Phoney complaint

dunceOver at Inside Higher Ed’s “Survival Guide,” a nervous grad student and adjunct instructor writes:

Dear Survival Guide:

I am a graduate student and also teach as an adjunct. I was recently made aware a student may be filing a formal complaint against me because I sternly told him he was not allowed to leave the class to take a phone call. He is not disputing the rule or my enforcement of it, rather claiming abuse because of my tone.

What should I do to prepare? Should I seek legal representation? I’m not sure what steps to take and I don’t want to do anything in the beginning that could jeopardize my chances for an acceptable resolution.

C. K. Gunslaus replies with a lot of helpful general advice–stay calm, try to recall the incident clearly and honestly, know your institution’s grievance procedures, etc., and the commenters have other good ideas (make your telephone and class disruptions policies clear on your syllabus, for example) but it doesn’t sound to me like there’s a lot of there there in this particular story.  The student “may be filing a formal complaint.”  Fine–let him, and then you can worry if you want to, but only when a formal complaint has been filed.  “He is not disputing the rule or my enforcement of it, rather claiming abuse because of my tone.”  Oh, your tone?  As if you were the instructor of the class or something?  The student cedes your right to set the rules and to enforce them, and isn’t even complaining about the enforcement per se, he just doesn’t like your tone of voice? 

Is there any sane department chair or administrator who wouldn’t laugh this student out of hir office?  (I fully realize that there are in fact insane and evil department chairs and administrators–but I think they’re in the minority.)

My guess is that this student is just b!tching and moaning and has no intention whatsoever of filing a complaint–he just wants to push around the instructor with his empty threats, and so far, it’s working like a charm.  Researching institutional grievance procedures and filing a formal complaint would take, like, some work, man, so my guess is it’s not going to happen.  If the student’s phone call really was a life-or-death issue, then the student presumably would have left the room and taken the call.  Would a student really permit a professor or instructor to dictate whether or not he would hear his father’s dying words, or receive a dire medical diagnosis, or find out if he was selected to be on American Idol?  I think not.  This guy’s playing you like a violin, friend.

Something tells me that this letter is more about how vulnerable contingent labor feel than anything else.

0 thoughts on “Phoney complaint

  1. First!

    Right, this should be passed off to the chair, who should dispense with it quickly. If that isn’t happening, then something else must be amiss. I’d also see if there is a student honor code. Here, we have such a thing, and it specifies what is and isn’t appropriate student behavior. When we have such a breakdown here, the code is where I first turn.


  2. But, if the student hasn’t filed a complaint, then there’s nothing to pass on to the department chair!

    It might be good for the adjunct to go talk to the chair about this to give the chair a heads-up, and also to get hir reaction/advice. My sense is that this instructor is very green and is rattled by this student more than ze should be, because ze’s new to the game.

    I agree with you on the codes: they’re usually very helpful.


  3. Ahh, the unbearable sense of entitlement! Sometimes I wish it were 1950 and we could maintain order with an iron fist. (I remember the good ol’ days when late students got locked out of class!)

    (This is totally unrelated, Historiann, so forgive the postjacking, but one of my senior Americanist colleagues said today – publicly – that American women’s history is a no-good field with an “expiration date” on it. I thought you might like to know this, and plan accordingly. And we wonder why it’s so hard to hold onto female faculty!)


  4. You’re probably right that the instructor is green and getting played like a violin, but we shouldn’t downplay the vulnerability of contingent faculty in situations like this. Even a blatantly ridiculous complaint can turn into a nightmare if a litigious twit of a student decides to pursue it rather than, you know, actually bothering to do the work of getting educated. There are some real jerks out there, and they are acutely aware of how precarious things are for lecturers and TAs.


  5. Oh, and more on point with the post itself – my advice would be 1) consult the handbook of student and faculty conduct; 2) give the chair a head’s up – the chair might provide some advice and should be notified in case the student shows up hirself; and 3) if the complaint is filed or the adjunct seriously believes this could happen, the adjunct should know that every university has a legal department that can advise/ support faculty. I agree with Roxie that there are some bad eggs out there (especially if the adjunct teaches at a private elite college) and though it sounds absurd and is certainly an outrage, we are all vulnerable to the overlitigousness/ entitlement of student culture. Every issue of academic dishonesty I faced I handled religiously following the outlines of the judiciary at the uni, and every meeting I had with a student I requested that the chair attend – largely, to have a witness.


