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Advise on issues with professor

  1. Oct 30, 2011 #1
    Howdy! I'm looking for some opinions from you guys on what I should do with some troubles I am having in my chemistry class.

    The school I am attending has a very small, but good Physics program. The professors are top-notch and teach because they love teaching. I am choosing not to pursue an education at a much larger university because of the amount of "attention" I get with such a small department.

    However, the same can't be said for the Chemistry department that we are joined with. There are a few good Chemistry professors, but the majority of them cannot teach effectively. This situation was not helped by the fact that two of our chemistry professors left unannounced, two weeks after the beginning of summer. Therefore, most of these teachers are overloaded and teaching 5-6 sections of classes.

    Currently, I am enrolled in a beginners chemistry class (Gen Chem 1, which is required by the physics major). I use what I learn in that class almost every day at work when I run their SEM and present the results.

    Unfortunately, my chemistry is far below the standards I am used to. He uses stock powerpoints from the textbook manufacturer and assigns ridiculously difficult homework. If I have a question, I am forced to e-mail him, as I must skip class or work to go to his office hours (that are regularly cancelled). The chances of getting a response to my actual question are low, and when I do, he works the problem for me (giving me the answer).

    In most of my e-mails, I specifically ask why he is doing something, instead of how he is doing something. I can understand how he does something if I know why he does it.

    In class, it's the same story. Instead of explaining the concept, he works a bunch of problems for us (asking for minimal input), teaching us how to do it vs. why he did it.

    This was fine during the first half of the semester, but now that we are moving on to more challenging stuff, I am quickly realizing that I do not have the necessary foundation for the more complex material. Most of the class is failing; not for lack of motive, but for lack of understanding.

    His philosophy for exams goes like this: he gives us the easy problems during class, then assigns hard homework for practice. But during the exams, he believes that we should be able to apply the concepts (which he doesn’t teach) to the exam, regardless of the difficulty of the problem. Unfortunately, he uses very difficult problems that require multiple steps to finish (typically 35 questions of mixed difficulty) all while under a time limit.

    During class, I asked for him to clarify why he practices that type of examination technique. Instead of answering the question, he gets very frustrated and moves on with the material. It’s my opinion that as a student, I have the right to ask a professor about his teaching techniques. Things got worse the next class day, when he called me out during class, stating that “R (my name) got me flustered because he was challenging my exams. So here’s the take home quiz that I meant to hand out on Tuesday.” If he has a problem with me, then I expect him to come to me and not undermine me during class.

    This is not a personality conflict. My issue is that out class have been given a sub-standard teacher who is lecturing a section of majors (our class is only for Chem and Phys majors). Apparently, others have had the same problem, as my advisor has had other students talk to him about difficulties with this professor.

    Here’s what I’ve done so far:

    I talked with my advisor, who forwarded my issues to the department chair. An investigation was opened, but nothing has become of it for 2 weeks. Not knowing what to do next, I got my dad involved. He contacted the department chair directly and tried to get the investigation back on track. That hasn’t done anything. I asked for my advisors permission to go directly to the department chair, which he has allowed. I have a meeting with the chair tomorrow. My dad will be taking off time from work to “show his presence” and try to get the issue fixed.

    I have 6 weeks left in the semester to get things fixed. Currently, I am attending another chemistry professor’s lecture to learn the concepts, on top of my currently enrolled class.

    I currently have a 4.0GPA, which I have worked very hard for. I don’t want to lose that because I could not learn the concepts from a professor who cannot teach.

    Do any current professors at other schools have advice on what to do? I feel like crap right now because I’m putting a lot of stress on my advisor and the physics side of the department; something I did not intend to do.

  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 30, 2011 #2
    Dear lord, that was a long post. Sorry if anyone has to read through all of that. :/
  4. Oct 30, 2011 #3


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    What do you mean by your dad "showing his presence"? You mean he will intervene somehow?

    Purely my opinion: this isn't a good idea. I completely believe you when you say you work hard for your great grades, but it probably won't impress the other professors at your college if you bring in your parents when the going gets rough.
  5. Oct 30, 2011 #4


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    Been there, done that, got the ulcers. A few years ago I had to teach four different lectures and three labs, after an instructor walked out on us two weeks before the beginning of fall semester. I barely made it through the semester. I'm sure your professor is feeling as frustrated by this as you are. You both had the bad luck to get into a terrible situation.
  6. Oct 30, 2011 #5
    This just sounds like a bad idea IMO.
  7. Oct 30, 2011 #6


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    Here's a wild idea. Given the unusual circumstances, you might be able to persuade the administration to let you withdraw from the course without penalty even if it's past the normal deadline for doing so, and take it over next year, when staffing will presumably be at a normal level again. You'd probably have to apply to the Dean or Provost or whatever your college calls its "chief academic officer," and it would probably help to have the support of the physics department chair.
  8. Oct 30, 2011 #7
    I'm surprised people are agreeing with this. It sounds like you are over demanding of your professors. You don't have a run of the mill professor and what do you do? You complain? Ever thought of teaching yourself? This is college not highschool. The professor isn't obliged to sit down emailing you back and forth explaining to you step by step.. and yet you feel that it is a right to expect more. You would be chewed up and spit out in graduate school. It isn't a right to have a VERY caring professor but a convenience. Your professor sounded like he joked around about you calling him out during class and your going up to authority and making a big deal out of things... Heck your taking your dad into this. It is in fact you who wronged him by calling him out and questioning his methodology.

