How do you deal with student complaints about colleagues?

Not like harassment complaints or anything (which I haven’t gotten but would personally take seriously and bump up an administrative level), just teaching kinds of complaints (which meansomething considers a litmus test).

Often my students complain about their other professors to me.  These kind of complaints tend to come in two flavors:  Ones where it’s obvious that the student doesn’t realize that the teacher is doing something for hir own good, and ones where I kind of agree with the student.

For the former, it’s easy, you just explain what the professor is getting at.  R^2 is important when you’re trying to predict Y, but it isn’t important when you’re trying to figure out what the effect of X on Y is.  Group work is unpleasant, but learning to deal with groups of people is important in many professions.  Presentation skills are important and student presentations don’t mean the professor isn’t teaching the material.  That sort of thing.  Sometimes I’ll mention to my colleague of students aren’t getting something that they need to know and then the colleague gets bonus points from the students for going over it again in class.

The latter, when I kind of agree, is a little more difficult.  I will sometimes sympathize and say something like, “I probably wouldn’t do well in that class either, but X is very good for other learning styles,” or “X does that so that you learn to learn on your own,” or even “Because X is an under-represented minority and a woman, she gets a lot more criticism for her teaching and has to keep tighter control of her class– Dr. Fullwhitemale can get away with things that she can’t, and he can get away with more than I can and I can get away with more than she can.  People automatically give him respect, and I don’t have to work as hard for respect as she does.”  Generally I try not to ever trash one of my colleagues even if I disagree with their styles.

Of course, my colleagues do take their jobs seriously.  There are valid reasons for allowing or not allowing students to do homework in groups.  There are valid reasons for different types of lecture/classwork modalities.  I don’t hear about my colleagues failing to show up for class or never getting back homework (except in rare cases in which I can say that my colleague has been having a family emergency, which is totally understandable).  I think in those cases I would probably just frown and not say anything.  Because if one can’t say anything nice, one doesn’t say anything at all.

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15 Responses to “How do you deal with student complaints about colleagues?”

  1. xykademiqz Says:

    There is a class I developed a few years ago, a required class for sophomores, and I love teaching it, and always got really good evals from students. But after having taught it for 5 semesters in a row I said enough, and now two other people are teaching it as well. And I hear about them a lot. One of them is notorious as being a poor teacher, but I think he can’t help it — he’s a brilliant dude, but even when we talk science I can barely follow what he’s saying, he’s one of those people who talks as if you are inside his head, he never provides context, lets you in on why he’s doing stuff or what his thought process is. The complaints I hear about him from students are along the same lines — they have no freakin’ idea why they are doing what they are doing, or why they should care. So when I get these types of complaints I usually try to ask what’s unclear and try to explain it and then tell the student that the professor’s heart is in the right place and he really does want them to learn (he really does, and is devastated every time he gets low evaluations), so that they should try to get as much as they can out of him by asking questions in class as soon as something is unclear, going to office hours for 1-on-1 instruction, and also take advantage of the excellent TA.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I had a Nobel prize winning prof who was the same way (over-explained the simple stuff, under-explained the hard stuff because he just couldn’t tell what was obvious and what was challenging), but the recommendation we got from the TA was to keep asking questions until we understood. I did that and it worked!

  2. What Now? Says:

    The complaints where I kind of agree with the student are difficult, especially when the student is my advisee and coming to me for help. I’ve had situations where teachers aren’t getting graded work back to students, or where a teacher is sarcastic and has hurt the student’s feelings (and I think the student’s response is pretty reasonable). Even in those circumstances, I think I can’t really say anything negative about a colleague, but I try to help the student learn to assert herself and go speak to the teacher directly, and sometimes I say I’ll go with the student as a silent supporter as she speaks to the teacher. (Of course, my students are younger than yours.) But it’s tricky when I think that a colleague of mine has in fact acted in an unprofessional or unhelpful way.

  3. Liz Says:

    I recently worked with JerkGuy who didn’t feel comfortable enough to be friendly in emails, but felt comfortable enough to completely lambast his colleagues during in-person conversations (blame game, not usually legit). However, as his co-worker and not his superior, I found it really difficult to understand how to treat this even as I was supposed to act as his mentor. On several occasions, I would pause our conversation to directly say, “you can’t say such nasty things about our team members. It’s not appropriate.” Because it really really isn’t.

