take it, try to protect the civilians from harm and avoid contagion. I have seen two approaches: (A) the wall -- if the class is large enough, create an "honors" section where you send all jerks. (B) the nip -- catch any attempt at jerkiness and publicly dress down the jerk. It is exhausting but makes it clear that their behavior won't be tolerated.

Anonymous said...

Education is as much about people skills as anything else, and quite possibly they may not know they're been 'jerks' (I didn't) Like the above commenter said, at that age students are still finding themselves and their place in the world, what they need is a mentor to point them in the right direction (privately), alienating them without first trying to explain to them how to be a better 'people person' would just be counter productive, but then if they don't change then harsher methods like public shaming could be used, but 95% of the time the person is a product of their upbringing and not their own person yet so they most likely don't even know they're a jerk.

Robbie McKinstry said...

I used to be a jerk. Of course, I wasn't aware of my classification, but I was certainly classified as a "brilliant jerk" by some. About half-way through my first semester a professor whom I admired took me aside and told me that being a jerk would have an impact on my career.

He said "You're never going to be refused a promotion because you're not smart enough. Everyone knows you're smart; they can tell from how you answer questions in class and from the quality of your work. But you're much more likely to be denied a promotion because of your personality."

This was without a doubt the single most important advice I received during undergrad. After that, I really made an effort to improve my behavior. I didn't realize how impactful my behavior was, and I didn't have the insight to realize that my actions would speak for themselves when it comes to my intelligence. Today, I self-describe as a "recovering asshole". And I slip up.

Ben said...

I've done my fair share of "steering" students away from being jerks.

Like others commented already, many of these students are still in the formative stages of their identity, and just never had the chance or proper role models on how to be a friendly/nice/respectful collaborator/colleague. I see this sometimes in new PhD students, particularly those who have been superstars in their undergrad schools, and have been somewhat isolated socially because of the competitive atmosphere and in part by their own success. These tend to be correctable, because they're just intellectually isolated young adults who don't necessarily understand what they're doing to offend others.

My experience has been that for the students in this category, it's important to correct the behavior(s) early on. I run a very collaborative/support lab where students help each other by default in all aspects of their projects. A single jerk can disrupt that culture, and jerkish behavior stands out like a sore thumb from day 1. I basically sit them down and tell them in a fairly direct way what type of behavior I expect in my lab, and that it is a prerequisite for remaining in the lab. There's sometimes a little back and forth to better understand his/her background and any potential roots to the issues, and then some explanations from me on empathy and the importance of kindness and collaborations in a successful academic career. It's pretty simple logic, and once I lay it out, they generally understand the need for change. Sometimes the change takes a while, but as long as the effort is there, it's sufficient.

Some are not amenable to change, and are indifferent to the above discussions. I often find that type of response correlates highly with lack of teachability, and so those students don't stay long in my lab.

vs said...

few random thoughts

-- one option is to try and point out to real life academic/research role models that we all agree are generally are great people in addition to being brilliant researchers. i think there is a genuine feeling that jerkiness/negativity gets perceived as "smarts" but it might be useful to point to these exemplars as cases that being a jerk is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for academic success.
-- another option is also to point out that the job market is a great leveler, and that people quickly realize if there is any jerkiness tendency and word gets around quite quickly.
-- finally, it might be useful to tell that for the most part the era/myth of "singularly isolated geniuses" in research is gone and that being successful in academia/industry almost always requires being able to work in teams, and that again jerkiness is a non-starter in that context (e.g.,

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