I'm a first-year masters student taking a course that is supposed to be the core curriculum of my discipline. My program is in systems ecology. I find myself increasingly frustrated with this professor and increasingly unable to hide it, and now he wants to "meet with me to talk about student-instructor dynamics". I need some help coming up with some strategies to deal with this professionally. Difficulty level: I'm a new graduate student, and he's the director of my program. The program is brand-new (just started spring semester of last year) and this is one of two core courses, both of which are taught by him. His course is so terrible that I'm considering transferring to another program within the university. Excruciating detail inside.
posted by anonymous to education (45 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have a lot of issues with this class that I am having trouble sorting out. First and most broadly, I feel that he doesn't care about his students at all and he treats us poorly. There were maybe 10 students on the first day of class, and instead of having us go around and introduce ourselves briefly, he simply had us write our names and our advisor's names down on a piece of paper for him. The first twenty minutes of class was spent explaining that he was going to make fun of us and yell at us throughout the term and that this would make us better scientists by basically humiliating the fear of being wrong out of us (that's a paraphrase, I'm sure he made it sound more noble - he has this idea that science is only happening when people are at each others' throats, which I fundamentally disagree with). Almost half of the class dropped after the first day - I ought to have taken their lead.
His pedagogical style is a total nightmare for me in numerous ways. He constantly interrupts his own lectures (literally and no exaggeration, at least once every five minutes, and often much more) by barking vague questions at the class, then being angry and treating us like we're stupid when we can't figure out what he's asking and teach the class for him by answering his questions. He'll say things like "what's the story with iron?" and when nobody can guess which "story" he's talking about from the context, he starts in berating us about how "this is high school stuff" and "I can see none of you remember your basic ecology" etc etc. This happens constantly, throughout all of his lectures, and it's supremely distracting and discouraging. It's basically all I remember about his lectures - who he called on and humiliated, what they said that was wrong, and how he implied we were all either dumb or afraid. When I try to ask clarifying questions to figure out what exactly he's asking, or he calls on me and I say I don't know what he's asking, he gets angry and acts like I'm taking an attitude about it. The incident he wants to "chat with me about" was this afternoon - he makes us fill out busy-work worksheets about the papers we're reading, and the questions are super unclear (e.g. in this case, the question was "what is the origin of this material", then it listed a process and a location, not a material); I asked what kind of answer he was looking for and he was unable to answer me except some vague hand-waving about how it was "sort of like another question", so I shook my head in frustration. I probably was a little out of line by shaking my head but I am so frustrated that I'm having trouble not expressing it at all.
Another big issue I have with the class is that he's requiring an additional two hours of class time per week for a three-credit class, essentially requiring five credits worth of class time from us. Over the course of the semester, that's 30 hours, or almost a week's worth of work I could be doing on my research, and I think it's an imposition to require so much additional class time. When asked about this, he replies with a flippant joke about how we're "getting more for our money, why should we complain?" Is this something I can bring up with a dean of students or something? If all of our professors were allowed to double the amount of required class time per week, I'm sure they'd do it in a heartbeat, but there have to be some checks and balances in place to prevent that, right? Who can I reach out to in the university hierarchy to address this, especially since he's the director of this program?
After one of these mandatory extra discussion groups, he casually remarked that he was telling his wife how ignorant we are because nobody could come up with the equation for kinetic energy off the top of our heads on the first day in an ecology course, and also bemoaning the fact that nobody wants to speak up in class (seemingly with no sense of irony whatsoever). I remarked, not unkindly I swear to god, that maybe some students don't respond well to being yelled at. Well, his response was to start the next class by calling me out by name, saying that I was wrong and that he wasn't "yelling" he was demonstrating proper delivery, and then announcing that thanks to my comment, we'd be starting each class period with verbal pop-quizzes where he calls a person out, asks them a question, and then publicly criticizes both their answer and their delivery. I felt awful for bringing this on my class, and now he basically starts every class by trying to humiliate a couple of students.
I dread going to class every day and I'm barely learning anything, to boot - his lecture style of constantly barraging the class with questions instead of lecturing is so distracting that I'm having trouble learning the material he's trying to present, even though honestly most of it is review for me (with the exception of the equation for kinetic energy, apparently). Even worse, there isn't any textbook for the course, and he refuses to make his lecture materials available except in video form (because it's "too complicated" to upload his powerpoints to moodle), so there's no written material to refer to, and my entire success in this class is judged on my ability to regurgitate the stuff he's lecturing about. And I do mean regurgitate - his exam questions are all very vague and open-ended but he grades them according to whether you precisely reiterated each and every one of his points from his lecture, whether he asked about them or not. Ugh.
Further complicating matters, this is a brand-new program and this is one of only two required courses; it should be the core of the curriculum and the heart of the program. Even worse, he's also teaching the other required course in the spring! I've already decided I'm going to wait until next year to take the other required course and hope that somebody else is teaching it, but I'm very seriously considering switching to another program instead. Institutionally, this wouldn't change anything about my degree except the name - the new program is interdisciplinary, and I would just change to the forestry department where my advisor is. My funding is all through his NSF grant and the curriculum requirements are very open-ended for both programs, so nothing else about my program would change. I'm loath to do this because I feel like I'd be abandoning the program when I should be working to improve it, but I can't see a way forward if the only way to improve the program is to have somebody with functioning social skills teach these courses, much less if he's the director of the program. I know that growing a thicker skin is a very important part of graduate school, but I've never had a professor who was so fundamentally hostile to students before and I don't know how to deal with it, especially since he's the program director.
On the other hand, the program is brand-new and still establishing itself (and thus doesn't give me many material advantages), the guy in charge of it is a jerk, and it doesn't hurt me any to leave, so why stay? It seems like a terrible conflict of interest to have the program director teach both of the core courses, and the program starts to feel more like "learn what this particular guy has to say about ecology" than a comprehensive program core. The more I write about it, the more I feel like the program is poorly run and not well supported institutionally, but there are plenty of other faculty members and students working hard to make this program successful, and I hate to see this guy driving students away from the program they're trying to build. The only reason I can come up with not to leave the program is that I'll earn an M.S. in forestry instead of an M.S. in systems ecology - is it worth sticking it out just to have the word "ecology" in my MS title, even if my thesis and curriculum will be the same?
My advisor has been very supportive and privately agrees that this guy is a "total asshole and an abrasive douchebag, and that he degrades students and treats his colleagues like crap too" (only a very slight paraphrase), but my advisor just recently got tenure, is early in his career, and is super crazy busy. I doubt he'll be able to do much other than help me switch to the forestry program, which was actually his idea in the first place. He definitely has my back with respect to my research, but I don't think he has much interest in challenging the difficult professor. I also don't want to start my graduate career by going to my advisor with a raft of complaints about a class - I feel like I should be able to handle this professionally on my own.
Anyway, I need some strategies for letting some of this go and getting along in this class for the rest of the semester. I am already working on being more mindful and calm when he calls us ignorant or incessantly barks questions at us, and I know that my behavior is the only part of this equation I can change - I know I'm not going to change his behavior, that's for sure. The best answer might just be to switch programs, but I was hoping that you academically-experienced folks might have some advice for me. If I do leave the program because of him, I'd like to write a letter to somebody to explain why I did so, but since he's the program director as well, I have no idea who I should reach out to. Any advice you have would be appreciated. Thanks everyone.