29 April 2009

Two Posts One Event

Today I had an interaction that was disturbing on two levels. For this reason, I'm splitting the discussion into two posts.

Post 1. I have always felt I was a good judge of character. And while I can jump to a radically unfair conclusion based on one or two bad interactions now and again, I am generally speaking, fairly satisfied with my take on people.

Take for instance one of our current grad students. True story. The first time I met this young man, he and another of his cohort were on their way out to lunch and coaxed me into joining them. So I did. Now mind you, this was perhaps the third time I had interacted with one of the fellows, and the first time I had ever met the other. On our way back into the building, the young man I had just met walked over to a car in the FACULTY parking lot and pulled off one of those Christian fish metal car decorations from a complete stranger's car. I asked him what the f*** he thought he was doing. He said, and this is a direct quote: "People who believe in God are stupid." I gave him a bit of a lecture about respecting other people's property, about the idiocy of damaging a faculty member's car, and so on. All I remember was him defending his actions based on not respecting anyone's ideology but his own. I was done with that one on the first day I met him. I stand by the validity of that opinion to this day. Despite having the ego of a megalomaniac, this individual has failed to impress scarcely a soul in our department. I don't like him and he knows it and I really don't care.

But back to our regularly scheduled program. Generally speaking, when I have a student in class, I do not develop any particular "judgement" about them. Most students keep their heads down and certainly do not draw undue attention. Now and again, though, I have an overachiever in that respect. I went to D-friend Liv's B-friend D-ennis' thesis presentation and I noticed a former student of mine in the audience. Apparently, the young man is now a student in D-ennis' department. I remember this student quite well because I had a number of discussions with the professor about him. He was unpredictable, volatile, and extremely opinionated. I feared that one day this student was going to walk into the classroom with a gun and create his very own Columbine. It was the first time I was ever afraid of a student and you don't soon forget that. I STILL stand by that judgement.

In another instance, I recommended a student for an undergraduate position in the department(only 3 weeks into the semester) who had managed to impress me. That student worked out extremely well, has been passed around from lab to lab and is now headed to Canada with our bryophyte contingent for a summer of field work. I STILL stand by that judgement.

I have hired employees and staff in the work world and while it may have been dumb luck, I have was highly pleased with my decisions. Out of fairness however, I will tell of you a time I was wrong.

My sister-in-law married my brother about 15 years ago. At that time, her children were in their late teens and early 20s. The son was a single Dad; the daughter was dating a guy that, well, let's just say that I think everyone hoped it was only a passing fancy. Indeed it was. But one day, she shows up for one of the holidays with an older fellow. A cop. Nice enough guy, but I got a distinctly odd vibe from him. I talked to him quite a bit. As I recall from that meeting, I thought him slightly arrogant,domineering, and though I can't begin to remember why now, I thought he was of below-average intelligence. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what the daughter saw in him. Imagine my discomfort when they turned up engaged a short time later.

Fast forward about a year. Another holiday. Summertime. Lots of beer and outdoor grilling and yard lounging. The engaged couple were there and we all enjoyed ourselves. I remember later that night at home talking to the husband and remarking that Ed didn't seem nearly the jackass that I remember. My husband said, "I was amazed that was the same guy." We laughed about how independently, Ed had changed both of our minds about him that afternoon. So sure--it is possible for me to be wrong. I like to think, as I was in this case, that I am able to change my mind when I see evidence that contridicts my first gut reaction. I think Ed is a really great guy now. The husband, on the other hand, is a totally different story. =p

Which brings us to the reason for this blog post. Today, my advisor approached our lab with a dilemma. She has been awarded support for an undergraduate worker. She told me that a former student of mine had applied for the job. I was never impressed by this student. He missed a lot of classes. He failed to turn in homework. He never asked a single question. As I would walk around the room and look at people's work, this student always seemed to take longer, understand less, and agonize more over the work. His main focus seemed to be to zero in on some minutiae, something that was outside the point of the lab, and spend an extraordinary amount of time on that and be unable to finish the work that was at hand. I recall once, I stayed for an hour-and-a-half after the end of lab to allow him to finish his work. Overall, his work was competent but not outstanding and when given an opportunity to make up work he had missed, he simply failed to do so. Overall, not an impressive record. Top of all that, this young man seemed to have a difficult personality. Not in a "can't get along with anyone" sort of way, but more a "isn't that fellow particularly odd" sort of way. When he interacted with me, I tended to walk away from the interaction thinking "that guy is a real piece of work." I suspected that he might have a learning disability and I generally gave him the benefit of the doubt, but in some nagging way, he seemed to test my patience.

While this student couldn't ask me a single question, he apparently didn't have this problem with the professor. He met regularly with her. And when he did, he had plentiful excuses for his absences, pressed for extra help (which I always found interesting since he failed to ever talk to me), and impressed her with his deep interest in the subject matter. She thinks he is destined for academia and is anxious to give him a chance to gain some research experience. Two takes. One guy.

Who is right? Who is wrong?

So here's the dilemma. Today, an extremely qualified minority applicant entered the lab and applied for the same job. By extremely qualified, I mean that he has a master's degree and is about ready to enter medical school. My advisor immediately felt torn. She felt that the former student would benefit from the job whereas the highly qualified minority applicant was likely to get just about any job that he applied for. I pointed out that if everyone thought that way, this highly qualified minority applicant would be sitting on his hands this summer while we had to work with Mr. Gives Me a Queasy Feeling.

She explained in more detail her desire to support the former student. That he had volunteered to work in her lab before he knew of the paid internship. That he wanted to go to graduate school. Let me say that I don't doubt his sincerity. Nor do I doubt that he will do well enough to earn a master's degree. I am simply saying that if he applied to work in my lab I would be highly reluctant to take him on for two years. It would a challenge and tiring process. But the real kicker was when my advisor said that she believed that if she turned over a problem to this former student--something we didn't have time to work on--that she felt he would excel at that, run with it, and make us all proud.

Oh, do I beg to differ. I realized at this point, however, that she had already made up her mind about the position. She had made up her mind to hire the former student and all Mr. Qualified Minority did was screw that up. I didn't contradict her projections about my former student, although I seriously question her judgement. I believe this student will need an unwarranted amount of hand-holding. I don't think he has the creativity to take off on a project handed to him. He just doesn't strike me as motivated enough or focused enough. He seems very easily distracted. He seems to agonize over everything. And it wasn't even that he agonized over everything. It was that he agonized over it and was unable to move on. It just stopped him in his tracks.

We must also keep in mind that this professor has made less than stellar hiring decisions. She hired a lab manager that basically fubared an entire research project and wasted a year's salary "perfecting PCR protocols" despite the fact that this wasn't his job. By fubared, I mean he took a PCR protocol that work and "tweaked it" until it wouldn't work at all. She hired another undergraduate who collected a paycheck and didn't do any work. He partitioned our hard drive (he drank the Ubuntu kool-aid) on his first day and wrecked a month-old computer. At some point, he simply stopped showing up and all the salary was gone.

Excuse me for having a little more faith in my gut feeling here. Too bad it isn't my decision. And now, on to post 2.

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