Need help with a difficult professor
October 1, 2013 4:26 PM   Subscribe

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.

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.
posted by anonymous to Education (44 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Switch programs.
posted by ook at 4:31 PM on October 1, 2013 [21 favorites]

Don't bother writing letters or trying to correct his behavior; it won't help you or him. Just get yourself out of this situation, it will not improve.
posted by ook at 4:32 PM on October 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

Switch programs. It's not going to get better.
posted by ravioli at 4:32 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nobody is going to challenge the difficult professor and you are not going to instigate change in his teaching style. Change to the Forestry program.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:33 PM on October 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

I feel like I'd be abandoning the program when I should be working to improve it

Your job is not to make the program better. Your job is to learn and do research. Go to the program that will help support you in that endeavor -- what you're going through now is absolutely crazy.

I know that growing a thicker skin is a very important part of graduate school

It sounds like you're starting to internalize what this guy is saying. Get out before it gets worse.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:37 PM on October 1, 2013 [51 favorites]

Wait, you have videos of his so-called lectures? Videos in which he berates students? I think these need to go to someone higher up! Would all of your classmates be willing to sign a note to accompany the videos when you send them to the dean, the president of the university, the chair of the faculty senate? If this is your chosen field you have some obligation to keep assholes like this from polluting it, even if you switch to another program.
posted by mareli at 4:41 PM on October 1, 2013 [20 favorites]

Grad school is hard enough without dealing with this kind of nonsense. Switch programs. I think your area of research and your thesis is likely to count for more than what exact title is on your diploma.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:42 PM on October 1, 2013

When I first started reading your question, I thought about being a first year law student. The so-called "Socratic method" is somewhat similar to what your professor seems to think he's doing -- rather than lecture about the assigned material, the professor questions students and through his questioning draws out the meaning. This can often seem or be humiliating and students sometimes feel singled out for abuse. I was an older student (30) when I started law school and I had worked on the trading floor of a well known financial institution and wasn't easily cowed, so I found it somewhat amusing when a law professor would try to intimidate or scare students.

However, the further I read, the more I agree with those who have responded before me. Switch programs. The Socratic Method does result in learning and it sounds like your professor's strategy does not. It's one thing to learn to laugh off a growly law professor who really is trying to teach you to stand up for your argument in front of a judge, and it's a whole different kettle of fish trying to get your most important and most basic curriculum from someone who is so erratic and angry.

I would approach the meeting with him with caution, and try to minimize any criticism, assuming that you're okay with switching programs. Just get out while making as few waves as possible.
posted by janey47 at 4:45 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Switch to the forestry department. A smooth transition exists: make it.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:55 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Cut your losses. Run. It will get worse. You don't want this guy writing letters for you.
posted by barnone at 4:56 PM on October 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

The best thing you can do is to switch programs. It is nearly 100% certain that if this professor has been at the university long enough to have developed such a strong reputation among his peers, lots and lots of other students have likely already complained to the department and the administration about his incompetence and abuse. And the administration responded by giving him his own program to direct, which means that he's important enough to the school for other reasons (prestige, grant money, etc.) that they're not going to do anything to make the students happier. You can't save the program, and you can't fix the professor; all you can do is move forward with your own life and actually learn something.
posted by decathecting at 4:57 PM on October 1, 2013 [11 favorites]

Switch programs. No question.

Also, I would suggest you prepare for the worst in the meeting. It may not turn out that badly, but he's the program director and you're the new grad student. He's in a position to make this meeting hell; he seems to do that; he has no incentive not to. He may question your commitment to the program, your reasons for being in grad school, your ability to continue. If he does that, try not to take it to heart. Just get through the meeting as professionally as you can and switch programs.

(I haven't been in your shoes but I had an ugly experience with a professor who ran a required seminar that had a lot of problems like that. When I went to his office to ask him how to improve my papers in his class, he said "write better" and then reamed me in evaluations on personal stuff that had little to do with my writing. Get while the getting is good.)
posted by immlass at 5:01 PM on October 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yes, switch. Take as many with you (or at least away) as you can. I guarantee you *all* of his colleagues already know he's a liability, and over time students leaving a program will be noticed and the problem remedied, most likely by finding someone to take over those courses in a year or two in the guise of "refreshing" the program. It won't help you to make a noise, unless there's a formal feedback process (which you should absolutely use).

