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Issues with a Physics professor

  1. Nov 19, 2011 #1
    I'm sorry if this is a completely inappropriate place to post this in, but I know a number of people in this forum work or have worked in academia, and I was hoping that I might be able to get some advice. Also, since it is a physics professor specifically I'm having an issue with, I think it would be better to talk with others who actually understand the subject. Talking to the science department head about these issues proved absolutely fruitless as he doesn't understand *anything* about physics and he just gave me the "deer in the headlights" look when I tried to go into some of the more technical details of a few of the issues.

    Here's the thing, I know a lot of students complain about "mean" teachers, especially in the sciences were they are generally required to *gasp* read the book and study outside of class. I have an issue that deals with my professor's severe incompetence. I actually really like the guy on a personal level, and he seems to really, genuinely care about his students, but he needs to be removed from any field of education. Now, I understand that "severe incompetence" is a pretty serious claim, so I will define exactly what I mean:

    The professor doesn't seem to have a grasp on the basic principles of his subject matter. I would say that in about 25% of the problems he works out during class, there is at least one severe physics-related issue (as in, an issue that stems from improperly applying physics concepts to the problem, or failing to account for certain factors within the problem. I will elaborate with an example) with his methodology that leads to him working the problem out incorrectly. I try to speak up and point out these mistakes early, but that usually leads to him just talking over me, telling me why I am wrong, working out the problem, ending up with the incorrect answer, and then becoming very puzzled. Usually, this leads to me speaking up again, him talking over me and telling me why I am wrong, then me getting up and simply correcting his work without his asking, explaining to him why what he did was wrong, and ending up with the correct answer at the end. He NEVER (and I mean that literally) understands what he did wrong even after I have explained to him in the most EXCRUCIATINGLY simplest way I can. Usually, he gets very confused, writes down my work and will come back to me a class or two later and tell me that he worked out the problem again using my methodology and that I was right. I find this disturbing as the class in question is Physics w/Calculus I, and I am a sophomore who has NEVER taken ANY other courses in Physics.

    To give an example of the above (I don't remember the exact details, so I apologize if something is missing or a little off): we were working out a problem that involved the conservation of momentum. It involved a "train" moving in the positive x-direction on a track. The "cars" on the train were attached by ideal springs and shot off by the train one by one. The idea was to calculate the velocity of the train as each successive car was shot off the train. The issue that stemmed from this is that when calculating the momentum of each car shot off from the train, the professor was continuously applying the current velocity of the car with respect to the x-axis, in the wrong direction. He was making a sign error in his calculations, and the reason for this error was that he was improperly distributing a sign (i.e., what should have been written as (a - b - c) in order to imply that a is in the positive direction, and b and c are both in the negative direction, he wrote as [a - (b - c)] which, when you distribute the negative sign becomes (a - b + c), implying that a and c are in the positive direction and b is in the negative direction, which is incorrect). Now, I understand small mistakes like this (I hardly claim to be perfect), but when I worked the problem out and explained this to him, the professor couldn't seem to grasp the concept that distribution changes sign, which changes implied direction. As previously stated, about 1 in 4 of the problems he works out for the class have an issue like this. Also, we have had 2 tests so far and on both of the tests there was one question in which he worked out on his answer key improperly, I later pointed out, and he eventually just gave the class credit if they either got the actual correct answer, or the incorrect answer that he worked out. Again, I can understand errors in test keys, but I find it disturbing that there have been major errors with one question on BOTH of his tests (and these are among a myriad of other issues with his tests).

    I'm realizing that this is already becoming an extremely long post and for the sake of brevity, I'll just mention a few other issues with more less elaboration:

    The professor gives tests with incredibly ambiguous wording and terminology. Many of his questions could be answered in multiple ways (i.e. we had a question about the velocity of the tip of a hand of a clock, but the he did not specify whether he wanted the rotational velocity or just velocity. I tried to ask which he wanted during the test, but he wouldn't tell me. There wasn't enough room on the test (elaborated below) to solve for both velocities, so I solved for rotational velocity and he marked it wrong. He wouldn't give me credit for the question later when I pointed out that it was ambiguous).

    The professor tests mainly on obscure terminology rather than physics. Many of his questions deal with terminology that is literally not in the book, and that he seems to never mention in class. This makes a question impossible to answers no matter how well you understand the principles of physics.