  6. When my children went to grade and high school decades ago, I think my spouse and I gave them the message that in any school squabble we would come down on the side of the teacher/principal. As a Pediatrician I have watched with distain over the past years as parents often took the side of their non-handicapped child in disagreements with the school – when the school was clearly in the right. I really ticked off parents when I refused to take up their cause, unless it concerned a special needs child. Perhaps this mind set followed the kids to university. Historiann might comment whether helicopter parents are doing this with their college students.


  7. Grandoc–I haven’t run into any Helicopter Parents at Baa Ram U., and those I heard from at my former job (at a private uni) were much more like you and your spouse: when I explained why their children flunked my classes, they got angry with the children and fully understood my course of action. (Of course, they hadn’t been told the full story by their children!) So, I’ve never dealt with the kind of intransigence that you describe, but I’ve heard stories about what faculty at other private unis and fancy colleges have dealt with, Helicopter-wise.

    Perpetua, you don’t have to go back to the 1950s to hear stories of students being locked out of class. When I was a T.A. for Lynn Hunt (a very prominent French historian) in the early 1990s at Penn, she was so irritated by students sauntering into her big Western Civ lectures late that she locked the doors! They were angry, and complained, but because she was Lynn Hunt, who was going to do anything about it? (A very different position than the instructor in this story is in, to be sure.)


  8. While I am sympathetic to the tutor in this case as we all know there are students out there who make life miserable (just like there are professors), ‘tone’ can matter. For years, people found in difficult to prove racism or sexism because the direct words used were open to interpretation, but the recipient could not prove ‘tone’. We rely on tone all the time to convey meaning. If a complaint was raised, I think there should be some attempt to investigate what the student’s concern was- while at the same time taking into account the tutor’s right to exercise authority in hir classroom and to convey that authority in hir tone.


  9. The phrase “I was recently made aware” suggests that the student talked with somebody of some rank in the institution (high or low, who knows) in order for the information to get back to the instructor. This seems like a classic case of entitlement syndrome. It’s endless.

    Contingent faculty are vulnerable but so are office support staff. Around here we have a continual stream of students with special requests, most often involving convenient and no-cost ways for them to obtain grades for courses they blew off in prior terms. The rules are clear but when our office specialist follows the rules, she is as likely as not to be treated rudely by students and then overridden by a superior who just wants to oil the squeaky wheel. The office specialist’s standing is eroded, both with students and with superiors, and the job becomes that much harder to perform.


  10. I agree with all of this – and hope that our colleague is reading – but I also think that it is best to discuss problem students with your chair (assuming trust) *before* a student files a complaint. This goes beyond mere framing (i.e., would you rather respond to a complaint that blindsides your Chair, or have your chair receive that complaint with knowledge of your experience already in mind?). The basic thing is that we all teach in an uneven world, and the only way to tilt the ground, even just a little, towards level is to take our own performance in the classroom seriously. This student may smell weakness. Maybe (probably?) this is about gender, race, class, age, height, etc., but maybe *also* there is something that Instructor A could be doing better to hold the room, to own it in which a way that students can’t easily shake her loose.

    I’m sure some might suggest that VAPs, Lecturers, Adjuncts, and others would prefer to keep their jobs, and that a confession to the Chair might make that harder. But, if it were me, I’d want to make sure this doesn’t happen again and again and again. And there are a thousand little things we can do to make sure it doesn’t, or at least to makes its reappearance a harder.

    I think.


  11. Wow–good call, truffula. I missed that “I was recently made aware.” This makes this so-called “complaint” sound even dodgier. Ze might have been “made aware” by the student himself, but it sounds like gossip that might be coming from anywhere–from a fellow instructor, from a regular faculty member, from the department chair, and/or from a student.

