My professor shares his cultural opinions with the class.
July 15, 2014 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Today my science professor shared his opinion about stereotypes and criminal activity in class. I think this was inappropriate and I'm not sure what to do.

I'm taking physics at a local private college, part-time, as preparation for graduate school. My professor is obviously very enthusiastic about physics and devoted to teaching. In the first week of class, he used some clumsy metaphors to describe physical processes, but nothing egregious.

Today while explaining a lab procedure our professor explained that we needed to look for data in the right place. He said that most stereotypes exist for a reason, and that most crimes are committed by young male minorities, so that when a store is robbed and the store owner describes the perpetrator as a young black or Hispanic man, the police should look for the perpetrator in a black neighborhood, not a white neighborhood. This was to help us understand that we should look for data in the right "neighborhood" I guess.

I feel super uncomfortable and upset about this but I don't know what to do. It's not even like we are in a sociology class where we are supposed to be talking about this stuff and sometimes people bumble into saying racist or outmoded things. It's just physics. I don't want this adjunct professor to lose his job or something but I also don't want to hear this stuff in class. I just want to do physics.

I know that there is probably a process or office at my college that addresses this stuff, but I've never seriously considered or needed to find them before. Part of me doesn't want to rock the boat. What should I do? How do I do it? How do I find the person I'm supposed to talk to? Can I do it anonymously or will that make the place/person think I'm lying? I keep imagining ways this could go horribly wrong.
posted by anonymous to Education (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How about talking to him-

"Hey professor, it made me uncomfortable when you said ... because .... . You might not realize it, but ...."

Unless you feel that your professor is likely to give you a bad grade in retaliation, why not act like an adult?
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:09 AM on July 15, 2014 [10 favorites]

For student grievances, there is usually a very specific process. At my school, for example, this is detailed in the student handbook. For us, it is encouraged to talk to the professor directly, but if this doesn't work for whatever reason, the department chair is the next step. If you do not feel as if your concerns are resolved at that level, there is usually a higher-level appeals process that goes to the Assistant Dean or Dean. A grievance can also be made formally or informally.

I would recommend checking out your student handbook to see what the recommended process is. By the way in our handbook, it is detailed very clearly that a student cannot be retaliated against for bringing a grievance to the professor, chair, or school.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:12 AM on July 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Take him aside and mention it. Just like jenkinsEar said.

If he does it again, give a little gasp and make an uncomfortable face, then give some side eye to your classmates like "did you just hear that??" and see if some social feedback won't help him realize he's been a doofus.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:17 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you feel comfortable saying, "Hey, when you invoke negative stereotypes about minorities to make a point, it's distracting and detracts from the point you're trying to make. Also it makes you look like you don't like non-white people, which is I'M SURE not what you're going for."
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:18 AM on July 15, 2014 [30 favorites]

Does the college have an ombudsman? That is probably the best person to go to for outside advice as they will be acquainted with all of your different options and what is likely to happen.

I think you would be best off talking to the professor directly. You might want to follow up with an email thanking him for listening to your point, as documentation in case there is retaliation.
posted by grouse at 7:21 AM on July 15, 2014

This class is important to you, so don't do anything about this until you get your grade.

That said, it's a summer class, so that should be soon. Then complain. I wouldn't go directly to him, personally.

Alternatively, you can file it away in "this guy sucks but I'm going to do well in physics anyway".

Good luck.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:26 AM on July 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Most stereotypes do exist for a reason, but that reason isn't always that they're based on truth.

The stereotype is that immigrants "flood" to Britain to get jobs (or live on benefits), for example, but in fact the vast majority of immigrants to Britain are students. An "immigrant" is someone who's coming into the country for IIRC more than 11 months.

So that is an example of a stereotype that isn't based on truth and isn't borne out by the data.
posted by tel3path at 7:27 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a pretty clueless thing for him to have said, IMO. His example didn't even make sense--if the perp was described as a minority then it would make sense to look in minority neighborhoods and stereotypes don't play into that at all. He went out of his way to say something racist there.

