Crying and Complaining in Higher Education

At Ivory Tower State University, our dragon program historically has enjoyed a great reputation. Over last couple years, though, the dragon program has taken to slogging through the muck. Reputations are as fickle as the people upon whose shoulders those accolades rest, though. The hiring of individuals can really change a program, either for the better or worse. Amazing the power of a single person. A testament to the influence of a single ego. Add two individuals of exceptional character and a mediocre program can really turn around. At ITSU, the direction seems to be downhill.

A department familiar to me had an issue with an unproductive faculty member. When an unproductive faculty member has tenure, you’d have better luck curing cancer than removing someone who doesn’t want to work.

Every student also has the right to complain. In fact, most cases a student’s input will be taken 100x’s more seriously than complaints from any other source. One faculty complaining about a peer is likely to sound whiney, bitter, childish, or self-serving. A student who complains is more like a customer at Applebee’s complaining about a cold basket of riblets – you’re going to get attention.

Every semester, students have the ability to offer up evaluations for courses and faculty. I often overhear students make the following statements:

I just don’t care anymore. I’m a senior and graduating and I don’t have to have that professor anymore

Which means you don’t want to make your program, from which you earned your diploma and education, better.

I hate her. She doesn’t really teach. She stands in front of us and talks about her cats, or her kids, or her ex-husband. No wonder she’s divorced.

Unless a psychology course, or perhaps sociology, faculty discussing non-course related personal details really isn’t professional. It could be she is covering up her lack of knowledge, or is using her classroom to vent. Either way, never a good idea.

We don’t learn anything. He comes in and sits in front of the computer and stumbles around the software. We spent the entire class period reading the Help file. I can read the Help file. A complete waste of time.

Time is valuable. Time is money. You don’t get Time back. You cannot take your receipt to the Bursar’s Office and recover both Money and Time. I doubt you’ll even get money. The best I’ve ever seen is merely a retraction of the course from a transcript, which required the faculty signature, the department chair’s signature, the Dean’s signature, the Provost’s signature, and I think Moses or President Clinton had to sign it, too, and the Pope had to bless it.

We’ve all had at least one dud course over the span of our college careers. I have maybe 160-170 university hours of my own. I think I was lucky, though. I feel like every course I took meant something. Until I got to graduate school and I found myself teaching the research course in which I was supposed to a student. I struggled with that.

Struggling with an ineffectual course leader led me down a path of trying to implement change in my own department at Ivory Tower State U. Pissing and moaning goes no where, though. To make real change, or, in hopes of making real change, a student needs to remove any kind of derogatory comments about the course leader, and focus on two elements.

First, focus on the what defines the course as being bad, or poorly managed. Keep notes throughout the course about what you like and dislike.

  1. Is the professor always late?
  2. Is (s)he prepared?
  3. Are his/her goals and grading system and course details clearly defined?
  4. Does (s)he allow user input (course participation?)
  5. Are her course policies fairly implemented for all students?
  6. Do the course activities align with his stated goals of objectives
  7. Is classroom time managed well?
  8. Are the assessments in-line with the course material?

Pissing and moaning is not going to get any results, so forget about making a difference if your intent is to call a professor a bitch or asshole. Doing so really only reflects poorly on you and undermines your credibility. You sound like a whiny high school student, which is really going to get you nowhere if you are over 25, so grow-up and think like an adult, not a 12-year old crying about how life is not fair.

Most students upon entering a classroom strip themselves off responsibility, of even their human nature, and assume a role of almost an inert vessel awaiting the bestowment of knowledge. Bad idea. You already have some knowledge – you went to high school, right? You have 18, 19, maybe 20 years of life, which by no means makes you an expert, by the way, on nearly anything simply because you haven’t been alive long enough to experience more than 20% of what Life has to offer. But you still have some knowledge and some experience.

The second focus needs to be directed towards how to make the professor or course better for those coming after you. Look, you should be proud of your program. A good program makes you look even better. A shitty program even after you graduate can make your credentials appear shitty. “Oh, you graduated from there? I thought they lost their program.” Then, employers come along and look a resume. “Hmmm, hires from this program struggle. In fact, we’ve decided not to recruit from there any longer.”

Sounds great, right? Precisely what you want, a diploma barely worth the paper upon which your name is printed, and a heavy dose of stigma along for the ride. What can one do, then?

Speak up!

  1. What did you like about the course?
  2. Did the professor feel comfortable with technology?
  3. Did she seems enthusiastic about her field?
  4. Did he use examples and tell stories which helped illuminate the topic?
  5. Did she apply extra credit and course rules fairly?
  6. Did your peers feel engaged in the material?