    The professor gives very little space to show work on a test (he puts two questions to a page), yet for every question he wants a DETAILED illustration for the problem, a summary of all the factors of the problem, and every step of your work. However, if your work is very small and he has trouble reading it he simply marks the question wrong (he won't even give partial credit). If you don't include all of the above, he immediately marks the question half-off.

    I really don't know what to do at this point. Out of the 37 students that we had at the beginning of this class, there are only 12 of us left, and only 3 students are actually passing the course. I am one of these three students, and I have a borderline C. The other two students aren't doing any better, and my grade is probably the highest in the class. From campus hearsay, I have found that this is actually pretty typical of his classes, but I can't actually confirm this.

    As I mentioned, I have already talked to the dean of the science department twice about this and he has been all but completely useless. He doesn't understand any of the technical details of these issues, and doesn't seem to be concerned with the fact that 2/3rds of the class has withdrawn and that 75% of the remaining students are failing. I have been trying to get the other students to speak up to the dean about these issues, but the few who actually have the time to come in during the day and talk to him (most of my classmates are working full-time) are very intimidated by this professor and scared to speak up.

    I have also tried going to one step above the dean (I can't remember the position of the person above him), but from what this person explained to me, the science department has complete control over issues within the science department and this person really couldn't involve herself in any of these issues (which, to me, sounds like a whole lot of bull-crap from someone who doesn't actually want to get up and do anything, but I'm giving this individual the benefit of the doubt because I really don't know anything about the internal workings of academia). Finally, I've tried reading through our school's policy and procedures manual, but the thing is like a textbook and I don't understand half the terminology within it. Right now, my plan is to talk with one of the student counselors on Monday and see if the can give me some advice, but I don't know if they will have any idea of what I can do next. The biggest problem *I* have personally at this point is that if I fail this class (incredibly likely despite the fact that I've worked my *** of and have a very thorough understanding of the subject matter), I am going to lose all of my financial aid (the only way I am able to pay for school), and my academic schedule will be completely screwed up (really, not even a concern considering my first problem, but worth mentioning). Without going into details, I would literally have to go through an extra year of school just so I can can complete my physics requirement.

    So, does anyone have any advice? Should I maybe consult one of the other physics professors in the department? I've heard really good things about the other two physics professors at our school, but I don't know if dragging either one of them into this is a good idea. Also, I'm more than sure I could get letters from my current professors and every one of my previous professors attesting to my academic performance if necessary, in every class I've been in I almost always have the first or second highest grade in the course.
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2011
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 19, 2011 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    If you have concerns about a lecturer, you should first reality-check them with other students: do the others see the same thing you do. This is important because challenging teaching staff anywhere, but especially one with tenure, is not to be taken lightly.

    Once you have several other students, you want to take the matter, as a group, up with some authority other than the lecturer. Who exactly depends on your institution - the student union rep should be able to help you there. I'd normally talk to the Dean for your year or the HOD.

    When you talk to someone in authority, do not make accusations. Express yourself as having a concern about the way you are being taught and you are puzzled about this persons behavior ... can someone sit in on a few lectures/classes to reality-check your impressions please?

    Handle this with tact and diplomacy and it will pay off later.

    Be prepared for the possibility the authority will disagree with you and/or just do nothing. (It is unlikely that they do not know.) That's tough. You will have to supplement your education someplace else. You will have to cope with worse than that in your career, so you may as well learn now.
  4. Nov 20, 2011 #3
    Thanks for your reply. Everyone of the students in class sees the same issues, both out of those who have withdrawn and those who are still enrolled. As I said, no one else with speak up out of the impossibility of scheduling a visit with the dean, or out of fear of retaliation. The dean doesn't know anything about physics at all, not even the basic concepts. He was quite forward about this when I first brought these issues to him. I haven't made accusations at all, and what I have received is total indifference and lack of any attempt on the part of him or his superior to even bring forth some sort of consideration to the issue.

    And I'm not trying to be an *** or anything, but there is no "that's tough". Either somebody does something about this, or my academic career is done. Period. No exceptions. With the budget deficits, financial aid is really slim and rules are pretty damn strict. And if I could actually find work that could pay for school, to be quite blunt, I wouldn't be there in the first place. I don't need "that's tough" because that's not helping anything, I need advice.

    As a second mention, I've worked in a variety of places under a variety of different authorities. I understand that you deal with these things in life, but there are always ways to deal with these problems. Sitting back and just "dealing with it" is the worst possible thing I could in this situation, and the worst thing I could do in any other situation. It causes me harm as it hurts my academic career, it causes my fellow students harm as it does the same for them, it causes the school harm because they remain blissful unaware of the fact that they employ incompetent educators, and it harms society we all end up with incompetent and under-qualified individuals in positions of power and authority if no one ever does anything. I've never encountered a problem with authority that I couldn't deal with up to this point, and I'm not about to sit down now.

