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Ask HN: What can I do about bad professors?
7 points by caesarion 1823 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 24 comments
I've taken classes with some pretty rotten teachers in the past, but a couple of my profs this term were especially awful. I want to know what I can do about it. I have no interest in being unfair or revengeful, but I do want something to change.

It's my job to take responsibility for getting what I want out of my classes, and while I think that's generally a solid policy, I also think it's reasonable to hold professors to a certain standard. It would be ideal to just avoid the bad ones, but there's often little selection or information.

I'd appreciate some advice on what I can do about it. What can I do during the term? What can I do to complain now that classes are over? I was thinking about writing a letter to the dean, but I have a suspicion that won't have any effect. Has anyone worked in the university system? Is there a best way to do this?

Writing a letter to the dean will work because in academics all those professors secretly or not so secretly don't like each other. The dean is looking for help to deny tenure and raises. One letter won't do it, but if there is a pattern it is strong evidence. One thing, though is you probably want to have some strong evidence of wrongdoing. People who are struggling with the material usually complain "the professor just doesn't know how to teach." I wouldn't consider this as something that is report-able.

You should deal with bad professors by over-enrolling and then dropping the bad classes after a the first week or so.

> Writing a letter to the dean will work because in academics all those professors secretly or not so secretly don't like each other.

-1. There are some haters out there, but I object vehemently to the use of the word "all". I don't have a single colleague whom I dislike.

Seek out opinions and seek agreement from classmates with direct experience.

Report individually but en masse. (Don't go together as a mob, but do all file individual reports. Less threatening, and it lets the administration independently collect and collaborate details from different individual.)

Don't threaten. Just state the facts, and try to remain collected, clear, and focused on a productive resolution.

Quietly put the word out for future classmates. Pay it forward by helping them to avoid being screwed. It's an imperfect marketplace, but eventually the school will find interest in "resolving" the situation with an instructor/professor that students actively avoid. In this latter step, avoid situations that can open you to personal liability, if the attendant risk to you is significant (e.g. online reporting sites). In this modern age, "word of mouth" can still be tremendously effective and verbal communication continues to be used to avoid a record that can work against the communicator (in this case, given your analysis is correct, a form of "whistleblower"?).

P.S. If there isn't widespread agreement and support among your classmates and associates, then it may be time to revisit your own assessment.

Akin to this, it shouldn't turn into a witch hunt. Give specific reasons if/when you advise other people to avoid an instructor; if your argument is primarily emotional, reassess.

1) If you want to try I think the best place to start would be to sit down and talk to the professor. I get the feeling that a personal talk is more likely to lead to a change than an email or something. There's a notable chance he reconsiders his ways. It might be kinda awkward, but if you really care, then that should outweigh the awkwardness.

2) You could also talk to (or email) some dean or administrator. Like others have said, they probably do kinda care, it's just that most of the complaints they get are bad. If you have intelligent things to say, they'll probably listen.

3) You could try to organize a bunch of students to complain, or to not take his class. This may be hard to organize, but would have a bigger effect.

- From what I understand, having tenure doesn't mean that you can't fire a professor, just that you have to demonstrate in some sort of legal hearing that they aren't doing their job. So it really just makes firing bad professors more inconvenient. It's amazing how schools claim to care about providing students with a good education, and at the same time allow absolutely awful professors to continue to teach. At the very least accept them as sunk costs and find someone else to do a good job. It might be a good idea to politely mention to the dean/administrator that the inconvenience of firing a bad professor is less important than the benefit of providing future students with a better education.

- Is it worth your time to do anything about it? The chances you have an impact might not be worth the time it'd take to try. Your time is valuable and I'm sure there's plenty of other stuff you could be doing. With that said, I'm sure it wouldn't take too long to set up a meeting or write an email.

in my experience, there is not much you can do about it. You should try ratemyprofessor.com before taking a class. I decided not to take a particular class because the professor who taught did not have the approach I was looking for and he had bad reviews on the site. In retrospect, I think it was a good decision. I went against the advice this term and took a course where the adjunct had terrible reviews and I regret it greatly.

What have you tried in the past that didn't work?

"It's my job to take responsibility for getting what I want out of my classes, and while I think that's generally a solid policy..."

You instead are looking for excuses. If you went on to say that you had one bad professor, and backed that up with some meaningful examples of how this person committed unconscionable sins of pedagogy and abused puppies and kittens, then perhaps, some venting might be understandable as an exception to a deeply practiced value of personal responsibility for your learning.

