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May 27, 2018

How about gifts to students?

The world of gifts is complicated. Much of the anthropological theory derives from various accounts of gift. From Malinowski to Mauss, from Polanyi to Sahlins, all considered gift giving one of the central cultural phenomena. Last week I wrote about gifts to professors, but how about gifts in the other direction, from professors to students? It is clearly, a much more complicated, and multidimensional issue.

Bourdieu describes gift as an imposition of obligation. He states that, “[T]he initial act [of giving] is an attack on the freedom of the one who receives it. It is threatening: it obligates one to reciprocate and to reciprocate beyond the original gift…” (Practical Reason, 94). On one hand, teachers of all kinds view their work as at least partially a gift-giving to students. There is an assumption that most of us go above and beyond of just what the job requires. We do expect some gratitude from students, and are hurt when it is not shown. Your real estate agent expects a polite “thank you,” but not profound gratitude.

Consider a professor who gives up a couple of hours of his or her day to help a troubled student with understanding course materials. This seems fine, right? What if someone gives a student an expensive laptop? That would raise all kinds of questions, and at the very least look very weird: not a good idea. How about a professor who takes an entire class to a restaurant and paying the bill out of pocket? Well, it is still a bit weird, but maybe not so much? What about several faculty who invite graduating students to a party with tacos and burritos? – Well, that seems totally fine. Why is that? Because tacos are cheaper, or because they split the bill? I don’t know, it just feels right to me, but perhaps not to someone else.

I am trying to show here that there is an implicit cultural norm of gift proportionality, specific to our culture. Yet the norm seems to be ill-defined, and perhaps shifting. The norm does exist, and there is such a thing as a gift too big to be appropriate. Note, it is fairly easy for a professor to turn down a student gift, not s easy the other way around. To be in a position of saying, “Thanks, but I cannot accept this,” is to be in a position of power.

I am a bit worried that if we do not watch it, different faculty will start competing with other programs on generosity, and some will feel pressure to be more generous. Anthropologists know several cultures where competitive generosity got out of hand, including some Melanesian societies. I am thinking we need to both acknowledge the beauty of human generosity, and yet be careful to set some limits.

OK, how do we do that? I have no idea, actually. A written policy seems to be too intrusive, and too rigid. A conversation, perhaps? - how do you hold a conversation like that with two hundred people? This is an invitation to think together.

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