How to Deal with Manipulative Professors
It can be hard to tell between a tough professor and a bully disguised as an educator, but there are always telltale signs.
By August Wright, College of Charleston
I’m willing to bet that everyone has, at some point in their career as a student, come across a teacher who others would call “tough” or “difficult.”
I’m also willing to bet that every person in college has gone to ratemyprofessors.com to look up who’ll be tormenting them in the upcoming semester. Sometimes you can avoid these professors and sometimes you can’t. What matters is distinguishing between professors who’re just tough graders/socially odd, and professors who hide their bullying by calling themselves or their class “tough.”
I don’t mind admitting that I’ve done poorly in college classes. I failed calculus because I’m a dumbass with numbers and that’s okay. I got a D in an intro-level biology class, but I did learn that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Chemistry was a little better, but I still barely scraped by with a C-. I also failed an intro-level international studies class. But unlike calculus, biology, and chemistry, I failed this last class because the “tough” professor was just a bully disguised as an educator.
The teacher of this particular class—we’ll call her Sweats because she rode a bike everywhere and looked like she had skidded, armpits-first, down a Slip n’ Slide—didn’t actually teach.
The entire class was made up of very difficult quizzes on things we had never learned; readings that no one in the class understood (and we, as a class, told her so); and eight group projects/presentations, that made up the bulk of our grade and class time. Also, 15 percent of our grade was based on how she felt about each one of us as a person. No, that’s not a joke. In her syllabus underneath the grade breakdown, it said “15 percent: how I feel about you.”
On the first day of class, she introduced herself by taking a $50 from her wallet, ripping it into shreds, throwing it at us like confetti, and announcing that money meant nothing to her because she had so much of it. Then she told us that that was our first lesson. It probably goes without saying that things didn’t get better. Here are the highlights.
There was a socially strange boy in the class who had a really hard time with the group projects, so Sweats told him he needed to drop the class because she was going to fail him otherwise—which I only know because she announced it to the entire class after he had withdrawn.
My original group for the projects was pretty good and, according to Sweats, we were one of the only groups “doing well” even though all of us failed every single quiz (along with most of the class).
Sweats never gave back any graded work—quizzes were collected and she went over the answers after—and she never assigned midterm grades.
Most of us were, understandably, concerned about our grades. She gave me a “you’re doing great, don’t worry” speech multiple times, which I later discovered she gave to at least six of my classmates, all of whom also failed.
Eventually, Sweats took her favorite student—the girl who was “just like her” and “shared a similar background,” which I’m assuming means they took the same “how to turn money into confetti” course—and added her to our group. This girl, we’ll call her Sweats Junior, bullied our group and gossiped about all of us to each other. By the end of the semester, our once-friendly group was so badly fractured that Sweats’ solution was to call us out, by name, in the middle of class and kick us out into the hallway so we could “work it out.”
We obviously didn’t work it out, but we did all agree that being kicked out of class was not only incredibly unprofessional, but also super awkward. Add to this that Sweats Jr. had spent the weekend before calling me and sending me threatening texts—all because I refused to meet with her on a Saturday since I had gone home for the weekend. By the way, Sweats Jr. was in her 30s.
When I showed Sweats the messages and the phone calls and told her I wasn’t comfortable working with her protégé, Sweats told me I needed to “come to class more.” At that point, I had missed three or four classes, a point which was moot because Sweats had no attendance policy.
In the end, Sweats failed me and everyone in my group (except for Sweats Junior, I’m guessing. I don’t know, but I later asked my other group members how they did). A year or so later, I had a class with a boy who had also been in Sweats’ class, and his group hadn’t done any better. Perhaps Sweats should pocket her $50 and rip up a giant F instead. That way, when she throws the confetti bits in our faces, we’ll all know what we’re getting at the end of the semester.
So, aside from the “what the fuck” factor, what’s the point in this story?
First, the red flags.
If your professor rips up money and throws it at you, I can almost guarantee that the class isn’t going to go well. On a more serious note, if your professor is refusing to hand graded work back—even if you’ve asked for it—he or she is preventing you from keeping track of your own grade. It also means your professor probably isn’t keeping track either, and if you fail the class, you’ll need that work should you decide to contest the grade.
If you and another student are having an issue, and the professor isn’t doing anything to remedy the situation, go above them. The head of the department may be able to move you into another section or into the same class with a different teacher.
Most schools also have what’s called an ombudsman. This person (or people, depending on the size of your school) is there to mediate disputes between everyone, whether it’s student-student or professor-professor or student-professor. A really good ombudsman will listen to your problem and then guide you from there. Depending on the situation, they may set up a meeting, one in which they mediate, between you and the professor. In situations like mine, the ombudsman told me to gather all my evidence—emails, the messages from Sweats Jr., testimonies from other students, if possible—and give it to her so she could submit it to both the Dean of Student Affairs and the Head of the Political Science Department.
Ombudsmen are also there to just listen if you aren’t comfortable or unsure about taking action. Sometimes getting the problem off your chest will make you feel better and allow you to perform well in class. But if you are having a real issue, don’t wait to talk to someone. The sooner you speak up, the sooner someone can help you.
Professors who bully students exist more than people think. In most cases, the professor is tenured or a new hire, and they teach mostly freshmen or sophomore students—meaning, young adults who’ve just left home and are constantly being told that college is “real life,” and in “real life” no one can help you.
By the way, if you have a professor—one you don’t know very well—telling you something like “you need to solve your own problems,” that should be a red flag.
At eighteen, your parents and/or the school’s faculty aren’t expecting you to navigate college or life with absolute success. If you’re afraid to fall back on the guidance of your family or trusted mentors because a professor is telling you not to, ask yourself why. Chances are, that professor isn’t trying to guide you—they’re trying to separate you from the people who can and will assist you.
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