But when the bad professors are legion and the alleged offenses petty and trifling, the claim to virtue seems suspect.

To expect a professor to spend time twiddling their thumbs waiting for someone to drop by and complain that their grade was unfair and their life thereby ruined is a bit absurd. Office hours are times when appointments are available.

Out in the world of money, the answers aren't in the back of the book. When something is wrong a professional must figure it out, themselves. Learning how to struggle is important. Good professors take their students where they need to go. Some go with a smile. Others must be dragged.

Most universities have a student representative council or some such body that represents students. You could submit your concerns to them. As @lutusp suggests you would need to be specific, the more specific the better in your submission.

Unfortunately the education system is going the way of corporations. Ever increasing prices and a constant chipping away at costs and thus reductions in quality.,

I would say take to offensive. Its not the revenge I am talking about. Its the fact that its extremely important to not let those teachers ruin any more money and life/career (in some cases).

One possible path: Go talk to your college's administration (take evidences along like slides, etc.) and suggest your college to encourage this behavior among students.

An incompetent teacher has absolutely no rights to teach.

I'm a professor in a math department. We have some pretty bad teachers. Every department does.

That said, "bad" is subjective. Here is my RateMyProfessors page:


One complainer said of me that "He isn't able to understand and answer questions that students ask in class or in his office." Huh? I consider myself a good teacher and work hard to improve -- and at the same time, many students aren't happy and I'm not really sure what I might do about this. I suspect there is some mixture of cultural misunderstanding (I teach in the South, and am very much not a Southerner), bitterness that I ask my students to work hard, and probably some legitimate complaints which nevertheless students don't share with me.

Whatever excuses I might offer, I did piss this student off, and I would like to understand how not to.

So I would advise you to do two things.

One, talk to your professors. E-mail them after grades are final, tell them you have some frustrations about the class, and ask them if they'd be willing to listen. They might surprise you. I, for one, don't get constructive criticism as often as I could probably use it. If your professors take you seriously, then you've accomplished your purpose.

If not, yes, by all means, write the dean, write the department chair, write anybody. Understand on one hand that it is their job to listen and they will probably be quite willing to listen, and on the other that even the best professors garner complaints, especially from lazy students. If you respect their natural skepticism, and make your points calmly, politely, and with evidence, I think you will find them willing to listen.

And BTW, I second everything dmlorenzetti said.

Thank you! Again, this makes sense to me.

I have emailed one of them before and said I was frustrated with him. I was quite respectful and careful not to offend. I got back a couple lines that conceded nothing and basically said that what I thought didn't matter.

Whatever, I'm happy to try again, I think it's a good idea. If he doesn't take me seriously then that's something I can tell the dean. If he does, no problems.

> What can I do about bad professors?

You haven't provided a critical piece of information -- what you think constitutes "bad". Without this information, any advice must be based on guesswork.

Does "bad" mean ignorant of the topic they're teaching, or unskilled in teaching, or unwilling to communicate clearly, or what?

There were two, and they were 'bad' in different ways. Neither had any talent for teaching, both were unwilling to lift a finger to help outside of class. One was a typical powerpoint jockey, and consistently had incorrect statements on his slides. Anything from popular misquotes (Bill Gates saying no one will need more than 64 mb of memory) to downright misinformation. Brutal grammatical errors and typos in EVERYTHING he wrote. Gee, it's almost like he didn't care. Though it's less relevant, I found both obnoxiously holier-than-thou; very much the condescending academics.

Anyway, I just want to know where to direct my complaint. What's the most effective way to be heard?

> both were unwilling to lift a finger to help outside of class.

> I found both obnoxiously holier-than-thou; very much the condescending academics.

I'm not saying you're wrong, but I would urge you to be slower to judgement.

I have developed at least a little bit of a reputation for being unapproachable and reluctant to help students. Which I find very unfortunate, because I am quite happy to help students and indeed wish more would seek help.

In my case I suspect there are two factors at work.

(1) I am always annoyed for an instant when I'm interrupted from my other work. I do my best to recover and welcome the student warmly, but people pick up on my very first reaction, and that's not the part I can change readily.

(2) I am teaching in the South, which is culturally unfamiliar. It is considered polite to chitchat about the weather or whatever before getting down to business, but I can never think of anything to say about the weather and typically ask students what's on their mind right away. Unfortunately, this probably makes a few people uneasy.

In short, there is probably another side to this story. If you endeavor to understand it, you will have enormously more leverage if and when you complain.


