To send this email to my professor and CC the department head?

(32 Posts)
LettertoHermioneGranger Sat 01-Mar-14 02:17:26

I'm working on a degree in Education. I'm in a class involving different theories of art education. We have a weekly discussion on various assigned academic journal articles and the like about different educational theories.

Every single class turns into a bunfight of massive proportions. It would make some MN threads look like a basket of kittens. There are two students in particular who are extremely opinionated. However, their opinions often have nothing to do with the topic, or are simply telling other students they are wrong, or that the teacher is wrong. This is not respectfully disagreeing, which I would be fine with. They often shout and talk loudly over others, and some of what they say is truly outrageous. It is not only in our discussions about theory and articles, but as well as any time the student or professor says anything they might not fully agree with.

The professor does nothing to deter these fights, and in fact has said she does not feel every opinion deserves respect and will not ask us to show respect for other opinions in the class, and that education is a passionate subject and this simply can't be avoided. She will not reign in any student who oversteps bounds. There is no regulation of discussions, which go so wildly off topic we learn nothing about the theory being "discussed".

It came to a head in our last class. Me and another student were actually threatened by one of the two students. She said she was "warning us" that if she heard us speaking again she "wasn't going to hold back." She also told us we were not allowed to comment on a particular topic because of our race. The professor did nothing. Several of us told her we were not comfortable in class. She thanked us for telling her, but made no indication things would change.

I'm thinking of sending her an email, addressing what is going on in classes and that I do not feel safe or comfortable. I plan to CC the department head. Is this the right move? I feel like there needs to be a 'witness' to this email. I'm worried, well, that it might affect me in the class if the professor feels she's being 'told on'. My other options are to email the professor only and risk nothing changing, or to lodge a formal conduct complaint against this other student, resulting in an investigation.

EBearhug Sat 01-Mar-14 02:37:46

Is there someone on the academic staff who deals with pastoral matters you could talk it over with? Back in my day, we were assigned personal tutors, though once we'd settled in a bit, I went to see the lecturer I got on best with about a problem I had. Or maybe the student union, but in some places, they seem more concerned with entz than other matters, so it may depend where you are.

I do think you need to raise it. The university will have a policy on respect, diversity, equality, that sort of thing, and telling other students they can't comment because of their race is well out of order. Even without that, it sounds like they're dominating things so others can't contribute. Good debate does not mean talking over others and threatening them, it means listening and responding to the points raised. Good teaching staff will make sure individuals don't dominate, and will try to get everyone to speak, partly to see that they're all getting to grips with the subject. Disagreement can be respectful, even when people are passionate, and they should be able to control the session so it stays that way, not allowing bullying behaviour to get in the way.

Grennie Sat 01-Mar-14 02:52:04

It is very hard to tell from this if YABU, or the other students are. What did you say that led to the other student warning you?

maggiemight Sat 01-Mar-14 03:08:40

Can you get notes on the subject from someone who was on the course last year? Then you know you have covered the required info.
Or record the 'debate' and put it on Youtube. grin

Grennie Sat 01-Mar-14 03:11:09

And if YABU, the Professor won't feel she is being told on. But she will think you have little insight and little understanding of how the class should best run.

If you are going to write, you need to put much more detail than in your OP.

Adeleh Sat 01-Mar-14 04:29:14

Agree with Ebear. You would do better to raise your concerns with your personal tutor. Another option is to see the tutor of the class during her consultation hours and make it vey clear how you feel. I would go gently before launching in with a letter of complaint.

LettertoHermioneGranger Sat 01-Mar-14 04:52:35

Yes, the letter has much more detail. Sorry, I'm trying to give enough here without putting the whole story.

We actually hadn't been speaking to her - we had disagreed on a point she made earlier, which enraged her, and is when she told us we couldn't comment due to our race. (She said Abraham Lincoln was a racist monster. We said he was progressive for the time.) The discussion moved on, neither I nor the other girl were engaged in it anymore. A third girl near us said something like, "I don't know when we'll have time to finish our projects when these discussions run so long." I agreed. This is when the student shouted at us, saying we were whispering about her and she was warning us because if she heard us say anything else she wouldn't hold back. She was shouting, and her manner was threatening.

Ebearhug, my other option is going to the dean of student conduct, which would mean launching an investigation against the other student for breaking conduct. I'm within my rights to do so, but I'd rather not. I'm in the US, so I don't actually know what you mean by tutor. I have an academic adviser, but their duties are strictly limited to talking with us about which classes we need to take. It's either the professor alone, the department head who oversees her and is meant to keep everything running smoothly, or the dean of student conduct.

