Bullied by a professor; what to do?
November 25, 2016 8:49 AM   Subscribe

My anatomy professor is bullying me, and it's taking a toll on my grades, and mental health. I'm reviewing all of my coursework together with her next semester; how do I assert that I have been treated in a biased way, without putting her on the defense, and in a way that gets me back the points that were docked unfairly?

I'm taking a difficult anatomy and physiology course, and have worked extremely hard to master the material. I have been in touch with the professor about my work habits, goals (to become a Physician's Assistant), and stress associated with the course. She implied to me directly that I will not be accepted into a PA program, that I need to "stop stressing and be happy, because nobody wants an unhappy PA who knows all the facts; they'd rather have a happy PA without all the facts", and has out of hand dismissed my concerns about our coursework, without providing constructive feedback. Recently, I submitted a lengthy assignment, and she deducted points for arbitrary, not incorrect, components, such as including too much information- after telling us to include as much detail as possible. I compared my assignment with my peers in the class who received higher scores; my assignment was on par (or...better) than their work.
I am teetering on the edge of a C in this course (have a 80% currently), and I am concerned that her bias towards grading my work will push me into a C range by the end of all this. She doesn't like me, and I get that. It's fine. But, not if it means I'm not being graded fairly. I've set up a meeting with her next week to review every last detail of my mistakes on all quizzes, exams, etc. I'd like to assertively point out that I was docked points for things that are not wrong, or entirely arbitrary. I'm angry, and don't know how to do this with diplomacy.

Other info: Am 27 year old female, undergrad from esteemed university, am attending this course at a community college, offer answers frequently in class (not afraid to make mistakes, look dumb, etc).
posted by erattacorrige to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm going to give this a go because I taught Human Anat & Physio both as a grad student for several semesters, and also as faculty at a small private college for a year.

Your comment/complaint and way that you are viewing this, believe it or not, is common; I had students come in with similar commentary, and I've talked to other pple who also taught this course and they experienced the same phenomena - I suspect it is because of the high stakes (i.e. desired grade for med school, PA school, blah blah blah) and it really is a challenging course.

So here are some things I would absolutely take out of your approach, now and moving forward. Don't bring in the "this is stressful" or "this is so much work" into the discussion. It will become more difficult as you move into your professional courses at PA school or med school or whatever - and a handful of students are sent back if they haven't mastered Anatomy (to retake it at the undergrad level) - so it is course that is needed for the future and you will build on it. But anyway, you are and will be a professional, don't bring this to your prof;* I am sure you can see the reasons that you need to master this material, and yes, there is a ton of it.

The approaches that I was fine with/or preferred were the students who came in and said something along the lines of "I would like to learn this material so I can do better in the future. Here is what you gave us assigning the material (highlight your particular misunderstanding, like the word detailed or whatever.) Here is my paper, and here is paper of a colleague or colleagues who received a higher grade. I don't understand the difference." There were a few cases of - yes, wrong point assigned (after staring at the 50th paper at midnight it happens) - and in those cases, I gave the point back - or there are also cases where a student coherently does explain another way of interpreting information or how a particular point on the instructions were confusing - yes, I would also give a point back. But it was usually rare, but you could try and might be something similar in the case of your prof.

I usually took the time to go through the two papers side by side when students requested this, and there usually were differences, and I actually had a rubric and a list of things that I was looking for and I would go through this with the student - I made the rubric to minimize the arbitrariness. I suspect your prof might similarly has a rubric or list of points, or whatever, and can show you the difference.

Also, I worked with a lot of students - some took the approach of chasing every tiny point. Others took the approach of looking back at points AND working hard on the next assignment and test. I would encourage you to do the second approach. I have seen students turn around grades and do phenomenally on that last test - because they studied hard for it. Go to office hours and ask questions. Try to learn what you did not understand. If you can, get rid of the emotion for now. But I really suggest that the next test is the place to focus your energy now. My assumption is that you only have a few weeks left.

