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How to deal with an intimidating professor?
January 21, 2009 6:03 AM   Subscribe

My professor’s intimidating, confrontational style makes the classroom atmosphere difficult to tolerate. I can't drop the class or switch sections. What should I do?

I’m in an advanced-level business class. The students are all seniors, post-bacs and graduate students, but the professor treats us as if we were a bunch of insubordinate kids in need of discipline. He doesn’t do this all the time, but it’s frequent enough that I’ve started to dread the class.

The class runs for two hours, and we are not given any breaks. If someone leaves their seat to go to the restroom, he will occasionally pause the lecture to interrogate them, ask where they’re going, or insist that they’re going to miss the best part of the lecture in the five minutes that they’re gone. Sometimes he laughs and tries to pass this sort of thing off as a joke, but very few (if any) of us find it funny.

When students ask questions, he often interrupts them or cuts them off before they’ve even finished articulating their questions. If they give an incorrect answer to a question he poses, he often chews them out for it, even if they can demonstrate verbally that they’ve read the assigned material and understood the concepts. At this point the only students who speak up voluntarily anymore seem to be the most thick-skinned ones. I’m not very thick-skinned, so I remain silent in class unless he calls on me directly. Sooner or later, though, he’ll probably put me on the spot and challenge me to explain why I’m so damn quiet all the time. (He’s already done that to another student).

He picks on people mercilessly. This week, for example, he loudly berated a student for not being able to answer the professor’s question:

Professor (pointing at student, after describing a long scenario): What’s the answer?

Student: Uh, I’m not sure. I was a bit distracted. I missed some of the details.

Professor (aggressively): WHY? Why aren’t you paying attention? What were you doing? What’s the matter? Don’t you take this class seriously?

Student (meekly): I’m sorry. I was reading something for a moment.

Professor: If you’re not going to pay attention and take this class seriously, then get the hell out of my class! Either you get on the ball, or you get your ass out of here!

Student (embarrassed): I’m sorry, Professor. I got it. I’m taking it seriously from now on.

At that point a couple of the students gave each other quizzical looks of disbelief, as if to say “What IS this, anyway? Reform school? The military?”

I felt sorry for the student he confronted, and wanted to stand up for him, but I feared that the professor would turn his wrath on me. If the professor ever does try to humiliate me like that, I doubt I’ll be able to endure it. I’ll probably just get up and walk out. I almost walked out today in protest of his treatment of a fellow student, but I knew I’d pay a high price if I did so, and I need this class to graduate.

Two weeks into the term, and already I dread going to class (which is very unusual for me; I love school, and my other classes are great). It’s a required class, and my class schedule is set in stone through my graduation date this summer, so I can’t drop it. There are no other sections available, so I can’t switch to a different instructor. I’m stuck with him until the end of the term.

What should I do? Is there anything that can be done, short of confronting him directly, to get him to ease up or treat the students more respectfully? I don’t want to confront him, because I fear he might hold it against me at grading time, or even try to humiliate me in front of the class and then claim it was “all in fun”.

Would this sort of behavior be considered harassment? He's never threatened or sexually harassed anyone, to the best of my knowledge. Should I document all the individual incidents in the classroom, and take my complaint to the university ombuds office? He's a visiting professor from another university; would this make a difference? Should I complain to the department head, and suggest that they confront him?

Advice, encouragement, suggestions, coping strategies, personal experiences – all are welcome. Thank you!

Throwaway e-mail: merciless.professor at gmail.
posted by anonymous to Education (55 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Get a posse together and go to the dean. That's unacceptable. This isn't the Paper Chase, and he's not John Houseman. I had a professor who cared for nothign but his research, and since our class was considered "independent study", he kept on incompleting us every semester, adding more work (not to mention screaming at us when the project - a race car - didn't run flawlessly about how our planning sucked. I had a 24 in monkey wrench in my hand at the time, and had been up for 36 hours, and I somehow *didn't* beat him with it), that I finally went to the department head. The department head chuckled and said, "we were waiting for you to come in and complain. You're done." That's all they were waiting for - for the students to stick up for ourselves.

That, or cut the guy's brake lines. (kidding)
posted by notsnot at 6:15 AM on January 21, 2009


Back in university we had a similar problem and like notsnot the dean waiting for students to complain so that they could act against the professor. One would have hoped they could have stepped in BEFORE it got to that point, but whatever. Anyway, yes, go to your dean. Have a clear list of detailed complaints and events, dates when they happened, etc.

If nothing can be done about the prof, maybe ask the dean if you can get that credit through corresponding or something else because you are unable to learn from or continue with that class due to the poisioned and hostile learning condition that prof has created.
posted by gwenlister at 6:21 AM on January 21, 2009


Take the class as sat/unsat or pass/fail. A lot of these won't look good on your record if you wanted to continue your education, but an occasional one of these is fine.

I had a professor just like this last term. Brilliant man, but a bit of an asshole. I felt like I needed to take anti-anxiety meds before class, and I'm an extremely mellow person. Talking to a higher upper would not have helped in my situation (because of the former), thought he isn't tenured (yet).

Personally, I think getting up to leave in the middle of a class to go to the bathroom is rude on all fronts - treat people (ie, the professor) how you want to be treated. Go before or after class, hold your bladder, or monitor your liquid intake so you won't have to urgently go to the bathroom during class. If it's a medical situation, or a real emergency, that's different, and the professor should be notified to help him be less hostile in this regard.