I really just want to ensure the professor starts regulating discussions to be civil. The way they are now is against our conduct code and student rights.

maggie The main grade is in participation, I couldn't skip it if that's what you mean. And we actually have university rules against using any sort of recording device in class. hmm

IDontDoIroning Sat 01-Mar-14 05:16:01

For no other reason the fact that your "discussions" in class veer well off your class subject should be a concern.
If your lecture topic is (say Picasso) you should be discussing eg Picasso and related subject not other unrelated subjects. Re Abraham Lincoln I don't know too much about art but I don't think its particularly relevant.

If these sessions are to foster creative debate on a subject and are not designed to be structured the lecturer should at the minimum ensure the discussions remain on topic even if the opinions become heated.

However from what you have said it's not much of a debate if these students dominate it and do not allow other students to freely express their opinions on a subject. In addition it may be that the discussions aren't even relevant. The lecturer may not want to stifle the debate but they should be ensuring a flow of opinions managing the discussions and ensuring it stays relevant.

Obviously if these lectures are supposed to be a structured delivery of a topic or subject area then it doesn't seem like that's happening either. How are the students in this class going to meet the assessment criteria to pass if they aren't covering the appropriate subject matter.

You may have grounds for concern on these issues which need addressing.

"We actually hadn't been speaking to her - we had disagreed on a point she made earlier, which enraged her, and is when she told us we couldn't comment due to our race. (She said Abraham Lincoln was a racist monster. We said he was progressive for the time.)"

Hmm, that doesn't sound like such a clear cut issue... Are you white? I ask because if you are and you tell a person who has probably experienced racism first hand that somebody wasn't racist because x,y and z I actually think that it's a perfectly valid counter argument for them to say that because you are white, you have no idea how it feels to be discriminated against in the way that black people have been/are, and are in no position to make excuses for racist behaviour. There is certainly a wealth of difference between that and saying "shut up, I don't listen to white people".

So, tread carefully there, because if the person you send the email to happens to agree with her then you may end up with the proverbial egg on your face.

Also, I would suggest sending the email to the lecturer first and only if it isn't resolved then take it further. If you go into it looking confrontational and like you are trying to get her in trouble at work then you might just put her on the defensive.

Chottie Sat 01-Mar-14 06:21:42

This is a classroom management issue. Debate and discussion is healthy but it needs to be well managed.

Was a class contract or ground rules agreed by all at the beginning of the course? (respecting other's views, not shouting or speaking over others, listening to others etc). I have attended lots of courses where this is in place and it works very effectively.

What do the rest of the group think about these students' behaviour? could you discuss it with them and then all speak to the lecturer? I would be wary of sending any emails, as you don't want to be branded as a trouble maker and find this affects your grades

adoptmama Sat 01-Mar-14 11:57:55

YANBU the professor assigned to the class should manage the discussions. As for suggesting 'not all opinions deserve respect' - as a teacher I would question how that would translate in a classroom! As a graduate and teacher of History, I'd side with your judgement in most respects - Lincoln was a progressive and whilst you could argue he was racially prejudiced, in the context of his time he was quite forward thinking and racial prejudice was a societal norm. Nothing is clear cut in history and your professor would do better to guide the discussions into examining this instead of allowing simplistic, unproductive bun fights to develop. The class is badly managed. We had someone similar on my teacher training course decades ago - he was, quite simply, a pain in the arse who spent his time looking to find ways to tell everyone else they were prejudiced.

As you have already told the professor of your concerns and seen nothing done to change the management of the class I would suggest you contact the head of department explaining your concerns. I did this myself at university many moons ago when the professor made a racist 'joke'. As a class, we wrote a group letter to the university senate explaining why we would not be continuing to participate in the tutorials. I think it is reasonable that you ask to be transferred to another tutor group/professor for these classes. If there are others in the group who share your concerns about the intimidating atmosphere and unproductive nature of the class then it would be beneficial if you all signed onto the email.

I would also suggest however that you also think of tactics to deal with difficult individuals to help them engage in more productive debates. I am not suggesting you have the problem, but as a teacher you will need this skill.

oldgrandmama Sat 01-Mar-14 12:05:53

I hesitate to enter the fray, not having the benefit of a university education (parents refused to let me go, saying 'I might meet BOYS' there shock -it was the 1950s and what parents said was law).

However, ill educated though I undoubtedly am, I must point out to OP that it's 'rein in', not 'reign in'. Kings and Queens and dictators 'reign'. But you 'rein' in horses, and in its wider sense, you rein in rowdy debate at uni.

fluffiphlox Sat 01-Mar-14 13:00:08

well said oldgrandmama

nennypops Sat 01-Mar-14 13:26:21

Do these students behave the same way in other classes? If not, how do the other professors keep them under control?

redexpat Sat 01-Mar-14 14:11:52

I think you should get some advice from your student union. They will be able to tell you who to contact.

Pippilangstrompe Sat 01-Mar-14 14:14:40

There will be a complaints procedure at your university. You need to follow it. Go to your student union and ask what it is. It sounds like you have a legitimate complaint but to be taken seriously you need to approach it correctly and using the official channels.

