Is there any good way to deal with a disappointing teacher?
June 7, 2016 5:40 PM   Subscribe

Caveat up front: It's entirely possible that I'm being ... childish ... in this situation. I honestly can't tell. Do I have to adjust my expectations and grow up? Do I suck it up, keep my mouth shut, and endure the class? Do I go to the administrators? Or do I get more hands-on? Short novel to follow.

This is a small one-year film school, and the teacher in question is teaching screenwriting. Writing has been a dear hobby of mine since I was old enough to hold a pen. I always love listening to people talk about writing; even if it's stuff I've heard already, it never feels old hat, and I was looking forward to this class with a professional writer.

The class meets once a week for three hours, and we've had three weeks so far. In each class session he'll take maybe twenty minutes to talk about something writing-related - and over an hour of nerd rambling and weird trivia. I swear this is true, the only notes I've taken are "three act structure" and "Dan Akroyd has web toes?"

I honestly like the guy. I mean, i like nerd rambling. He's an interesting person, and very pleasant to be around. The problem is that I really wish he would stay more focused on screenwriting, and approach it in a structured and disciplined way. And manage class time better.

However, my expectations are ultimately my problem. I don't know that he's doing anything wrong. Maybe my expectations are wrong. And I can't imagine any way of approaching him, or the administrators, that turns out well. I'll just sound like I'm whining.

(I know that one other student out of the 16 agrees with me. She says she needs more concrete advice on how to tackle her story. I don't know about the rest.)

Even if he's not doing anything wrong, though, it's driving me up the wall. In the second class I I just couldn't keep it off my face. I kept rolling my eyes - and I was sitting in the front row. I can't believe I was so rude. I kept trying to keep it in and I couldn't. So in the next two classes I sat in the back and spent the class period doing homework and futzing with my phone. Which is still totally rude, and I'm a little ashamed, but that's as good as it gets right now.

So that's option number one - show up, keep my head down, and pass the class.

Here's the twist: This is not the first time I've been in this situation. In high school, a lot of my classmates were ill-served by our teachers, and I would tutor groups of six or seven students during lunch. Which made me a lot like a TA.

I'm feeling that same collectivist urge to help everyone pass. Which might be totally ridiculous, since that's not my job, but I know how to teach. I know how to write. So option two: organize a writing group for the classmates who want it. Kind of Dumbledore's Army style. (it's possible that only two people will want this and that would be fine.)

Option three: gather other classmates and approach the administrators together? But there is no variation on this that feels like a good idea.

Option four: Realize I am being a snotty know-it-all again, like the worst version of Hermione, and just shut up.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant to Education (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Correction: four class sessions so far.

And I just surveyed my classmates; so far three agree with me, three disagree, and two think that if we ask more specific questions he'll be more useful.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 5:49 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

If he's tenured and you go to the administrators, probably nothing will happen, and you might as well drop the class and be sure to ask around before you take another one. If he's an adjunct...there's still a good chance nothing will happen. If a professor is haranguing students, behaving in a plainly racist or sexist way, showing up drunk or late to class, I'd say go talk to admin. But "he's off topic a lot" sounds so subjective that they will likely not care.

Honestly, when I see these kinds of posts or hear students complain about that type of thing, I tend to roll my eyes internally and think they just have expectations that aren't what real teaching is like in that field. (For example, a lot of international students expect drill-and-kill in an English class and think anything else isn't actual teaching, but that's not how we do things--and for good reason!) HOWEVER, you sound like you're mature and have a balanced perspective, plus related experience, so I expect that your assessment is dead-on.

My experience with this kind of professor as both a student and a professor myself is that Type 1 doesn't really give a shit and will give As for minimal effort (but on the other hand, you learn less than you would have at home on Youtube or reading a book). Type 2 has some kind of hidden agenda/grading criteria/etc. and will grade in what appears to be a harsh and arbitrary fashion. Neither of these are good!

A writing group for classmates sounds cool if people are interested, but personally I'd drop the class and do that. (I guess if you're past the date by which you could get a refund, that may not be appealing.)

Good luck.
posted by wintersweet at 5:49 PM on June 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

P. S. Have you tried meeting with him in office hours and asking him for further resources, or asking a follow-up question about whatever smidgen of useful stuff he alluded to in class? It might or might not be helpful. If he's more focused when he answers you in office hours, you could smile and say "I'd love to do/hear/read/discuss more of this kind of thing in class!"

