How to deal with idiot professors
November 17, 2006 6:04 PM   Subscribe

Verbally bitchslapping a professor via email: can I get in trouble?

I wont be doing it anonymously, I am not going to lose my head, but it is going to be a brutal diss of an email and I can see myself possibly getting in trouble for writing such a 'nasty' email. (It's all relative, it isn't really that nasty). I just wondered if anyone knows if this is within my rights or can the professor unilaterally drop me from the course from one email telling her to get her act together. I am at a Canadian University.
posted by baking soda to Society & Culture (54 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If the professor is in your major, it could easily get around to the other professors in the department, and you could get a reputation you don't want. Especially since an "idiot" professor probably won't be fair in his story-telling.

Also, there's really no point to complaining to the professor when you can complain to their superior.
posted by smackfu at 6:12 PM on November 17, 2006

Oy. Yes, giving your professor a "brutal diss" of an e-mail can cause unpleasant repercussions.

I strongly counsel you not to "verbally bitchslap" someone who is in a position to influence your academic success.

If you have complaints about the way she teaches, the appropriate thing to do is to contact her department chair.

The more temperate and reasonable your tone, the more likely her boss will be to listen to you.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:15 PM on November 17, 2006

Response by poster: Yes I should add that the appeals process at this particular institution is corrupt. The chair doesn't give a crap and the dean doesn't even return emails. Hell, its the University of Guelph and I'm in Psychology.
posted by baking soda at 6:16 PM on November 17, 2006

Response by poster: And yes, I was temperate and reasonable.
posted by baking soda at 6:17 PM on November 17, 2006

Best answer: Grow up. You may think that your professor isn't acting professionally, but that in no way excuses unprofessional actions on your end. Want to be treated with respect? Then show it to others.

A "brutal diss" is not going to accomplish anything. Trying something that actually could be productive, like a formal complaint to the head of the department. [On preview: if people aren't responding to your complaints, it's possible that your complaints are not legitimate.]

And yes, you could get in trouble. My school, for instance, has entire section of the student handbook devoted to prohibitions on "assaultive speech" and lists significant consequences for related offenses.
posted by chickletworks at 6:17 PM on November 17, 2006

Consider it part of your education: Sometimes you have to put up with corrupt or incompetent superiors. It'll happen in your career, too. That's life.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:20 PM on November 17, 2006 [2 favorites]

do you really want to piss off someone who you will HAVE to deal with, at least for the duration of the course? ... is it a matter of serious ethical/moral/principled ideas?

in the course of your life you will meet many people who irritate you and some of them you will have to work with, even if they don't have their "act together"

one of the surest signs that YOU have your act together will be that you ignore the petty disturbances and irritations that people offer you and not compose poison pen letters over them
posted by pyramid termite at 6:21 PM on November 17, 2006

Response by poster: Oh, and she doesn't treat us with respect so I don't feel the need to treat her with respect. Oy vey. This is a very simple question: can professors drop you or do other nasty things to you if they get a little bit of their own medicine? Lets not over-complicate this question.
posted by baking soda at 6:21 PM on November 17, 2006

Response by poster: Please, some people have to be dealt with. Its OK people, its allowed. Its called human relations. We don't always have to lie down and take it. I am specifically asking about a specific scenario and potential specific consequences. Not about general philosophies of how to deal with people. Please give me some credit.
posted by baking soda at 6:24 PM on November 17, 2006

This is a very simple question: can professors drop you or do other nasty things to you if they get a little bit of their own medicine?

i don't know about dropping you, but other nasty things? ... sure, they can

it's not a matter of whether she respects you or you respect her

do you respect yourself enough not to get into pissing matches?
posted by pyramid termite at 6:26 PM on November 17, 2006

Don't consider your email is going to be in any way private or confidential. if I got an email such as yours it would make me seriously think about whether your complaint had basis - but if I decided it didn't, then you would be on my shit-list. And trust me, faculty gossip a lot, and their first loyalty is to each other. That professor, or their best friend, could well one day be deciding something a lot more importnat to you than a grade or wasted time in a lecture. And even if they just "have a negative connotation" and try to be professional it would likely tip the balance against you.

Can they drop you from their class: no.

Also, make sure you are in it for the long haul if you do. Don't bring a knife to a gunfight. The Professor has much, much more at stake than you do.

Having said all that, by all means, go ahead. Your use of the word "bitchslap" and "brutally diss" suggests to me that, more than likely, your the problem; you'll get your come-uppance and the world will go on.
posted by Rumple at 6:28 PM on November 17, 2006

Response by poster: OK Chickletworks, I'll check my student handbook.
posted by baking soda at 6:30 PM on November 17, 2006

I once got very upset at a professor who was making no effort to actually teach the class. The sentiment was similar throughout, so I made a web site devoted to hating on him, published it to an email sent to the entire class, and watched what happened: Boyd.