But go to your registrar, and change the class from "grade" to sat/unsat or pass/fail. Come evaluation time, plan your thoughts, and be clear and detailed in your evaluations. He might not give a crap, but someone else might.
posted by raztaj at 6:22 AM on January 21, 2009



Classic asshole. You'll continue to meet them year after year after year. Some of the ones you meet in the future will make Mr. business professor look like a cupcake. Almost all of them have control issues, many of them have an excellent understanding of the immediate rules and limits of their environment (eg, workplace codes, the law, university guidelines) and will never be in clear violation. Sometimes they get the opportunity to take things away from you --money, property, opportunity, graduation.


You are obviously intimidated by this person. Look within.
posted by ezekieldas at 6:32 AM on January 21, 2009


If he needs the class to graduate, he probably won't be able to take it as pass/fail.
posted by spamguy at 6:32 AM on January 21, 2009


I am all for jackasses and assholes getting their just desserts, and I would agree with the first couple of posts that say to go to your Dean if you really think this is a big issue. However, if this does not work - suck it up, finish the class and move on with your life.

The unfortunate reality about college professors is that a lot of them (especially math and science teachers) are very strange, and sometimes very egotistical. You have to just deal with it, be glad you don't act like them, and move on with your life.

Is everything that is on the tests in the book? If so - learn from the book and take the tests, and be done with it.
posted by Brettus at 6:35 AM on January 21, 2009


Do have an advisor or faculty mentor you trust? I once went to my undergrad advisor and in a non-confrontational way, asked for advice about how to deal with a situation with a prof that made me feel uncomfirtable. My advisor was awesome, had great advice, and it turns out HE went to the dean because he was disturbed about the situation. You may find that going to a good guy and using a lot of "I" statements ("How can I deal with this?" "How can I achieve when I feel nervous about this?" etc) may help.
posted by pointystick at 6:36 AM on January 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Have you considered bringing this up with him -- not confronting him -- during office hours? Maybe this is a naive question; you'd know better than I would. But I know that many times professors just aren't aware of their effects on students. If you can muster the courage, you might tell him that you're concerned that the dynamics of the class are keeping students from engaging as fully as they might. It's totally possible that he doesn't know. Professors aren't known for their social acumen. And he may well respect you for your honesty, especially if you express it as a concern and not a criticism. If it were one of my students, I would certainly appreciate that he'd approached me before approaching the dean.

But, of course, you're the best judge of whether this is practical. Don't do it if you're really worried about retribution.
posted by miriam at 6:42 AM on January 21, 2009


I, too, agree with notsnot and add that you should record every lecture (seriously--all of them) and put together a recording of the "highlights" for you and the other students to play for the dean.

I don't know where you're located, but in the U.S., when it comes to dealing with despots in the educational system, the order of the day is "document, document, document."

Good luck.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 6:43 AM on January 21, 2009


Research professors aren't always great at teaching. Complaining about it, talking to the dean, etc. etc. can actually help, and make things better for both sides.

I had a teacher who decided that exams should be nearly impossible (when the brilliant kid is only getting a 70% on the final--the rest getting closer to 40%, someone's doing something wrong), and openly chastised a TA during recitation. We joked about it, but something happened in the meantime, and judging by later years' classes, the work had gotten more reasonable, and the teacher had improved.
posted by that girl at 6:48 AM on January 21, 2009


Have you considered bringing this up with him -- not confronting him -- during office hours?

Dude, that would be the last thing I would ever do. Clearly that prof is on a power trip and is an asshole. Going to him to talk about it would probably just piss him off even more and then he would probably be even worse.
posted by gwenlister at 6:50 AM on January 21, 2009


You are being tested. I had a class like this in my MBA program, and struggled, bitched and feared my way through the semester. When I checked my grades on the list outside his door and saw I got an A, I thought he'd made a typo. I saw him a few days later and said I didn't think I deserved an A. He said "Yes, you did, because you LEARNED."

See, that intimidating, the probing of a pat answer, the putting me on the spot, the challenging - that was the same as when a personal trainer tells you to do five more push-ups. Don't take the answer in the book at face value. Don't read just enough to cover your ass. Don't just learn the material, learn the thought process necessary to really comprehend it.

And, by the way, you are probably going to have a boss like this at some point in your career, so he's teaching you a bit about that too.

If you can think about the intent behind his madness - which is probably about 25% asshole and 75% pedagogy - you'll be fine.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:50 AM on January 21, 2009 [10 favorites]


A professor's classroom style --- including giving students a hard time for not paying attention, not being prepared, etc. --- is a matter of academic freedom. Yes, he's an asshole, but it's his prerogative to be an asshole. For the record, I don't like asshole professors, either.

My suggestion is that you not go to the dean. Just deal with it. Not every class is going to be a warm, nurturing environment. Sorry you don't like the way the professor treats you, but he hasn't done anything to merit intervention from the dean.
posted by jayder at 6:51 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The examples you give send some mixed messages to me, honestly. Students are getting up in the middle of the lecture and walking out of the class? If I were the professor, I'd find that downright insulting. Yes, two hours is a long time, but if that's what the class is scheduled for, then (except for emergencies), the students should plan to stay there for the whole time.

In another one of your examples, the student was distracted because he or she was reading something. You don't specify if the student was looking over the text for that class or was reading something else; if it's the latter, that's another problem.

