To confront or not to confront?
November 29, 2005 4:40 PM   Subscribe

Is it foolish to confront a teacher about his behavior in class if our final is in one week?

Tonight in class, instead of teaching, one of my teachers singled out a particular student and told her that her negative comments during the semester had been detrimental to the class, said that she acted like she was 'in junior high', said that he had never had anyone act like she acts in class, and eventually asked if she would like to defend herself against these charges.

Although blind-sided like this, she handled herself very well, and drew some shocked support from the rest of the class. He later told us that he was glad that he was not teaching the next course in the series because he didn't want to deal with us again (both parties are relieved that this is the case it seems).

We are a small class in a small department, and most of us have had this teacher 2 or 3 times before, although I don't expect to have him again. He has something of a reputation for not teaching well, and this student's comments often reflected the class' frustration with his teaching style. The frequency of these comments was maybe 1 or 2 per 2 1/2 hour class, and would probably be considered sarcastic and somewhat disparaging.

My feeling is that this was completely inappropriate and unprofessional behavior on his part, and that he should have confronted her outside of class. Also, it seems that he should have said something early in the semester to head this problem off instead of waiting until the last day of class (when this was mentioned he claimed that it would have 'damaged the class'). He claimed tonight that he had discussed the 'situation' with the department chair previously, although he didn't go in to any more detail than that.

Well, I'm home now and I was about to email the professor to let him know how I felt, but then I hesitated. I have this teacher for two classes right now, and our finals are next week. I am concerned. This already seems like an incredible breach of student-teacher ethics for him to basically tell us that he hates us, and then expect to go on to grade our finals.

Not writing until the semester is over is an option, but it seems like we should all be saying something now if we're going to at all. Writing anonymously doesn't really seem feasible since there are only about ten of us in the class, so it wouldn't be much of a mystery. If I don't write at all, I will be tacitly supporting what he did.

What should I do?
posted by Who_Am_I to Education (35 answers total)
This guy is an ass. Don't confront him; take the final. Then go to the head of his department.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:46 PM on November 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'd say you should write to the department chair, expressing your concerns professionally. Include a note indicating that your concerns about the teacher's unprofessionalism are such that you were worried about retaliation if you spoke to him directly before the final.
posted by jasper411 at 4:47 PM on November 29, 2005

It would be foolish to confront the teacher in any manner I would think. Take it to the administration. It's their job to deal with it. If he is as crappy as you say, there have probably been other complaints from other students. I'd imagine that at a certain point, the administration would have to do something. Plus, this protects your identity to a certain point. I'm sure the administration would be willing to keep your name secret if you are worried that teacher might try to get revenge on you somehow.
posted by panoptican at 4:48 PM on November 29, 2005

I'd say don't say anything to him, especially before the semester is over. Go straight to the Dean with documented (write down what you told us, but maybe add some more) information. Ask other students to write/sit down with the Dean, too. That way, in addition to your complaint being heard, if you find that when you get your grades back that he has taken out his "hate" with unfair grades, you have something to back a complaint up with.
posted by starman at 4:50 PM on November 29, 2005

If you feel that what he did was particularly egregious then you might go directly to the head of the department but request that he or she refrain from discussing it with the professor until after the finals have been graded.

Alternatively, if it was truly out of bounds, then the department head might decide to have someone else proctor and grade the final exams.

Do you have an anonymous student feedback system for your classes? If your school does not offer one, you should petition the administration to implement one. They can be very effective, especially where anonymous, aggregate feedback data is made available to the students.

Note, I'm assuming that you are a student at a college. If you're in high school, you can throw this all right out the window. Instead, wait until grades are in, then have an adult take it up with the school. As a student, you will generally be ignored.
posted by jedicus at 4:50 PM on November 29, 2005

I would wait for a time between when you take the final and right before you actually receive your transcripts. Doing it now will probably leave a bad impression when he gives you a final grade. Waiting until he has submitted your grades to the school, but before you receive them will at least make it seem probable that you are not reacting to a bad grade.
You may also want to consider a broader letter that several of your classmates could send to both him and the administration. Try to be constructive in your writing, you may end up with him or a friendly colleague later in your schooling.
posted by efalk at 4:51 PM on November 29, 2005

Prudence dictates that you wait. Telling him now might lead to a reverse chicken wing(A or A- hmmm... he sucks A-). Ethics does not require you to confront him immediately. Speak to the chair and the administration. If he has tenure write a letter to the council of Ph.D. in his discipline.
posted by Rubbstone at 4:52 PM on November 29, 2005

This guy sounds like a jerk.