    Again, I'm not trying to be a jerk, and I do appreciate your advice for what's it's worth, I'm just trying to make clear the fact that just accepting this crappy situation and moving on is not an option, and even if it was, it isn't an option I would take.
  5. Nov 20, 2011 #4

    Simon Bridge

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    Your options are limited.

    You need others to come with you.
    Your next recourses are:

    1. discuss it with another professor.
    ... someone else with tenure will not be afraid of being sacked (for eg) and will be better positioned to navigate the colleges internal politics.

    2. try the student union
    ... it's their job. If you are not a member - join. At the least they will know how to make a complaint so it sticks.

    3. go to the head of department
    ... he will understand physics. Take the dropout statistics with you.

    There should be a complaint's process in your college too - find out what it is. You may be able to bring him before some sort of review board.

    Whatever you do - disciplinary action will be slow. It is unlikely to help you academically this year which is why you need to talk to academic people and why you need other students to come with you. Perhaps the school can provide additional lessons as a crash course - that's what I'd do and I've seen this happen at different colleges in similar circumstances.

    Usually you can pass a course without attending lectures - you need the assignments/homework and some source of notes. Examples of past exam papers will help too. If you are worried about marking, you can usually ask to get your script back and so use it as the basis of a complaint.

    If you are really mad, and you have tried all the above, then you may try going to the lawyers. Presumably you cannot afford them so you want the kind who are commission-only ... you have damages: your fees, the lost year = lost income, emotional/stress, and punitive. Then the magic words: "class action" - the class being whatever the firm convinces the judge ... arguably anyone who has been taught by the lecturer within the last 5-10 years(?) They don't normally charge you for the initial consultation.

    That's basically it. Maybe something will be done.
  6. Nov 20, 2011 #5
    Thank you so much! You've cleared up a number of things for me and given me a good number of new options. Like I mentioned, I wasn't sure if speaking to one of the other physics professors was a good idea, but I'll go ahead and do that.

    I don't really know much about our student union, but I guess there is always a time to learn.

    Unfortunately, on that last point, the dean of the science department is also the head of the science department (it's a small college), hence my issue with that point.

    I've been search for the complaints process, but our policy and procedures manual reads like the government bailout bill. I find it ridiculous considering our college only has a couple thousand students. But maybe one of the school counselors will know something about this.

    I'll definitely make some notes, then. It might be a good idea to put my complaints in written form as well (ach, as if this situation wasn't already messing up my study time enough. Oh well, I guess I just have to suck it up and do it).

    Do you think that letters of my academic performance and personal evaluations of my character from previous professors might hold any weight? I could easily round up a dozen or so of those, I just don't know if they would be taken into any serious consideration and be worth my time to obtain.

    I guess my best bet is to REALLY start riding my classmates about seeing the dean. I've already been bugging them to death, but I can always do better.

    Thank you very much. Any other suggestions are also appreciated. I can never have to many options!
  7. Nov 20, 2011 #6

    Simon Bridge

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    Your college is too small to have a physics department? Wow.

    Get your classmates to come with you. Go as a group. I suppose you could film a class?
    Don't bother with evaluations etc - people will check your permanent record anyway.
    Better to talk the issue over with the people you'd get these from - they may help. Go asking for guidance, say you are trying to get something done.

    You have two main issues:
    1. preventing this problem continuing for future students
    2. getting college support for the current students to make up the teaching shortfall.

    The 2nd is actually more important.

    I have seen this sort of thing before - and, usually, if students tend to fail a lecturers course, he does not stay teaching.
  8. Nov 20, 2011 #7


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    How long has this professor been there? Is he an older guy with tenure, or a relatively new guy, perhaps in a temporary position? You can get an idea of his official status by looking up his title in the college's catalog or web site. If it's "professor" or "associate professor," he's tenured. If it's "assistant professor" he doesn't have tenure but is in a position which is eligible for it in a few years provided he passes review. If it's "instructor" or some sort of "visiting" professor, he's only temporary or is on a year-to-year or semester-to-semester contract.
  9. Nov 20, 2011 #8
    Yes, the entire science department is clumped under one roof. All told, there are about 30 instructors in the department, and only 3 of those instructors are physics instructors. From the school's perspective, I can this organizational structure. Having a bunch of sub-departments with 3 or 4 instructors would just get messy.