I don't want to defend a professor for being verbally abusive to students, and some of your examples certainly suggest that the professor is over the line, but it also sounds like the students may not be as focused as the professor might (rightly) expect, which could be making the situation worse.
posted by philosophygeek at 6:54 AM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


spamguy may be right that anon may not be able to take the class as pass/fail, but it's worth checking with the registrar. It depends on the department, degree, and university, but many may be able to afford you one or two allowances of a pass/fail for a required class. After all, you still have to go to class and do all the work, but allows you a little bit of grace on what shows up on your transcript and on those needed credits. I advise against naming names, but walk into your registrar and ask a hypothetical.
posted by raztaj at 6:55 AM on January 21, 2009


I disagree with raztaj. It would be one thing if it were an hour-long class. It's two hours. Every class I've had of that length or longer had at least one break were people were allowed to go to the restroom. When you're in school, you usually go to several classes per day, and also may have jobs and stuff you have to go to/from, and it's pretty hard to avoid drinking anything or eating anything (eating can cause you to have to pee, too) within x amount of time of every class. Most classes are short enough for it not to matter, but 2 hours is fairly long.
Also, if a professor asks where a student is going, and they say they're going to the restroom, the conversation should end there. It's not a public matter why a person has to go to the restroom. He's not actually your boss like a teacher of kids in grade school.

You may want to go to the ombudsman, who can talk to you about what recourse you have in this situation.
posted by fructose at 6:55 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Tape him. In addition to being able to say you're very serious about his lectures (enough to listen twice) if he ever questions the recorder, you can compile a greatest hits tape for the dean. There are probably school regulations protecting your right to tape lectures (as with learning disabilities, etc.), so look those up beforehand if he wants to give you shit about it.

I've never had anyone this malicious, but I combated an intimidating (but actually jovial) prof by having the material dead to rights and contributing to the class on my own terms -- asking interesting questions, volunteering answers if I could talk circles around the subject, and shrugging disaffectedly if I was wrong on something.
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:56 AM on January 21, 2009


I think going to the dean is a mistake. Maybe its a situation like gwenlister experienced where the dean was waiting for some complaints, or maybe the dean and this prof are buddies and this whole thing could backfire.

Not to mention that the world outside of your university is filled with men and women like this. You'll have to deal with people like this from time to time, and you won't have the luxury of running to the dean. Its best to accept this as a new kind of challenge, learn to deal with him, and develop some thick skin.
posted by curlyelk at 6:57 AM on January 21, 2009


If the professor ever does try to humiliate me like that, I doubt I’ll be able to endure it. I’ll probably just get up and walk out. I almost walked out today in protest of his treatment of a fellow student, but I knew I’d pay a high price if I did so, and I need this class to graduate.

You can endure it. Stay calm and professional and super-serious. Don't lose your temper the way this guy loses his, right? And pity the guy for thinking that he's being "challenging" or "no-BS" or "bad-ass" or whatever he thinks his attitude is doing to scare you into learning the material.

Meanwhile focus on the aspects of the class that are helpful to your education. When the prof isn't playing drill-sergent, isn't he knowledgeable? Try to dwell on this instead of the personal stuff. I know, I know, it's a mighty exercise in taking the high road. Remember, a semester is only a few months.

One thing that really helped me when I had a prof who was, frankly, a terrible, disinterested, defensive teacher, was to help a small group of the other students. They weren't learning the material very well, and I already had enough background that aside from brushing up on dates and events (it was a history class), I was doing okay without, y'know, insight or knowledge from an instructor, so we had little informal meetings after class. Explaining things to someone else or working through a problem together was a great way to learn. Our mutually-agreed rule was that a bitch-session was only permitted once we'd worked through the material.
posted by desuetude at 6:58 AM on January 21, 2009


Right now it seems you have two choices: you can either ignore it as best you can to get though it without making any waves, or you can complain about it. If you chose to complain about it, getting as many students in it with you as possible will make things much, much easier. Students hold a lot of power if they show an united front. I've seen cases when the Professor had to formally apologize for their behavior.

I've had a few such Professors, and I pretty much toughed it out. It is true that a few years from now you'll look back and think it was a bit ridiculous you were so intimidated - I know I do, and all the people who were there with me do to. In the end, these were people with loads of issues whose only way of making themselves feel better was by taking it out on their students. It's pretty pathetic, really.
posted by neblina_matinal at 6:59 AM on January 21, 2009


I agree with jayder. The guy's definitely an asshole but since it's manifesting as nothing more than boorish and petty behavior, I think you'll probably have to deal with this as you would an asshole "in the wild" instead of in a school environment. (Being a student ought to get you better treatment, since you're probably a hundred-thousand-dollar-plus customer of the institution, but alas that's not the custom...) Consider, for example, what you might do if he was your boss at a job as important to you as the class is.
posted by XMLicious at 7:03 AM on January 21, 2009


I suspect he's trying to make a point with all this. He's a business professor, after all. I can see getting a break in a 3 hour class, but I don't think you usually get breaks in a 2 hour one; not in my experience. You don't get up in the middle of a 2 hour consulting meeting to go to the bathroom, and you don't fail to pay attention to your client for a few minutes because you're reading something, either. It's unprofessional, and he's probably trying to underscore that. The "grilling people who get the wrong answer" is the socratic method. I suspect he's trying to shake you up.