He didn't like me, but I didn't get into trouble, per se. None of it was slander.
posted by disillusioned at 6:33 PM on November 17, 2006

If you were displaying the same attitude toward the chair or dean that you are here, it isn't at all surprising that you were ignored. If you have a serious concern, speak to the dean in person - make an appointment, have notes with specific days/instances of examples, bring e-mails from the professor that you feel are inappropriate, etc. It may not be as immediately satisfying as a "bitchslap" or "brutal diss", but I assume you're not just looking for immediate satisfaction, right? Right?
posted by brozek at 6:33 PM on November 17, 2006

Response by poster: brozek, I kind of have no choice but immediate satisfaction, I've been there done that with following the official policies: it takes all semester. I am at the end of the semester, I only really have time for a bitchslap. Ah, good times... I ain't mad at ya Mefi
posted by baking soda at 6:36 PM on November 17, 2006

If you were displaying the same attitude toward the chair or dean that you are here, it isn't at all surprising that you were ignored.

Seconded. You're coming off here as petulant and combative (not to mention running your mouth -- really, it's considered bad form to moderate your thread like this), which will likely obscure even the most valid complaints. Consult your dean or advisor (or even a student representative?) as to your appropriate next steps -- and listen as much (if not more) than you talk. Even if you don't get dropped by sending a "bitchslap" to your prof, you will likely gain no meaningful long-term satisfaction from it, and it will be wholly out of your control in terms of the ramifications it could unleash for you (you might get a reputation as a troublemaker or worse among other profs or administrators who otherwise wouldn't have had anything against you; you could get brought up on harassment charges, depending on your university's particular code of conduct, etc.).
posted by scody at 6:42 PM on November 17, 2006

Man, whether or not the people you're dealing with deserve to be "brutally bitch-slapped", you're planning to do something very stupid. Can she fail you for being an asshole over email? No, and if she does, you can complain to the administration and will have a good case. Is there a decent chance that she'll be more critical of your work, may tell other professors in the department what an asshole you are [which may have repercussions if you try to take other classes in the dept., go to grad school/etc.], etc.? Certainly, and as long as she's harsh but her grading decisions could conceiveably be justified by your performance, you'll be stuck with the results - both the grade and the bad reputation. If your "bitchslap" is as tactful and well-thought-out as everything you've said here, it's not impossible you could get accused of something along the lines of harassment. Furthermore, you'll almost certainly piss her off, ensuring that any valid points you have will be ignored.

By behaving unprofessionally, you guarantee that you'll be treated that way - quite possibly not just by her, but by others. You erode any sympathy that others might have for your situation - and I do find it hard to believe that there's not a single person in your University who could help you find other ways to deal with your problem [and other ways do exist.] You're going to have to deal with people who're incompetent, who're assholes, who're just plain dumb your whole life; if your response is like this, you'll cause a lot of unnecessary trouble for yourself and probably generally fail to achieve what you're trying to do with your "bitchslaps." There's a middle ground between "bitchslaps" and "lying down and taking it," but it takes tact - you might want to look into learning some of that.

By the way: you're also wrong about official policies. Yes, they take time, but if you actually have a case, and this is going to affect your grade, administrations can change things retroactively.
posted by ubersturm at 6:43 PM on November 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: yeah scody, I may not have the Mefiquette down, sorry if I've rubbed anyone the wrong way, but fuck, what you gonna do. Sometimes thinks arent all roses and moonbeams...
posted by baking soda at 6:46 PM on November 17, 2006

If the chair of the dept. doesn't give a crap, go higher. Talk to the fuckin' president if you need to. If the Dean of Students doesn't answer emails, show up at their door and/or talk to their secretary and make an appointment. See if there's an Ombudsman. Talk to your advisor and ask him what to do. Talk to a teacher you respect and ask them what to do. Talk to the chair of a related department. You do have options other than suffering through it, and just about every single one of these options is more likely to result in the changes you want than sending a verbal bitchslap to your professor. Sure, things aren't "always roses and moonbeams," but behaving like a spoiled idiot isn't going to change that; from this side of the screen, it really looks like your attitude is probably part of the problem.
posted by ubersturm at 6:52 PM on November 17, 2006

but fuck, what you gonna do.

be mature.

Steven C. Den Beste said it best above - in the real world, you deal with ineffective and incompetent superiors. It happens. Consider it a learning experience and handle it with grace.
posted by AthenaPolias at 6:53 PM on November 17, 2006

Good to see that you marked chicklet's answer as "best" - I assume that means you aren't sending it. That is a mature decision.

When I'm in this situation, I write the email and send it to myself, or a dummy account, or a friend of mine. Usually, the writing process is cathartic enough. But you've probably heard all that crap already.
posted by rossination at 6:54 PM on November 17, 2006

Let me rephrase your question:

I want to harass my professor by email. Can I get in trouble for this?

Of course you can, dumbass. Serious trouble with your university, and possibly even legal trouble.

