I'd like to give this teacher a D-
May 20, 2010 5:33 PM   Subscribe

How do I complain about a bad instructor?

The end of the semester is coming up, and I feel that my instructor is incompetent enough that someone in a position of authority should be made aware of it.

There's a complication: my final grade will probably not be very good, and I don't want to come across like someone bitching to get a better grade.

I earned the bad grade myself, of course, but the instructor in question is so bad at his job that I can't help but feel like he's contributed in no small part.

If I complain to the department head, will I be heard despite my less-than-stellar performance? Can I assess the instructors abilities or lack thereof anonymously, and if so, how?
posted by lekvar to Education (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Most schools hand out anonymous evaluations at the end of the term that allow you to express your frustration; if everyone in the class feels the same way and says so, the higher-ups get the message.
Although I suspect that if they did that at your school you would already know about it. I would go see the department head in person and talk to him about it, but don't mention your grade.
posted by amethysts at 5:37 PM on May 20, 2010


Do you know for sure there's no class/instructor evaluation process at your school? (I was under the impression they were pretty ubiquitous these days.)
posted by scody at 5:39 PM on May 20, 2010


Anonymous letter to the department chair with documented incompetence might be helpful too.

Be warned many professors are tenured, you may be wasting your time trying to alert the authorities to a problem they are aware of and can't resolve.
posted by oblio_one at 5:41 PM on May 20, 2010


Sadly, the evaluation process is on a three-year cycle here. I got to evaluate one of my other instructors in mid-semester. The fact that I haven't been given the chance to do so for this instructor makes me think I got him on an off-year. I'll look to see if there's a non-scheduled evaluation process though.
posted by lekvar at 5:45 PM on May 20, 2010


If no evaluation at semester's end, then send a written complaint to dept chair and copy in the dean of that division...if he or she is tenured, there may be a merit pay system in place and that might affect even a tenured prof.
posted by Postroad at 5:47 PM on May 20, 2010


You could write a letter about him to the Dean.
posted by anniecat at 5:47 PM on May 20, 2010


Sorry I posted too soon. I meant you could write a letter to the Dean, but burning bridges and being seen as a problem student is never a good thing.
posted by anniecat at 5:48 PM on May 20, 2010


Do other students feel the same way? Get together, and arrange a meeting the the department chair. If the instructor has been there for a couple of semesters, chances are complaints have already been voiced. Take it to a higher up, with others, and then go from there. Document why exactly this professor is incompetent. Make a list.

I had one absurdly incompetent professor in college. There was not a single person in the class that felt they were getting what they paid for, but in the end, only 5 of us (out of about 30) had the guts to meet with the department chair, and be willing to not be anonymous. If others in your class feel similarly, I would urge you to not complain anonymously (other than through end of the year evaluations). Your concerns might be taken more seriously if you're willing to sign your name to it. In our case, this was the 3rd semester (out of 3) that the chair had heard similar complaints, and knew to take our word for it (with documentation). Her contract was not renewed. I'm guessing she got the memo eventually, because he phone and e-mail had reached max capacity 3rd week into the semester, and she missed an entire month of classes.

I ended up with a C in the class. Pretty much everyone else received a similar grade. Our only option was to re-take (and pay) for the same class again, and then perhaps the new grade would re-write the old. I felt that I absolutely did not earn that C, but I think most people who look at transcripts and see one bad grade among others that are much better, know that sometimes it really isn't the student's fault, but it's just the way that cards are dealt.
posted by raztaj at 5:51 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whatever you do, don't send it anonymously. Deans and department chairs aren't able to use anonymous correspondence (other than the formal student evaluation process) in any kind of formal disciplinary or review setting. Leaves too many holes for a possible appeal, claims of bias/"out to get me."

(or, what raztaj said)
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:55 PM on May 20, 2010


Even if the instructor in question is tenured, enough complaints may cause the department to have someone else teach the course in the future. This happened in one of the departments I studied in. Even though the professor's main research focus is subject X, he bungled the course enough times that he's no longer permitted to teach subject X to undergraduates, and hasn't been for several years now. So, complaints can have an effect, even "off-season" complaints, I'd imagine.
posted by Maximian at 6:23 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


If the instructor is really incompetent, sit down and write a well written letter explaining exactly how they are incompetent. Don't emote, just state facts. Say that you're concerned that your criticism won't be taken seriously due to your grade. Say that you've already received the grade and that you are doing this so future students won't have this negative experience.

Do you have a goal here? Do you want this person not to teach the class again? Do you want to get them reprimanded? Do you want to get them fired/not renewed?

Get other people in the class to write letters. Send them to the department chair and to the dean.

Do you have a reasonable advisor? Talk to him/her about this instructor.
posted by sciencegeek at 6:34 PM on May 20, 2010


What everyone else has said. Your best bet is a) group action (to make it clear that you're not just grumping about a bad grade), b) a detailed list of problems (avoid "incompetent"--lay out exactly what's going wrong), and c) a signed letter to the department chair. Don't jump immediately to the Dean--universities are bureaucracies like any other.

If you want something to happen, you absolutely must be willing to put your name to the complaint. Bear in mind that it may take multiple semesters of complaints before anything happens.


Do you have a reasonable advisor? Talk to him/her about this instructor.


Just a warning: many faculty will absolutely not want to have this conversation about a colleague, whether or not they know something about his reputation (if the instructor is thoroughly incompetent, they very likely do).
posted by thomas j wise at 6:44 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you're worried about seeming like you're trying to get a better grade, then simply say what you've told us here except without the (however deserved) hedging, something like, "I want to make clear that I earned my grade on my own and I do not expect my grade to be changed."