You don't have to talk to him directly if you don't want to, but PLEASE let someone know for the sake of any minority students he may have in the future, and, since you like him, for his own sake.
posted by chaiminda at 7:27 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, I would not go to him directly. Retaliation is really hard to prove if there's any kind of subjective component to the grading, and in the meantime, you have the grade hanging over your head. Plus, it's stressful to have to make this part of your relationship with a professor. It's not unadult to pick your battles or go through official channels, it's wise.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:28 AM on July 15, 2014 [10 favorites]

It is admirable that you are being proactive about this, and trying to be so sensitive about how to handle it. There are many avenues you might take to pursue this question; it's totally reasonable not to feel comfortable going directly to the instructor. Frankly, they should know better than to make racist comments in class, but it's not your responsibility to correct them (especially publicly!) if you feel like there is a risk to your grade/comfort in the class.

If you don't feel comfortable bringing it up with him, you might reach out to another professor in the department (perhaps one who is more senior, or simply one with whom you have a better rapport), the department chair, or a dean. If your college has an ombudsman, they would also be a great resource. If your college has a diversity office or active multicultural resource center, they may also be able to offer advice (even if you are not a minority). You can ask for advice about this situation without naming names, in order to get a read on how it should/would be handled. They should all treat you with respect and allow you to handle this anonymously if you wish.
posted by dizziest at 7:29 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can I do it anonymously or will that make the place/person think I'm lying?

This is the incredibly rare occasion where anonymity probably isn't cowardice. Part of me agrees with the suggestions above that you should address the professor directly—but based on the fact that you're asking this question in the first place, plus your mention of "imagining ways this could go horribly wrong," I'm going to venture a guess that you're maybe not the most extroverted person. (Nothing wrong with that.) Pulling him aside to mention it might be on your scary-as-hell list. And the concern about retaliatory grading isn't unreasonable.

So sure, consider dropping him an anonymous note. This is not the same as filing a report up the chain anonymously. This would be direct, quiet, and polite (very important!). You could drop a quick note on his desk or in his mailbox. You're not threatening him, you're not venting anger or ranting, you are just politely and privately giving voice to something that probably a lot of students felt.
posted by cribcage at 7:33 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you just want to nudge him, then speak to the chairperson of the department. Tell the chair what happened and that you found it distracting and it made you feel uncomfortable. You can request that you don't want you name mentioned. The chair will then talk with the professor and at the very least I think it would cause this professor to check his analogies in the future.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 7:35 AM on July 15, 2014

I disagree with going to the professor directly unless you know how he'll react or unless you don't care that it might affect how he perceives you, and therefore your grade in the class. Even if he believes in being an objective grader, no matter what he thinks of your personally, unconscious bias can affect how you grade.

I would explore the options that allow you to remain anonymous first. It's up to you, of course, but there are reasons why we try to make student feedback to professors anonymous (whether it's end-of-course evaluations or complaint channels), and it's not just because evil professors will deliberately fail you.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:38 AM on July 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

What do you expect to happen from your going to some authority figure? Did he in fact share opinions or was he making a ham-fisted argument about data? His examples might have been in poor taste or insensitive but as I read your question, he didn't say "All black men are criminals and therefore, should be watched/banned/arrested. "
I think his example is not working for the point he's trying to make, but I also think that you should decide how you want to frame your complaint. Being super uncomfortable and offended are Tumblr reactions, not real-world professional behavior. Think about what you want to cause to happen and write or voice your concerns accordingly. Just going to some office and saying you were distressed isn't going to get results.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:41 AM on July 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sorry, in case I wasn't clear, I would suggest saying what I said in class, as in "Really? I understood that stereotypes very often aren't borne out by the data. For example [...] and [...] and [...]."

I'd bring it up in class first. After all, he may simply have expressed himself badly.
posted by tel3path at 7:51 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

You look for suspects that match the description in the area of the crime or in the direction of travel that they fled. You don't just drive around "black neighborhoods". I'm a cadet at the largest department in my state and will be on the street in about a month and a half. Your physics professor is wrong about police work and should find something better than a racist fable to explain statistics.
posted by kavasa at 7:51 AM on July 15, 2014 [18 favorites]

This analogy is offensive and not an acceptable thing to say in the classroom, particularly, as you point out, in a science class. I think you are having a real-world reaction, and there is nothing unprofessional about addressing this issue.