Also, if your anxiety is sky high about this (it sounds like it is), check into the policy at your current school. Some places let you take the class over and on your official transcript put an average between the two grades, or the higher grade - I don't think all schools do this, but check what the policy is. Because although it might be painful, you could take it again in the future - so this helped your learn it and next time you will know the amount of work and have learned half the material. It might reduce how anxious you are about this right now and help you focus.

Good luck.

*Do bring this to someone if something else is going on in your life (i.e. maybe you don't have access to medical care, etc.) - because I did take action and try to find resources for students who approached me with issues like this. But it meant finding resources, pointing them to places that provided free health care, not change the course material.
posted by Wolfster at 9:50 AM on November 25, 2016 [22 favorites]


Wolfster, great suggestions. Yes, I've considered the possibility of re-taking A&P a second time around if I get a C in this course. And, absolutely yes, to the *focus on upcoming exam* strategy, plus the *don't just bring up the missing points thing; reinvest in working even harder*
Your comment-
" I actually had a rubric and a list of things that I was looking for and I would go through this with the student - I made the rubric to minimize the arbitrariness. I suspect your prof might similarly has a rubric or list of points, or whatever, and can show you the difference. "
Absolutely! I wish she had such a rubric. I taught at university level last year abroad, and I attached rubrics to account for each and every single point for each and every element of the assignment. It made it much easier for me, and for my students.

So-- how do I do as you suggest, and 'take emotion out of this'? It's hard- generally I'm pretty zen, but then, when I'm upset, I am upset.
posted by erattacorrige at 10:03 AM on November 25, 2016


Ah yes, and not to threadsit but--

'Things going on in my life'-
1. just moved back from Central Asia, am transitioning to living in a rural American town
2. was diagnosed with major depression, did get meds though
3. Unable to find decent work-- living on poverty line (AGAIN)-- and no health insurance
4. truck ran a red light and totaled my car, with me in it, a month ago-- totally fucked with me for a week
5. have no friends/am generally lonely around here

And she knows about these things. But...has yet to provide helpful feedback at all whatsoever.
posted by erattacorrige at 10:09 AM on November 25, 2016


I get the impression, from her comments, that you may be overthinking the assignments, and therefore not necessarily demonstrating your knowledge of the information she's actually asking about.

Can you go in without attempting to prove anything, and just say something like, "The way I'm approaching the material is obviously not working. What do I need to change?" and then really listen to what she says? You seem really invested right now in being "right," and I think that may be getting in your way of understanding what she's actually asking for, or how she wants you to do things.
posted by lazuli at 10:15 AM on November 25, 2016 [30 favorites]


Absolutely! I wish she had such a rubric. I taught at university level last year abroad, and I attached rubrics to account for each and every single point for each and every element of the assignment. It made it much easier for me, and for my students.

My experience is in math, which is sometimes a whole different world, but when I was an undergrad, I never saw a rubric, and when I was a grad student, we didn't show students the rubric. Sometimes, if a student was asking why they got X points on a question, I'd refer to the rubric and say "well, you got 1 point for A, 1 point for B and the other three points were awarded for doing C, D and E, which you didn't do". But, frankly, sometimes the answer is "You were completely in the weeds and your answer is nothing like anything the rubric anticipated, so I tried to pick a fair score and noted it down in case someone else did the same thing."
posted by hoyland at 10:22 AM on November 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


You seem like a smart, hard-working, energetic person with a strong vision.

As you pursue your career, there will be more occasions like this, where someone in a position of authority is not helping you the way you want them to. Sometimes they don't like you. Sometimes it's just not a good fit.

Life will be a lot easier for you if you learn to handle this type of situation without framing it as a Manichean struggle.

The good news is that there will be people you click with, who will mentor you. When you find them, appreciate them!

In this particular case, you really can't badger this professor into giving you better grades by accusing her of bullying and by bringing up your life problems. That just doesn't end well.

Grades are easy to focus on, but developing any career requires soft skills - managing relationships with peers, mentors, admission committees, and one day, patients. Look at this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your patterns.

These are perhaps harsh words. They are things that I wish people told me earlier in life, but they were probably afraid to do so in person for fear of the backlash.

