Thoughts by Richard Bleil
A friend of mine seems to have an innate knowledge on how to handle academia. She’s quite a remarkable person actually. With many of her own children, she has started and certified a daycare out of her home, works tirelessly for a multitude of charitable organizations and has been taking classes online for quite some time. She is a few courses shy of completing her degree in psychology, and since I am a former professor she does periodically ask me for advice (although not in her classes as I’m a chemist rather than a psychologist).
Like any student, she has her classes with which she struggles. She’s having one of those classes this semester and tells me that she reached out to her professor. The exact quote she sent, in part, is, “I was finally able to tell her what I thought, and how she could possibly help (not being so ridiculously specific)”.
As a former dean, I would periodically have students come to my office to complain about professors. How I would handle it, of course, depended on the nature of the complaint. Often there is a disconnect between the nature of the material and the innate strengths and weaknesses of the student like a student taking physics who is naturally strong in the arts. I was excellent in physical chemistry, for example, because it was strong in mathematics but struggled with organic chemistry because it required so much memorization. Often students will confuse the skills of a professor with a course that, for them, simply needs additional effort.
Sometimes, students have legitimate issues with style. A professor cannot change their style for an entire class to accommodate a single student, though. Some students, for example, are much better with problem-based learning, but in a course that has a lot of material, this approach takes too much time. However, if a professor is not doing well, say, for example, they are relying too heavily on videos for students to watch outside of class without regard for the students’ time, there can also be situations where it is indeed the faculty style that is the problem. A good professor will use class time to teach as much as possible to as many students they can reach and make time to help individual students during office hours who do struggle with the lecture style.
In each of these situations, though, the students often blame the professor, and often are too intimidated to speak with the professor directly. As dean, these students would periodically come to speak with me, and I always tried to be welcoming. I saw that as my job, and yet, as a former professor of chemistry, I also am all too aware of the types of complaints professors would get, including over exaggerations like “everybody agrees” or simply overstating issues. This over exaggeration is often an attempt to sound “legitimate” because students still don’t quite understand that their concerns, alone, are all important. Some of these issues immediately go up the chain (such as claims of sexual harassment), and some are minor enough that I did call the professor in simply to warn them of complaints I was hearing so they could change their style if they wanted, but these meetings always came with reassurance that I did not believe they warranted undo concern from me. Sometimes I wish I had had a dean that would keep me informed and reassure me at the same time, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a dean do this for me.
Invariably, except in the case of something that needed to be kept confidential and dealt with on a higher (than middle management) level, my conversations with these students always included the phrase, “did you speak with the professor about these concerns?” The conversation didn’t start that way, though. I would give them room and time to vent and listen intently as they did. These concerns might have merit and I wanted to be sure that I understood them for fear of making them believe I wasn’t really listening.
Often, when students complained (to me as dean or as professor), they were meant to be hurtful. In short, they would tell me that the professor sucks and is the only reason they are failing a course. In this case I would change the conversation, asking how much time they spent on homework (often they would say “I studied for hours the night before the exam”, which is cramming and very different from homework). Eventually, after having them look at their own habits, I would ask how the professor’s (or my) teaching style could be improved to help them. This is the crux of this entire post.
See, my friend sent an email to the professor exclaiming her struggles in the class, but what makes it so impressive is that it wasn’t accusatory. Instead, after expressing her concerns, she immediately went into suggestions, always respectful, on how the professor might be able to help her. They weren’t demands and she worded the email taking on the burden of the blame herself, and even went so far as to say that she understands if her suggestions cannot be incorporated, but simply asked the professor to consider them. In my office, I would ask the students what the professor could do to help them, such as more example problems, or example problems that more closely resembled those they might see on an exam. Then I would send the students off to speak with the professor in person, and invariably, they would report back their surprise at how accommodating and open to the suggestions the professor was. They didn’t always take the suggestions for lecture, but often would find alternatives, like special office hours just for those students to do what they wanted.
So, for any struggling students out there, here is my suggestion. If you are having trouble in a class, and really do believe it might have something to do with the professor’s style, stop. Find somebody with whom you can privately vent and get it out of your system without lashing out at the individual who will be assigning your final grade. Then reflect. What would really help you? What can the professor do to make you more successful? Take those suggestions to the professor, in person if possible so they can put a name with the suggestions and offer them respectfully and without anger. If you must send an email (like my friend taking her course online), write the email and don’t send it. Give it a little time (a day or two), and re-read it, and take out any negativity you can find. Then don’t send it. Give it one or two more days for one last review (and maybe ask a friend for suggestions on it). Then you can send it. You want to be respectful, sympathetic to a professor who is probably getting students lashing out rudely, and you’ll be surprised at what your karmic return.