This is all predicated on the switch to forestry not making a big dent of your career aspirations. Almost no one apart from academic ecologists will have an accurate picture of systems ecology (and even we are a bit hazy about what exactly the "systems" bit actually adds) but to be totally honest someone not doing their resume sift diligently might see forestry and assume "commercial management for timber only" rather than going into the details. You can address this by careful resume and cover letter work, and if your program goes on to doctoral study, the title of your MS will be largely irrelevant after the doctorate is complete.
posted by cromagnon at 5:03 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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?

So you want to switch, your advisor wants you to switch, there is no penalty and a lot of payoff for you switching, and your only reward for not switching is to get continuously shat on by this crazy dude for the next semester and a half? Just switch, truly.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:23 PM on October 1, 2013 [9 favorites]

this is a brand-new program and this is one of only two required courses;

The program is a waste of time. At this stage, the only people who are going to get anything out of the program are the people who are already closely associated with the director, possibly his undergraduate researchers or other people handpicked into the program. The rest of you are cannon fodder while the program finds its direction and purpose.

Also, an M.S. program with only two required classes can't really be considered a solid program.
posted by deanc at 5:25 PM on October 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

Definitely agree with the consensus to switch.

Sad to say, I think that trying to do anything about this guy's behavior while you are in a position with very little power is probably a lost cause. I wish it wasn't that way. But I think it would just be an invitation for more drama and pain for you and probably no good outcome, because guys like this have an ego the size of the planet and cannot take feedback from others.

If he is getting into a conflict with you despite your efforts to flee, I suggest the university ombudsperson. I believe the ombudsperson is supposed to be a position to help students in conflicts such as these.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:27 PM on October 1, 2013

Switch. If you want to register an official complaint, I'd try once with the ombudsperson or (perhaps) another very sympathetic faculty member if there is someone you know involved in student advising who is very caring, but it's unlikely you're the first student who has had problems with this guy. I have been in situations like this. I have had classmates and good friends in situations like this. The only thing to do is tough it out (which I really don't advise based on what you've said here) or to transfer, and you're early enough in the program that transferring is probably the best option. It's very difficult to get the university to act on complaints like this unless it's something so egregious that you could bring legal action.
posted by angst at 5:37 PM on October 1, 2013

Both of my graduate degrees are in ecology. I have friends whose degrees are in forestry, water resources, environmental science, conservation, geography, and biology who all have similar research interests to mine. In my experience, you will not be doing yourself any harm by having "forestry" on your diploma.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:37 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I feel like I'd be abandoning the program when I should be working to improve it

I would suspect that the best thing you can do for this program is to switch out of it, and then let the administration know why.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:47 PM on October 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

definitely switch programs. once you are in the new program and no longer in any of this guy's classes i'd go make an appointment with the appropriate dean. personally, i think speaking to them in person is more effective than writing a letter but just follow whatever the proper protocol is for complaining about this guy.
posted by wildflower at 5:48 PM on October 1, 2013

Here's how you improve the ecology program: switch to forestry. As you have noted, lots of people are voting with their feet. The university will, eventually, notice this, and reexamine the program. (Frankly, if you can do the same coursework through some other program, does the systems ecology program even need to exist?) It shouldn't be too hard at that point for them to figure out that this professor is the problem.

The other obvious way to try to improve the program is to try to change it from within. This seems extraordinarily unlikely to work, and to the extent it does, it'll be after you've already gone through the program. And, of course, it would be a miserable experience for you. Grad school is so jam-packed as it is--don't waste time in a terrible set of courses that will dishearten you, sap your energy, and not teach you anything.
posted by pompelmo at 5:50 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

After reading your description and reflecting and 5 seconds of google, I am pretty sure I know exactly who the professor in question is (academic ecology is a very small world). Feel free to drop me a MeMail if you'd like to talk specifics.