Did he explain his methods at the beginning of class? I presume he's trying to run his classroom like a business rather than a typical class. So: dress professionally for class, do the reading, pay attention, engage, and try to answer his questions. Think of him like a client describing what he wants from you, the service provider. You're sitting in a group, but imagine it's just you and him. He's speaking directly to you. Be prepared to respond. Be thoughtful, and be prepared to defend/explain your answer. He'll grill you, sure, but you'll learn something. That's the point. Engage with him, learn from him, be changed by the experience. That's what he's trying to achieve, I suspect. Real learning is never comfortable.

Otherwise: I wouldn't bother going to the dean. This is exactly what ombuds offices are for. They will go do the dean, they will confront the instructor. But I'd go in the hopes of getting some advice on how to survive the class.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:07 AM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Since he is teaching senior level courses, I bet he has tenure. This means: You can do nothing to him at all. Unless he does something criminal or sexual. Going to the Dean or head of your department will do nothing. This professor probably has been around for a long time, does his job good, and knows everyone there personally. He probably wants his course to be taken seriously (it is a senior level course). He knows his students are not freshmen and wants more out of you. For a student to say " Sorry professor I was umm ah reading something" should not come from a senior or graduate student. You have been there for 3+ years and you should know how to listen and learn. It sounds like he expects his student to act their age. My suggestion to you would be pay attention and learn. If he asks you a questions and you honestly do not know or understand the answer say " I honestly don't know the answer can you explain it to me."

This kind of reminds me of my favorite professor ever. I can honestly say I learned the most from him then all other professors in my undergraduate life. He acted like the biggest asshole for the first two weeks of class. He would say things like "you will be here in class or I will doc you x% of your total grade for every class you miss!" He would also say you have a paper due by week 3. Just stuff like that you make himself seem like a hard ass and that it was going to be a long semester if you stayed in his course. After week 3 however he completely changed into this completely awesome, ask me anything, friendly professor. He told us, the ones that remained, that he does this to weed out the student that don't want to be here. Why should he have to put up with lazy students who do not want to listen and learn when he is teaching?

Back your professor, it sounds like he wants his student to take his course seriously. You are all seniors and you are about to graduate. This alone demands more respect and attention than the ho hum sit and day dream freshman courses most are use to. So my advice is sit down, pay attention, and be ready to answer your professor's questions. Because in the real world (you know the world that exists outside college) do you think a boss or a manager speaking at a meeting would put up with "Oh I'm sorry I was ummm ahh reading something?" Good luck with your course!
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:08 AM on January 21, 2009


I guess I'll be the lone voice of opposition. While it sounds like the prof has a bit of a stick up his ass, but this stick has been driven further and further up his rectal cavity by students that space out, or are disruptive, or simply don't care any more because they're close to graduation. I'd probably be sick of it, too.

If you’re not going to pay attention and take this class seriously, then get the hell out of my class! Either you get on the ball, or you get your ass out of here!

He's right.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:17 AM on January 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Personally, I think getting up to leave in the middle of a class to go to the bathroom is rude on all fronts - treat people (ie, the professor) how you want to be treated. Go before or after class, hold your bladder, or monitor your liquid intake so you won't have to urgently go to the bathroom during class.

These people are not in 3rd grade. I'd rather someone leave my class for 5 minutes than spend the last 20 minutes of my lecture thinking about pissing themselves. And I only teach for about 50 minutes.

Jesus - grade school fucks people up bad.
posted by TypographicalError at 7:20 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The world is full of difficult people and situations. Often forgotten - but college is also about learning how to deal with tough situations. Hang tough. Make your way through it, and be proud that you did. Focus on the content - maybe he's doing a better job than you think.

Unless the guy crosses the line into illegal behavior, I would absolutely not go to the dean.
posted by ecorrocio at 7:21 AM on January 21, 2009


Ah, what a stroll down memory lane. About 75% of my MBA classes were taught by that guy and his brethren.

To the two examples you cited, I can see his point. Getting up to leave the classroom is rude as is reading other materials during class. You may not agree with his tactics, but I'm not seeing anything outside of normal MBA classes. Our program didn't allow undergraduates into B-school courses, but I doubt the presence of younger students would have changed it.

Here is the only way to deal with professors such as this one:
● Speak in class when you choose - ask questions and answer questions. Ask how other courses relate to this material. If you're obviously engaged and asking questions, he'll back off of you.
● Ignore his blasts. Don't cower to it. If you spend your time worried about his outbursts then you are going to miss the material.

I doubt the Dean is going to intervene from the examples you cited.
posted by 26.2 at 7:35 AM on January 21, 2009


On one hand, there's a lot of "This is life, deal with it." But I'm from the school of thought that holds that first you try to fix problems, and only then do you just deal with it. After all, if you had an asshole boss, would you just endure quietly forever? Or would you at least think about looking for a new job? FWIW, I've known more than one person who had a boss like this, who talked to HR about it, and had a positive result; in one case the guy's disrespect and constant rage toward his employees got him kicked right out the door. Obviously that's not what'll always happen, but it's far from impossible.

Going to the Dean and saying "This professor's attitude is making it harder for me to learn" is legitimate, and it's not "cheating" or a sign of weakness. Will that fix the problem? Maybe, maybe not; since the guy's likely tenured, more likely not. But attempting to fix problems is a pretty basic human response to things, and if nobody calls him on his bullshit, it's definitely not going to improve.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:40 AM on January 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Lord, how I loathe tough love teaching style. This is one of those things that really works for some students and doesn't work at all for others, and there's no convincing people on one side of the merits of the other side. Anonymous, you sound more like me - the more a professor gets tough with me, the more I resent it. Throwing me into the deep end doesn't make me swim. The thing about your professor is - there are probably a lot of students he's worked with before who mesh with that style, who blossom under his heavy demands. And he's become convinced, over time, that those students are "strong" and the rest of you are "weak." I don't think there's anything you can do to change his mind, not even going to the dean, unless you get solid evidence of him really crossing a line in class. So far, it sounds like he hasn't crossed it, but if you honestly think he's going to get to the point of, say, making someone cry and still not stopping, then I'd start recording the lectures (and yeah, tell him it's because you're reallys erious about the class). Otherwise, I think you just need to endure. Keep your head down and your mouth shut, and work like nobody's business.