If I were you, I would probably go first to the ombudsperson for advice. I haven't used an ombuds office myself yet, but my understanding is that their whole raison d'etre is to make sure stuff like this can be handled fairly and confidentially. I think that your wish for anonymity here is absolutely normal (because of grades) and college staff should be understanding and accommodating.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:00 AM on July 15, 2014 [12 favorites]

His comments are absolutely inappropriate and he should not be making them. Its not a matter of 'clumsy' or 'awkward' or 'old fashioned plain speak'. They're fundamentally bigoted. With that in mind, this is an issue for the administration to handle and for the professor to not know the name of the one making the complaint.

Racism has a lot of comorbidities with vindictiveness and generally being a giant ass, so I would protect yourself and your grade.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:07 AM on July 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

While it's offensive and inappropriate, my understanding is that one of the perqs of being a professor is getting spew forth with whatever nonsense and bullshit you like. (apologies for the stereotype about academics - I'm realizing only after typing this that it's a hypocritical stereotype in the context of this question).

Personally, I'd take the talk-to-him-directly route. That's what office hours are for. And part of the joy of higher education is getting to talk to interesting, educated people like physics professors.

It could be a fascinating conversation. "Hi, I think I'm good with most of the material, but I wanted to ask about a comment you made in lecture the other day..."

Depending on the response, you can let it go, raise concerns elsewhere, etc.

Retaliation? In undergraduate physics? I'm skeptical. It's not like he's going to be sitting on your pH.D. committee (unless he is...). If you're worried about retaliation, just keep all your graded homework, tests, etc, so that if something is out of line, you can have it addressed.

But I think this is a case where a direct conversation is to everybody's benefit.
posted by colin_l at 8:15 AM on July 15, 2014

Just talk to him. Have a discussion. Or a debate. Or an argument. That's what college is for. It's good that he's allowed to express his opinion. And you are allowed to express yours.
posted by Dansaman at 8:19 AM on July 15, 2014

It's inappropriate and unprofessional for your professor to talk like this.

In every college course I've ever taken (at four different schools, with adjuncts and full time professors alike), students were asked to fill out an evaluation at the end of the class, the professors were not allowed to be in the room at the time. Very often, schools DO care about student input.

Most likely, your school would want to know if a professor was saying these types of things to their students. I would probably go to the chair of the department or ombudsperson. The pressure shouldn't be on you to convince your professor that he's being an inappropriate racist--let the school handle that.

FWIW, the only time I ever considered going to school administration to complain about a professor, I wimped out. It turned out that his inappropriate bullshit had been going on for YEARS, but few people were speaking up, so he continued to get away with it.
posted by inertia at 8:20 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would go to the department chair rather than him, and leave the same comment in your anonymous feedback at the end of the class. While it might be heroic to object right after he says something, publicly, it doesn't seem necessary to risk an impact to your grade, even if that's unlikely. After the class is over, you could consider approaching him directly as well. Do a little homework and educate him on the facts about our racist judicial system.
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:24 AM on July 15, 2014

I would not be inclined to go to the department chair. A friend of mine went that route once and ended up having to endure a meeting where the dept chair basically told her she was a miserable worm who should thank her lucky stars she had the chance to learn from someone as brilliant as Professor Awful.

I'd be more likely to go through the ombudsman, where you have some anonymity and even if nothing is done this time, they'll have a record of the incident when future complaints are made about the prof.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:44 AM on July 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think you would be acting as an adult if you waited until after the class was over to talk with the professor directly, and I think you would be acting as an adult if you brought up his behavior with some third party as directed in your student handbook. I would try to get through the class first. I doubt this man would react well to having his own racism pointed out to him.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:54 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am a professor and I think the professor's behavior was unequivocally unprofessional here. When you're teaching, you're teaching a big roomful of people whose backgrounds, politics, commitments, etc. you don't know. And your job is to teach that whole room.