As you probably know, if you go in and tell him that he's off-topic and you're bored and not learning anything, there is a 99.999% chance he will not respond in a positive way.
posted by wintersweet at 5:52 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

It sounds as if he might have been hired for his professional name and standing as a screenwriter, a position often called something like "professor of practice." It potentially creates a different kind of classroom environment than a course taught by a tenure track or adjunct professor -- often these teachers have taken very few of the kinds of courses they are now expected to teach. However, even if he isn't skilled in pedagogy, he should still be giving you valuable insights about writing based on his own experience. He probably just is trying to be entertaining. If I were you I would try to guide his teaching by asking him questions in class. Raise your hand and even if it seems like a derail from whatever he's rambling about, just ask specific technical or methodological or theoretical questions about writing in a way that lets him know you respect his experience and expertise and want to hear what he has to say about it. Of course it shouldn't be your responsibility to do this in a perfect world, but in pragmatic terms it might be your best bet for coming away with somewhat of a satisfying and useful course.
posted by flourpot at 5:56 PM on June 7, 2016 [13 favorites]

If you don't want to drop the class, you'll surely accomplish much more if you organize Dumbledore's Writing Group than if you don't, so that's what you should do. That, and ask him specific questions that he can answer with his own experience and insight.

I agree with others that this guy is unlikely to change his teaching style. He may very well not have the skills to do it the way you were hoping. If he's a famous writer, it's unlikely that he's also a trained teacher.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:58 PM on June 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would go to his office hours (he has office hours, right?) and take a copy of the syllabus (he has a syllabus, right?), and ask him a couple of questions about things that were on the syllabus that were not very well covered in class (presumably because he wandered off-topic and didn't get that far through his notes). If there's some kind of class structure that you're nominally following, ask questions about those topics.

If he gets way far off course during class, and shows no signs of self-regulation, consider raising your hand and asking a question that drags it back toward the topic. "So, that Dan Akroyd movie, that's a good example of (topic) or a counterexample?" Don't get snarky! "So, setting aside Dan Akroyd's toes, if we go back to the movie you were talking about, what was it you wanted to say about the writer?" No. None of that. Just ask a question that's as close to a real question as you can get.
posted by aimedwander at 5:59 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, I missed that it was a one-year school, and may not actually have tenure/office hours/etc. But either way, I suspect the above comments that he may not actually know anything at all about teaching are probably accurate.
posted by wintersweet at 6:04 PM on June 7, 2016

Response by poster: Yeah this is very much not like a typical college. It's working for me overall, though.
- All of the teachers are working professionals and they don't have "office hours" except via email.
- If I drop the class, I just have to take it again.
- Grades aren't really a thing. And it feels like a collective-success kind of atmosphere.
- Some teachers did syllabuses. This guy didn't.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 6:09 PM on June 7, 2016

I agree with your two classmates who think he'll be more helpful if you guys ask more specific questions. I would just keep track of specific techniques or methods you'd like to learn more about or work on more and maybe... consider raising your hand to ask those class-related questions when he starts to veer off-topic?
posted by modesty.blaise at 6:13 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry to be a downer, but any screenwriting course where you're doing it once a week for three hours and the selling point is that the teacher is a "Professional Writer!" is almost guaranteed not to be a good course. (I say "almost" on the off chance that this is part of the USC film school extension or something.)

People who once optioned something 20 years ago bill themselves as "screenwriting teachers" and convince people to pay extortionate amounts of money in hopes that this person's supposed success will somehow rub off. Screenwriting is specifically noteworthy for this (it's not as bad as actors and paid "casting workshops", though, I suppose). It is only worthwhile to take a screenwriting course from specific institutions in specific situations, when you are looking for specific outcomes.

If you want to learn to write a screenplay in terms of things like structure and formatting, get a copy of Harold McGee and a Final Draft license and just go for it.

If you want someone to give you notes on your screenplays, pay someone to do that specifically.

If you want people to bounce ideas off of, get into a writers' workshop, not a writing class.

If you want to find out how to "break into the business", there's no such thing as that.

If you really really really want to take a screenplay class for reasons, your best bets are USC and NYU's professional development schools or maybe something like a comedy theater (though none of the reputable ones I know teach classes on feature screenplays; TV pilots are much more common).

If you want to learn how to think like a writer, write a lot, put together a solid portfolio, and get a lot of notes from a reputable teacher who actually gives a shit, try a sketch comedy writing class. Ideally at UCB in either LA or New York, but there are some other good options as well (especially if you're in Chicago). MeMail me if you're curious about this.
posted by Sara C. at 6:18 PM on June 7, 2016 [23 favorites]

I agree that trying to redirect the conversation with sincere, snark-free questions will help immensely. Starting a writer's group is a fabulous idea, but I wouldn't frame it as something to make up for a subpar classroom experience. Pitch it as a positive and something that can stand on its own, which will build upon things that come up in class. Approached properly, I can't see this turning out badly.