It sucks, it really does. I have so much fellow feeling for you right now. But you're not going to change his mind.
posted by marginaliana at 7:44 AM on January 21, 2009


I'm amazed that people would even consider going to the dean to complain.

The guy is serious about teaching and wants you to be serious about learning. Very often in the real world, especially the business world, you will have to face extremely unpleasant and uncomfortable situations which demand focus and attention. And the consequences of making a mistake will often be much worse than a guy yelling at you about how much you have failed for a few minutes.

Pay attention to the people in that class -- and I am sure there are some -- who seem to always get the answers right, who take the grilling with confidence and grace, and ask yourself why you are not that person. And then ask yourself if you are really interested in a career in business.

Being a student is not a job where everyone has to be nice to you and cater to your feelings of fairness and proper treatment. Especially not if your feelings of fairness and proper treatment involve people getting up and walking out in the middle of the class, or giving each other quizzical looks to ask if it's "reform school" or "the military". Yes, it obviously is reform school, why are you even asking this? And if you're not treating it with the same sort of focus and drive required of a soldier, why the hell are you paying so much money to get a piece of paper which will prove worthless to you in the real world when you prove not to thrive and succeed in driven, competitive environments?
posted by felix at 7:52 AM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm going to chime in on the opposite side of the coin:

As a college instructor I won't at all condone berating someone for going to the bathroom, so let's get that out of the way right now.

But I will say this: Many days I feel like a drill instructor with a batch of brand new fresh-faced cadets who have no idea that they're leaving a world of foo-foo touchy feely emotional bullshit (what constitutes most of primary and secondary education in the US) and going out into a trenches (the real world where nobody... and I mean NOBODY gives a shit about you unless you can perform and be useful.)

You have no idea how frustrating it is to teach a group of supposed-adults, give them a simple task, and watch them completely screw it up. You might be doing all the readings and be completely on the ball, but the reality is that more than half of your class probably has no idea what the hell is going on and has likely completely less than a quarter of the actual readings.

If I assign a reading and want to discuss that reading the next time I meet with my class... you can bet I'll be annoyed as hell if it's obvious that nobody else besides me really has any idea what is going on or has even read the reading. I don't want to stand up there and talk to myself about the reading, most of my readings I've read a hundred or more times by now, I want to interact with my students and hear what they have to say.

If everyone is spaced out or hasn't done the reading... that will never happen.


Btw, read the answer give by Felix, above mine. Then read it again. Then read it one more time. Then remember what I've said: in the real world absolutely nobody will give a shit about you. Ever. Most instructors, even the gruff ones, know this very well and would like to see you not suck at life. Some of us are just more tactful than others in helping you towards the not-sucking-at-life stage.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 8:13 AM on January 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm going to give you some very frustrating advice, but just suck it up and deal with it in the most diplomatic way you can.

I would NOT suggest reporting the professor to anyone.

I had a similar professor my first year of law school and I went and talked to someone in the Dean of Students office about it. And I mean I literally went to talk to try and get some feedback about how I could handle the situation better. I was told that maybe I was having such a problem because I was weak academically and just generally a weak person. And that I better be careful coming in and making complaints about professors who had strong histories with the department. Of course I wasn't weak academically, ended up getting an A- in the class. I later found out 3 of my classmates in a class of only 12 (who were picked on far more than me) had already gone and complained about her (so they knew there was a problem but chose instead to try and make me feel like I was just whining and not smart enough) and they did the exact same thing to all of us.

Contrary to popular belief the Dean of Students is NOT there to protect you. They are there to mitigate issues between professors and students and make sure the school doesn't look bad. They will protect their own. I was silly and naive enough to believe the crap they fed us at orientation, please don't make my mistake. I'm really just lucky that this professor was only an adjunct who left the school after that semester. Had I talked (and seriously this was couched in my emails to him as an informal chat not a formal complaint) about a tenured full time professor I can't even imagine the backlash.

I'm really sorry you are stuck in this position, but there isn't much you can do about it. Just try to not lose your cool in class, it isn't worth it. I was lucky that I never lost it entirely in front of this professor (even the time she screamed at me for 15 minutes about how I wasn't cut out for law school at 10 pm at night when I had a 103 temperature), a couple of my classmates did and definitely regretted it.
posted by whoaali at 8:17 AM on January 21, 2009


I'm with the don't go to the dean crowd. I would never berate people for going to the bathroom, but the other stuff doesn't seem unusual at all. It is not harassment, he isn't doing anything wrong. If his attitude makes you do your work thoroughly and forces you to come to class over-prepared, then he's done his job. You will learn something. Take that knowledge and do something with it for yourself. In the end you benefit and if you have to take some lumps, then it's a good life lesson.
posted by ob at 8:41 AM on January 21, 2009


If you can think about the intent behind his madness - which is probably about 25% asshole and 75% pedagogy - you'll be fine.