    You just want everything the easy way or the high way. All of this sounds a lot like immaturity.

    Okay and???? You get one harder class and you complain all about it. Are you serious? Obviously your professor expects more of his students. This isn't out of the wild or anything. I think your just expecting everything to go nice and smoothly.
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2011
  9. Oct 30, 2011 #8
    Start exploiting other resources, and do it now. Whether this is your opinion regarding the Professor, or the class is in collective agreement with you, it doesn't matter. You are going to encounter some professors are not very good at what they do, and some that are. Mine as well get used to it now.
  10. Oct 31, 2011 #9
    This is every chemistry professor that I have ever had. I am taking Organic 1 next semester with the same crummy professor I took General 2 with last semester, and I maintained a 4.0 by learning the material myself with resources like khanacademy (and borek on physicsforums!).
  11. Oct 31, 2011 #10
    Like someone said before, he tells you the general gist and it is up to you to conceptualize the rest and work practice problems.

    You called in for an investigation, what?! How many other students are having as much of a trouble with the course as you are currently? If you're in the minority, you didn't work hard enough to conceptualize and actually apply the material.

    General Chemistry I is very similar to High School chemistry, and from my understanding of it, you go from mole problems up to the 3 states of matter (gas, liquid, solid) and understanding that stuff before moving on to G.C. II. The half-way point must be electron configurations or learning about Lewis structures, and that is pretty intuitive if you work practice problems and watch different videos from different people (generally professors) explaining them to you.

    You should have tried alternative studying habits and learning habits before calling in your dad and opening an investigation.
  12. Oct 31, 2011 #11
    The fact is that I paid money to be taking this course when I could have been taking Linear Algebra or Diff. Eq. Looking back on the situation, I could have taken this course at the local tech school for 1/3 the cost and probably gotten a better teacher.

    I understand that everyone is under stress, but that doesn't solve the problem that I am stuck paying for a professor who cannot teach.

    The rest of his sections are failing. On the last test, he had to put a 14 point curve to make a "passing average" for the class. Two of his 4 sections are all Chemistry and Physics majors. He now gives us take home quizzes to get people's grades up.

    What's sad is that I am paying to teach myself. It's principle based that my school will accept payment for this class, while not providing a suitable teacher. Other classes are getting along very well. Just the classes that are taught by this professor are having trouble.

    Is it too much to ask for a professor to do his job? I pay him to teach Chemistry. Judging by the how the rest of the class is going, he hasn't done that.

    Yeah. I was homeschooled, so I know how to teach myself. That's not the issue. I'm not asking for him to sit and explain every little detail, but at the same time that's what I am paying him for.

    If you pay $50k for a new car, you expect it to perform like a $50k car. Not $40k, not $49k. It's principle based.

    The only reason my dad got involved was because I mentioned the situation to him. Next thing I know, my adviser said that he got an email from my dad. The nice thing was that everyone started taking me seriously, instead of brushing me off as some student who was whining for an A (which I have right now).

    I can't drop this class, because I need the credits for next semester. My scholarships require that I take 15 credit each semester. I'm taking 18 now and need to keep 18. Next semester, I'll be doing an independent study course (teaching robotics). If I drop, I'll go down to 14 credits this semester and will have to pick up 16 next semester, which is something I do not want to have to do. Thanks for the idea though. =)

    At first, I didn't expect my dad to get involved. This type of situation happened last semester. The department agreed with me that the professor (last semester) was not good at teaching, but nothing was done about it. My dad stepped in this time, because he wants this resolved and not brushed aside like it was last time.

    Right now, I have an A in the class. I've taught the material to myself up until now. The issue is that my school accepted payment for a class that they are not adequately teaching. We had a substitute the other day who was excellent at teaching. So the school cannot say that our current professor is the "best of what they have".

    In situations like this at our school, investigations are opened whenever a student has a valid complaint about a professor. Since I have another professor (my adviser) and other classmates that agree with me, an investigation was opened. However, most of the time they are never finished by the end of the semester until final grades are posted, which defeats the purpose. The final for the class is a standardized test. Compared to what the rest of the classes are learning, I do not know if I will be prepared for the final. Yes, I will study my butt off like I always do. But it's hard to study when the basic concepts aren't understood.
  13. Oct 31, 2011 #12


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    This seems to be a VERY common reply whenever someone mentions a problem with a teacher. Sometimes a reply might this might even be justified, but I don't see why someone should just have to accept that he/she is having to deal with a teacher who can't teach.