    Good point about the abuse that office staff endure. And, they have to: their desks are in offices whose doors are always open, and they must answer the phones, whereas faculty can refuse to answer knocks on the door/phone calls without impunity. (And we can absent ourselves from our offices to work elsewhere if we like, too–a great luxury.)

    Feminist Avatar makes a good point–I’m not saying “tone” is never important, and it may be here. It just sounds a lot like a conversation we had a few weeks ago about the subtext of being hassled about your “tone” by supervisors.


  12. Clio B.–I understood which comments you were calling out. I don’t know why Inside Higher Ed doesn’t monitor their comments more aggressively. Very quickly they’re taken over by 1) hateful regulars who rail against affirmative action or any concern about just hiring practices, and/or 2) free marketeers who think it’s perfectly fine to let “market forces” shape everything in modern universities.

    Lance–I agree. All I was saying is that the chair can’t do anything unless and until the student complains. (At least, I think it would be inadvisable to do anything until that point.) But the chair and the instructor could probably have a helpful conversation about how to handle these things in the future.


  13. That reference to ‘tone’ in the original letter makes me wonder (yet again) if there is a gender component to this. In other words, how dare women speak to students (and in this case, the purported complainant is identified as male) in any way that makes them even a bit uncomfortable.

    And yes, if the complaint has come to the lecturer’s ears in a roundabout way, it may well be in part of a bit of subtle intimidation/bullying by other, more powerful staff.


  14. I agree with Bavardess. I just wonder if this isn’t a female instructor who is already having a hard time enforcing class policies, and who has been “tagged” as a potential push over.

    Honestly, her/his “greenness” may have something to do with this, but as a fairly green instructor myself we should cut him/her a little slack for not understanding how the process works, etc. If this is his/her first time being challenged in this way, she/he may not have known whether or not to take this issue to the chair.


  15. THE & Bavardess–you’re reading this case the way I did, but without knowing more about the particulars, I didn’t want to venture further. I don’t blame the terrified young instructor for being rattled and writing to C.K. Gunslaus–I just thought that Gunslaus was treating the case waaaaay more seriously than it merits at this point.

    This is exactly the kind of thing that would have kept me up nights as a young instructor, especially if it were becoming a matter of hallway gossip.


  16. it’s already been expressed here, but boy-howdy do I agree that the comments space at IHE (& the Chronicle of Higher Ed, while we are at it) is pretty consistently a miserable minefield. It’s bizarre.

    Second, & another echo, but anyhoo, one of the best things I’ve learned as a beginning-ish prof is to respond to all student attempts at bullying (b/c it does sound like this is what is happening in the cell phone story) with enthusiastic support. They want to complain over my head? They should! They want to to talk to the chair, or the undergrad programs director, or a dean, or something? They should! I will help them look up the grievance procedure on the interwebs, even. I do it for two reasons: one, I believe students should know what their options are and how to exercise them; two, because since I’ve started doing it I’ve never again had an interaction with a student that raised my blood pressure much (knock on wood). Once they realize their ire is not fazing lil ol’ me, it takes them seconds to realize it’s not going to impress a Senior Grownup, either, & the jig is up. Of course, the inner karma that has come from learning this means this sort of thing doesn’t come up as much over time (or maybe it’s just due to the fact that I have a bit more gray hair every year and with it an increasing air of gravitas 🙂


  17. Of course, my feeling about the whole situation focused on the knee-jerk response of “wow, that’s an ill-considered policy”. I let my students leave class to take a call, but they’re not to return unless it’s a class with a break (i.e., they can leave to take a call and they’re done unless they can come back during a scheduled break).

    As a parent of a special needs child, I’ve been called out of meetings and events to deal with crises that can’t be put off until a later time. I have students who are parents and caregivers of various sorts, as well as one student who has specialized emergency response training and has to be on call for some crises we hope never happen.

    It’s moderately disruptive to excuse someone, but I’ve always felt it’s better to get that person out and let everyone else get on with matters. Devising policies that keep the class going but recognizes and adapts to the needs of all the people there isn’t easy. (I tell my students to set their phones to vibrate if they do need to be available for a call.)