You've already accomplished a lot. Best of luck to you as you continue your journey!
posted by metaseeker at 10:52 AM on November 25, 2016 [16 favorites]


So-- how do I do as you suggest, and 'take emotion out of this'? It's hard- generally I'm pretty zen, but then, when I'm upset, I am upset.

I'll admit that anxiety and the importance of a particular issue can overwhelm me, too, but that aside, I'm just throwing out some ideas for you right now:

-...I've considered the possibility of re-taking A&P a second time around if I get a C in this course....Remember this, because it might help take away the importance of this right now. You can have a second shot at this if you need it. This might help you take away from why you need to do well right now. Use right now as a learning opportunity and doing the best you can, the grade can come later (a future semester if need be.)

-If you can (and I know this is hard), remind yourself of why you are there - whatever things attracted you to become a PA. Isn't the goal to treat patients? At the end of the day, knowing A&P will help you understand pathology and other specialized courses, so you can treat people. But look at what you want to learn to help patients vs. grade right now and a barrier.

-The reason that I suggested working on the next exam and assignment vs. going after all the old points, is that the anxiety (or whatever emotions you have) are already there - but instead of using it to circle and focus over and over on something you can't control - the tests you already took - use it to try to learn the new stuff. So if you can, you are using the worry over this to go a new direction.

-The isolation and all the things going on in your life right now. Here is one small thing you might be able to do right now and be able to address this in a small way. I *guarantee* there is a whole pack of students who just like you, are worried about their grades in this specific class. You mentioned that you have colleagues who have higher points on their tests, right? These are your study partners. Grab as many people as you can and go over the material. But stress facing the same enemy (the enemy is learning A&P in this time period, not the prof) can bring people together. Some of your study partners can become friends. Some of them are likely facing similar although not the same stressors (i.e. money, isolation, etc.)

-If you start getting worried again about the points right now, maybe brainstorm on what you will do to focus on this class now/or worst case, look at your other list of stressors. I would guess there are things you can do address those things, too, but probably after the semester is over.
posted by Wolfster at 10:58 AM on November 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


Learning is not just about grades - it's about learning resilience, learning to deal with disappointment, learning to make adjustments when there are roadblocks, learning to communicate effectively, learning to regulate your emotions, etc.

"stop stressing and be happy, because nobody wants an unhappy PA who knows all the facts; they'd rather have a happy PA without all the facts"

And learning about the profession beyond your studies.

I am teetering on the edge of a C in this course (have a 80% currently), and I am concerned that her bias towards grading my work will push me into a C range by the end of all this.

Does it matter? Maybe it does, I don't know how you degree is set up, but is this really important or is this just about you trying to retain control over something given that a whole bunch of things have happened to you that were outside of your control?

And she knows about these things. But...has yet to provide helpful feedback at all whatsoever.

If you're wanting someone to help you manage these events, you need to turn to student services - like it or not, your professor is there to help you learn the content and the job - student services is there for support. Some professors have a better "bedside manner" than others; that's not something you can change.

I would focus on trying to manage your health and wellbeing, and just finish the course.
posted by heyjude at 4:18 PM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


Just an aside to say that I work at a small university, and building rubrics for all of our courses has been demanded by our accrediting agency -- but it's a big damn task, and its taking some time. (The same agency accredits my town's schools, who have introduced rubrics from first to twelfth grade in the past two years. Not perfect and not total adherence yet, but still pretty amazing progress.) I have heard that some faculty resist this, and I have a suspicion that it was have a negative effect on them.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:58 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'll be blunt.

I have been in touch with the professor about my... stress associated with the course

Your professor does not care about that. Don't tell your professor things about your personal life, especially via email.

'Things going on in my life'-
1. just moved back from Central Asia, am transitioning to living in a rural American town
2. was diagnosed with major depression, did get meds though
3. Unable to find decent work-- living on poverty line (AGAIN)-- and no health insurance
4. truck ran a red light and totaled my car, with me in it, a month ago-- totally fucked with me for a week
5. have no friends/am generally lonely around here

And she knows about these things. But...has yet to provide helpful feedback at all whatsoever.


