Monday, December 24, 2007

"Okay, Flavia"

Over the years I've received many emails from my advisor consisting entirely of those two words--and most often in response to a message that would seem to require a more lengthy reply. Just a couple of months ago, in fact, I emailed her with a request, followed by an explanation, and then a series of related questions: do you want me to do A-B-C? I can also do D-E-F. Or you might need G-H-I. Please let me know.

Her reply? "Okay, Flavia."

This kind of reply used to drive me nuts, but everything seems more fraught when you're a graduate student ("okay, what?" I'd ask my friends. "She didn't answer my question! Is that deliberate? Is she angry at me? I can't ask her to clarify! What if she's angry?"). Now I just shrug and email her back: "Thanks so much! I'm assuming from your message that there's no reason for me to do A-B-C, D-E-F, or G-H-I, so I'm going to go ahead and do J. If I've misunderstood, just let me know."

More importantly, I now recognize just how beautiful and versatile the "Okay, Flavia" email truly is.

A student emails me with a three-paragraph account of the mishaps that led to her missing class, a vague expression of concern about her grade, and a promise that she'll really really try to do better? "Okay, Suzy," I write back.

Another student emails to tell me he's taking an extension on this paper and then demands how I could possibly have given him a C on the previous one when he's been working so hard and going to the writing center and everything? "Okay, Bobby," I type, and hit send.

It's not that I'm deliberately trying to be obscure--and I don't think Advisor is, either--it's just that so many of the emails I get are so exhausting or unnecessary or involve the wrong questions. (That second student? We've met many times to discuss his writing and I've been encouraging and supportive. . . but he never reads my comments and can't understand why doing X doesn't lead immediately and inevitably to grade Y.)

The "Okay, Flavia" email is a way of acknowledging receipt while also saying, "enough already!" Sometimes the additional subtext is, "stop being so anxious! you're fine!" and other times it's "stop irritating me and get your act together!" In the end, though, I'm not sure it matters.

The fuller translation of the "Okay, Flavia" email, I think, goes something like this: "Thanks for keeping me in the loop, and I acknowledge that you have said some words in my direction. But you need to stop making this about me. You're a sensible person and can probably get your shit together on your own (and if you don't, that's not really my problem). Now stop fretting and go do something useful!"

And really: that's not such a bad message either to send or receive, now is it?


Meansomething said...

I agree: it usually doesn't matter. It's a busy person saying "I heard ya." I've taken to crafting my own emails, as much as possible, to this sort of Advisor-ish person so that they can be responded to with a yes or no (with some polite "or if you'd rather I handle it another way, please do let me know" thrown in).

To my own students, though, I try not to be so terse that they feel bruised (as I used to feel), though admittedly there isn't much, technically, that's bruising about "Okay, Penelope" or "Okay, Hector."

BTW, Flavia, that's me reading through some of your archives this evening, just for fun (and fun it is!). Just reread your post about your Nemesis. Any updates?

Merry Christmas.

Flavia said...

MS: yes, I tend to err on the side of loquaciousness with students (and, actually, with everyone) when it comes to email--and I often do go on and ON trying to reassure them and be kind and so forth. But sometimes I just don't have the energy!

And as for my Nemesis: I've had absolutely no contact with her/him since that post. . . and I'm not sure, actually, that s/he really is my nemesis any longer (except insofar as a sense of competition with her/him will probably always be a useful spur to productivity).

I wound up in a very interesting conversation this summer with a couple of senior (and quite famous) scholars who had been treated in a similarly offhand or obnoxious manner by Nemesis, which made me reflect that perhaps that's just N's way. Not that that's okay, but I'm less convinced that it's personal.

Fretful Porpentine said...

But what happens when the student interprets "Okay, Bobby" to mean that you have given in to his demands and agreed to raise his C to an A? Because sadly, those e-mails usually seem to come from the type of student who will misinterpret everything that can be misinterpreted, and some things that really can't...

Belle said...

Someday, when I'm senior enough, they are going to send me to advisor seminar where I'll learn all the nifty tricks. Like 'Okay Spence.'

Until then, I like your interpretation: an email nod and an underlying message that you're fine, an adult, don't worry.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, my sympathies, Flavia. I suppose part of what we teach students like "Bobby" is the limit on getting something for nothing, and one hopes, some modicum of future incentive to actually earn his desired grade.

Anonymous said...

ok so i have lost your email and regular addresses so am resorting to a blog comment to get in touch with you! merry christmas love the Expat friend. - can you pls email me so i have your updated contact details? ta!

Chaser said...

This post made me laugh. Good realization.

Not Quite Grown Up... said...

I keep coming back to this post and wanting to comment on it, but have nothing particularly important to say. I think your deconstruction of the "Okay, Student" email is so accurate. As an overly-worried overly-wordy email writer, I have certainly received my share of "Okay, NotQuite" emails from professors, and interpreted them exactly as you describe. Essentially to mean, "You're competent and don't need to run everything by me. Stop bothering me with overly thought out emails, and go do your work."