The person in question may be director of your program, but their primary appointment is in a regular academic department (Biology, I think) with a chair. After you transfer to Forestry, I think a note from you or even better from your advisor to the department chair and/or dean explaining why you transferred would not be out of order.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:52 PM on October 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

I think your two choices are suck it up or switch. Follow your gut.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:00 PM on October 1, 2013

Yet another thought (mistreated ecology grad students being one of my areas of expertise, apparently):

Most graduate programs have a Director of Graduate Studies who is also a faculty member but who is distinct from the department chair/program chair. This person is primarily an advocate/shepherd for troubled grad students (in addition to signing off on all their paperwork and such). If this brand new program does not have a DGS, that would be a concrete suggestion that you and your advisor could make in your letters to the chair/dean/whoever else might listen. I firmly believe that no graduate program should ever be a one-professor show, for exactly the reasons demonstrated in your program.

And seriously, you have my absolute sympathy. Grad school is really hard at its best, and faculty members who are dedicated to making grad students suffer are as a group the reason that I myself chose to not be a professor at a university with grad students. I don't want to do that to grad students myself, and I don't want to watch other people do it.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:16 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

The more people who leave, the less of a program they have. The more people who stay to try to work it through, the less they care. Your career and health is more important than the program.
posted by heyjude at 6:35 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites] him as your adviser. You know what is more embarrassing than having questions and insults hurled at you in class? Having a guy like him (and there are lots) do the same after you give a seminar with an audience of a hundred. Having someone like him as a teacher or adviser is excellent training for an academic career. Think of it as training for a marathon or climbing a mountain, pain is necessary for achievement.
Challenge yourself to meet his questions head on (and ask him a few tough ones). Guys like this are classic bullies, they can smell weakness. Basically every line of questions is going to end with you saying "I don't know", the trick is seeing how long it takes to get there, and keeping a cool, profession demeanor.
posted by 445supermag at 6:38 PM on October 1, 2013

Switch programs NOW. Switching has no downsides, only upsides.

The university will only get the message that something is wrong with this program when everyone leaves it. You will be amazed at the rationalizations academics make: "This guy is a bit of a jerk, but he has all these students in his brand new program so he must be doing something right."
posted by medusa at 6:39 PM on October 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

Switch programs, but DO complain to someone higher up, a Dean or whoever is next in command above this guy. I am an academic who has had colleagues like this guy, and it doesn't matter whether all his peers know how shit he is, very little can be done until there are student complaints. Enough student complaints can lead to required professional development courses (teaching and anti-bullying courses, for example), changes to the teaching roster so the problem lecturers don't get the important courses, and in severe cases, the guy can get pressured out of his job. Even if he has tenure (at least here) the Dean can push him into taking an early retirement, or move him sideways into administration, or transfer him to a campus in the middle of nowhere so that he would rather quit, or whatever. I have seen all of this happen, but only when students start to complain. There aren't really mechanisms for peers to complain about each other, because the complaints are usually hearsay (ie. based on rumours about what happens in his class, or overhearing students complaining), and because (sadly) the university values the income from student fees more than it values the happiness of individual researchers who have a million other people lining up for their jobs.
posted by lollusc at 6:45 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Having someone like him as a teacher or adviser is excellent training for an academic career.

You know yourself best. Grad school is hard even with good advisors/mentors. Ask yourself if, realistically, you would thrive under this treatment, or will you end up leaving/becoming demoralized.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:53 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites] him as your adviser.

I had this guy as an adviser and it was the worst experience of my life. Everything suffered - I even started having skin problems from the stress. What was worse was that my adviser, like OP (I'm betting) was considered a wunderkind in the department. His terrible behavior was ignored because he was getting big grants, publishing a bunch, and regularly being interviewed (and saying SCHOOLNAME on the air).

I nearly left my Ph.D. program because of my adviser. Luckily, I didn't - and it was because I found an exit strategy and a new adviser who was tough, but compassionate. Understanding, but high expectations. He restored my faith in academia and reinvigorated my interest in my research.

My original adviser? Still pulling down scads of research bucks, still a top dog on campus. My personal opinion is that academics with the tri-fecta (teachers, researchers, mentors) are rare. Most are only really good at one thing, some rare number good at two. I can only think of one or two that I've known or heard about who are great teachers, great researchers and great mentors. Beyond the fact that they require different skill sets, you just don't have time to be awesome at all three.

Ditch this guy and run, don't walk to Forestry.
posted by arnicae at 6:53 PM on October 1, 2013 [9 favorites]

Switch, don't bother going to the meeting (it will just make you feel like shit; invent a plausible excuse), and [please flag with your dean of student, or head of school, preferably more than one person, with *evidence* of the problems - not for your sake, but all the other students who will be hurt by this guy and end up dropping out instead of switching.