Why does she know about these things? Why did you tell her? She doesn't care. In fact, her knowing several of these things is a huge breach of your privacy and she probably feels really uncomfortable knowing these things about you. It also represents an extremely uncomfortable stepping over of the professional line. She is your teacher.

I've set up a meeting with her next week to review every last detail of my mistakes on all quizzes, exams, etc.

As a professor, this is my worst nightmare. At bare minimum I would be expecting you to nitpick every single mathematical or subjective grading error on my tests and bring it to my chair to complain about me and get me in trouble. I've lost my job for similar before.


Look, I am sure your professor does not like you, and having been in her position many times before, I am positive it is because you are asking her for too much. Helping students during class, during office hours, or very rarely during specially set-up appointments for one-on-one tutoring is one thing - notifying your professor of personal issues, and setting up appointments to go over every single grade point is another. Every time I have this sort of engagement with even one student, it takes up incredible amounts of time, to the detriment of my other students. And I have only about 100 students each semester; I can't imagine how many an A&P professor might have with those big lecture classes.

Does your school have tutors, study groups? Is there a class assistant? Do you know a fellow student who has taken and passed this class before, especially with this professor? Can you hire an outside tutor? These are all things I would suggest to my students as ways to improve their grade if they seemed to be struggling in my class.

Feel free to go ahead with the individual point review meeting, but you will not get a good or fair reception from your professor during it. She will probably be extremely defensive about it and see it as grade-grubbing. Sorry. You'd do better to completely drop the previous points lost as spilled milk (ie, unrecoverable), and instead ask her how to improve on the next assignment, and then do it.
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:07 PM on November 25, 2016 [17 favorites]


Professor here. I'll also be blunt. You have presented no evidence to support your headline accusation of bullying. That is a hella loaded term to throw down when all it really comes down to is, you don't think she likes you. It's definitely one of the worst approaches to improving your performance that you can take.

I have been on the receiving (read: grading) end of the spaghetti strategy, where I've had to read pages and pages of irrelevant information that, despite its volume, did not contain the correct answer. This is another approach you need to change. Like it or not, you are not the arbiter of assignment quality. Do not mistake quantity for quality.

Your rebuttals here also do not speak well of your openness to criticism or new approaches. I'm telling you this not to insult you, but to give you an idea of how you come across.
posted by Dashy at 7:35 PM on November 25, 2016 [15 favorites]


My guess is that the one assignment should not have been as lengthy as yours was. "As much detail as possible" and "truckload of information" are not the same thing. If I ask you what you like to order at Chipotle tell me specifically what you like to order; don't tell me the history of the company. You say several times you were docked points for answers that "weren't wrong." Just because something is not incorrect does not mean it is correct.

I got a C- on a midterm my first semester in college. Professor wrote "see me" at the top. I get to her office and before I can say hi she says, "So why'd you get a C- on the midterm?" It's not your professor's job to tell you what it is that you don't understand. If you can't articulate what you don't understand in this course, reschedule the meeting until you can.
posted by good lorneing at 8:52 PM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


@Dashy; you say, Your rebuttals here also do not speak well of your openness to criticism or new approaches. I'm telling you this not to insult you, but to give you an idea of how you come across."

Which rebuttals? And of course, how people come across via any form of text is obviously heavily influenced by those doing the reading, as much as it is about the author. I didn't find any helpful bit of information in this comment; nothing constructive or positive, helpful or guiding.

I should have mentioned before; other people in my class have observed to me that she speaks harshly to me in an inappropriate manner that she doesn't use for any other in the class. So, I'm not just imagining this.