Let me also offer you my personal assurance as a professor:

What you think of as a brutal diss will go into her file of amusing crap that students write, and she will share it with her friends as an example of what stupid jackasses students at Guelph can be. Every spelling error, misplaced comma, and grammatical error will provoke howls of laughter from her and her dinner companions. If she were the kind of person whose tender feelings would be oh so injured by whatever you might write, she would have left the discipline years ago.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:55 PM on November 17, 2006 [5 favorites]

You can't even work a fucking apostrophe. This "brutal diss" is going to be ridiculous, is going to confirm your reputation as a retard and will make your life harder.
posted by bonaldi at 7:03 PM on November 17, 2006 [6 favorites]

Why not wait until the end of the semester? While you say that "some people have to be dealt with", are you prepared for those people to deal with you? Like giving you a worse grade than you might have received? If you were talking about a math course, this would be difficult, but not with psychology; also, by sending a "brutal diss" email, you just leave a paper trail on your "bad attitude" that's how it will be interpreted if you try to challenge a bad grade).

Wait until your grade is finalized; that's actually better, if you want to "bitchslap" them: then they'll have to realize that their opportunity to mess your grade up is over. (That said, this is an unwinnable battle, especially as I don't see this as a legitamite gripe...)
posted by sfkiddo at 7:05 PM on November 17, 2006

Okay. Stop and take a deep breath and figure out what the real problem is. If you're going to start complaining, you have to do more than say that you don't like your instructor. Your complaint must be solid and justifiable but you haven't given any justification here (which you may not want to do, given that AskMe is public).

It's most likely "within your rights" to send an instructor a nasty email; however, this course of action is not a wise one. There are appropriate fora for your complaints and appropriate ways to appeal.

Most common complaints at this time of the year generally involve a student who is unhappy with a grade (term paper, midterm, etc). At every university I've attended, students are asked to contact their instructor in the first instance. The appropriate way to do this is to write an email explaining that you were not expecting such a result for a list of justifiable reasons. Then ask for a meeting where the result can be explained. In my experience, things generally can be resolved at this level, even with seemingly unreasonable instructors. If, after this, you're still not happy, you should then go through other channels of appeal. These should be detailed in your university calendar.

If your complaint tends more to a personality conflict, STFU and get through the rest of the semester. It's probably too late to withdraw and you seem concerned that the instructor could kick you out, so I'm guessing that this is a course you need for your program. You don't want a pissed off instructor marking your exam--while s/he'll most likely be fair, s/he'll be unlikely to cut you any breaks or take extra time to read illegible writing. Her grading can thus be regarded as tough but--and this is the important part--fair, making it very difficult to appeal. This can be disastrous if you're hovering around a grade cutoff point. Telling off your instructor may be satisfying, but it's probably not worth winding up with a C+ instead of a B- (or B+ instead of an A-).

On preview - it looks like your complaint is more of the personality conflict variety. You only have another couple of weeks with this instructor. That's it. And, I'm guessing that you In this instance, I'm not sure that complaining will help at all. If you are still convinced that you should complain (and, of course, there are instances where this is very appropriate--I was in an advanced calculus course where the instructor basically spat at us, refused to acknowledge questions, and taught by writing out the textbook. It was his last semester teaching, he'd had enough and was actively trying to get his teaching taken away from him.), Students' Unions generally tend to have academic advisors or an ombudservice to help students with their cases.
posted by lumiere at 7:08 PM on November 17, 2006

Every spelling error, misplaced comma, and grammatical error will provoke howls of laughter from her and her dinner companions.

Heh. My sister is a professor, and I assure you this is absolutely true. To this day, the name of one of her former students (a perpetual complainer and shirker, convinced of his own brilliance) is a punchline among a number of family members and colleagues, in large part due to an inadvertantly hilarious "bitchslap" he felt the need to send her.

Oh, and also: he couldn't get anyone to agree to be his senior thesis advisor after he pulled that stunt with my sister, and so he had to graduate without honors. So again, unless you're really up for reaping what you sow, you may want to rethink your plan.
posted by scody at 7:10 PM on November 17, 2006

You didn't read your student handbook before asking Metafilter what your college's policy is about dropping students from courses?

Aside from that, if you plan to do further study in any academic field related to what this professor teaches, odds are she is going to be asked about you, whether for a formal recommendation or informally. She'll get you there.
posted by nowonmai at 7:13 PM on November 17, 2006

I have to echo scody's comment - I've known (and been related to) several professors and supervisors who have former students whose mere names are now punchlines in their social circles.

Sometimes it's important to realize your spot on the totem pole - LOW - and act accordingly. If you're lucky, it'll be your turn to be the higher-up one day, and you can karmically diss this prof, and people like him, by NOT acting as they have.
posted by AthenaPolias at 7:15 PM on November 17, 2006

Response by poster: Here's the email I was going to send for your entertainment. (I've decided that my approach isn't going to be wise, I'm just going to have to meet with her and try to get what I can without going on the attack.) In exchange for posting this: bitches please: If you harp on punctuation you don't understand grammar. Punctuation harping is the last refuge of the unimaginative. Damn, it's easy to get a Mefites' panties in a bunch.