Man, I can't favorite this enough.

I'm surprised by all of the people who have said that you should go to the dean. Or, at least, I can guarantee that those people have never taught college-level classes.

Because seniors, post-docs, and graduate students absolutely should be able to, at the very least, reiterate the main points of a lecture immediately after hearing them, if not (godforbid) actually answer the question posed. In fact, I almost guarantee that the professor called on this guy because it was clear that he wasn't paying attention--"reading something for a moment." Paying attention and participating should be a very minimal requirement for all college classes. Unfortunately, it's not, so this guy is up against students who are used to being held to very, very low standards.

Instead of focusing on his chastising the students (and that's what he's doing; it's not harassment), I want to ask you this: does it seem like the professor knows his stuff? Look past whatever rage you feel for "being treated like an insubordinate kid." Is he knowledgeable, does he have anything to offer you in your field? That should be your real criteria for deciding whether or not to stick it out in a class.

And then I'd try to picture what this guy's ideal classroom would be like. He wants students to be respectful, participate, and pay attention. Are those unreasonable demands for students of your level? Or are you just bristling against it because it's not the norm at your school? Also, take a look at the syllabus. Does it give you any idea of the type of environment he expects? What are his expectations? Does he clearly state his policies regarding participation or, say, leaving to go to the bathroom? Most professors I know who are nit picky about this sort of thing do spell it out, explicitly, in the syllabus.

I had two professors like this during undergrad. You can read one of their ratemyprofessor ratings here. Both were teaching general education classes that are usually taught by bored high school teachers looking to make a few extra bucks. Students in these classes expected very low standards. Instead, they were held to standards that ensured basic levels of comprehension (keeping up with the reading), strict deadlines (handing in all assignments on time) and the type of environment in which the professor liked to teach--a quiet, attentive one based on mutual respect. Incidentally, the ratemyprofessor ratings aren't entirely accurate--I got As in two of Dr. Haines' classes by adhering to her standards and handing in exacting work.

In both cases, the professors loosened up a bit after the first few weeks of class (Dr. Haines no longer came in in a suit), but they didn't lower their behavioral or work expectations for us. They were extra strict in the beginning, though, to weed out people who didn't want to work (this worked out for all involved). But for those who stuck it out, they had an incredible amount of knowledge to impart to us, and ensured that we learned it. That's not to say that professors with a more lax teaching style didn't have anything to teach us, but they were often more tolerant to "minor" errors that wouldn't have been present if students had been held more accountable, if they had known that, under no uncertain terms, unexcused late work (for example) would not have been tolerated.

(Incidentally, I'm not in love with the bathroom policy, but I've had professors who felt similarly. If he's older, it's likely he comes from a more old fashioned tradition, where students really did have time between classes to wee, and were expected to use that time accordingly--instead of to, say, go to Starbucks, which is how those breaks are usually used now. How does he feel about people asking to go to the bathroom? Check the syllabus--he might expect you to just ask permission. Which is a pain, but not exactly the end of the world)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:45 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pay attention to the people in that class -- and I am sure there are some -- who seem to always get the answers right, who take the grilling with confidence and grace, and ask yourself why you are not that person. And then ask yourself if you are really interested in a career in business.

Just "wow" to some of this stuff.

I guess it really depends on what your goals are. Despite what some people will tell you, "business" and the "real world" does not have to be 40 years worth of belittling, humiliation and grovelling before your so-called "betters." Felix seems to have fallen through some sort of time vortex from England c. 1895, but many employers these days are actually granting their employees a modicum of human dignity.

So, if your goal is to get ahead and make money at all costs, even a complete loss of personal dignity and control over your own life, by all means follow his advice and some of the others which employ the term "real world."

Personally, I would stand up to the guy. If he asked me why i was going to the bathroom I would say, "Because I have to piss. it's a natural body function. Is that a problem?" I won't be so silly as to say "bullies will respect you if you stand up to them," that could happen but it could just as easily infuriate him. I just think self-respect and not living in fear is more important. You can always re-take the class with a different teacher next semester, right?
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:57 AM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


A life lesson from Deadwood (youtube)

Remember, every teacher has something to teach you, but you may not want the lesson.

This teacher is being an asshole. He's been an asshole before you came along and he'll probably be one after you're long gone. However you don't seem to be dealing with this asshole very well? Why? This doesn't mean you're wrong or bad, but it does mean there's something here that you could perhaps work. Treat the situation as an opportunity to learn to deal with assholes or this particular type of asshole
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:10 AM on January 21, 2009


The answer to this seems easy:

Pay attention and stay engaged in class.
Plan your restroom breaks around class.
Get a thicker skin - preferably by continuing to answer questions in class, even when not called upon. This will demonstrate to your professor that you know your stuff and that you can think and respond under pressure.
posted by squorch at 9:10 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I spent a good deal of at least one semester in law school waging war against a highly incompetent professor. And you know what? It was a waste of time. It was a waste of my time and it was a waste of the administration's time.

Tenure is a red herring in situations like this. This guy wasn't even tenured, and he is still teaching there to this day several years later despite overwhelming and constant evidence that he is simply not capable of teaching the subject he was assigned.