But yes, switch.
posted by smoke at 7:05 PM on October 1, 2013

The meeting is a trap. You have absolutely nothing to gain from it, at best it's for him to yell at you, at worse it's to get you to say something he will hold over your head. You are a target forever; it will never get better for you.

Don't go to the meeting and switch programs.
posted by spaltavian at 7:13 PM on October 1, 2013 [19 favorites]

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 missed this part of your post earlier. i think something that would be helpful for you is to be mindful of the power dynamics in relationships such as these be they school or work. the thing is in this situation this guy has a lot of power and you have very little to directly affect the program. you are going to need to accept that and use the power you do have wisely. your fellow students who dropped the class on the first day used their power wisely. this guy is not only your prof he is the dean, so calling him out in front of the other students was not a wise move. he's acting like a bully and you're trying to stand up to him, even if nicely, but you're not on an equal footing so you have much to lose as you experienced. he slapped you down and drove the point home by punishing not just you but the other students. he put you in your place: you are not his equal.

generally, when confronting people first you need to be mindful of their power, how they wield it, your power and how you wield it. a good guideline is to initially confront someone in private and not to embarrass them in front of others by calling them out publicly. that is a last resort move. when you do talk to them privately it is best to assume their motives are good and to extend the olive branch to find common ground to problem solve. the results you will get doing this even in private will vary from a person taking to heart what you say all the way to them totally shooting you down. at least it will be in private though if you get shot down and they won't feel publicly humiliated and retaliate like this guy did. if you need to, you can always escalate things by then appealing to those higher up (e.g. talking to the appropriate dean or superior) and then lastly by taking things public.

another good guideline, one which is especially apt on the job or in social/networking/volunteer situations, is not to talk about people behind their back even when they are acting like a jerk. this will invariably get back to them, or others, in positions of power and you will get labeled a troublemaker. this usually serves to damage your reputation and cause unnecessary drama & division. now, if someone is doing something illegal that is a totally different situation, but i'm referring here to annoying social interactions like a difficult boss, prof or someone in a volunteer group who is in a position of power.

as for the private meeting with this prof i wouldn't go. i'd drop the class and get whatever refund you can and chalk any lost money up to a good learning experience on how to interact with horribly difficult superiors.

tl;dr: be mindful of the power dynamics at play, choose your battles wisely, use the power you do have effectively and don't be insubordinate without considering the possible ramifications to you and others.
posted by wildflower at 7:52 PM on October 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

Do NOT go to the meeting.

I agree that nothing good will happen if you go.
posted by jbenben at 8:14 PM on October 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Definitely go to the meeting, nobody respects people who flake out. Part of being an adult is talking with people you have disagreements with, and working things out. If you are really worried, take your adviser with you (let him know when you accept his invite). If he questions why you want your adviser present, tell him that his course is a core for your major, and if you can't figure out how to pass it, it effects him also. Please feel free to memail me.
posted by 445supermag at 8:28 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The strongest statement you can make is to switch programs. The people evaluating a new program will (should) be very concerned if it's shedding students. Fighting with the jerk is very unlikely to do you any good, or the program any good.

For you, changing may incur a delay, but as hydropsyche says, will likely have zero effect on your post-degree career.
posted by bonehead at 9:04 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Suggest you tape a lecture, many students do. Then play it for the Dean of Students.

That will improve the program. Switch to the other one.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:39 PM on October 1, 2013

Yes! Take your advisor to the meeting!!

In general, though, I've been to meetings like this one. Nothing good comes from them. The bully abuses you in private, then you have to get over it. No one's mind is changed. That's about it.

No one needs more bad memories in their life to process.

But yes, take your advisor. What a great suggestion! That should diffuse a lot of the tension.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 9:49 PM on October 1, 2013

Completely forget the the notion that you are "abandoning" the program. You can do far more for this program from the outside, through followup, than you can from the inside. From the outside you are free to act (within reason) without fear of repercussion. But you don't owe this program anything.

This man sounds like a first-class bully who has convinced himself of his own righteousness. Do not blame yourself for his poor reaction to your speaking up in class.

Thick skin is not one of the desired outcomes of graduate school. Nuanced understanding of the scientific method, maybe how to play subtle departmental politics, yes. Stoic ability to withstand personal abuse from other adults, no.