Hi professor, I am sorry you are having a hard time with group 15, but it works 2 ways: we are having a hard time as well. Before posting any questions I asked you for clarification about this assignment:

"I can understand your point. In real life diagnosis is a serious and demanding task. However in this assignment, it's surprising how accurately students are able to diagnose by the end of their five questions. Keep thinking of which questions it's important to ask.

< replied to message below>>>
Authored by: baking soda
Authored on: Nov 10, 2006 5:18:32 PM
Subject: case study

I'm just looking at the diagnosis decision trees on the dsm and its occurring to me how sketchy it would be to make a diagnosis of even one disorder in only 5 questions let alone a complete rundown of anything that may be going on with the subject. So my question then is how realistic is this case study expected to be? Are we supposed to follow the official diagnosis procedures (which i think is impossible in 5 questions) and write an official diagnosis? Are we supposed to say that we cant make any diagnosis due to lack of information, or do we just throw out the manual and say 'well we're just going to diagnose person x with antisocial personality disorder because there was mention that he didnt get along with people'. I'm confused I guess about what is expected for this assignment!"


To be candid I didnt get anything from your answer that I could use. I wasnt trying to make a point, i was trying to ask you questions relevant to this assignment. Moving on...

"Naturally you cannot ask "give me a diagnosis" (which isn't even a question). You can ask about his medical conditions and I will give you all the information that I have. If you ask a question that I do not have an answer for, or if you ask a poorly phrased question, I will ask you to 'try again' and that question will not count.
However, my best advice to you group 15, is to get moving. This group has only a small fraction of the posts that most other groups have. You won't have time for any 'try again' questions if you don't work harder and faster.
Good luck.

< replied to message below>>>
Authored by: baking soda
Authored on: Nov 12, 2006 5:41:04 PM
Subject: question for moderator

with the 5 question limit i cant see how without asking 'double-barrel' or non-broad questions we could get not only diagnoses but rule out other things in the dsm. i know if there isnt any info to provide we get to ask another question, but are there 'illegal' questions? could i just ask: give me a diagnosis? if i asked that kind of question and it werent allowed would i get to ask a different question? can i ask 'does he have any medical conditions?' to straighten out axis 3? would you answer that with 'yes', or would you elaborate? how forthcoming are you going to be with information? are our questions going to have to be very legalistic?"


Again your answers are poor and frankly misleading. I specifically asked you if there were illegal questions and you simply said my example of an illegal question wasnt really a question. So then we ask a question and all of a sudden we've used up our 1 grace question. Show me where it says in the instructions about getting 1 grace question. I specifically asked you about this beforehand...
I specifically asked if we could ask if he had medical conditions to cover axis 3. this is not being lazy, this is trying to ask efficient questions. You accepted this question. Great. So we asked the next blanket question and you tell us we dont understand this assignment. It should be clear by now that this is not our fault. The instructions are not clear and we can only attempt to ask you for clarification so many times before we just have to move ahead and try something. The only help we get from you is 'work harder' 'you can do better than this' 'you need to work faster'. Why dont you read our posts before making these patronizing comments and see where we are going wrong and try to help us. I have received undeservedly atrocious marks on everything so far in this class and here yet again i am working my ass off trying to carry this group to completing this poorly explained assignment and from your comments it is clear that i must be wasting my time yet again because from your perspective we all appear to be a bunch of jokers. If you think i am putting 'very little thought and effort' into this assignment then no doubt you will find it hard to comprehend that I would like to meet with you ASAP to straighten this out and get satisfactory instructions on the parameters for this assignment finally which should ensure that there are no more asinine comments from you in our conference about how dumb we all must be.

baking soda
posted by baking soda at 7:20 PM on November 17, 2006

Save your comments for the course evaluation form. They're probably read by others. The email will only be read by your prof and those s/he sends it to.

I'm really not sure what good all this could do. If your prof didn't see your point in your more professional explanation of whatever's bothering you, surely s/he'll just blow off or delete your nasty email (best case) or claim it's inappropriate and pursue disciplinary action (worst case).
posted by salvia at 7:24 PM on November 17, 2006

heheh. have fun digging your own grave!
posted by AthenaPolias at 7:24 PM on November 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Shoulda previewed, sorry.

Seems to me you should just kinda sorta do what she asks instead of critiquing the assignment and her well-meaning, if not perfect, attempts to point you in the right direction.
posted by salvia at 7:27 PM on November 17, 2006

ah ... i see what the problem is now ... she's actually expecting you to THINK about a problem and to boil it down to five questions that would be well suited to getting good information about the problem

don't bother sending your email ... it's not really disrespectful, but the bottom line is, if you're not the kind of person who's willing to think, and think hard about what she's trying to get you to do, then you'll get little benefit from her class and have no business being in it

step up or step down ... your choice

ps ... when you get a job, your employer may well expect you to do the same kind of thing ... and if you can't do it, you'll be replaced with someone who can ... that's real life ... get used to it
posted by pyramid termite at 7:33 PM on November 17, 2006

Oh please send that. Please.

