Most of my undergraduate instructors were really good ones. They encouraged learning and holding ourselves to high standards, clearly cared about the subject matter, maintained a safe space for me and my classmates, and engaged with us in a professional, good-natured way.
But in my penultimate semester of college, I had a really bad professor. The class was an elective, but the subject – animation – is a big part of my personal and career interests. My goal was to learn as much as I could. It quickly became clear that my professor didn’t share that goal.
Rather than teach us in person, this professor would display video lectures that he had made when the class had once been web-based. These videos were long, rambling, and unedited. While the video played, the professor would either text on his phone or make joking comments about how bad the videos were, never showing any intent to improve them or any desire to teach us the course content himself. I eventually learned to tune out the unhelpful videos and start to figure out the lesson and exercises on my own.
Every Monday, this professor would ask us what we had done this weekend, but instead of taking responses from us, he used it as a transition to talk about his own weekend, focusing on what bars he had gone to and what drinks he had gotten. Multiple times, he told stories about running into his students at the bars and buying them drinks. These stories made me very uncomfortable. I wondered what would happen if I ever ran into this professor downtown. Would he offer to buy me a drink? Would he retaliate against my grade if I refused?
One day, this professor told us he had just gotten back from a wedding. The groom was a relative of his, and the bride was an ex-girlfriend of his. He proceeded to tell us stories about how “crazy” the bride was, and displayed her Facebook page on the projection screen. It was one of the most unprofessional classroom behaviors I’ve ever witnessed.
Up to that point, I had resolved to just stick through it, keep my head down, and hope to scrape some knowledge and a decent grade out of the experience. I thought that that was my only option. But then came an incident that tipped me over the edge.
We had turned in our storyboards for our semester projects, and in a rare moment of educational investment, this professor was having the class as a whole look over the storyboards and provide workshop-style feedback. One student’s storyboard showed a battle between wizards, each with a symbol on his staff. One wizard’s symbol was a sun. The other was a Star of David. The wizard with the Star of David was the villain, and the wizard with the sun blew him up and was paid money for it.
I sat there, unable to do anything but stare in my shock. Fortunately, a friend of mine who was also in the class spoke up: “Why does that wizard have a Jewish star as his symbol?”
It quickly became clear that the student who drew the storyboard was clueless. The six-pointed star was just an easy shape for him to draw, and he hadn’t thought of the antisemitic implications. The professor, however, laughed. He started talking about “controversy” and how a video like this was a good thing because it would maybe get him on the news and then everyone would want to take this class.
Immediately after class ended, I texted my parents. I was angry. I was hurt. I had had enough.
Fortunately, my parents are both teachers, and they had an answer: go to the student ombudsperson.
I had never heard of an ombudsperson. But my school has one. Every school has or ought to have one. (They might be called an ombudsman at your school.) It’s someone who you can confidentially meet with about a problem that you for whatever reason don’t feel comfortable going to a professor about. They listen and help you figure out your options, without pressuring you to take action or getting you in any trouble.
And that’s exactly what happened. My friend and I set up a meeting with our school’s ombudsperson. After hearing our concerns, she asked us for permission for her to meet with the professor’s department head and discuss the problems – without ever mentioning our names. If we had said no for whatever reason, she wouldn’t have done it. But we said yes.
After that, for the last couple weeks of class, the professor displayed a complete change in behavior. He stopped using the videos, instead teaching us in person, engaging us in the subject matter and encouraging questions to make sure we understood. He left the uncomfortable, unprofessional topics behind. It was too late to make me like the class, of course, but at least I didn’t feel completely uncomfortable anymore. I also knew that now the department head was aware of this professor’s behavior, and that this professor might think twice about professionalism in the future.
I’m telling this story because I know there are other teachers like this professor out there, and other students whose first inclination will be the same as mine was – to keep your head down and just tolerate it until the end of the semester. But that is not your only option, nor is it your best option. You deserve a good education – if not because it’s your right, then because you paid for it! Take advantage of the friends you can commiserate with and the ombudspersons who can help fix the problems. Don’t let bad professors stop you from learning and feeling safe.