If you can drop the class without academic fault applied to you, drop now and forget it. If fault may be applied, write a letter about the class, visit your advisor and your dean's office, and then drop the class anyway. If it's a matter of credit numbers, talk to your advisor. There are often ways to work around the system.
posted by zennie at 10:15 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Switch. I promise you will be okay; having an MS in Forestry instead of Systems Ecology will not hurt you at all. You will send a much stronger message about the problems with the program by leaving than by either staying and fighting or staying to suffer in silence. This is a situation far beyond building a thicker skin for academia. People will pay attention when a program is hemorrhaging students. (I am an ecology PhD student; this has been my personal observation regarding my department's masters program.)

STRONGLY seconding hydropsyche on finding and speaking to the director of graduate programs if you have one; ours is a separate person from the department chair and is extraordinarily helpful in mediating tricky student-faculty interactions and bringing student concerns about the program (or about individual faculty members) to the attention of the faculty as a whole. Feel free to make it clear to them why you are leaving the program, but defintely definitely switch to Forestry.
posted by pemberkins at 10:19 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

From your description, this guy is a bully. I had a prof like this in grad school who taught a required course, and I watched her eviscerate one of my classmates on the first day of class, leaving her in tears. It did not get better as the semester progressed, and since this prof was well-published and a real darling in her field, the school wasn't eager to do anything about it.

I would switch immediately if I were you. There seems to be no upside to staying and no downside to leaving, so save your sanity--grad school is hard enough on your mental health--and switch.

And seconding everyone else who is saying do NOT go to this meeting alone. Definitely bring someone else with you, preferably your advisor. I strongly suspect that your prof's intention is to abuse you in private and put you in your place. You don't need that--grad school isn't supposed to come with hazing rituals.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:14 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had a similar course in advanced statistics. It was an outside elective for me, but there were several graduate students for which the course was required. The fellow that taught it was a full professor and decided to use the course as a platform to rant about how statistical analysis in social science research is tainted due to most scholars not understanding the underlying math behind most tests. Great. We were expected to conduct multiple regression by hand without a text book, lecture notes, or articles. I think he wrote the formula on the board once and I spent my time outside of class finding and practicing it via internet tutorials. Actually most assigned articles were just scholars bitching about p values. In any case, when we didn't perform well on the first test (because we didn't exactly know what was expected of us) he berated the entire class for not being prepared for an advanced statistics course.

All but 3 people out of 40 dropped the class, including myself. Even though I did well enough on the test to justify staying on I wasn't learning what I wanted, so pfff. I knew complaining wouldn't do any good given his rank, so I made sure to warn as many people as I could about the class. Shame, it was a waste of 3 grand.

My point is, don't waste your time with professors like this. Move on and avoid them at all costs.
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:13 AM on October 2, 2013

School is there for YOU to learn. You're getting less than nothing from this jackhole, so switch. Shit, drop the class now. You won't like the grade you get anyway. See if you can do Independent Study through your advisor to make up the credits this semester. Even if you can't, how awesome will your life be without having to worry about this guy?

I think we've all had this asshole as a professor at least once in our schooling. You can't win with him, and he's there for some reason. Perhaps he knows where the bodies are buried.

Switch early and switch often. Send this guy an email saying that you won't be meeting with him, and that instead, you're dropping his class and his program.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:45 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Switch programs at your earliest opportunity. Switch classes too: do not stay in this class.

Delay the meeting until after switching programs and dropping the class, if not until never. Then when (if) you do go to the meeting, you can merely stop in the doorway and inform the professor that you've switched programs. Or, if you do have to go to the meeting, make sure you have someone there who can advocate for you. It sounds like your advisor might not be comfortable being this person, which is unfortunate. Your advisor should take on the responsibility of helping you find someone who can be your advocate, who is in a similar position of power as the prof, if that's the case. Your description gives me a bad feeling; I wouldn't want to be in a room alone with this guy. Especially in a room alone with a closed door.

But preferably cancel the meeting. You can send a polite, very brief email instead, "Dear Dr. X, I have dropped your course and switched programs, and am thus cancelling our meeting for [date and time]. Regards, anonymous". CC your advisor on the email.
posted by eviemath at 11:55 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

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