"it works 2 ways". Really? This is how you lodge a complaint? In text speak? On top of a cobbled-together top-posted thread? You fuckwit. And you're going to be a doctor a college dropout? coo ur.

As for punctuation: you're attempting to put across your concerns about the professor and what she's teaching, but you come across as a muddled mess, because you can't use paragraphs or structure your text. The lack of structure reflects on your mind, poorly.
posted by bonaldi at 7:42 PM on November 17, 2006

It is possible (but unlikely, IMO) that your professor's reponse was unhelpful. You, however, are rude and unprofessional, which is much worse. Good job for deciding not to send it.

Furthermore, from what I can gather from your e-mail conversation, you are being a complete baby regarding your assignment. You're supposed to ask 5 questions, the answers to which hopefully lead you to a proper diagnosis. However, you want to ask "What is the diagnosis?"??? Can you seriously not see how that is missing the ENTIRE point of the assignment?

Follow your prof's advice and work harder. If you spent as much time thinking critically about the assignment as you did writing the e-mail and writing to AskMe then you would probably be done by now.
posted by gatorae at 7:43 PM on November 17, 2006

Really good choice not to send that e-mail.
posted by pointilist at 7:53 PM on November 17, 2006

We don't always have to lie down and take it.

That would be an admirable sentiment if you had been proposing to march yourself down to her office and lodge your complaint to her face, instead of sending a bitchy and poorly-written e-mail. I'm glad to see that you marked "Grow up" as best answer; but it should be added that when you do have a valid complaint in the future, e-mail is for the passive-aggressive. Don't be that guy.
posted by cribcage at 8:00 PM on November 17, 2006

Seconding everyone else who says it was a good idea not to send that email.

From the exchange you've shown us, it sounds like your prof is being pretty reasonable. The assignment is meant to check if you can come up with a series of questions that will get you the most important information for making a diagnosis. Probably there isn't a single set of questions she's after, and probably if your questions get you only enough information to narrow it down to a couple of likely diagnoses that will still be okay as long as you are going through a reasonable thought process based on the material you covered in the course. Your replies to her come across here as criticizing the assignment so that you don't have to work on it. (You say that's not your intention -- but recognize that it can come across that way in writing. This is a reason it might be quite useful to meet with her in person for clarification, if you're able to do so in a civil and professional way. You'll avoid her misinterpreting your email questions.)

Even if she were being a jerk, it is never, never, never a good idea to tell off a superior -- especially not in writing. Others above are exactly right that you wouldn't be giving her a "diss", "bitchslap" or "taste of her own medicine". You are just not in a position to put her down; she is not your peer. Getting wound up and saying nasty things to her can only be bad for you. You would be making yourself look either foolish, arrogant and immature (at best) or threateningly crazy (at worst). The best course is to explain in completely calm terms what your complaint is, and then if that doesn't get results, go up the chain of command remaining calm and documenting everything.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:14 PM on November 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this is the kind of complaint I get from time to time from students who fundamentally don't get the point of the exercise. It's exceedingly frustrating to deal with, since a lot of the time it's these students who have the greatest apparent sense of entitlement while showing poor performance on other assignments at the same time.

At the same time, I'm sure it's also exceedingly frustrating to be in your position. If you want helpful advice, here you go: realize that you're not getting something fundamental about this and approach the prof with that in mind -- It's obvious that I'm missing the point here, so can you please tell me what the goal here is so that I can move ahead? But also recognize that this is a really hard problem to deal with from a professor's point of view, so she's probably going to be testy and exasperated.

Otherwise, it's very far into the realm of complaints that I would flatly ignore if other students were getting it. If other groups are getting it, then I would think the problem is yours and not the assignment's.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:23 PM on November 17, 2006

If you do decide to "verbally bitchslap" someone via e-mail in the future, you might want to shorten the e-mail. That wasn't a slap, it was a caress. If she's like me, she'll give up reading halfway through.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:23 PM on November 17, 2006 [2 favorites]

Baking Soda - your whole series of posts here make you look a total idiot. Try to realise your "bitchslap" plan is childish and pointless, drop your class if you can't manage the work, and grow up.
posted by anadem at 8:48 PM on November 17, 2006

I was actually a little sympathetic to you before, because Lord knows there are some professors out there with attitude problems, and some who can't teach. And some with both attributes.

But seriously. She is asking you to engage in some critical thinking, and using a version of the Socratic method to do so. And then this: "Group 15". If she is doing 15 groups of this (and maybe more) then she is going way beyond the call of duty. Maybe not perfectly, but she appears to really be trying. Do the same.