    I second using type 2-complaining as an opportunity to reflect more about your learning needs, and how to appropriately address them with someone. 80% of the time, complaining should have a purpose – I want to change X if possible, or at least understand why things aren’t what I think I want them to be. 20% of the time, though, it’s necessary just to vent and be validated – to know that the Feelings you’re feeling are normal and okay when expressed appropriately.

  4. Steph Says:

    If you know the student well enough, maybe put them off? At least/especially if they’re complaining repeatedly. I know I have been the complainer, or one of many, and I wish I’d have known earlier that we were making our professor very uncomfortable (we had the rotten prof’s class right before hirs, so we would walk in full of complaints we wanted hir to listen to). Ze told me that summer or fall, after I’d joined hir group, that ze was very uncomfortable being expected to sympathize with our complaints about hir colleague for all of the spring. Had we known, I think we would have stopped, or tried to.

    I also cut my lab students off when they start in on their previous TA (I’ve been teaching the 2nd lab in a sequence), and at minimum tell them not to tell me the TA’s name. I know it’s not an equivalent situation, but that’s working for me.

  5. Historiann Says:

    Although I might share a student’s concern about a colleague, I would never tell the student that. We have to be as effective parents are–a united wall against the complaints or blandishments of the children/students.

    For the most part in our curriculum, students don’t have to take one particular course with one particular proffie. They can shop around and satisfy graduation requirements in an almost infinite number of ways. For the most part, students complain about things that weren’t secrets, but rather policies and amounts of work that are published on our syllabi on the very first day of classes, and I refuse to truck with complaints like that.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Complaints about workload are never ones I agree with! They always get some combination of, “It’s good for your soul,” “Think how much you’re learning! X’s students always come out knowing their stuff,” and “When I was in school I had to walk uphill both ways in the snow and you guys obviously don’t get enough work if you’re complaining about that moderate amount.”

  6. Katherine Says:

    I’m a STEM grad student at a private R1, and in my department the main teaching activity for grad students is holding recitations/help sessions for the large intro classes. I hear a lot of “Professor X is so unclear, but I get it when you explain it! You’re such a better teacher than Professor X, why can’t you teach the class?”

    I think these complaints fall into three categories:

    1. You were goofing off on your phone/internet instead of paying attention in class.
    2. This is now at least the second time you’ve had this explained, and I was able to explain it to you one-on-one instead of in a 200-person lecture. You probably learn better the second time, and with more personal attention. This does not make Professor X a bad person or a bad teacher.
    3. Professor X is a 75-year old giant in his specialized field and because of that no one cares that he can’t teach his way out of a paper bag. Or, Professor X is not actually a professor but rather a newly minted post-doc who has never really taught before and isn’t getting good teaching mentoring, and can’t teach his/her way out of a paper bag.

    I usually just pretend that all of the complainers are in category 2, and try to say something about different learning styles and the difficulty of large lectures for both teachers and students.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I have to admit that sometimes, sometimes, I say, “[Professor X is great but this is a seriously complicated topic and yes,] I’m just that awesome.”

      Usually though they’re comparing me to their high school or undergrad teachers/profs (depending on if they’re getting me as undergrads or grads), so it’s not really my colleague they’re talking about.

  7. Cardinal Says:

    I am in the position of having been an undergrad in the program where I am now faculty. (Went elsewhere for grad school.) There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, but there is still one person in the department who was once my prof and is now my colleague. When the students complain about this prof, even though I would never agree with them overtly in words, I can say, “I took Course X with Dr. Y when I was a student.” The more perceptive ones get that I’m expressing sympathy, and I can still direct them to the TA.

  8. meansomething Says:

    Unfortunately, it is a litmus test that you do not get to make until the person is already your colleague! So it’s not that useful–except that once you realize a person is the sort of person who can’t be trusted to say appropriate things in these conversations with students and/or do appropriate things afterwards, you can act accordingly. But often there isn’t much you can do.

  9. How do you mentor junior faculty? | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] them from student complaints, and let them know what’s going on.  Share tips to avoid the […]


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