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Apr 4, 2009

Student complaints

It's been busy in the last couple of weeks. Two trips, several ceremonies, search, a couple of new projects – all of these worked out just fine. Things are going really well for me, and I want to believe, for the School. Yet problems that don't have a good resolution are on my mind, as always. Certain problems just don't have a clear cut solution, no matter how creative you are, or how hard you think, or how much you know. One of them is student complaints.

I am very fortunate to receive very few of those, but when I do, it is never clear what to do about them. Students who come forward to complain always have a mixture of motives and interests. They are always concerned about the quality of instruction, and almost always bring up valid criticism of someone's instruction. However, a student who complains before the end of the semester always has another motive – an attempt to get a higher grade. Even if they don't realize it, objectively speaking, they have a conflict of interest. The complainer is not a disinterested bystander reporting some problems out of JUST the moral duty. Students are often overestimate the influence an administrator can exert over faculty teaching. Or rather, they do not really know what they want to be done.

When I convey the sense of complaint to the instructor in question, everyone without an exception is hurt. A student complaint violates both trust and authority embedded in the teacher-student relationship. "Why didn't they talk to me?" – is usually the first reaction. And then, inevitably "This is simply not true." And almost always: "Let me tell you about this student." It is very hard to be in a position of power, and to sense the imbalance of power. You think, if I am open and honest with students, they should feel free to criticize me openly, to bring their concerns to me. But again, the objective situation of power imbalance makes this relationship look different from the other side. Power is one-way mirror: if you have it, all you see is the benevolent you. If you don't, you see the other, big, powerful, and scary. Therefore, I cannot simply turn away complainers and send them back to those against whom they complain. Even when students complain against a faculty from a different School, and even listening to them may look like invasion of someone else's turf, turning complainers away just is not a good option. There is no growth without knowledge of problems.

In those complaints, there are exaggerations, misinterpretations, although very rarely outright lies. Knowing that, I always try to check the facts with the instructor, and provide an opportunity to tell his or her side of the story. But – and it is a big and important but – the very fact of checking is already offensive to the instructor. The implied response is always "How dare you to even admit a possibility that the student is right, and I am wrong? Whose side are you on anyway?" No matter how much I tell that I am not inclined to believe student complaints, especially if they do not reoccur, faculty always feel offended and maybe even harassed. No one likes to be accused, and everyone feels the right to confront one's accuser. But because of the power situation above, it is often impossible. This is not a court of law.

And as I noted on another occasion, different perspectives can lead to different version of the same story both being true. To explain why someone would see the story differently, you almost have to evoke the moral argument: the other person is biased, unfair, and manipulative. That is where "let me tell you about this student" argument comes from. People in general have a hard time separating facts from their interpretation, and interpretation from the source. Yet how do you go about doing our everyday business without knowing each other's business? How do we improve if we do not get to reflect on our students' concerns and perceptions?

I hope you all see now how tricky this can get, how many layers of meanings can be revealed, and how many conflicting interests and considerations are at work. I wish I had an answer, but have some rules for dealing with student complaints:

  • Ask if the student tried to bring it up with the instructor, and if not, why.
  • Ask for details – what exactly was said? Can you show me your assignment? Can you show me your syllabus? Do you have your paper with you? What exactly happened? How many times, etc.
  • Ask what the student wants to be done (learned that from Eugene), and when they want intervention. It is important, because to intervene before grades are in is to disclose the student identity to the faculty. There should be some cost to the complainer: to prepare evidence, to risk confrontation, or other unpleasantness, etc. If you make complaining "free" it encourages frivolous complaints.
  • If the student wants to wait till the class is over, encourage to use evaluation forms. Inform about the grade appeal process.
  • Inform about the scope and limits of my own authority. For example, I cannot tell an instructor to change someone's grade, but I can ask to develop a better grading system.
  • Write an e-mail which focuses on facts, and send it to the instructor – immediately or after the end of semester, with or without student's name depending on what the student wants.

This is basically it. We have no policy or procedure on dealing with student complaints. In most cases, it just stays between me and the instructor. I don't know how to follow up, or how to make sure basic standards of good teaching are followed. Sometimes I keep a copy of the correspondence, but no one ever sees it. Maybe this how it should be, but it just strikes me as a lost opportunity. Ultimately, we must create a culture where our students are our allies, our sounding boards, and our critics and helpers. But we do not want to open the floodgate of ridiculous complaints whose only aim is to manipulate the system and get a better grade. What we really need to encourage is not complaints, but a steady flow of feedback from students about what and how we teach. They have many professors, and can see and compare; they usually know what works and what does not, what is a waste of time, and what is valuable. Faculty members do not have the time to visit each other's classes, so a lot of discoveries, tricks, and tips are not shared. But our students see it all – the good, the bad and the ugly. I don't want to see just the ugly; I want to see the good, and make sure everyone else learns from it.

The question of the day is this: how do we use our students' knowledge of college instruction to improve our teaching? How do we do it outside of the framework of complaining?

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