I don't think it's unreasonable to wait until the semester ends to very politely and with as many facts and examples as possible let this, um, gentleman know how you feel. However, I think that the head of the department needs to know what kinds of things this guy is going in class. I obviously don't know what way the political winds blow at your school -- test the winds carefully before acting -- but nobody is served by this behavior unless he is so incredibly famous in the field that all he has to do is be on the faculty roster to draw people/money.
posted by ilsa at 4:52 PM on November 29, 2005

I had a similar problem in college with a teacher who gave me D's no matter what I did. he did not like me challenging him in class, even though I was doing the class work and passing the tests. He would grade me low on every written assignment (it was an English class).

I would have gone to the Dean of the epartment but this professor was the Dean. I look back on it and all I can say is, "Fuck you Seamus Cooney. You were an asshole and probably still are."
posted by camworld at 4:53 PM on November 29, 2005

(clarification: Dean of the Dept. if it's a large school, Dean of the school if it's a small one)
posted by starman at 4:54 PM on November 29, 2005

Wait until you've received your grades. Even if you have a peer-review process for grading disputes, you're not guaranteed that the jury will find in your favor. Additionally, how do you know that he hasn't dinged you if he doesn't straightforwardly fail you? Maybe he'll drop you a half or quarter grade-point, which may make an impact on your GPA, but be difficult to prove purposeful. When the teacher evaluations come round, explain what happened, and then talk to the chair after the class. Standing up now is a nice gesture, but I can't imagine how it might be "more" effective than waiting until the end of the semester in achieving the final goal (having the teacher reproached, fired, whatever) , aside from the symbolic show of support for the other student.

still, i must admit that standing up now seems somehow more heroic, and being pragmatic about blowing the whistle can appear cowardly; honestly, though, I don't see how it's gonna make any difference unless you expect someone's planning on making a movie about your life or something.
posted by fishfucker at 4:54 PM on November 29, 2005

Wait to deal with the prof, but you'd do a very good thing by offering a little support before the final to the girl who was insulted by the dickhead.
posted by Kickstart70 at 4:55 PM on November 29, 2005

Do you have an anonymous student feedback system for your classes?

That's one of the 'funny' parts. Today was (anonymous) teacher evaluation day. So we all filled out these things (some of us in great detail), and then when we're done he's like 'so, something's been bothering me...'
I would have thought that consistent bad reviews would have had an effect too, but he seems to have been getting those for years.
Also, this is college.
posted by Who_Am_I at 5:00 PM on November 29, 2005

This story would make a good letter to the student paper. If you can get some of your classmates to sign it with you, so much the better.
posted by adamrice at 5:07 PM on November 29, 2005

Flame on!

Also, remind the alumni association of the incident while refusing donations. For the time being, you can do nothing. One of the main perks of being a professor is that you can be as big of a jackass as you like with no repercussions.
posted by stet at 5:11 PM on November 29, 2005

Yea, but what good does writing it in to the student paper do? None at all. And it just makes you look petty and childish. If you want to get back at him, write the school paper. If you want to get results, talk to his department head.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:11 PM on November 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

The student (the insulted girl) probably was obnoxious, but he definitely stooped below the level he should have been. Write a letter to the head of his department/school/college, or whomever would appear to be his boss. Write it now while the facts are fresh, but don't send it for a couple days -- give yourself a chance to edit it once your sense of shock and umbrage have eased. I suspect his boss will be hearing a lot of this event, and your version will probably help support or refute the stories going around. You want it to sound as factual and professional as possible, without demanding anything (it's not your place). Just say you're writing to inform them of the situation because it distressed you and affected the learning environment.
posted by dness2 at 5:14 PM on November 29, 2005

I am a professor and I hate hearing stories like this. What is it about our profession that attracts such dickheads?!

