Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Student Question: What Do I Do When a Professor Behaves Badly?

(An unexpected rocking of my world delayed this post... and I'm not referring to the construction next door as I wrote about here. I did mention in that post that two people in my life were battling cancer. One of them, a fellow preschool parent, died--very prematurely--of breast cancer last week. Cheryl Colehour was not only my friend and the mother of one of my son's closest buddies, but the master editor who helped me wordsmith and tighten my book proposal. Cheryl not only championed my message, but she picked up the tone and voice of my project in an uncanny, quick-fire way. My proposal would have never been what it became without Cheryl's heart and head. I only knew Cheryl for a short time--my son is just 3--but that was enough for me to agree with her husband's words: "There is a gaping hole in humanity." 

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.

Should we speak to the department chair about our concern with this professor? Other students have had the same issues. Or should we just let it go? If you do suggest speaking to the department chair, what exactly should we say?
And, in a follow-up e-mail... 
We had professor evaluations today and I know a majority of my classmates addressed the issues in their anonymous evaluations, but I am not sure if our concerns will be taken seriously through the forms.


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!


  1. Ellen,

    This is a sad situation when professors fail students. I agree with your advice and hope that it helps these students.

    I also am so sorry to read about your friend. I can't imagine what you must be experiencing. Please let me know if I can help.


  2. Kenna,

    Thank you so much. This is my second time going through this. My best friend of 12 years died when I first began teaching of breast cancer. She also had a 3-year-old son. I just can't fathom how this is possible in the universe, but I, sadly, know that it is.

    And double thanks to you for supporting the advice that I gave to the student. It was a tough one. I had to think/talk it out for a day before I could respond. I am hopeful that he/she found some resolution.

    Be well and peaceful thoughts to you!

  3. Ellen the timing is perfect! I am working with a few students facing similar problems.

    Keep up the great work!


  4. Hi, Eric,

    Thank you so much. Any advice you want to add?


  5. I am amazed at your wisdom and also knowledge of the inner workings of things in college. You're almost a dear Abby of college professors. I love how you right and how respectful you are of everyone involved (even the professor who has this behavior - of course there are two sides to every issue.) Thank you for being such an open author and I'm so sorry about your friend. When things such as this happen, our heart cries out for eternal answers that are beyond the scope of book learning. Best wishes, my new friend. You are a great writer. This is only the beginning for you - let me know when your book comes out, I'd love to review it.

  6. Hi, Vicki,

    I would LOVE to be the Dear Abby of college professors! Your encouragement means the world to me and I love, love, love your blog, as well (and enjoy reading your new Lifetime blog!!!!). You truly inspire me.

    I am still hoping that my agent will tell me that a publisher is biting. I will keep you posted. I would be honored to have you review.

    And thank you for your kind words about the recent loss of our friend. I'm struggling, for sure. When I first moved to GA for my tenure-track job at Darton, I lost my best friend to breast cancer two months in. She was in my life for 12 years and left behind a husband and young son, too. My mind is having a hard time wrapping itself around how the universe works. I'm just going to keep writing... because I guess that's all I can do.

    Many peaceful thoughts to you and so many thanks!