Doesn't your university have an online/anonymous course evaluation system? If it does, fill it out! If it doesn't, every university should have one. No one will give a shit if you're just complaining to be a bitch, but if there are serious problems to be found and you're not a single data point, they will take action, whether it be they remove him from teaching the class or otherwise. Sometimes action will be taken and you won't know about it. The best you can do is make sure you back up everything you say with intellectual comments and actual facts. No one will do anything about a bitter student who didn't get the A he desperately wanted but didn't deserve.

You might be able to change your grade, but you won't be able to move the professor. The professor has at least one of the following:

1. Tenure.

2. Credentials not easily replaced.

3. A lawsuit against the school with threat of more (this was the case with my worst professor in college.)

You will want to talk to the department chair, and then the student dean or ombudsman, then the provost or president. They will all have heard it before, and they may be able to guide you through a specific dispute, but none of them will bad-mouth the professor in front of you, a student.

In undergrad, I had the worst teacher I've ever had in my life. No apparent sense of how to convey the material, no apparent viewpoint beyond that he was paid to administer tests and to grade them.

In addition to being a bad teacher, he was a jerk. He took great delight in the fact that he failed 30-50% of his class every year (as he gleefully announced first day of class, "I've seen most of you before, and I'll see most of you again"). He assigned problem sets, but just assigned a grade, so you couldn't figure out what you had done wrong. He was famous for turning his office light off during supposed office hours, not answering your knock, and then skulking out when he thought you had left. He once took points off an exam because I switched from pen to pencil to do a side-derivation of an integral.

And now we come to my point. There was no point in doing anything about it. The powers that be knew he was a terrible teacher. How could they not? Other teachers would openly joke about it, or listen with knowing smiles if you told one on "Rusty". For whatever reason-- probably tenure-- he was allowed to stay. Or maybe they liked the fact that somebody was doing the hard job of winnowing out each incoming freshman class to a more manageable size by junior year.

But since it was widely understood he was a terrible teacher, it didn't really matter. Nobody cared if you flunked his class two or three times before making it through. And there was a great instant camaraderie to be found with fellow-students across all the years, just swapping stories about "Rusty".

And you know, a few years later, after I was able to let go of my anger about it, it at least turned into some good stories. Five years on, it didn't matter to me, anymore. And 30 years on, my only regret is that I didn't learn the material better.

In the big picture, you might think about it this way. You go to college to prepare for your future. An obvious part of that is mastering the class material. But part of it is learning to encounter people who are terrible at what they do, figuring out how to step around them, and figuring out whether you have any power to move them out of the way for other people.

To be more specific, I would start by having an off-the-record conversation with another professor you trust and like (if there aren't any, then either you're in the wrong place, or you're doing it wrong). Try to get a sense whether there's a broad understanding among the faculty that the malefactor is a bad teacher. If there is, but it's accepted, then just give up. But if there's some process under way, you may be given the name of a particular person to whom you should speak-- somebody may be developing a case against him, and ask you for specific information.

Oh yes, and a lot of universities have an ombudsperson, who is there to help students navigate the administration. That person generally should be isolated, organizationally, from the teachers, so that you don't have to worry about confidences being revealed, or personal politics coming into play.

Good luck!

> For whatever reason-- probably tenure-- he was allowed to stay.

I attended a very good university (by various rankings), and even there were a few terrible lecturers.

They are allowed to stay not because of tenure (they could stop lecturing and do research instead) or departmental indifference (the board of studies takes feedback seriously, and sometimes does "fire" lecturers from teaching particular classes). The reason is instead that there is nobody else to replace them.

The great professors teach a class in their specialty which they are most knowledgeable and enthusiastic about. But after that, there are many small undergraduate classes left over, which nobody wants to teach, but someone has to. Given that the other option would be to throw the class out of the syllabus, bad lecturers still stay as teachers.

One of the deeper reasons is that grant funding and academic careers depend only on the number of articles published. Being a good teacher (or teaching at all) is only a "distraction" done out of good-will or enthusiasm for the topic.

This makes sense to me. I'm definitely still in the indignation and anger part of the process, but I can appreciate that this is just a nice chance to develop some new tools. I can figure out whether I have any clout, use it if I do and then just move on.

do they have tenure?

One does, the other doesn't.

The trick is to get them when they're on academic probation. My school had the "4 horsemen of the math department" and overall their GPA averages tended to be in the "square root club" (sqrt of the GPA is higher than the actual GPA). However, when they were on academic probation it was all A's and B's.

Through a combination of dropped classes, complaints, and bad course surveys, the school eventually picked up that these guys were horrible.

haha, only at tech.

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