Do better than your best. Just totally hit this one out of the park. And then, after you've graduated, if you still feel like you want to kick him, I give you my personal permission to write him a nasty note about what a difficult professor he was and how despite his best efforts you succeeded and graduated and are moving on to bigger and better things, while he is left, unpleasant and stationary. (But first, you have to rock the class. And then, you have to still feel like kicking him after you graduate, which I guarantee you - you wont.)
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:28 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm voting with felix and JFitzpatrick and similar answers. Toughen up and treat it as a learning experience. It was teachers like this that I and my classmates learned most from. And when I've had to train people in the workplace, I'm similarly hardnosed (at least until people have proven that they're going to take the job and learning sufficiently seriously that I feel I'll be able to trust them unsupervised with the business and it's reputation on the line).
posted by K.P. at 9:33 AM on January 21, 2009


It sounds like, among other things, this professor is looking for the students to show some backbone. If the prof. blasts you, blast back at least once. My bet is the teacher's respect for you will shoot up a million percent.
posted by zippy at 9:42 AM on January 21, 2009


I think you're too meek. Be calmly assured of yourself. When he criticises you in front of everyone, acknowledge his concern but don't apologise unless you have done something wrong. Failing to be on top of everything always is not doing something wrong. Answering a phone to plan a trip to the mall is something wrong.

Instead of going into "sorry sorry sorry!" mode because you missed a question because you were taking notes, communicate instead that you are taking his class seriously, and that you are working these things through in time. Do it with calm eye contact and the knowledge that this is not a confrontation, even though it might seem like one, and his "concerns" while inflated, may be not unreasonable given the limited information he has available to him.

Step 1. Be on ball as much as you can.
Step 2. Don't feel you need to apologise for, or defend being merely human as long as you are doing step 1.

You can hold your own without challenging or confronting him. And he'll probably respect you for it - though you will likely never know this.

Bear in mind also that it may be one of those cases where those he is hardest on are those he has the most hope for or sees the most in.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:51 AM on January 21, 2009


I say gut it out, nobody is being made to deal with anything particularly bad, if you are singled out try to stand up for yourself while being respectful, but honestly, this is a life lesson. You will not always be able to call out the pricks in life, sad though it may be, at least not without facing serious consequences that require a lot of thought. I think it's kind of punk to go to the dean unless you are willing to first go to him outside of class and respectfully make your case and hear what he has to say about it. You might well get a reasoned response about why he feels it is better to be harsh in the context of the classroom that you may respect even if you don't agree. If there is a post-class evaluation by all means express frankly your reaction to all aspects of the class.
posted by nanojath at 9:55 AM on January 21, 2009


I guess it really depends on what your goals are. Despite what some people will tell you, "business" and the "real world" does not have to be 40 years worth of belittling, humiliation and grovelling before your so-called "betters." Felix seems to have fallen through some sort of time vortex from England c. 1895, but many employers these days are actually granting their employees a modicum of human dignity.

As a card-carrying communist and full-blooded hippie art project situationist, I fully support your rush to the barricades my comrade. They shall drown in the rivers of our blood! Nevertheless, I feel compelled to advise you that the real world (yes, I know it would be more convenient in quotes) really is quite serious for people in the line of "business," and that the 'modicum of human dignity' granted by most employers does not extend to leaving important 2 hour meetings for bio breaks, looking up at the CEO's question with a blank look and a crappy excuse, or looking around like a dope for comfortable validation upon encountering a mild rebuke.

Equating 'paying basic attention in a business school class you paid for' with the diabolical mills of Victorian England, and putting 'so-called' in front of 'betters' (in quotes no less) when referring to a university professor in the subject in which you are attempting to study are signs that you don't grasp or like what corporate America is all about. OK, that's cool. But what I and others have typed here is factually descriptive about the process as it actually exists.
posted by felix at 10:06 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


It sounds like, among other things, this professor is looking for the students to show some backbone.

I've seen this before. An old professor of mine had a history of being adversarial (in another story I had to verbally fight him and another professor of for a whole hour in a seminar.) One evening he and a fellow student friend of mine got into a very public argument. The professor kept on upping the ante with every comment. In the end my friend got so angry he actually said, "Fuck you, [name of professor]!" To which the professor smiled and patted my friend on the back and said, without a trace of irony, "That's my boy!"
posted by ob at 10:13 AM on January 21, 2009


I guess it really depends on what your goals are. Despite what some people will tell you, "business" and the "real world" does not have to be 40 years worth of belittling, humiliation and grovelling before your so-called "betters." Felix seems to have fallen through some sort of time vortex from England c. 1895, but many employers these days are actually granting their employees a modicum of human dignity.

Most peoples goals, whether they take 2 years or 40 years to realize them, revolve around being comfortable and being able to live out their lives without scraping by on government handouts.

Life isn't always fun. A professor berating you for being a dumb ass and not doing the readings or taking the time to understand the concepts that are core to your future profession absolutely pales in comparison to hearing those same things as you are handed a pink slip.

I'd rather take my lumps and face my short comings before my life and the well being of my family depends on my competence. A college professor who ignores your short comings and sends you out into the world with a worthless piece of paper is doing nothing more than sending you out to get beaten down by a long stream of people who don't care who you are or what you feel... they care what you can do and they will pay you when you perform.