    My thoughts exactly. Whether or not they fire him, I'm at the very least hoping the department monitors his instruction from this point on and forces him to conform to certain minimum standards. But I guess I'll just see what happens.

    Unfortunately, he is an older guy with tenure, having been with the college going on 20 years. Sadly, I'm fairly sure the only reason the guy was able to last this long has to do with fact that 20 years ago was when my college first opened and was even smaller than it is now (i.e., they didn't have anybody else at the time). My school now requires instructors to have a minimum of a Master's in their subject of study and a Doctorate's if they wish to become an actual "Professor". My particular instructor only has a bachelor's in Physics coupled with about 2 years industry experience. To expand upon this, he also has been the astronomy instructor since the school opened despite the fact that he never studied astronomy in school. Not that I'm implying one couldn't learn this subject outside the classroom, but with this individual there seems to be a large gap in the school's educational requirement.
  10. Nov 20, 2011 #9
    Although I cannot help with the situation, can you please keep us updated with the results?
  11. Nov 20, 2011 #10
    Honestly, if you're a physics major, I think the best recourse for you is to transfer out of the school. The physics program seems like a joke.
  12. Nov 20, 2011 #11
    No problem at all.

    Sadly, I'm actually a computational mathematics major. The reason I say sadly is that while I understand why my degree requires me to take physics, I find it extremely frustrating that I may lose my financial aid over a course that isn't even in my primary area of study. On that note, I was originally a comp sci major, but changed to mathematics for exactly the reason you stated: I really find the professorship in the science department in this school to be substandard (on the other hand, I've found the majority of the mathematics professors to be exceptional instructors, extremely knowledgeable in their areas of study). While I was a comp sci major, I actually had to take General Biology I (don't ask me why, I really think this is stupid) and I had some issues with the professor who instructed that class as well. Outside of what was written in the book, she seemed to lack any knowledge of her subject and when students would pose conceptual questions to her out of interest she would just say "you know, that's a really good question, I'll have to find out" and never actually get back to the students about these questions. However, I couldn't really complain about her because I did find her class decently organized, her tests and assignments well explained and fair, and her lectures covered the necessary course material (though they were painfully boring, she literally read from straight from PowerPoint presentations she created which, in turn, contained material taken straight from the book). This semester I actually started taking General Biology II to complete the Bio requirement for my comp sci degree, and after interacting with that professor, I actually withdrew from the class a few weeks into the semester and changed my major to computational mathematics. Again, this professor wasn't anywhere NEAR as bad as the physics professor I am having a problem with now, but after taking 3 science courses at this school and having consistently bad experiences, I've decided that I really don't want anything to do with this school's science department.
  13. Nov 22, 2011 #12
    So, my bringing this issue to the dean early may actually paid off. The professor handed a test we took a week ago back today, and his grading was EXTREMELY lenient compared to normal. Also, he told the class that we would be allowed to make up points lost if we worked out the problems that we got wrong on the exam over Thanksgiving break and brought the work in next week. Finally, he mentioned that on our next exam, since it is comprehensive, he would heavily weight the score if we did better. On another note, I can't help but notice that the handwriting on my test doesn't seem to match the writing from my other assignments (hmm......).

    Being a bit cynical by nature, I tried to round up the contact information of my classmates anyway, and 9 of them said they were willing to go down with me or sign their names to a letter expressing their dissatisfaction with the professor. One didn't think anything would come of it and one didn't want to get involved at all. I guess now that the semester is winding down and so many of them are at the point where failing the class seems inevitable, they are a bit more willing to take action instead of just "riding it out".

    Finally, I talked to a student adviser and he told me that there is an official complaints form that I can fill out and submit with an attached letter of complaint and any supporting evidence that I have (and I'm not lacking in that). I would submit that to an entirely different department and they would open an investigation if they felt it was necessary. However, I'm holding out on the nuclear option until everything else has been exhausted.

    Simon, I know you mentioned video taping. I actually tried to record our lecture again (I tried twice before), but the room has really hard walls and an echo. My recordings keep coming out garbled and useless. Maybe I'll run down to a local music store and see if they can give me any advice.
  14. Nov 23, 2011 #13

    Simon Bridge

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    The trick to recording in a room with lots of hard surfaces is to put a bit of foam over the mike. Also helps to put the recorder on a softer surface - a refill pad normally works.
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