For your own sake, please keep in mind there is also significant value in cultivating a relationship with this instructor if he is working in the industry. In an ideal world, a class will not only teach you a great deal but also help you make important connections that can become or facilitate real-world experience, but sometimes you get one and not the other. It sounds like that is what's happening here.

Lastly, your behavior as a student is admittedly rude, and you have full control over that. Don't think it's going unnoticed by your teacher or your fellow students. At some point, all professionals have to sit in pointless meetings, partake in futile discussions, and seem open and engaged to supervisors and colleagues when they are feeling anything but. Take this opportunity to hone this skill. This isn't what you were hoping to learn, but it's a valuable lesson nevertheless and will benefit you in the long run. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 6:29 PM on June 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

As an Art student I can tell you that some Artists cannot teach Art. If it's a required course and I have only one option I suck it up. If I have choices, I do research. Nowadays there is so much info available about teachers/professors there is no reason to get stuck with a lame duck unless you have no choice.
posted by cairnoflore at 6:34 PM on June 7, 2016

Here are some possible ways to get value out of this class -- I'm not sure how realistic they would be:

- Is it worthwhile to try to impress him? Could he open doors for you, or could a good grade from him impress someone else? If so, could you basically find information elsewhere, try to teach yourself, and focus on impressing him?

- Is he good at critiquing your work? Is there a chance that you could hand him something (an assignment or something) and get good comments on it that would actually help you improve?
posted by amtho at 6:43 PM on June 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've called out teachers before. (One religious type that all the students listened subserviently as he preached for 3 weeks straight. I went to the dean and he got into a lot of trouble.) Teachers are not always magical creatures. You are both adults paying for/receiving a transaction. If they are not giving you the information you paid for and were promised, go ahead and ask for clarification of what and when that information is to be covered, what was agreed to, and how that is going to happen.

(Most teachers are amazing! But the sucky ones, ugh.)
posted by Vaike at 6:59 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

This kinda sounds like a flaky hippie school to me? No grades and "working professionals" rather than regular teachers? I don't know from one year film programs, but it doesn't sound like the sort of place where you're gonna get a lot of leverage complaining about his nerd rants.

If you drop this class and have to take it again, is this guy ALWAYS the instructor or will someone else be teaching it later?

Maybe the best approach would be to just ask a lot of questions and keep interrupting him when he goes on a nerd rant. Try to re-steer him back to the supposed topic. I just went to a lecture a few weeks ago that was supposed to be about Topic A, but the "working professional" really just wanted to talk about how awesome LinkedIn was over and over again. It became pretty obvious that others were bothered when it finally came to Question Time and people were asking about the actual topic that the supposed lecture was about. Maybe if you tried to redirect him, it could help?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:04 PM on June 7, 2016

I agree that there might be value in cultivating this relationship. I don't think complaining formally is a good idea.

I also wonder if you had too much of a fantasy about what this class would be like. I know a few folks who were disappointed by grad school because their expectations were not what it's really like on a day to day basis.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:14 PM on June 7, 2016

Ditto Sara C. Also, screenwriting and "writing" are not the same. A screenplay isn't a novel, it's more like an instruction manual. I'd ask for my money back and spend my time reading scripts, watching movies, and writing scripts. If it's too late, ask him questions about formatting.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:27 PM on June 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I disagree with the commenters who have said that the essential concept of the course is wrong--that you can't learn screenwriting in a class setting, and therefore should just suffer through this or drop the course.

If the class purports to teach you X, Y, and Z, then you should expect X, Y, and Z. If you're not getting all of those things, and I mean every single one of them, then you have a right to go to the instructor's supervisor to complain.

It's a waste of everyone's time to hear this person blather on for hours. He is defrauding you of the course you paid for, and even if it ultimately doesn't transform you into an amazing screenwriter, it is what he signed up to teach. That's precisely what you should get.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:15 PM on June 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Look, if you sign up for a class without a syllabus then whatever expectations you had about the class content are assumptions unless you had a detailed conversation with the guy about class content and he is now not covering those things.

Whatever you were hoping to get out of this - you'll have to help direct the conversation towards the things you want to learn about. Be as specific as possible. He can then dig into his years of experience and explain how he's tackled those kinds of problems in the past. You can learn something.

You have no grounds to complain to him or the school about lack of content when you signed up for a class that does not have a syllabus, i.e. clearly defined content. And you have no grounds to complain about lack of rigour if you sign up for a class/program without grades.