    There ARE some really bad teachers out there. One problem in academia is of course that there are many (in some places most) researchers who do not like to teach and only do it because they have to, this means that the likelihood of coming across someone who is actually incompetent is quite high.
    I had a lecturer once (end of the 1st year when I was an undergrad) who was a very good mathematician (full professor with a very good group), but he had some rather unorthodox ideas about how to plan and run a course. In the end something like 75% of us failed the exam, and the professor who was responsible for the following course had to add extra lectures to HER course in order to cover material that we were suppose to have learnt in the previous course.
    In the end this lecturer was banned from teaching for a few years (he refused to accept that he was doing something wrong) and is (as far as I know) still not allowed to teach advanced math.
    In retrospect I wish we had complained earlier, that course nearly made me transfer to another program (several students did).
    This is an extreme example, but it illustrates my point: there is nothing wrong with complaining as long as there is a genuine problem, and it is done constructively. Sometimes it does lead to improvements.
  14. Oct 31, 2011 #13
    Typical response from the chemistry department chair! He can easily draw this out until your class is finished. On the other hand, the physics department are probably very amused by all this - they must know how bad the chemistry department are - so as long as you continue to get good classes in physics they'll love you and remember you... take all physics classes from now on if possible!

    How much does a good grade in this class really count in the final analysis? In any case, you are getting an A - just keep working hard at it - it's only for a short while.
  15. Oct 31, 2011 #14
    Why does everyone assume that letter grades are assigned as a universal marking system? It's not.
  16. Oct 31, 2011 #15
    Was this really necessary? The OP is looking for advice, not a text lashing. Lighten up, geez.
  17. Oct 31, 2011 #16
    While I do empathize with the OP, I want to make a few things clear:

    1) Bringing your dad in is a big no-no. You are an adult and you are expected to handle such a situations on your own. What if you have a job later and have a problem with your boss, will your dad show his presence as well??

    2) Calling your teacher out in front of the class was a very bad thing. You should have talked with him individually instead of trying to publically humiliate him. Your professor is probably under a whole lot of stress and he does seem to try his best. If you question his teaching methods, then do so privately outside of class.

    3) Lectures in college aren't there to spoonfeed you the material. You should be able to learn the material individually. Buy a book and read it. Lectures are there to allow you to ask questions and let it be answered by the lecturer (at least, that's how I see it).
  18. Oct 31, 2011 #17
    I don't see why there should be a lecture then. Reading individually should be expected, but I think that doesn't excuse a teacher asking the student to do everything. Why not just have office hours where the student can drop by to ask questions, and have the course be conducted remotely?

    I think it's pretty clear lectures should be instructive and helpful in discussing the material, and it's understandable to dislike it if the presentation is lacking. If the student is held to standards to perform well, so should the teacher.

    I agree with this.

    But what do you expect to gain from your dad getting involved? How would it help sort things out beyond what you could have accomplished individually? You know your academic situation better than your dad, however invested in and desiring of he is of your school success.
  19. Oct 31, 2011 #18
    This is a valid complaint because you are at a place where teaching is of paramount importance. But this is very common at other schools where the professor just wants to get the lecture over with (though there are always professors who do a great job at teaching).

    I agree the professor needn't e-mail back and forth. This student is not in graduate school yet. And there can probably be a happier balance.

    I do agree that expecting a 4.0 and not to have professors who put in substandard effort always is not really in line with reality.
  20. Oct 31, 2011 #19
    Well, of course the teacher should also perform well, but the reality is very different. The real issue is that professors aren't judged on how they teach, but rather on how good their research is!! I would imagine that the professor in question has such a huge workload, and I can't blame him for putting his research as a priority. The issue is much more complex than "the teacher should teach better".

    Second, students should learn to work individually in case of a bad teacher. Everybody has had some bad professor once in a while. But the trick is to compensate that to work alone and not to depend on the lectures too much. A college student should be able to handle it.

    Again, in the ideal world, the teacher should do a good job. But things are how they are now. The OP doesn't like it, but neither does the professor. You're both in a bad situation, and you got to make the best of it.
  21. Oct 31, 2011 #20


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    But if you work at a universtity and teaching is part of your job it is only right that people expect you to at least make an effort. Most of the people I know that teach a lot accepts that they sometimes have to put their research on the backburner because of teaching/admin obiligations. That is just part of the job, and if you REALLY don't like it you should consider a career change.
    I know from experience (teaching when I was a PhD student) that I would in all likelyhood make a terrible teacher if I was ever put in charge of a course; mainly because I don't enjoy it. Hence, I would never dream of applying for a position where teching was large part of the job (I wouldn't mind teaching smaller -more focused- courses).

    Moreover, there is a difference between a bad teacher and a REALLY bad teacher. You are of course right that no one can complettely avoid "bad" professors and that is something that you have to deal with, but that does not mean that you should tolerate the REALLY bad ones (and the really bad ones are often -in my experience- the ones that do not even realize how bad they are, but simply blame "stupid students").
    I remember one professor (think it was in subatomic physics) who told us during the first lecture that he knew he wasn't a great teacher, but that he had organized the course in such a way that one could pass it with good grades without even going to his lectures ( I think I went to two or three), i.e. plenty of hand-in assignments and a good course book. Hence, there ARE ways to deal with this if there is a will.
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