Monday, February 21, 2011
Professionalism and Student Complaints About One's Colleagues
I know that it is almost never professional nor wise to listen to student complaints about my colleagues. Yet students often want to tell me, indeed seem compelled to tell me, how bad a teacher Professor X is or what a terrible thing Professor Y said in class. The conversation always has a flattering subtext, to wit, "you're not like Professor X nor Professor Y." The question, then, is how to divert the conversation to a different topic without making the student feel uncomfortable. Though I love a good bit of gossip as well as (and maybe better than) the next person, it is simply not a good idea to indulge in this kind of conversation. I sometimes try to counteract the criticism by pointing out how much my colleague knows about his/her subject matter or how much my colleague really does care about students. Other times, I will say "I can't speak about my colleague" or I will literally stick my fingers in my ears and say "la, la, la" loudly to indicate, in a light-hearted manner, that I cannot be party to that kind of conversation. Are there any better tricks to deal with this problem? Over time, I inevitably end up hearing things about my colleagues, and, although I am highly skeptical of individual stories taken out of context, I have formed opinions about the teaching abilities of my colleagues based on hearing the same kinds of criticisms from students over and over again over a sustained period of time. Unfair, or inevitable?
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FWIW, I love your tactic of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying La-la-la-la. Will definitely borrow that if I'm ever fortunate enough to be the complained-to instead of the complained-about...
Posted by: Dan Markel | Feb 21, 2011 10:21:11 AM
Lyrissa, your response is admirable. What I find, unfortunately, is that some professors signal in various ways that they want to hear about their colleagues from their students. It's not uncommon that colleagues will approach me and say, "your students are telling me they love your seminar!" I always smile and say "that's wonderful!" but what I'm really thinking is "why are you engaging your students in conversation about me? Why do your students feel comfortable talking to you about me?"
Posted by: Eric Muller | Feb 21, 2011 10:54:39 AM
Lyrissa, this is an excellent question and I look forward to reading other prof's take on the issue. I get this occasionally, and generally just try to change the topic. If the student persists then I gently suggest that it might be fruitful for them to talk directly with the professor about the situation (in a tactful and respectful way). This said, I'm quite sure that I'm on the other side of such comments on occasion, but I'm betting that they are in the 'he gives *way* to much reading' variety - and I'm probably not changing that. :-)
Posted by: Jeff Yates | Feb 21, 2011 11:00:47 AM
My law school's faculty has a committee for the mentoring/training of new faculty, so when I mentioned to one of the senior professors some shortfalls of a newer professor (during a discussion on course selection), they were glad to hear it. The hope is that faculty can more tactfully address legitimate concerns, peer-to-peer. School administrations already ignore most student concerns, it's a shame if faculty do the same.
Posted by: Law Student | Feb 21, 2011 11:48:32 AM
I love both of these suggestions, and will try to add them to my bag of tricks.
Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Feb 21, 2011 11:49:01 AM
Just wondering whether student's compulsion to complain to you about other lawprofs is a reflection of their belief that you so soft, cuddly and empathetic that you will share their sense of entitled outrage, whereas others will not be so enabling?
You take it as flattering, where it might be nature's way of telling you that you are not fulfilling your pedagogical duty. Gaining the students' love and trust may make you feel good, but may not reflect well on how seriously they take you.
Posted by: shg | Feb 21, 2011 12:39:16 PM
I understand why one would want to take student comments with a grain of salt, or even to deem them entirely inadmissible as to the truth of the matter asserted. But I do not understand why they are thought inappropriate, or why it is okay to actively discourage them-- let alone to subject them to juvenile ridicule.
Isn't helping students figure out how to get a better education (or understand why they are getting a better education than they realize) a part of a professor's duty to mentor one's students? And if not, who are the students *supposed* to talk to about problematic style and substance in the classroom?
Posted by: William Baude | Feb 21, 2011 2:25:17 PM
Will, the students should complain to the Dean of Students. Faculty affirming a students' complaints of another faculty member should be avoided out of fairness to the other faculty. Universities have enough issues of PC, faculty discrimination suits, retaliation/whistleblowing suits, etc. where faculty confirming students' complaints of other faculty can only lead to bad outcomes.
Posted by: Marc R | Feb 21, 2011 3:18:20 PM
I think the real teaching moment is in trying to help them understand the severity of gossip in the profession they are about to go into. When you make negative comments about the performance of another attorney, you are virtually always making some sort of comment about their professionalism -- i.e., their competency, diligence, honesty, ethics....often the same crass comment or exaggerated story comes under multiple headings. As a result, I think most smart lawyers learn early in their careers that speaking badly of another attorney really only reflects poorly on the speaker: if the conduct is so bad then it should be reported, and if it isn't that bad, then it shouldn't be used to possibly damage the person's career.
