An Academic Advisor’s Advice on How to Handle this Situation
by Priscilla Beth Baker
HaveUHeard presents this guest blog from an expert on Academic Advisors and how to handle the complaints that come up during your college students’ career.
All of our kids have certain expectations before they go to college about what it will be like academically. They ask themselves if they will transition smoothly given the rigor of their high school curriculum. They wonder if they have the tools necessary to succeed in the higher ed environment. Some make assumptions that it won’t even be a transition because they feel so ready. The reality of what they encounter is seldom what they anticipated on multiple levels.
Perhaps one thing a few of them anticipate is how to handle a difficult situation related to a class or a professor on their own. Let’s be honest – when our kids were in high school, we parents were frequently guilty of intervening with teachers on their behalf to discuss grades, missing work, upcoming vacations that conflicted with class, extensions, and any number of other things. We unwittingly set the stage for them to have absolutely no idea how to handle these issues themselves. And even those students who do admirably manage to address these situations themselves at the high school level are exponentially more intimidated by a college professor they see for only 3 hours a week from the back of a classroom.
It is imperative that our children develop the skills necessary to advocate for themselves, especially in high-pressure, high-stakes situations like classes where grades (and therefore their futures as they perceive it) are involved. Learning these lessons now will set them on a course to be able to do the same in a professional setting after graduation. There is no greater professional gift that you can give to your child than the ability to both give and receive constructive criticism as a matter of personal growth.
Your child will likely have many complaints about their classes and professors during their time away at school. Sometimes they just need to vent and don’t even want you to weigh in. Sometimes they just need some words of encouragement and reminders about resources on campus they might not be accessing. And then there will be times when your impulse will be to call the Dean and demand higher quality instruction. As tempting as that might be, you need to resist that temptation while knowing that that call will yield little result regardless.
In the spirit of this kind of professional development, I reached out to multiple faculty members at my home institution where I serve as an Academic Advisor and asked them three key questions. What follows is a compilation of their advice combined with my own experience advising these issues for the past seven years.
- If a student has a complaint/issue about something related to your class, what is your preferred method of them handling that situation if they choose to do so? Book a meeting, office hours, email, phone, etc? Why?
Faculty were split on what the best first-line of defense is in this situation. Half said they prefer students to contact them first via email to initially address the situation; then a meeting can be booked if necessary. This tactic provides a documented paper trail that is important for both students and faculty alike. If your child is uncomfortable relaying the issue in writing, he or she can email the professor simply stating that they would like to set up a meeting to discuss something in person. Most minor issues can and should be resolved via email, but something more sensitive should be handled in person. Your child should not, however, expect an immediate response via email outside of business hours. Repeatedly emailing professors over weekends, in the evenings, or on breaks is just not advisable. Instructors will respond in a timely manner as their schedules permit.
The other half of the faculty felt that office hours or after class were the most appropriate way to handle complaints. In case you are unaware, all instructors have posted office hours on their syllabi for each semester which your child should know about. Professors who felt in-person meetings were the best tactic cited the difficulty of email communication as the main reason, and how easily things can be misinterpreted in those back and forth exchanges. Students are also far bolder in writing than they are in person which can lead to “borderline inappropriate or insulting emails” that will do little to improve your child’s situation. Being face-to-face means the professor can ask follow-up questions, refer your child to outside resources, and ensure that the situation has been resolved. Although potentially intimidating, oftentimes an in-person meeting will ultimately consume far less time than lengthy (and often distressing) email interchanges.
Where to Focus Instead of Complaints
One professor said she’d “prefer that students focus on things I can do to improve or help their learning” rather than focusing on “complaints.” If your child is having difficulty learning due to a professor’s approach, it is appropriate to address that specifically and with concrete examples as to how the instructor could better serve the learning objectives.
“However, there are some issues that I’m not sure students communicating with the professors will do anything to change, as these annoyances are simply a matter of individual personality and are the same annoyances others in the workplace face,” says one professor. This is a very important point. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and sometimes we just need to look the other way and find a way to make it work, allowing that that person is doing the best they can. For “complaints” that fall into this category (e.g. “the professor is disorganized; the professor does not return things in a timely manner, the professor plays favorites”), the best place your child can note those issues would be on a teaching evaluation at the end of the semester, again, with specific examples rather than just complaining. Then the department head in reviewing the evaluations can address those things specifically with the professor in their reviews.
“For issues of faculty being disrespectful to the students, harassment, or other completely unprofessional behavior,” one faculty member recommends they document specific examples (date, what was said, etc.) and raise the issue directly with either the Assistant Department Head or Department Head. These behaviors are categorically unacceptable and should not be tolerated.
- Outside of academic help, what do you view as valid reasons for a student to come and talk to you? What would you prefer that they work out on their own?
Faculty were unanimous in saying that coming to them for academic help, career advice, research opportunities, and professional development are perfectly appropriate reasons.
What’s not appropriate? Talking to professors about roommate issues, girlfriend/boyfriend problems, issues with other faculty or students “unless it deals with their ability to succeed in my class.” Those conversations should be reserved for their Academic Advisor, family, friends, or counselors.
A pet peeve of faculty is a student coming to speak with them about a homework assignment that they have not even attempted to do on their own. Or asking about careers they have not even done a quick Google search on themselves. Students need to come prepared with questions ready. A professor’s time is just as valuable as your child’s.
Another pet peeve? Do not contact professors after semester grades have posted to ask if they can change your grade and give reasons why they should do so (i.e. “I will get kicked out of my department if…I worked so hard and improved by the end….I really loved your class and feel I deserve a better grade.” Unless there is a genuine error in the grade, students need to leave it alone. Faculty give the grade a student earns not what students think they deserve. It is unethical to do otherwise.
- At what point do you want a student to talk to you regarding struggles in your class (be it academic, medical, mental health-related issues, etc). Would you prefer to be kept in the loop early on or only if it becomes untenable for them?
Faculty were unanimous in saying some version of “early and often.” They would rather know that something might become a potential issue before it actually is. This also enables them to make accommodations early on if necessary and to make sure those accommodations are fair and consistent. Alternatively, if there is no real potential issue, but one arises later in the semester which precludes turning assignments in a timely manner, a student should alert the professor as soon as things start slipping.
How Best to Convey Their Struggles
“It’s fine for them to say ‘just as a heads up, I’m having a (fill in the blank) problem.’ I think it’s good for students to be proactive and to demonstrate to their instructors that they have a plan.” Students needn’t give specifics – vaguely saying they are dealing with a ‘personal, medical or family issue’ is just fine. “If they want to give more specifics because it makes them feel better to talk, that’s fine too. However, in some professional environments, being too specific may be frowned on.” Another added benefit in including faculty in the dialogue is that it enables professors and advisors to suggest ways of coping and resources that your child may be wholly unaware of as existing on their campuses.
If students try to communicate with their professors and truly feel unheard or the situation becomes untenable, contacting their advisor, the Assistant Department Head, or even the Department Head might be appropriate, but in my experience, most professors share this attitude: “The goal in my class is for the students to learn. So, if something I am or am not doing is affecting their learning, and it is in my power to change, I will do what I can.” It’s best if our kids, and we as parents, keep that in mind in guiding them to communicate with faculty as effectively as possible.
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