Although she had been years out of college, herself, Cheryl supportively followed my blog and she was definitive in her agreement that students need communication skills to empower themselves. In Cheryl's honor, today's post seems extremely fitting because it is, indeed, about empowerment. I'm responding to a student question again (Keep them coming!). This was a complex and sensitive issue and I asked the author if I could retool the question to help other students. I was given permission, so here goes...)
Dear Professor Bremen:
My classmates and I have had issues with a professor all semester. This professor behaves in an unprofessional manner, speaks about inappropriate activities outside of class, issues with other professors and students (anonymously, but enough where we can figure it out). The professor became very angry when the class didn't complete a recent assignment. My classmates and I feel as though this behavior is unprofessional and unacceptable.
Before I get to my response, I will say... wow, this is a hard situation! Many students have experienced a professor who was downright unprofessional, and the experience is disheartening on so many levels: First of all, students feel powerless to do anything about the problem, or they don't feel like they have the right to speak up. Secondly, students can become stunted in their learning due to anger, frustration, fear, or just feeling uneasy in the class. Naturally, this can have an extreme impact on grades. I am glad the student reached out. Here is my response:
Thank you so much for writing and I'm going to give you the most thoughtful advice that I can. I am very sorry that you and your classmates are going through this.
In most cases with student-professor disputes, if you go to the department/division chair before seeing the professor personally, the department/division chair will typically say, "Have you gone to the professor about this?"
In this particular case, because of the prof's continued reference to questionable outside activities, I'm concerned about a one-on-one meeting to discuss the issues. Really, all three of the issues you mention are more "behavioral" than "procedural" i.e., the inappropriate disclosures, talking about other profs and students, and the extreme reaction over the incomplete work. Given that, this is above the "go see your prof and hash it out" type of conversation. A third party makes total sense.
The first thing I would do is make an appointment with the department/division chair. You can have your classmates do the same, but do it individually. Often, students will complain, "Everyone feels this way" and the argument is much stronger with a number of singular voices.
I would say, "I am extremely concerned about my experience in Professor Jones' class this semester. I am not typically a student who complains. I have not spoken with Professor Jones directly because of the nature of these concerns. I feel that if I am to go to Professor Jones, I could use some advice about how to discuss these issues and I'm hoping you can help me."
Based on what you've described, I'd actually want a third party there whenever you meet with the prof. If you feel this way, you can say, "If I am going to meet with Professor Jones and discuss these concerns, I'd prefer to have a third party present." Chances are, the situation is one that the chair will respond to without you being there. That would be my guess.
Then, be very specific about your concerns:
"I have three issues that have become a pattern this semester. First, the professor makes continued references to inappropriate outside activity, which is uncomfortable. Second, the professor is publicly disclosing issues with other students and professors. While this is meant to be anonymous, we can figure out who the professor is talking about. Finally, the professor was very angry when our class did not finish an assignment. I can see why this would be upsetting to the professor, but the way it was communicated seemed extreme."
I think it is critical for yourself and the other students to not let this problem go. The chair is not going to know that there is an issue, and the professor will not get the help that is obviously needed. Also, your semester is not finished yet. Negativity can spiral out of control with a poor classroom dynamic, and this can unnecessarily affect grades. We don't want that.
Speaking of which, two other notes:
-You are within your rights to request a follow-up meeting with the chair so the matter doesn't just "fade away." You won't be privy to their discussion with the professor, but you should get some assurances of what the next steps are for your class. I would ask, "What do you recommend in terms of my following up with you about this situation?"
-If the chair does not respond to your concerns in a way that is satisfactory or comfortable for you (I don't anticipate this will happen, but we shouldn't ignore the possibility), you do have other options: You can contact your school's counseling services office and tell them what is going on. They would have responsibility to follow up with the chair or the dean. Or, you could contact the student affairs officer, student services officer, or the academic dean in charge of the department/division chair. Of course, in all of these cases, you will probably be asked if you already went through the proper channels i.e., the department/division chair. Let's hope your situation doesn't come to that.
This is an exercise in self-advocacy for you as a student, as well as your classmates, and I know it can feel uncomfortable and intimidating. However, as I've said many times in the blog, you are an adult and so is your professor. You have rights regarding a comfortable classroom climate and a professional classroom leader.
Please keep me posted on how things are going. I'm sending you lots of strength!
I always appreciate reader comments and I'd particularly be interested to hear feedback for this student... from students or colleagues!