But sometimes you don't think about the effects your words might be having. I sometimes introduce a math question and then say "OK, now if somebody came up to you in a dark alley with a gun and said you have to guess the value of this integral, what would you say?" And once a student came up to me after class and said, you know what, I got mugged this semester, and I really didn't want to hear that in class, it threw me off for the rest of the lecture. And she was right! It's in no way fundamental to what I'm teaching to use an image that might annoy/upset/anger some people.

So what I'm saying is, your prof may truly not know he upset anyone. If I were the professor, I'd want to know. If he truly cares about teaching, as his general approach suggest, he'll want to know. I would let him know privately after class.

To me, the possibility of retaliation seems very remote. This is a physics class; he's not making subjective judgments about essays you write.
posted by escabeche at 8:56 AM on July 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

It is absolutely not any student's duty to educate a professor about why it is wrong to make racist stereotypical statements in class. I feel like everyone's comments are coming from some sort of fantasy version of academia where no one is defensive, retaliatory or negative and in which student protections are effective and don't sweep sexual assaults, discrimination, and racist/sexually harassing/general asshole professors under the rug.

Do not go to the professor or departmental dean. Email the university's president, the Dean of Students/Provost, and any minority affairs/multicultural extension offices at the university with your compliant. Let them know that all correspondence may be shared with whatever local/regional minority advocacy group is in your area.
posted by Metafilter Username at 8:58 AM on July 15, 2014 [10 favorites]

From what you've relayed, it would not be appropriate at this stage but if things got worse and/or you felt, after complaining, the professor or the school were not taking your concerns seriously, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights addresses allegations of retaliation and discrimination/harassment (including hostile environment) on the basis of race, national origin, color, sex and/or disability by educational institutions. There is an online complaint form you can use to file with OCR.
posted by notcomputersavvy06 at 9:02 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would just setup an anonymous email and tell him what he said was offensive to several students in the class, came off as very ignorant and has no place in a discussion about physics. If your class is so small that you feel he'd know it was you, you can just wait until after the semester.

Maybe this guy is just a raging racist and is trying to impose his racist views on the world. Or maybe he's just ignorant and or awkward and doesn't realize his behavior is bad. (A physics professor that's out of touch and awkward? Whaaat?) It's possible if you point it out, he will stop. And then if it's pointed out and he continues to make those comments, you can elevate your complaint up the ladder and not feel bad about it.

You said you don't want him to lose his job, and I think it's unlikely in this case that is even a possibility. Right now, he hasn't said anything too egregious. At most, I think he'd be spoken to. You could just contact the dean of the department. Or maybe if you like your adviser and trust them, you could tell them what happened and ask what to do. You might be able to explain it to them without naming the professor.

I think it's fine to want to address this in some way rather than ignoring it. I had an awful professor in college -- he wasn't racist, but just horrible at his job, skipped half of our classes, emailed vindictive mass emails to the class about how we should all stop complaining and then when it came to end of the year ratings, he had us not rate him like we were supposed to. I don't know if he ended up getting tenure or anything, but I regret not having made the department aware of how unprofessional he was. And I have been out of college for several years.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:27 AM on July 15, 2014

Definitely mention this on your Student Evaluation form.

I had a Physics prof who once said a very sexist joke about women and their periods. Had nothing to do with the mechanics of water. On the day that the the Student Evaluation forms were passed out. As soon as he left the room, the majority of the student body in that class were scribbling like mad.

I really hope he got the message, and didn't repeat it in the future.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:59 AM on July 15, 2014

Yeah, this isn't about 'behaving like an adult', unless that's just another way of saying, 'assess the situation, determine what outcome I am going for, and figure out with the people in question and organization I am in, what is the best way to get to that outcome'.

Can you talk to the professor? Perhaps. Depends on what you are going for. Do you want to feel heard? Do you want them to stop? Do you think you have enough data to meaningfully discuss the issues around stereotypes? Are you interested in having this conversation? Do you have evidence that they might retaliate? Do you have evidence that they won't?

I still prefer the conservative route: visit the ombuds, whose job it is to confidentially help you assess what your options are, based on the institution (for example, they may have guidelines on diversity, etc.). Once you understand your options, you can make an informed decision - not just to approach the professor, but how to approach them. Not just to write something on their eval, but what to say.