@chainsoffreedom: I taught at a university last year; not as a TA, but as a professor with my own courses, entire rosters of students, etc etc etc. It's not like I'm unaware of what's it's like to be on the receiving end as the instructor. You say, "Why does she know about these things? Why did you tell her? She doesn't care. In fact, her knowing several of these things is a huge breach of your privacy and she probably feels really uncomfortable knowing these things about you. It also represents an extremely uncomfortable stepping over of the professional line. She is your teacher. " --But for me, when I was teaching and if some of my students were slipping behind, if they told me what was going on, I was likely to be much more understanding in terms of grading and deadlines. In fact, this saved a student from being booted out of my course. My understanding, as a young person who has gone through the university system as a student myself in the past few years has been, to inform instructors when things that are beyond your control and thus having an impact on your grades. This is what I've been instructed to do, at least, when I was an undergrad at UPenn. My main criticism of her handling this is, she had nothing helpful to say, and isn't there some kind of protocol professors are trained in when this is an issue? Like, are they trained to say, "I sympathize with your situation; have an extension, and see student services" instead of writing the student off completely? Or is that an abnormal request?

Yes, I formed the first, and only, study group in this class and have made friends. I use the tutoring center. I have many strategies for learning this material. I'm not trying to blame her for my grade; it takes two to tango. Rather, I've made concrete observations about her treatment of me and grading of my work, that have impacted me detrimentally.

@Wolfster: keeping the bigger picture in mind and knowing my options will certainly help. Thank you!

I do think, that after reading these responses, it doesn't make sense to attempt to reclaim (what I deem unfairly) deducted points, and to just forge on ahead with the remainder of the semester.
As for the bullying, which nobody can gaslight me into saying isn't happening, well, I'll just have to shore up my boundaries and cancel our next meeting where I review my work.
posted by erattacorrige at 8:34 AM on November 26, 2016


Oh, gosh. Like you, I am also a post-bac who is attempting to switch fields/disciplines by getting into allied health. Like you, I've taken a bunch of my pre-reqs at community college and others in the depressing rural location I grew up in after I had to move away from the cool place I had been working. We've had very similar trajectories and experiences, so I know from experience that this can be miserably, crushingly hard and disappointing. It really is. I've also had a professor who was a totally creepy unprofessional jerk (I asked this question about one, but certainly not the only, example of his dickishness) and another who was famously tough and a bit personally abrasive, to the point that a couple of my classmates dropped WF. I'm going to share the strategies that helped me go from a D and heated mutual animosity with Professor Dick to an A and mutual (I hope) respect with Professor Hardline. Sorry this is really long, but your dilemma was so familiar to me that I winced in a few places and I really wish I hadn't had to learn all this stuff through trial and costly embarrassing error.

1. Getting a formal accommodation for my disabilities through the college. A dx of depression is enough to get you probably quiet testing. I eventually did this for my mental health stuff (which includes depression), partially because I really did need the quiet (oh my fucking god, science students have apparently never goddamn heard of the idea of working through the entire test and then asking all of their questions at once, it's unbearable) but mostly because I wanted my professors to know that something was Officially Going On With Me. Professor Dick pretty clearly found me to be a disrespectful jerk when I missed class or sent an assignment in the incorrect file format, when those kinds of things are a pretty direct result of my disabilities. But he didn't know that, and I was too embarrassed to tell him, so we got into a mutual devolution cycle of huffy offense that culminated in him trying to kick me out with a WF and me sobbing in the disability services office. I managed to stay in the class, but our relationship never got better and I got a D anyway.

I've had better relationships with other professors because they get a formal notice from disability services that I have a disability, and that gives me the authority to tell them that part of my disability is that I'm kind of disorganized and spacey, and that I know it can seem disrespectful but I'm working on it and working hard to learn the material. I tell them, like, I understand I'll lose points for x and y but I'm still engaged in the class. They usually believe me because they know that getting accommodations through the school requires a bunch of documentation. IME, at the CC level, professors are kind of inherently distrustful of any reason/excuse a student provides as part of an ask for lenience, especially a medical condition that has no documentation.

