Sunday, September 9, 2012

Are you a student?

I often get mistaken for a student.  Almost always, it leads to hilarious situations.

When I was interviewed at N1, some people asked a colleague who was showing me around if I was her student.  The guest house in charge was very concerned at my being the only person staying in the guest house at that time and told my colleague, "She is very young. She might get scared."

When I joined N1, many people assumed that my father is a new faculty member and I am just following him.  When he accompanied me to some offices, the office assistants passed the forms to him and started explaining to him how to fill them up! (therefore, I have requested him not to accompany me when I join New1, and even when he does visit me there, he will be asked to stay away from the office premises.)

When I was asked to become warden of the girls hostel, some students asked my domestic help (who also works at the institute) about me.  She apparently replied, "Woh toh khud bachchi hai, aur ladkiyon ko kya sambhalegi!" [Translation: She herself is a girl. How will she take care of other girls?]  By the way, it did not take the students, guards and house keeping staff long to figure out that I was not a "bachchi"!

Every once in a while, students come into my office and ask me when Dr NPNI will be back! [1]   Every year, I meet a couple of new students  who start off by calling me "didi."

However,  the frequency of such incidents has decreased, especially since I drastically upgraded my wardrobe.

Recently, another such situation presented itself.  While attending a conference last week, I was having dinner with a senior colleague, when a young PhD student joined us.  The senior colleague introduced us to each other by our names.
Student asked me where I am from and on hearing my answer, asked me what research area I work in.  After that, he continued the conversation with senior colleague.

A couple of days later, this student walked into an office in which I was using a desk reserved for visitors.  I was preparing some lectures for my course.  He had come to talk to a faculty colleague at New1 who sits in that office.  Here's how the conversation went:

Student (to me): Hi! What's up? How come you are here?

New1 Colleague: She is using every spare minute to prepare her course lectures.

Student(to me, looking surprised): Oh, are you faculty? I did not know that.

New1 Colleague: Yes.  She is currently a faculty member at N1 and is joining us next semester.

Student: Cool. I had no idea.

NPNI: (Smiles, and thinks "I thought as much!")

Later, in the course of his conversation with New1 Colleague, I heard this student asking very demanding questions like, "How come this work had not been done before? What was your motivation in working on it?"  I rolled my eyes and thought "Poor kid! He will grow up soon enough!"[2]

Next morning, as I flew back to N1 city with a colleague from another place, I narrated this incident to her and asked if she knew whose student this person was.
My colleague laughed back, "He is not a student.  He is a faculty member at -----Institute!"

[1] One student even asked me, "Are you Dr NPNI's secretary?"  I was almost flattered that he thought I was important enough to have a secretary.
[2] Haven't we all said stupid things to profs when we were students? 


Anonymous said...

I imagine it must have been really difficult for you to buy alcohol in North America. :)

Wilkerson said...

Quite hilarious.

Kaneenika Sinha said...

Anon at 8.50 pm, I don't drink alcohol:)

Anonymous said...

Enjoy while it lasts. Age doesnt stay frozen for anyone. I remeber joining as a new faculty at the age of 25. Oh, those days...

new_fac said...

Dear NPNI,

I was a bit curious about this statement: "However, the frequency of such incidents has decreased, especially since I drastically upgraded my wardrobe."

I'm a new female faculty member in an IIX and often get mistaken for a student. Since I'm more of a jeans/t-shirt/capri kind of person and not very comfortable with traditional Indian attire, I was wondering what sort of wardrobe upgrade did you find useful?

Thanks a lot.

Digbijoy Nath said...

hilarious :D, but nice read !

If I were you, I would take all these as complement, because it'd imply that I look younger than my age :-)

Kaneenika Sinha said...