FairPhyllis Sat 01-Mar-14 15:25:10

OP I have taught in a US university, so I have some idea of the framework you are operating in. It does sound like the class is poorly managed.

Does your class syllabus have anything in it about the codes of conduct expected of you in class discussions? I always include a reminder of the behaviour expected in class discussions in my syllabus, because it helps me manage situations like this if they come up.

I think you need to begin by emailing the professor (perhaps as a small group) and keep it dispassionate and specific, pointing out things that you think are impacting your learning, like people talking over you and how that violates the code or discussion veering wildly off course. I would stay away from the Lincoln example though because I don't think it is actually that clear cut. Be specific about what you would like to happen, e.g.: we would like to spend more time on topics xyz and we would like not to be talked over. Don't make it sound legalistic because that often puts people's backs up.

I would not involve the head of department or the Dean's office at this time. You need to try to resolve this as a class management issue rather than in a way that looks like a personal attack on other students. If you don't get any resolution with the professor you can then go to the head of department and you will be able to show that you tried to resolve it in a non-confrontational way.

Are you a graduate student? Because if you are, another person you can talk informally with is the director of graduate studies for your field. If you are an undergraduate and feel you have a good relationship with your academic advisor, I don't think this would be an inappropriate thing to ask them how to handle - they should at least be able to point you to the appropriate person, although I think it sounds like you have already identified the process. You might also have a Student Assembly member for your school or field who you could informally ask about procedure/strategy for complaints.

Do you know if the professor is tenured (i.e. are they are Assistant or Associate or full Prof? That might make a difference to how responsive they are likely to be, sadly.

If you are having problems with the material as a result of not covering it in enough depth, show up to every office hour to talk about it in depth. That should make it clear that you need to spend more time on it in class.

Earlybird Sat 01-Mar-14 15:26:39

Did you speak to the professor about your concerns in class, or was it a private meeting? If you haven't spoken to her in private, I would do so before sending a letter.

If she does nothing after you've spoken to her, then send the letter and maybe even make an appointment to speak to the Dean of the department to express your concerns.

DoItTooJulia Sat 01-Mar-14 15:32:30

Ok, I am on my phone, so bear with. I did a degree on African studies (outs self). It was often like this. To the point where my dh (then boyfriend ) left. Speak up. In class. Do not be intimidated. Send the email. Persist. Good luck

I agree with early. If you've not met with your prof in private, do so.

I also agree with whoever it was who said this is not as clear-cut as you might think.

I understand that to you, the class may feel out of control and off-topic - but are you sure? Is it impossible these issues are relevant?

The way you describe it, it sounds clear these students are being rude and aggressive - but then, I've also seen people get passionate and angry in a good cause.

I can see how it might feel quite upsetting to have someone say Lincoln was progressive for his time. I don't think that is a clear-cut issue at all. And it is harder to make a case against him than for him. So it is important to respect people making the case counter to yours.

Still, if you feel you have to complain, do it - the system is there for you and so long as you are clear about the situation, even if it turns out you were wrong, no-one is going to mind you raising it. And if you are right, and the prof isn't controlling things properly, hopefully it'll lead to a better class next time.

Katkins1 Sat 01-Mar-14 17:48:59

I would talk to the professor, first. I study Drama (out self there) and there are often many 'lively' debates. A director and student once had a slanging and shouting match; and the same student with others in the corridor. She bought race in to it at one point (she felt victimised) Highly unprofessional, but the lecturers let us get on with it and learn from it. We laugh about it now, in all honesty.

We usually sort it out amongst ourselves. Could you talk to the other students at all?

shock

You're not serious?

What exactly was unprofessional, katkins, could you clarify? I hope I'm misreading your post.

Booboostoo Sat 01-Mar-14 18:58:05

I would approach the professor again and be very clear about your concerns. Be very careful how you describe what is causing problems, e.g. how you mentioned the race issue in your OP and how you described it later make it sound like two different things - you need to be clearer on what happened and how it is affecting you.

I would also ask outright what her plans are for addressing your concerns and how long it may take to see a change if she is intending to change anything.

If you get an unsatisfactory answer or she fails to do what she promises to do I would approach the senior faculty member in your department (Head of Department or Head of School).

flamby Sat 01-Mar-14 19:02:47

"The main grade is in participation, I couldn't skip it if that's what you mean."

In that case I would argue your professor has a clear duty to ensure that everyone can participate fully in the discussion (and also that the discussions are carried out in accordance with the conduct code or whatever is in place).

There is a difference between not respecting an opinion and not respecting a person. It is possible to disagree (even passionately or angrily) without silencing others or shutting down discussion - your professor should understand the difference.

I'd send an email to your professor first and I would refer to the conduct code in it. If you aren't happy with the response, then I'd complain further up the chain. I think it is important to set out your concerns in writing to your professor so that you have evidence that you have raised the issue. It also will make it clearer that you are serious about this.

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