And if she is being a little abrupt then it is quite possible that 1. she is as tired at the end of term as everyone is and 2. the other 14 groups are doing the assignment in good faith and an open mind, and so she has a basis for comparison. There might be 14 groups of students who get it and one group of students who don't. And its a truism in professorland that the bottom 10% of the students take up 90% of your time to almost no ultimate benefit. That gets frustrating.
posted by Rumple at 8:58 PM on November 17, 2006

I have been teaching in higher education for more than ten years. I have a fair number of writing assignments in my classes and have noticed an odd trend. Each term there is a student - always exactly one - who writes about the assignments rather than doing the assignments. They seem unable to resist the impulse to get all meta on me. I find it irritating and unhelpful. I want to email them and say, "Give me a break. Stop reading so much into it. We're not curing cancer here. Just shut the fuck up and do the work." But of course I would never say that.

The impulse to strike out and someone who is frustrating you is normal, but it won't help you or your instructor. Most instructors are not out to confuse you or make your life miserable. As I do with the students who I feel are just being whiny weasels, I would ask you to pause and consider the instructor's humanity and the negative impact of spewing more poison into the world. I try to assume the best of my students (as I hope they do for me), look for merit in their comments and gently directly them back to the goal of the assignment.
posted by orsonet at 9:11 PM on November 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh man... I recognize the game you're playing with your professor because in my brattier years I played it too. (We're talking fifth, maybe sixth grade here, but nevermind.)

Having had problems with this professor all semester, you've decided to retaliate by taking issue with her work. So you attack her assignment, coming up with all sorts of ways in which it's flawed, telling her that you'd do the work-- naturally!-- but she's just such a bad teacher that she's made it impossible for you to do so. Oh noes!

Come on. Did you really think she was going to do say, "Oh my god, you're right! I've left a big gaping hole in the assignment-- I didn't consider that people could just ask what the diagnosis should be! Not only that, but-- gee, I'm dumb!-- it's not actually possible to make a diagnosis in five questions. I've been owned!" Please.

Quit making excuses and quit picking fights with your professor. Play along with the assignment (which is so straightforward that I'm positive I, someone who's never taken a psychology course, could ace it) and just get your damn work done.
posted by chickletworks at 9:31 PM on November 17, 2006

I don't want to pile on here, but after reading that unsent email, I have to agree that it doesn't make the student look very good at all. At best, an email like that might get ignored; at worst, it could certainly irritate even the most well-meaning teacher. Without knowing any of the specifics of the course or assignment, it sounds like a student who has lost all pretense of good-faith interest in learning and simply decided to become a pain in the teacher's ass. This situation has probably miscarried too far for this advice to work anymore, but I'd say the most important thing is still to focus on what you can learn from the assignment, not on the grade, or what the teacher thinks of you, or any other outcome.

The assignment is not even that dumb-seeming. It looks to me like the assignment is asking not just for a final, correct diagnosis but for a well-thought-out process of inquiry leading up to that, a sign that you understand the subject and have considered your approach to it. For whatever reason (my guess is out of frustration with not fully understanding the material, and the feeling of impending failure), you've focused on the outcome, the judgment of your performance, and lost sight of the performance itself: the material, the discipline, whatever else you can still learn from the class.

I notice a lot of defensiveness, a common trait of failed classroom interactions, in the email: the instructor's exhortation to "work harder and faster" has been misunderstood as saying the students are "being lazy" and "how dumb we all must be." While this was not the most tactful way for the instructor to put it, you should consider that (a) it's a purely factual statement that your group hasn't produced as much as the others, and (b) this might be a warning that your approach isn't working. Notice that being asked to work harder, even if it's unhelpful, is not the same as being called stupid or lazy; it's purely a matter of your observed performance, not an attribution of some intrinsic failing of character. (A psychology student might want to reflect on this difference.)

If the implied judgment of what you're doing rankles, try doing something different.
posted by RogerB at 10:40 PM on November 17, 2006

I have a psych degree (I'm in the UK) and all you were being asked, to my mind, in the original question you have a problem with was to demonstrate your understanding of the axial system of the DSM-IV (five axes, hence five questions, so you should be able to give a reasonably accurate summary of a patient's situation, although probably not a diagnosis). Your professor is frustrated with you because you're just not "getting" what he's asking for - OK, the assignment could have been worded better, maybe she's a bit brusque with people or not that great as a teacher, but at this level you really should be reading questions and thinking to yourself "what have we covered and how could this question relate to what we have done?". The difference between a mediocre degree and an excellent one is basic things like that - the willingness and ability to think critically and dig deeper. You're coming across as if you're expecting all the work to be done for you.