As others have said: Take the final, wait for your grade, and go to the dean. Not the department head, who is after all a colleague and perhaps friend of the jerk in question. Talk to the dean in person but at the same time hand deliver a letter describing the incident. Cc the letter to the department chair, the academic VP. Encourage every member of the class to do the same, especially the student he attacked.
posted by LarryC at 5:19 PM on November 29, 2005

You should certainly go through the official channels (dean, department head, etc) but don't necessarily expect results.

At research universities, professors are appraised by their peers and superiors based on the importance of their discoveries (publication track record) and the amount of money they bring in (grants and funding). Teaching, whether it is grad students or undegrads, is a minor detail.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 5:28 PM on November 29, 2005

It's not obvious to me why it's not a "breach of student-teacher ethics" for a student to make repeated sarcastic and disparaging remarks to a professor, but it is a breach of those ethics for a professor to respond in kind, once, after tolerating the abuse for an entire semester. Perhaps it would have been better handled outside of class, but perhaps the student's comments would have been better delivered there as well.

With that said, it's perfectly reasonable, and does not weaken your message, to wait until he's no longer in a position of power over you to have your say.
posted by bac at 5:30 PM on November 29, 2005

Do not confront the teacher at all. Nothing good can come of it. Instead, do as many others have suggested and go over his head to the next rung on the ladder, probably the department head. Also, make sure that you talk with your advisor and let them know what you went through.

One thing which others have not picked up on but I'd feel remiss for ignoring has to do with this quotation from you "The frequency of these comments was maybe 1 or 2 per 2 1/2 hour class, and would probably be considered sarcastic and somewhat disparaging." That is unacceptable behavior on the part of the students. No matter how bad your professor is you shouldn't stoop to this kind putative resistance. If the professor is so bad that you just can't stand it anymore, go to the department. Attempting to demean or upstage the professor will never have a positive result and will always make the students look like immature brats. The student/teacher relationship demands respect, maturity and diligence from both sides.
posted by oddman at 5:33 PM on November 29, 2005

I am also an instructor- I will say this - instructors do have bad days, instructors do have meltdowns ( I have had students that were so obnoxious I was absolutely ready to just slap them.) My point in saying this stuff is that there are always two sides to a story.

That said, if you honestly feel the instructor was in the wrong, I would recommend you first protect yourself -- document your thoughts on what happened. Ask your classmates, discreetly, to document their thoughts as well The more people you can get to do this, the better. Try for a tone that radiates objectivitity here. And also try to be as comprehensive as possible - basically, you want different people reporting their version of what happened, as accurately and objectively as possible. The administration will smell collusion faster than you can spell "conspiracy." But they WILL take notice if they sense you're being truthful, especially if there's a lot of people responding.

That said, I would deliver your comments to dean before, but as close possible to the exam deadline as possible, and also ask for anonymity until after the exam and grades have been handed in. The dean is your advocate and should go along with this.

Good luck!
posted by chocolatepeanutbuttercup at 5:39 PM on November 29, 2005

Flame on!
Haha, yeah 2.5 on there. 2.82 on CollegeSucks (reportedly co-created by an alum of our fair institution, from my department. hmm, pieces are coming together...)

Anyway, it looks like the thing to do is to go to the dean. This is a small school, and I do feel like the instructor and the head of the department are quite close.
posted by Who_Am_I at 5:48 PM on November 29, 2005

If the school has an ombudsman, schedule a visit.
posted by theora55 at 5:48 PM on November 29, 2005

I agree with those who are asking you to consider this as a situation that reflects badly on both sides. If this student was making rude and disparaging comments every time the class met, she was being immature and unwise. One or two comments per class may not seem like much of a problem to you or her, but for the professor to be forced to confront such hostility every time he stepped in front of you would make his experience fairly awful too -- particularly if he sensed that the rest of the class was egging her on. No one wants go to work every day and be publically mocked.

That said, a professor with any experience at all would have dealt with her outside of class, and much sooner. Also, he should have realized that if her comments were met with even subtle signs of approval, it was a strong signal that many of the class were dissatisfied. I particularly dislike that he made these comments immediately after your evaulations were safely turned in after allowing the situation to fester for so long.