    Still, the whole “tone” complaint does sound as if the student is flailing around for some way in which to justify themselves against their meany-pants instructor instead of claiming they had a real emergency which the instructor wasn’t recognizing. At my institution, that would politely be denied but I’m sure at some SLACs you’d get an immediate institutional response regarding the precious snowflakedness of their precious little snowflakes!


  18. Kathleen–yes, I think that’s an excellent strategy. Offering to introduce them to the Chair of your department probably does diminish their appetite for issuing idle threats…

    Janice–I too found it strange that the student would 1) request permission to take a call, and then 2) complain when denied permission. In my experience, phone calls in class don’t happen all too often–the few times it’s happened to me, the student approached me before class and explained apologetically that she might need to leave to take a phone call. I said that was fine–since presumably other students leave to use the bathroom as needed, and I don’t really ask where they’re going. (I don’t find the occasional student bathroom-break or need for a drink of water to be all that disruptive.)

    Now, don’t get me started about the surreptitious text-messaging…I’m so ready for there to be a new, irritating habit. (Kind of like remember when people’s phones would ring in class, maybe 5 years ago? Then people figured it out? I’m really ready for students to figure out how to leave their damn phones alone during class.)


  19. Ha! Let them eat cake if they think they can topple Lynn Hunt on the mere matter of a locked door! That’s a good one. (If she’d locked a kid INSIDE the janitor closet in 200 Carthage Hall, that might have merited a raised eyebrow!). But a young instructor is obviously a softer target. Grandoc’s advice to his kids was certainly what *I* got from my parents back in the day. Don’t come home and say your teacher did this or that, or you might get more of the same here. So I kept it out of that channel. Perversely and ironically (and gratifyingly, I must say), when it much later on one occasion got back to my mother via other means that a math teacher had taken a gratuitous verbal dig at me, she came down and raised hell. But it wasn’t in response to or in support of any whining on my part.

    As for the kid and the “tone” issue, rub some mud on it. I had a kid just yesterday who ducked out at a break, stayed out, then slipped back in just as the second half ended to pick up the study guide for an upcoming exam. When I rebuked him for it (not in an open-spectacle way, but in front of at least the nearby students) he was all apologies and “….won’t happen again, sir’s.”

    I do find the bathroom break thing not disruptive, but fairly weird. I mean, at my age, that would be one thing, but at 18? I bet they wouldn’t leave a half-empty pitcher in the care of thirsty friends at an off-campus bar just for the sake of a little more bladder comfort.


  20. I have to say, I hate the bathroom break thing, and *really* wish I could legally forbid them from leaving the room once class has begun. Long classes have breaks. Otherwise everyone in the world should know to go to the bathroom before class and should be able to hold it for 1 1/2 hrs at the longest. I feel like they think they can just get up and leave whenever they feel like it. But I don’t think ethically or legally I can say, No you can’t pee! I did have a student once come up to me before class and say she might have to leave to throw up. After some inquiries on my part, she insisted that she wasn’t sick, so I assumed she was massively hung over. I was kind of proud of her for coming to class anyway, and she managed to hold it together (or in, rather).

    The thing that can be frustrating about college kids is that they don’t seem capable of understanding different levels of importance, or how to navigate them. What I mean is, some students think they can come and go as they choose, disrupting class at their whim. Others quake in fear of causing trouble and apologize excessively for real problems or go to ludicrous lengths to hide them. They don’t seem to know what an “emergency” is or that when they’re having a real emergency, other stuff doesn’t matter (whether you disrupt a class, or miss an exam, or turn a paper in late). I had a student once who was in the hospital having an emergency appendectomy and was so afraid of missing his midterm he sent his father down to class to talk to me about it (to explain that there had been a real emergency, etc).


  21. I’m with Bavardess–I never heard of a complaint about “tone” aimed in the direction of a male speaker. The complaint would sound disrespectful in a weird way, like objecting (seriously, unfacetiously) to the speaker’s ugly tie.

    Walkouts irk me too, especially because I think female instructors receive them worse than men: that is, a male instructor who is really really boring or oppressive or incomprehensible might get strolled out on, but all a woman has to do is cause a little bit of discomfort and the student feels entitled to give himself or herself a break.


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