If the professor isn't a nice person, tough. You want to make a point? Tough. You're not even in the food chain - she's a professor (I'm not sure what this means in Canadian terms, since in the UK a professor is pretty damn high up, but even if she's a bog-standard lecturer she is MUCH more qualified than you) and you're an undergrad. She's likely reading your emails aloud to colleagues while they all have a good laugh. Suck it up. If you have questions, ask them in an intelligent way and it's more than likely you'll get an intelligent answer.

If you harp on punctuation you don't understand grammar.

posted by terrynutkins at 1:12 AM on November 18, 2006

If you have questions, ask them in an intelligent way and it's more than likely you'll get an intelligent answer.

Baking Soda’s asking direct questions, clearly put, in those emails. The professor’s answers substantially ignore those direct questions. If the professor interacts like that face-to-face, it doesn’t seem likely that Baking Soda will get an intelligent answer.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 2:18 AM on November 18, 2006

Thanks to the magic of backup disks, I have a letter I sent to a professor in 1997. Watch and learn, son.
Professor ___:

I am writing in regards to my grade on the second analytical paper in PS145.

As you noted in your comments, my grade of C+ was determined on the basis that my answer to the question was half complete because I focused merely on Wilson’s policy solutions rather than analysis of the problem itself. However, it was never clear to me that I was to incorporate both his policy solutions and an analysis of the problem into the essay. The assignment asked for “a review essay of William Julius Wilson's book.” In class, you explained that it was nearly impossible to cover all the strengths and weaknesses of Wilson’s book in five to seven pages, and that we should focus on specific yet expansive issues within the book.

After reading the book I felt that I had strong issues with the way that Wilson prepared his policy proposals. On the flipside, I primarily agreed with the way that Wilson set up his argument as to the structure and nature of the “new urban poverty.” Since I had a limited framework in which to express my opinions about the book, I chose to concentrate my argument on attacking the policy solutions rather than commending his setting up of the argument.

I agree with your criticism to the extent that I did not adequately summarize the argument of the book in the paragraph or two that is customary in an analytical paper. However, I disagree that my analysis should have been split evenly between the framework and the policy proposals. I feel that I wrote what was asked of me – a critique of the book focusing on specific areas of Wilson’s argument.

We both seem to agree, given the final comments, that the paper as written was structurally sound and presented a convincing argument. Therefore, I feel that my interpretation of the assignment as written and explained in class is the sole contributor toward my grade on the paper. I would sincerely appreciate any consideration you would be able to give toward changing my grade or consulting with me as to how I could rewrite the paper to satisfy the assignment.

Respectfully yours,
(postscript: he bumped me to a B-, not because he agreed with me, but because I wrote such a nice letter. See? Build your bridges, don't burn 'em. Life is too short, college is even shorter.)
posted by Saucy Intruder at 2:29 AM on November 18, 2006 [2 favorites]

I just wondered if anyone knows if this is within my rights or can the professor unilaterally drop me from the course from one email telling her to get her act together.

All teachers try to give you the benefit of the doubt when marking. If you have already been receiving "atrocious marks on everything so far in this class", then removing that doubt might push your marks down even lower - possibly low enough to fail you.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 7:21 AM on November 18, 2006

Baking soda --

You come off as a real ass in that e-mail, not to mention dumb and pointlessly hostile. I am not saying this to hurt your feelings, but I think you are sorely lacking in insight into yourself. Your professor comes across as competent, professional, patient, and encouraging. I spent several years teaching undergraduates and your message reveals that you're the one in the wrong here. You have shown, in your series of comments, that you assume that if you "don't get" something, it must be someone else's fault. Wrong. School exists to challenge you and force you to stretch yourself --- that's obviously what your professor is trying to do.

You want to know what an incompetent professor would have done? Just not responded to your e-mails.

This proposed letter, if you had sent it, would have been a perfect example of how the most ignorant students can, paradoxically, be the biggest know-it-alls in the class. These comments you had in your draft are just priceless. Had you sent it, I assure you your message would have been passed around, and there would have been much hooting and hollering in the faculty lounge.

... your answers are poor and frankly misleading. [You're in the class to be taught by her, yet you critique her answers as "poor"? Who's grading whom, here?]

Why dont you read our posts before making these patronizing comments ... [You mistake patient encouragement for patronization. I'm afraid there's no help for you.]

I have received undeservedly atrocious marks on everything so far in this class ... [This is the arrogance of the poor student; as if you know whether your marks are deserved or not. If you are already an expert, why are you in the class?]

and here yet again i am working my ass off ... [Charming, professional language.]

trying to carry this group to completing this poorly explained assignment [My guess is that, rather than "carrying" the group, you are actually dragging your group down, and they are deeply irritated by your know-nothing arrogance.]

... which should ensure that there are no more asinine comments from you ... [Once again, if you interpret your professor's e-mails above as "asinine comments," I think you should just drop out of college, at least until you grow up or work out your problems. It's not the place for you.]
posted by jayder at 7:22 AM on November 18, 2006

Teaching staff know that undergraduate years are a time for students to grow and develop. They are generally appreciative of the way people change, and only laugh a little, and kindly, at the mistakes of the past. You can make some awful blunders, and through the tolerance of members of staff come to no great harm.