In the past, I have asked my students to list 5 Things You Liked About My Course and 5 Things You Would Flush About My Course as part of the final exam. I’m not really supposed to perform “surveys” due to anonymity concerns, and the Ivory Tower State University Human Experimentation Review Board (IRB) was not briefed on my survey of student attitudes. I personally feel submitting my survey for institutional review is ridiculous. Supposedly, any survey is supposed to be submitted to the IRB so they can ensure my survey will not damage the delicate gossamer of a student’s brain. Yet, students shotgun beers on weekends and conducted their own experiments to determine which variety of cannabis most suits them, but my map survey could do them irreparable psychic damage……

Ivory Tower State University and its many campuses across the United States might be full of smart people but some of their policies are staggeringly dim-witted. Bear in the mind these “policies” are handed-down from dull-minded government bureaucrats who control funding. Sometimes, ITSU has no choice but to simply kowtow to Federal Law.

I digress.

Put yourself in the position of the professor, and ask yourself, “If this were my class, what would I do differently?” Make that list, write those details down inside a notebook over the course of the semester.

When the time comes, usually in late October, or April, use your list. Encourage all of your peers to do the same. The weight of Peer Opinion on the faculty maybe enough to create change. If not, then use your list to engage the Department Chair. If still no success, then make an appointment to visit the Dean.

I tell my students,

“Your education is not simply a reflection upon you. When you graduate, you are taking part of me, your department, your college, and your university with you. You potentially impact not only your hiring, but the reputation of all others who come after you. Please, don’t be an idiot.”

I say that last part with a smile, and it gets a laugh.

In 15 years of classroom and online teaching, my student evaluations have run the gamut. In the same class, the same semester, I’ve had students report my class was the only one she looked forward to, or the one which encouraged him to get out of bed, and another student report, “how is this guy even in the classroom? He’s horrible!” I’ve had students come up to me years after taking my entry-level world geography course and admit,

“I thought your class was boring. You would talk about needing to pay attention to people (demographics), listening for details, how knowing some geography could help in sales, and marketing, and how travel aboard would help my career. I thought it was all bullshit. I even gave you a poor evaluation. After I graduated, I discovered you were right about a lot of stuff. I was surprised by how much stuff we talked about was really out there.”

Evaluations written with emotions have little to no meaning. Emotions are ephemeral; emotions can change as quickly as the weather. The energy associated with them can be used for good, as motivation to think about deconstructing a course to make the course better.

One final thought. Simply because you do not agree with a lecturer’s comments does not make him or her wrong (or right, for that matter.) Students seem to think because his or her thoughts do not perfectly align with a professor’s thoughts there are now grounds to complain. No, not really.

I educate on Islam, global poverty, global health conditions and social development, and education, and a host of other issues. Teaching World Geography and being a professional geographer provides me a unique vantage point from which I can make statements challenging a student’s pre-conceived notions.

One semester, I was called before a Duchess of the local Trade and Theurgist Technical Guild for making one of the royal subjects uncomfortable in class. In class, I made the claim,

“…people living in Ivoryville do not live in the Real World. The United States presents 5% of the global population, and residents have the potential for migration, education, and more control of their daily lives than more than 1/2 of the world’s population. We have access to daily stable electricity and have the luxury of potable drinking water from inside our own homes. In many ways we are spoiled. Most of the world’s population cannot claim these simply conveniences.”

One student felt outraged enough to write a long tirade on my evaluation, not refuting any portion of my statement, but stating how mad I made her by calling her “spoiled,” and stating she did not live “in the Real World.” Forget the fact I was speaking in generalities and not addressing her by name, nor even speaking to her specifically, but to the class.

To make matters worse and further complicate the issue, the Duchess felt I did not have the right to make such claims and indicated I should refrain from making such claims in the future.

Sometimes, an emotional outpouring will illicit a response, though I have not changed my attitude nor comments, simply because the facts support my position. I had an audience with my superiors which resulted in an impasse. And therein lies the problem with emotional responses: no criticism, no offer of problems, no suggestion of alternatives, only “you hurt my feelings!” Honestly, that is your problem. I’m honored you granted me power to control your emotions, however doing so was kind of stupid.

The best hope for a positive bureaucratic response is only achieved when constructive criticism is offered and alternatives or recommendations for improvement are suggested.

Whether you are in a class, a workshop, a seminar, or a conference, don’t simply sit and veg-out. Make a list of 5 Positives and 5 Negatives; 10 Things Learned From This Event, and 5 Ways To Improve This Event.

Help make your department, your college, and your institution better. You’ve paid good money for your education. You are in charge of getting value for your investment. I don’t mean  you are buying your grade; your grade should be determined by your commitment and your own personal time investment. Hold on to the value by providing feedback to your college or university. Sometimes, the push from the outside is the only way to encourage change on the inside.

BOTH parties need to do their best effort.

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