I definitely think you should take this to the Dean once your grades are safely turned in, because ultimately it's the professor's job to handle conflict maturely, and he went over the line when he indulged himself with a tantrum. However, remember what others have written here about objectivity. Your account should acknowledge the student's contribution to the problem, while clearly stating what the professor did to compound it.
posted by melissa may at 6:05 PM on November 29, 2005

About a year ago, I was the undergrad in class making the snarky, cynical comments (they were valid, I thought, but probably not well advised). Before I knew it, the teacher (who I soon learned was on the committee to decide who would receive the graduate school assistantship I was applying for) had had enough. During the next "who gets the assistantship" meeting, he not only voted against me but suggested everyone else do the same. Long story short, I ended up getting the gig, but it was close. I say all that to point out that not only should you not say something to this teacher before your final, I would *highly* recommend not saying anything until you graduate, especially since you say that your department is a small one. I almost guarantee it will come back to bite you. Some might call this cowardly (which is probably true), but it's also pretty smart.
posted by JPowers at 6:18 PM on November 29, 2005

Lodge a formal, written, complaint with the administration after your life has calmed down. Don't expect a response. Then forget about it and move on with life.

The world is full of arseholes. You win by wasting as little of your own time as possible for maximum effect. Having a complaint on file is the best use of your time. Any other efforts are likely to be subject to deminishing returns.
posted by krisjohn at 7:16 PM on November 29, 2005

I had a programming teacher who just simply fundamentally did not know how to teach. He was an old-school computer science professor—no real-world experience to speak of, at all.

Throughout the course, students started to take issue with the way he would dodge questions like the bad shakes of a Magic 8 ball ("ask again later") and couldn't explain the concept of "why" behind anything he taught. He "taught" exclusively from the powerpoint slides and provided two useless TAs for help.

I launched a post to our Blackboard class management message board offering tutoring for $25/session. He took me aside and told me not to solicit my fellow students. He then deleted my post.

In this class, unlike my others, the standard "communications" button which normally allowed us to email our fellow students was missing. So I grabbed the URL of a different course's comm button, and hacked the URL to have the course_id of the CS class.

I then sent an email to everyone but the TAs and the professor himself about my tutoring, with the option to opt-out. That week, I tutored 1 kid. Within two weeks, I was tutoring six a week, sometimes at the same time, for $25-$45 per.

As the semester drew to an end, I grew tired and annoyed of the stories my fellow students had about our professor. (I had stopped going except for tests.) When one student called him out in the middle of class by yelling about his lack of ever answering questions, he removed the student and spoke with him outside.

I finally got upset enough that I started this page—a soundboard to allow fellow students to write what they wanted, since one was about to go speak to the dean's office. He had tenure, and we knew it wouldn't really matter, but it sure felt good, and I allowed them to remain anonymous if they so chose.

Boyd found the site at some point, probably because of some snitch (I certainly made sure he didn't receive the email for *that*.) and responded on the site, again completely avoiding the issue.

The point is, if a professor does have tenure, there's very little to be done with his bad performance. Make sure that you rail against him in your review at the end, if you get one, and go see his department head and even the college's dean if you believe it's necessary. Don't worry about any impact on your final, because he knows better than to allow your score to be impacted by anything you have to say—unless you're on the brink and he controls which way your grade sways.

If all else fails, start and widely publicize a customized web page to complain about how awful he is. :-)
posted by disillusioned at 7:59 PM on November 29, 2005

I'm sorry but contrary to disillusioned's suggestion vigilanty justice is not the answer here, if ever.
posted by oddman at 8:30 PM on November 29, 2005

chocolatepeanutbuttercup writes "Ask your classmates, discreetly, to document their thoughts as well The more people you can get to do this, the better. Try for a tone that radiates objectivitity here. And also try to be as comprehensive as possible - basically, you want different people reporting their version of what happened, as accurately and objectively as possible."

I was going to say this. Turns out it's already said.
Don't just assume you're not the only one providing feedback; talk to other folks and stress the importance.
posted by librarina at 9:51 PM on November 29, 2005

oddman: I'm sorry but contrary to disillusioned's suggestion vigilanty justice is not the answer here, if ever.