Life isn't some big art project, it's a competition. Appreciate the people who care enough, however gruff or even cruel they may seem, to want you to be better and smarter than you are. They care more than the people who want to pat you on the back and make you feel good about yourself. Woe to the man whose drill instructor sends him out to the front without having cultivated a sense of his own ability and resolve.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 10:49 AM on January 21, 2009


Frankly, if you go to the dean, and you don't show up with complaints of real malfeasance or incompetence rather than "He's a hardass and a meanie," you will be embarrassing yourself in front of the dean, and the most likely response is that behind your back they'll laugh and gripe at the milquetoast entitlement of students these days.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:54 AM on January 21, 2009


You might want to check into your school regulations regarding breaks. I'm pretty certain at my university, it's required to have a 10-minute break for every hour in class. A prof once told me that it's better to take breaks -- people just can't concentrate for two hours straight.
posted by pised at 10:56 AM on January 21, 2009


In business, you don't go to the CEO to complain about your boss. You start with your immediate superior or HR and then work your way up.

Assume that college is a professional environment no different from the business world. You're going to have to deal with a lot of assholes in life, especially in business. College is the time to get used to it. Ironically I bet that's the point the prof is trying to drive home.

Don't go to the dean. If you feel the need to talk to someone about this guy, talk to your academic advisor or a counselor. If the advisor thinks action is in order, she'll tell you what to do.

Even if he's just separated in age by ten-fifteen years from you and the other students in the classroom, as I am from my students, the generational shift in student behavior and expectations is astounding.

College students tend to expect profs will provide nurturing and emotional support, and if they don't like a professor's teaching style, they feel entitled to complain.

Those attitudes just weren't there a generation ago.

I'm not saying you are Typical Entitled Student, but I bet your prof is reacting to that generational shift, all the more so if he is older.
posted by vincele at 11:16 AM on January 21, 2009


you will be embarrassing yourself in front of the dean, and the most likely response is that behind your back they'll laugh and gripe at the milquetoast entitlement of students these days.

This is exactly what will happen to you if you go to the dean, I guarantee it.

I second everything in PhoBWanKenobi's response. You say that the students are older and more advanced. However, the way that they seem to be acting in the class, they are no such thing at all.
posted by King Bee at 11:28 AM on January 21, 2009


You didn't give any examples of extreme behavior from the professor. At all. And this comes from a person that, if someone looks at me funny, I take it personally and can dwell on it all day. Take this as a good lesson about dealing with people with different personalities, as you are going to come across this a lot when you enter the real world of business. If you can take this on as a challenge, you will get much more out of it.

And, um, use the time before class to go to the bathroom (emergencies excepted, of course) or see a doctor about a medical problem. And honor your implied agreement to pay attention in class. If I were the professor, I might be annoyed also.
posted by Vaike at 12:24 PM on January 21, 2009


Personally, I would stand up to the guy. If he asked me why i was going to the bathroom I would say, "Because I have to piss. it's a natural body function. Is that a problem?"

To which the answer would be "why didn't you go before class?" Seriously, is there so little planning ahead going on in life that this is a real problem? Really can't get your shit together enough to be able to use the facilities and pay attention to this guy for 2 or 4 hours a week? Or to consider "hey, I have a 2 hour commitment shortly. Better not drink a gallon of coffee right before I go in, or I might disrupt class."

What about the respect for the professor? How is it OK to just get up and leave when someone is speaking to you? How is it OK to be reading something while someone is talking to you?

When I was in school, I was pissed when professors DIDN'T engage with the classroom. What's the point of being there if you aren't there to interact with each other?

If they give an incorrect answer to a question he poses, he often chews them out for it, even if they can demonstrate verbally that they’ve read the assigned material and understood the concepts.

There's a disconnect there- how can one answer a question wrong, but understand the concepts? What I suspect is that the student can demonstrate that he memorized the reading and repeat it, but not understand it at all. So the prof asks a question that forces one to USE the readings, and they mess it up.
posted by gjc at 4:44 PM on January 21, 2009


Part of the challenge of teaching college is that professors want to believe that their students are adults, but are constantly confronted with non-adult behavior. It's an unfortunate truth that the behavior of the least mature students determines policy, because otherwise a class can become unmanageable. Example: I was very forgiving about students getting up during class (presumably to go to the rest room) until I noticed that several of them were coming back in reeking of cigarettes. This is the kind of behavior that tends to prompt strict policies.

As far as the "tough love" attitude goes, well, this could just be a slightly too authoritarian version of the Socratic Method. A class of graduate students and seniors should be able to think on their feet. Chances are he's trying to do a couple of things: introduce you to the idea that you should be able to perform on demand (which is how the workplace functions), and force you to actually study. It's very frustrating to be confronted with students every class period who simply didn't bother to read or prepare.
posted by media_itoku at 4:44 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your professor is not intimidating you. You are being intimidated by your professor. There is a subtle, yet remarkably large difference between the two. Toughen up.
posted by sephira at 6:10 PM on January 21, 2009


OP: I can't drop the class or switch sections. What should I do? ...It’s a required class, and my class schedule is set in stone through my graduation date this summer, so I can’t drop it. There are no other sections available, so I can’t switch to a different instructor. I’m stuck with him until the end of the term.

People who agree that the professor has harsh and unrealistic expectations and believe that listening in class or comprehending the material is displaying a complete loss of personal dignity and control over your own life also suggest You can always re-take the class with a different teacher next semester, right?. Clearly they never needed to really understand something before considering themselves an expert, so why would a senior business student need to?
posted by jacalata at 2:03 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sweetie Darling, for the win. I had an accounting professor like that. Only I got to love the class, with a passion. The idea was to always arrive prepared, and know the material well enough to face the grilling. I was never as motivated as I was for that class. Some folks dropped out real quick. Those that stayed mostly like it. Bad part was, classes that followed were boring and dull, by comparison.
posted by Goofyy at 3:37 AM on January 22, 2009


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