Then explain that you worry that he's incompetent enough to warrant someone looking into it. If you want to make sure you don't come across as spiteful and wanting to punish him for the bad grade you've gotten, here's where you hedge: "I am not trying to get him fired. I do hope that someone can evaluate the situation and help him fix his shortcomings." After all, if they decide he needs to be fired, they'll do it. If they decide he doesn't, it won't matter if you say he should be fired (if that's even what you want). You don't need to look like you're after his head or anything, basically, to make them aware of the problem, and if you want them to take it seriously it's best if you focus on genuine concern.

Then launch into a list of whatever egregious examples you have of his incompetence.
posted by Nattie at 7:08 PM on May 20, 2010


I have a somewhat similar situation at university here. One of my tutors has barely taught anything all year, the teaching method has simply been to refer to an online tutorial not created by said tutor. Lectures have been nebulous and uninformative. Furthermore, in some instances, requests for help have been met with a flat admission of the tutor's lack of ability to help.

More fortunately than the OP, we have been given the opportunity for anonymous feedback; however a number of my classmates also felt it necessary to register their dissatisfaction beyond this, and we are therefore composing a letter to the head of department. I therefore suggest if you believe the teacher has failings which are not specific to yourself, sound out a few classmates and see if the feeling is mutual, and whether they would be signatories to a similar letter.
posted by fearnothing at 7:42 PM on May 20, 2010


Professor here.
Just to summarize/reiterate what others have said, and add a couple of points:
- Write a letter to the department chair. Going to the dean will not help; he or she has lots of other problems to deal with. However, there may be someone else in the Dean's office who is tasked with dealing with these sorts of things - they would have a title like "Director of Student Services" or "Student Academic Services". If there is such a person, send a copy to him/her along with the chair.
- The letter should be dispassionate and detailed. Describe specific instances or situations as much as you can. Really try to avoid generalizations, or claims without evidence. Specific instances will allow the administration to follow up on this and investigate further. If you can get other students to either sign on or else send their own letters, great.
- I agree that it's a good ideas to be explicit about your personal goals in all of this; if you don't expect to have your grade changed, then say so.
- Don't expect to get an immediate response on this. That doesn't mean nothing will be done, but the wheels turn slowly in academia. If the instructor is non-tenured and there are enough complaints, he/she may not have their contract renewed. If this person is tenured, universities can still ask them to get assistance in improving their teaching skills, or at least have them teach a different course or take on a different role.
posted by chbrooks at 8:05 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


We once got every single person in a class to complain to the department head about an instructor who was assigning 30+ hours of work per week on a 1-credit course.




Shortly afterward, he was fast-tracked to tenure, and most of the students in my year and major ended that semester with shamefully low GPAs, and severe anxiety issues.
posted by schmod at 8:39 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Would love to know the school, schmod, because that's the kind of school administration I don't want to give my kids' college money to someday.
posted by davejay at 9:21 PM on May 20, 2010


You talk to the department head. And, if that doesn't satisfy you, you can try to get a meeting with the dean. Colleges have formal grievance policies. Your performance in the class will probably be taken into consideration, but, unless you come off as a grade grubber, that won't be the only consideration. What comes of it after that really depends upon whether or not the department head agrees with your assessment. Keep in mind that, for many students "I didn't get the grade I think I deserved" and "this instructor is incompetent" are interchangeable phrases. I'm not saying that's the case for you, but that's the sort of nonsense that department heads are used to.
posted by wheat at 9:45 PM on May 20, 2010


Would love to know the school, schmod, because that's the kind of school administration I don't want to give my kids' college money to someday.

It's been my experience that this happens at every school/university/college. I am in a similar situation with a professor at my school where the problem is three-fold: complaints for years, tenured, and a lawsuit brought about by the prof. No amount of complaining on my behalf (and literally everyone in the department) has brought about anything because of these three things. I would absolutely write letters, complain, band together (if others feel the same way), anything and everything to get heard... just don't expect the wheels of academia to get spinning while you're there. If anything comes of it, it will be long after you've left the institution and the prof has either retired or died.

God, I'm jaded.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 5:08 AM on May 21, 2010


Seconding chbrooks above - this is some good advice and predictions to set future expectations.

I work in an Academic Services unit. A big part of our job at the close of every term is to direct traffic in grade disputes and grievances. My advice in general is to speak to the professor (just to have your concerns heard by the person in question), the department chair (the person with the greatest ability to mandate a change of any sort), and perhaps a dean/associate dean if there are any issues with the procedural aspects of this (lack of response from one party or the like).

Don't do this anonymously - there's definitely a personal comfort argument to be made by doing so. Anonymity is tempting in an effort to avoid grade retaliation later, but understand that no chair or administrator will be able to act on anonymous comments (too easy to dismiss as personal animosity or hearsay). If you do experience retaliation for your efforts, keep in mind that this is a far more serious issue in an academic community - you'll have support if you're willing to make use of it.

Any academic department should be perfectly willing to hear you out. Present your case dispassionately and with as much supporting evidence as you can muster, then understand that you may not see immediate action (for all of the reasons described by other responses here). Still, rest assured that your concern will have been heard.

Good luck - this isn't an easy thing to do.
posted by owls at 11:57 AM on May 21, 2010


Thanks for all the input everybody. I guess I'll have to work up the stones to talk to the dept. head.
posted by lekvar at 2:26 PM on May 21, 2010


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