Unless he's blatantly racist/ sexist/ inappropriate it's up to you all to ask about the things you want to know about here.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:15 AM on June 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is a sucky situation to be in, but keep your eye on the prize- which is for you to complete this program. Try and just hold tight and at the end of the class write an honest evaluation and be done with it. At the end of the day, just writing and really taking advantage of getting words on paper and editing and revising makes a big difference in writing skills. Direct instruction is great, and there are writing techniques to be learned, but you aren't going to get them from this instructor, and you need to think about all the possible outcomes vs. what is best for you personally> you complain, he finds out, you fail. You complain, he get fired, you get a sub that finishes the class. You complain, he gets fired, they cancel the class, you need to wait to take the course again- which in a year long program can be an issue. You aren't going to accomplish any righting of the wrongs of the world by making any sort of issue of his class or teaching skills.
posted by momochan at 2:52 AM on June 8, 2016

- Is he good at critiquing your work? Is there a chance that you could hand him something (an assignment or something) and get good comments on it that would actually help you improve?

Yeah, try this. It's possible he knows he's not doing a great job teaching but there isn't any framework or incentive for him to learn. But he may be willing to do more for a student who reaches out to him.
posted by BibiRose at 4:28 AM on June 8, 2016

From a practical standpoint, if I were in your situation (no refunds, this is the only guy who teaches the class), I would research other screen writing course syllabi and create my own topic outline from these. I would bring this outline to class and ask at least three questions related to these topics in ways that connect to the prof's ramblings, crossing them off as I went. That will give you a bit of the structure you're looking for and help keep you engaged.

As someone who takes teaching very seriously, teachers like this really piss me off, but you will encounter them. This guy could be a really fantastic screenwriter, but just because someone's an expert in their field doesn't mean they can teach worth a damn. I've had to deal with profs like this too in grad school, but you really can't afford to alienate them by being rude. They can be powerful networking resources for the rest of your life, whereas the satisfaction of displaying your righteous annoyance is fleeting.

If they have course evals at the end, save your criticisms for that.
posted by smirkette at 5:23 AM on June 8, 2016

I had one prof who was objectively bad (didn't show for class at all a couple times; graded undebatably inconsistently; recycled other professor's assignments; stated factually incorrect information in lectures).

I and a couple other students went to the dept. chair and complained. The wagons were immediately circled and the chair (a man I'd previously respected) had every excuse in the world for her, and zero interest in the fact that we were paying for such incompetent tutelage.

I gather that that is par for the course. She eventually ended up as the "director of multicultural affairs" or some such bee ess, where she could do less damage with her incompetence, but not because we complained.

Your teacher is less objectively bad. I doubt that complaining would do anything but put you on the radar of the administrators as a problem student.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 6:37 AM on June 8, 2016

I think forming a writers' group is a great idea, not because you have a shitty professor, but because forming a writers' group is a great idea! I would pitch this as a positive extra for those who want to put in the extra time, since it is something that could enhance both a bad class and a great class.

I also think the idea to ask lots of questions and direct things toward the topics you are particularly interested in is a great idea. From your post, it sounds like this guy is randomly rambling and NO ONE is asking interesting/pointed questions? That's a problem right there. This guy probably has limited teaching skills (and complaining to anyone who will listen is not going to magically give him good teaching skills) but he presumably does have a lot of industry knowledge given his position, so consider it your collective challenge to get that out of him.

I don't really see the point of complaining, because what is your goal? There is no syllabus, so what topics would you even be asking him to cover in more depth? Again, you're not going to magically and instantaneously create teaching skills in someone who does not have them. There's no bad grade to complain about since there are no grades. Honestly, I would assess what it is you want to get out of this program, and take it upon yourself to get it -- I think that will be much more effective than complaining to some administrator who likely can't do much about the situation anyway.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:51 AM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is this a non (or barely) accredited, for-profit school? Most of those places exist to siphon a small fortune from people dreaming of being artists and kind of get whoever sort of fits the bill and needs money to teach classes.

A one year degree isn't really going to open any doors for you and if you can't transfer the credits to a full university, the only thing you're getting for your money is what you learn in the classes, so hell yes, you have the right to raise a fuss, though I suspect at most they'll just tell you to take it again from someone else.

I know you say the program is working for you, but think about how much you're spending and what you could do with the same money based on Sara C.'s suggestions. There are some excellent workshops out there.

Grades aren't really a thing.

How much are you willing to pay for what amounts to a merit badge for participation? What if the reward for "passing" is advancing to another lousy class?
posted by Candleman at 7:51 AM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

My first thought was ask him what you want to know. Is there a syllabus? Perhaps you can follow the syllabus by asking him specific questions related to what you're supposed to be learning. I totally know what you mean and this would drive me crazy. Three of your classmates disagree with you- I think you should ask what THEY'RE getting out of the class. Perhaps it's a difference in communication style and he's couching useful information in pointless anecdotes. Bottom line: you've paid to be taught, and your teacher isn't much of a teacher. Get your money back or find a way to make it work for you. Even if he knows his stuff, you shouldn't have to pay to not be taught anything.
posted by serenity_now at 9:13 AM on June 8, 2016

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