2. Having a friend OUTSIDE the class that I made my venting buddy. Her whole job was listen to me complain about the stupid bullshit I had to do, and why it was all dumb and stupid and bullshit, and how terrible everything was, and agree profusely with me, and then gently remind me to get back to work. I've used Three Cups of Tea for this when I didn't have an actual friend available, too. Having the person be NOT a classmate is key. If you are classmates, the focus has to go back and forth between you and you end up feeling cheated of a real good venting session, or you wind each other up about how terrible your prof is. Relatedly:

3. Quitting study group with my classmates. My experience with study groups was that they involved five minutes of studying, then a segue into fifteen minutes about how hard the material was, and how mean/unfair/boring/cheesy the professor was, and how sleep-deprived we all were, then two minutes of studying, then ten minutes of complaining...The end result was that you could spend three hours "studying" and cover four topics and still be exhausted, plus you had an incorrect assessment of how much you had actually studied, plus you had all wound each other up about Your Asshole Professor. Now, I only study with people if they agree to use the pomodoro technique (25 minutes of work, 5 minutes of break, enforced with timers). Surprisingly most people can't hack it.

4. Working harder and more honestly to adjust to the culture of hard science and community colleges. I can honestly see how I came across as a smug attitude problem in my first couple of classes. My BA is in a writing-heavy humanities discipline, and I was usually one of the strongest, sometimes the strongest, student in those classes. I was used to being a really bright light and I was discouraged that I was going "backwards," and I came across as a pretentious jerk when I actually felt like a humbled failure. By the end of my first degree, I could assess my work relative to my classmates pretty accurately. In hard science? I can't. I don't know enough yet. Plus, in hard science the quality of your writing doesn't really matter. At all.

I've also found these classes to be less forgiving about deadlines and extensions. At my CC, A&P was a pre-req for the extremely competitive nursing program and professors had no incentive to let students slide, because the nursing program would come back and give them shit if their students missed deadlines and then said, "Well, Professor X always let me..." IME, professors of classes populated heavily by nursing, health, etc students are also fond of finding the deadliest, most horrifying hypothetical of a patient dying because you asked for a 48-hour extension to implant his donor heart, just like you're asking for an extension on this paper, and now little Timmy is dead, etc. I don't ask for extensions. It's better to just take the penalty than listen to the litany.

I also got a better sense of my classmates' life experience. I've had classmates who work full-time physical labor jobs and go to school. One girl was working full-time and trying to get into the nursing program after leaving the cult her parents raised her in. A bunch of guys were using GI benefits. Another lady had been taking classes at night for like two years because she couldn't afford to take time off work during the day because she was a single mom, and was now taking four labs in one semester after saving enough to take two days off from work each week. One lady had moved to the US alone with her young son and was still learning English, someone gave a presentation about their life-long struggle with drugs and mental illness. It didn't make me feel like no cloud had ever passed over my door and life was glitter and roses, but it helped me to get a little perspective and think more clearly about the resources I had that weren't available to my classmates and use those to work on my problems. I also became more watchful about how I talked about my past and our shared circumstances. I tried to never mention how redneck and janky I found some aspects of my school, because I knew how hard many of my classmates had worked to get there, and I didn't want to disparage their achievements. I also tried to cool it with talking about my last degree/former cool job/whatever because I realized my desperate attempts to show people that I was more than just a C- chemistry student were actually coming across as loud declarations that I was too good for the school.

It also helped me to recalibrate my expectations for how much hand-holding I would get from my professors. My most recent college experience had been the last two years of my undergrad, which was all small classes, two or three classes with one professor, and advising for my thesis. It was warm and supportive and collegial. Introductory science classes...are not that. It sucks, kind of! But they just aren't. Most students at a CC are in the shit in one way or another. I got a therapist and a stuffed lion for emotional support and listening to me talk about the particular shit I was in. The stuffed lion in particular really did help.

I'm finishing up my (hopefully) last class this semester, and I still feel shaky academically, but I feel much better about how I've conducted myself. Feel free to MeMail me if you need to vent or talk. You're pretty close to the end and you've got a low B. I'm sure you can push through the last couple weeks and finish strong and get a solid B. I'm rooting for you.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:09 PM on November 26, 2016 [11 favorites]


« Older "Young Lost And Witty" artist search   |   You can't predict the future, but will I regret... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.