However, it is well worth demonstrating how you have developed into a trustworthy professional in good time before you start job-hunting. There are more damaging things than a poor grade.
posted by Idcoytco at 11:39 AM on November 18, 2006

baking soda, in case you are still reading this thread, I will try to help you (without calling you names).

In answer to your original question: whether you can be dropped from the course or not will depend on your university's policies. You can almost certainly, however, "get in trouble" in a myriad of short-term and long-term ways by sending a combative email to a professor.

In response to the email draft that you posted: I may be able to translate the professorspeak.

It looks to me like your professor is trying to give you help on the assignment, and indirectly answer your questions, when she writes that "it's surprising how accurately students are able to diagnose by the end of their five questions." She seems to be suggesting that if you and your group concentrate on doing the assignment, you may surprise yourself with how well it goes. There is also, if I am not mistaken, a hint that there is a range of "accuracy" with which one can score well on the assignment. Note that she didn't say "it's surprising how many students make the accurate diagnosis"--she said "it's surprising how accurately students are able to diagnose." That suggests that her assessment of your performance on the assignment will not be black-and-white, right-or-wrong. I may be mistaken, because I do not know the parameters of the assignment, but it certainly sounds from her email as if the objective is to show the thought you've put into the questions and land within a range of the target diagnosis, not to get THE diagnosis.

Her answers and non-answers to your questions likewise seem to be trying to lead you away from your own black-and-white thinking about the assignment. You are treating it as a game in which there are, or should be, rigid rules--legal and illegal questions, a set number of "retries" and "grace questions." If this professor is anything like me, she views the assignment as an open arena in which you have great latitude for creativity and critical thinking in order to demonstrate what you've learned from the course, and she, as the judge or referee over what happens in that arena, wants to retain some flexibility over how she responds to what she sees. She is refusing to adopt your black-and-white terms partly because she does not want to get bogged down in endless bargaining over the "rules" and whether you have satisfied them or not. Try to think of this as an advantage to you and your group: rather than being afraid that she will use that flexibility against you, try to trust that she will use that flexibility in your best interests. I can't speak for the professor and her plans, but just for example, if you and your group show through your questions (not just by saying "we're trying really hard") that you are really making an effort on the assignment, but struggling with it, she may use her flexibility to give you more "retries" than you would have earned under your own black-and-white rule system.

She is also, however, being very firm in maintaining her "shades of gray" view of the assignment because the "shades of gray" view reflects a higher level of complexity in understanding--which is entirely appropriate to a professor in the field. Your email above looks like an email from somebody who is putting a lot of energy into raging against the gray and demanding black and white. I don't know whether this analogy will help you at all, but the gist of it is, you will probably get along better with the assignment if you trust the professor to exercise her professional judgment; trust that if you do not ask unreasonable questions (I think you understand that asking for the diagnosis is unreasonable) she will not penalize you unreasonably.

To reiterate the reassurance above: Unless the assignment says something quite different from what the professor has suggested in email, most likely you do not need to be anxious about getting the 100% exact right diagnosis; answers within a plausible range will score well. Take an honest try at the assignment and see how it goes. If the professor has office hours, you could try visiting with her and asking whether she can show you examples of successful sets of five questions from previous versions of the assignment. Or ask whether you can give a sample of the types of questions you plan on asking, and get her to give a critique of the questions themselves, without saying the answers you would get. That may give you a better idea of how to proceed than any black-and-white rules you might be trying to extract from her.

I am a university instructor, but not your university instructor.

Good luck in your class.
posted by Orinda at 11:54 AM on November 18, 2006 [7 favorites]

Orinda, that is a beautifully helpful and insightful comment. I also believe the professor is trying to teach real-world thinking skills, suitable for a "gray" topic like psychology. They can be challenging for students. I give my 2nd year students a take-home assignment to produce a research proposal on x -- most of them can do very well once they a. figure out there is no single correct answer and b. it is up to each of them to produce both question (topic) and answer (proposed methods and approach). I am not saying this is a great assignment or anything, but I have seen many students stumble because they are locked into an ingestion-regurgitation cycle, a sort of mental bulimia that they find comforting.

I dated a psychology prof for several years. She was always on the lookout for excessively rigid thinking which is not amenable to the requirements of the discipline. Indeed, an email such as this would have automatically eliminated the student from any possibility of graduate school or research assistanships in her field (clinical psych.) at least. Not because of what is said, but how it is said -- the email suggests personality traits that contraindicate working with distressed people . How you communicate matters in psychology -- and the real world -- as I imagine the OP is now quite sharply aware.
posted by Rumple at 12:10 PM on November 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Mod note: ok ok folks, no needto start cracking with the wise just b/c this thread is a bit of a trainwreck. email or metatalk are fine for joking and poking.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:03 PM on November 18, 2006

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