I don't believe that what I did/suggested was in any way "vigilanty." I believed (along with the student) that the student who had decided to take his concerns to a higher power should have more evidence than a few personal anecdotes, backed by other members of the class. What resulted was a place for 20+ students of a 56 student class to express their concerns and collect their thoughts, and it worked out well enough.

The students did not seek to slash his tires or jump him in the parking lot. Instead, we went forth in an organized manner to the powers that were, so to speak.

Do not confront the teacher at all. Nothing good can come of it. Instead, do as many others have suggested and go over his head to the next rung on the ladder, probably the department head. Also, make sure that you talk with your advisor and let them know what you went through.

Your own suggestion was precisely the course we took. We just had more evidence from more sources backing it up.
posted by disillusioned at 1:35 AM on November 30, 2005

If I was the student who he called out, I would be hella scared for my exam. Clearly he couldn't POSSIBLY be objective about marking her exam.
posted by antifuse at 1:51 AM on November 30, 2005

I have to get behind the others who are asking questions about both sides here. I am surprised how many people have more than glossed over what amounts to a heckler in the class. I am also surprised that people are glossing over the apparent sympathy this class holds with someone behaving like a child – the suggestion being that this university, department, or at least specific class, has developed an extremely immature and irresponsible student culture.

It sounds like the professor in question snapped and went after the mouthpiece of a general problem – but am I being overly suspicious if I suggest that the post seems to implicitly endorse the sarcastic student (particularly through tolerance) as a representative of student disappointments? And if there is any validity to this interpretation, shouldn’t we be suspicious of the fact that only once the professor has sank to their level of stupidity Who_Am_I suddenly wants to be an adult and ask about policy and due process and the implications of doing something?

The fact is that Who_Am_I was already ‘doing something’ about the problem in their silent endorsement of the sarcastic student and their failure to engage the lecturer and the class in an adult and responsible manner. They’re as culpable as he is. And that they think ‘Rate My Professor’ supports or explains anything – a site which translates higher education (which is either cooperative or pointless) into a product rating scheme meant for toasters and cars – only lends to my suspicions about what a miserable place this must be to teach in.

So I’ll second those who say don’t do anything now. After the marks are in you can take the issue further and it would be better to do it collectively. Leave the snarky student out as their inclusion will entirely discredit your representations. Or you might just leave it and walk away wondering if you can learn anything else about being an adult in a cooperative environment? Imagine going to work someday and having a difficult team leader – is having a snarky coworker who mocks them actively going to be helpful or would you rather work with responsible people who find a way to deal with the situation productively despite the complications. Who do you think is going to make your day easier in the end?
posted by anglophiliated at 3:23 AM on November 30, 2005

This exact same situation happened to my class in college.

The result when someone called him out*?

I can almost quote exactly what he said "I want you to read these extra 200 pages from this book, the final exam now requires that you know every single thing on them. I'm doing this because *SOMEONE* complained about my performance, and I would want to miss teaching you something, now would I (sarcastic tone)."

He indeed made sure to fail as many student as possible on the final, and was not rehired next year.

Myself, I quit the program as well. There was, on top of this, infighting that had become completely public (to the point that students were used to fight the fights, by one department denying us equipment, and another department handing us tools to break into it and unlock it). It was just smarter.

A year after I quit they dismissed about half the staff and hired new staff. I'm told by today's students the course runs much smoother, although the new teachers are a little more green.

Just food for thought.

* - Well, the callout was organized as such. Several (probably about 15 or 20) students who truly disliked the teacher and his teaching style complained to the dean. The dean set up a meeting between all these students and the teacher to discuss matters. It was decided that the teacher needs to teach a more updated and complete lesson plan (previously the teacher had taught from his own knowledge, which was clearly at least 20 years dated -- this was in an electronics technology field -- 20 years is like 2000 years in an English class).
posted by shepd at 8:22 AM on November 30, 2005

No reason not to wait untill your grades are in, as far as I can see.
posted by delmoi at 8:46 AM on November 30, 2005

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