Students should be developing that sensitivity now, in law school. If a student came to me and tried to speak ill of a professor or another student, I would do the things you've already suggested to cut off the conversation. If the student persists, then I would want to somehow convey to them that what they are engaging in isn't simply a dead-end, one-off comment about somebody as a person -- rather, they are making a broad-sweeping statement about somebody's professionalism. It's a big deal, and every time they make such a bold statement, they are putting their own reputations on the line in the process.
Posted by: Anon | Feb 21, 2011 4:07:53 PM
Fair enough. I suspect this may be somewhat institutionally and culturally contingent from school to school. I don't know anybody who went to the Dean of Students with these kind of issues at my law school, but if there is an office that's well-equipped and competent at doing that, that sounds like a reasonable solution.
I do mean to distinguish between gossiping, which should indeed be disfavored and reserved for one's friends, and more purpose-driven question and comments-- "how can I write a satisfactory paper for Professor X in light of this or that unreasonable demand?" or "How concerned should I be that my civil procedure class is teaching one case about the Due Process Clause rather than rules or statute governing private civil litigation?"
Posted by: William Baude | Feb 21, 2011 4:30:41 PM
I think the proper channel for sorting out those issues is among the other students or recent grads -- not professors. Most law schools have student mentoring arrangements for this very purpose.
I also think that most of the time, these conversations aren't rooted so much in a genuine issue with that other professor, but rather in the student's desire to gain a special alliance with the professor he/she is speaking with. If the professor gives any sort of flicker of interest, or worse, shuts the door and hears the gossip with a look of intrigue or says anything to agree with the student's negative assessments, then the student has just brought that professor down to his/her level. That's the reason the student brought the story to begin with -- whether he/she consciously realizes that or not.
Posted by: Anon | Feb 21, 2011 4:51:36 PM
Wow, I'm amazed that professional criticism is being so looked down upon. I think there's a big difference between mean spirited gossip, and legitimate concerns about a professor's teaching style or even what their teaching. News Flash: receiving Order of the Coif at your law school, and then clerking in the 9th Circuit doesn't automatically make you a fabulous professor. There should be some sort of committee establishing mentoring or training of new faculty, and that committee should be receptive to student concerns, and handle them with discretion and anonymity. Course evaluations only go so far, and usually lack in substance. If I were a faculty member, and my students had genuine issues regarding my skill as an instructor, I'd want to know those concerns so that I can get the point across more effectively to more of my students.
Posted by: Law Student | Feb 21, 2011 5:19:12 PM
I politely dissent from the position of my colleague -- who is btw a very fine teacher, a fact I know from a wide variety of sources, including teaching awards, high enrollments in her elective classes, and even occasional random comments from students we've had in common.
The academy is full of all sorts of privileges and bureaucratic information silos that allow bad and mediocre actors to get away with bad acts and incompetence in the classroom. In most law schools, there's almost no serious oversight of post-tenure teaching, except via standardized teaching evaluations that are quite limited in their rigor and are subject to gaming. Some administrations are very effective at identifying and dealing with bad behavior and incompetence and can earn the trust of students and faculty. But some -- indeed, many -- are not, or at least are not perfect at doing so, because disciplining bad behavior and incompetence is not only extremely difficult and time-consuming but very risky.
In this environment, some student complaints to professors serve the role of providing information where such information is scarce to colleagues, and perhaps to the administration as well. If the information is serious and credible, then the faculty member should direct the student to the appropriate administrator. The student may have gone first to the faculty member because s/he trusted the professor, and may not have known to whom in the administration the complaint should have been made in the first instance. If the information isn't credible or serious, then Lyrissa's responses are entirely appropriate. I think experienced, sensitive faculty can sort between the two, especially if they know the student who is complaining.
I read some of the comments here to suggest that all faculty who take any such student complaints seriously are weak-willed human beings and incompetent teachers. That's a dreadful overstatement and unfair to students and faculty, and would not benefit the institution.
Posted by: Mark Fenster | Feb 21, 2011 10:02:44 PM
It's human nature to want to complain, and to have an ear to complain to. That your students are talking to you about this shows that they trust and respect you. I think the best thing for you to do is just listen. You don't have to feel compelled to validate what your students say, and jumping to your colleague's defense is probably not going to achieve whatever result you think you need to achieve. Your colleagues may be an expert in a certain field, and they may care a great deal about students, but those things do not necessarily mean they are good at teaching. You could always just smile and say thank you, because the student's gripe may be more an attempt to compliment you than denigrate your fellow profs.
Posted by: Sra | Feb 22, 2011 6:34:20 AM
Mark Fenster nailed it.
Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 22, 2011 7:08:49 PM
I tend to agree with Mark Fenster, assuming students have a legitimate school-related complaint.
Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 23, 2011 12:28:18 AM
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