Unless this professor has signaled a willingness to receive feedback, I don't think you should assume it exists. This language can be in their syllabus, or they state it in the class, or you can think of examples when they were open to hearing feedback. But in a situation where there is an unequal power dynamic, it helps to be clear on the norms before stepping into anything.

So do you have any sort of responsibility? Perhaps only to inform yourself of your options, as you're doing here, and when talking to the ombuds. Perhaps in speaking in generalities to staff or faculty (If a student was concerned, hypothetically, about something that seemed inappropriate that was said by a professor or staff person, how do you/how would the university like the student to respond? If they ask you what you mean, just say it's all hypothetical, or that you aren't comfortable specifically saying at this time, but would appreciate their insight. Whatever they say, thank them for their opinion and think about it on your own. )

It isn't your job to educate this professor on inappropriate speech, only to inform yourself of your options, and decide which one feels right to you.
posted by anitanita at 2:13 PM on July 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Sorry but this is absolutely inexcusable behaviour. This goes beyond telling him how you feel, this is straight to the Dean, HOD or whoever his superior is.

I teach at a university and if this guy was in my department the senior staff will want to know about it, and will be grateful to anyone who let's them know it is happening.

Don't be afraid of retaliation. The vengeful professor seeking to square the ledger with a troublesome student is a myth perpetrated by one too many Corey Feldman movies.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 4:24 PM on July 15, 2014

There is no way he is going to review his basic beliefs as a result of discussion with you. He's too old + rigid, it's all cooked in. He likes his example, thinks it's neat and precise, otherwise he wouldn't use it. Imo, anyone with those inductive / deductive skills isn't going to be amenable or open to genuine attitudinal change. Approaching him directly will only cost you your grades. You're back at school for a reason, which is presumably, ultimately, your economic survival. It would not be smart to compromise that, because you have zero leverage.

This professor will only be compelled to superficially change his behaviour, via higher-ups, under threat, probably. The way to get the ear of higher ups, at my school, would be through (anonymous) teacher evaluations. So definitely do that. If there is some ombudsperson who can accommodate anonymous complaints, do that also. Anonymous.

(I am not sure identity re student evaluations is fully protected, while you're in school, especially if you have to log in to a website with your own ID to fill one in.. I've sort of trusted that it is, but am not 100% confident. For one thing, at my school, I strongly suspect that contrary to what students are told, lecturers get their reviews in advance of the end of term [based on hearing snippets of sentences I've written on evals in class].) BUT even if higher ups can access info about identity, it seems unlikely lecturers would. anyway)

Imo the best way to give your fellow students a heads up would be through (unless there's another website that has currency in your local area, but it's likely
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:10 PM on July 15, 2014

If any of your classmates record the lectures for studying purposes, you should ask for a copy of that days recording so you have some solid evidence.

In the age of embarrassing recordings going viral, the higher-ups might be more eager to assist you if they learned you have this jerk spouting his garbage on tape.
posted by blueberry at 11:22 PM on July 15, 2014

Please do not feel you have to expose yourself and be vulnerable "to be an adult". You have the right to feel safe in class - on every level - and if you think a direct conversation would jeopardise that feeling (and I would), the "adult" thing to do is go through the proper procedures and policies your university has set in place for precisely these situations and precisely the reasons why you might want to use them. Adults do not expose themselves to unecessary risks. Part of a professor's job is to take their lumps through the proper channels - I can literally see no scenario where doing this informally benefits you; it's all risk. I can see how it benefits the professor, sure, but that is not your concern.
posted by smoke at 3:57 AM on July 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

You said you don't want him to lose his job, and I think it's unlikely in this case that is even a possibility.

He's an adjunct professor, so it's pretty easy for him to lose his job. I feel like it's about as likely as the student suffering retaliation—neither should happen, but if the department chair is bad, he could lose his job basically on a whim.

I'm definitely not saying you shouldn't report him because of this, but it is a possibility. That's why I would favor talking with the professor first. If you want to be safe, you can wait until grades are in.

The way to get the ear of higher ups, at my school, would be through (anonymous) teacher evaluations.

At some institutions, the written parts of these evaluations are only seen by the instructor.
posted by grouse at 8:31 AM on July 16, 2014

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