Hi new_fac,
Like you, I am also a very jeans,capri,t-shirt kind of person :) However, recently, I have changed over to kurtas and salwars from Fab India. The reason for this change was to protect myself from the sun while cycling here. Loose cotton clothes are also very comfortable during the hot and sticky summer over here :) But, since then, the incidents of being mistaken for a student have also reduced.
But, I believe that one should continue to wear what one is most comfortable wearing.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

New Prof,

I'm sorry to have to put on my feminist hat, but I think these incidents are anything but hilarious. (Though if you have the grace to take it all with laughter, more power to you.) Especially in an age venerating country like India, being mistaken for someone younger comes with a significant amount of disrespect, and I always hate(d) it when I was/am mistaken for a student (in any country) because of the condescension that almost inevitably follows. Furthermore, the fact that "mistakes" like this happens more often to women than to men is a sign of the overall societal perceptions of female professionals. I'm glad that you were able to fix this problem by changing your dress, but on a more global scale, it is fairly common in my field to go to a conference and see most of the women in "professional attire" and men in jeans and t-shirts. This is not just because "women like to doll up", but because women feel like they need any edge they can get or manufacture to be treated with the same respect as their male colleagues. It disgusts me. I am so sorry (though unfortunately not surprised) that you are experiencing this. Stay strong in battling it.

circe said...

Why exactly is '"How come this work had not been done before? What was your motivation in working on it?"' a stupid question in a research context? I grant I am only a student, but even in my short career I have seen several senior researchers who would like their students to be similarly upfront.

Kaneenika Sinha said...

Circe, Indeed, these are not stupid questions. When one makes false assumptions about other people, one also becomes judgmental. In this case, I am guilty of having done that.

Resmi said...

NPNI, I could not stop laughing for quite some time. Superb twist at the end!:)

I'm also in the NPNI & new_fac league : jeans, t-shirt and 'are you a student?'. Thoroughly enjoyable, though by now I'm too used to the question and the fun has reduced. Once some official thought I'm some faculty member's daughter. Anyway, no plan to change the wardrobe (unfortunately my house is too far to cycle).

Btw, I've heard my (male) colleagues believing that they should dress up formally, else the students won't respect them. Hope my students are giving the answer slowly and silently.

physical said...

I find it easier to talk to a young faculty (male or female). My friends have a hard time believing that my guide looks so young!

Vijay said...

Dear Barefoot Doctoral
I see contexts where your views could be valid and if I had not very different experiences, my immediate reaction would be to agree with you fully rather than in part. When I was starting off as a faculty member I got much the same comments as New Prof. Then, I wished I looked older so that we could move on to discussing work rather than perceptions. I now see that I was being needlessly irritable. When today I visit universities here in India and abroad, I get a thrill seeing someone young and energetic, looking like a student, starting an independent research career. I was at IISER Pune a couple of years ago and the new bunch of hires looked like PhD students and were ready to go. You feel like saying: “Wow, look at that person’s enthusiasm and drive! All strength to them.” (Although, I am careful enough not to comment on anyone’s youthfulness or age, except about a friend in Cambridge who will soon be 70, but looks 40. There is no justice in this world, but that is another matter.) Sometimes, at a meeting, starting faculty members are often asked: “Whose lab are you in?” I was at a dinner today and a new colleague (male) was asked this by a senior colleague from a neighbouring institute (female). It was fun to watch his response (and pride) in saying that he had just started his own lab. Rather than a condescension, the “mistake” is usually, in my experience, followed by admiration (misplaced, perhaps) that someone so young is a ‘Professor”. In my field of developmental biology, while some people occasionally dress formally at seminars, it would be strange (for both men and women) to do so. Shirts/T-Shirt, jeans, sneakers are more common. In medical schools, formal attire, both for men and women, is more likely. It is true, though, in India, that blatantly colour-uncoordinated and sloppy dressing is more common amongst men than amongst women. I fully agree with you that there could be societal pressures, explicit or otherwise, on women here and a recognition by men that, in a man’s world, they can do as they please. Finally, institutional contexts matter. I have seen a few of the new IISERs and central universities: I do see a wonderful assertiveness in the new faculty and they are no pushovers. Things are likely to be different in other places and your concerns may be well placed there. BTW, what gave you the idea that age is venerated here? :-)))

Anonymous said...

Enjoy it while it lasts! When I was in that phase, a student once hitched a ride on campus on my two-wheeler thinking I was a student. Towards the end of the ride the student got to know I was faculty, and the expression on the student's face underwent a 180-degree shift!

The bad part of this is when students start feeling competitive with you and when senior colleagues do not take your professional views seriously. That happens a lot in India.