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Complaining about a professor's assignment to the administration - would anything come of it? Is it not worth it?

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Long story short, I had a low-value assignment where the professor's answer (according to the answer key) to a fact pattern was, in my opinion, (one of) racist/homophobic/sexist/transphobic. I am being deliberately vague and do not want to get much further into detail. The species of racism/homophobia/sexism/transphobia in this case is the more subtle or indirect kind. The professor also seems to express similar opinions during his or her lectures.

I have solicited honest opinions from select friends in and outside law school and friends who are practising lawyers. So far, they all agree with me. 

If we assume that I have a legitimate complaint, would anything meaningful come from filing a complaint with the administration? Or is it a complete waste of time? Also, what penalties could I possibly incur?

If anyone has experience in this area, I would greatly appreciate it.

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Do you feel you grade would be improved or are you just seeking to have the professor's views condemned?

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18 minutes ago, Cookies20000 said:

Long story short, I had a low-value assignment where the professor's answer (according to the answer key) to a fact pattern was, in my opinion, (one of) racist/homophobic/sexist/transphobic. I am being deliberately vague and do not want to get much further into detail. The species of racism/homophobia/sexism/transphobia in this case is the more subtle or indirect kind. The professor also seems to express similar opinions during his or her lectures.

I have solicited honest opinions from select friends in and outside law school and friends who are practising lawyers. So far, they all agree with me. 

If we assume that I have a legitimate complaint, would anything meaningful come from filing a complaint with the administration? Or is it a complete waste of time? Also, what penalties could I possibly incur?

If anyone has experience in this area, I would greatly appreciate it.

To be honest, any complaint of "subtle or indirect" racism, homophobia, sexism or transphobia is unlikely to be successful against a tenured professor, particularly if said answer was factually correct. I also wouldn't trust your friends to judge this issue accurately, since you're almost inevitably presenting the story in a biased manner and they are responding to your biased retelling. The fact that you state this was a "low-value assignment" also suggests to me that part of this is driven by unhappiness with your grade, which could be clouding your judgment. 

With that said, your first step in pursuing such a complaint would likely be to consult your student handbook – Universities have different policies regarding how they handle complaints against faculties, as well as what possible penalties you could face for bringing a false claim. Nobody is going to be able to provide accurate advice without knowing, at a minimum, what school you attend. 

Also, have you considered just talking to the professor like an adult? To me, that would seem the most mature and effective way to address an issue like this. 

Edited by BlockedQuebecois
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54 minutes ago, msk2012 said:

Do you feel you grade would be improved or are you just seeking to have the professor's views condemned?

The latter.

54 minutes ago, BlockedQuebecois said:

To be honest, any complaint of "subtle or indirect" racism, homophobia, sexism or transphobia is unlikely to be successful against a tenured professor, particularly if said answer was factually correct. I also wouldn't trust your friends to judge this issue accurately, since you're almost inevitably presenting the story in a biased manner and they are responding to your biased retelling. The fact that you state this was a "low-value assignment" also suggests to me that part of this is driven by unhappiness with your grade, which could be clouding your judgment. 

With that said, your first step in pursuing such a complaint would likely be to consult your student handbook – Universities have different policies regarding how they handle complaints against faculties, as well as what possible penalties you could face for bringing a false claim. Nobody is going to be able to provide accurate advice without knowing, at a minimum, what school you attend. 

Also, have you considered just talking to the professor like an adult? To me, that would seem the most mature and effective way to address an issue like this. 

I got a good grade, actually. It has nothing to do with the grade. 

Ive spoken to the professor about other issues. She or he is not an open-minded person to say the least.

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1 hour ago, BlockedQuebecois said:

Also, have you considered just talking to the professor like an adult? To me, that would seem the most mature and effective way to address an issue like this. 

Some professors become aggressive and even retaliate when confronted over their views being wrong. It might have to do with the fact that academia coddles tenured professors, and strokes their egos while rarely calling them out on questionable views. So this may best be resolved with a third party as a mediator (for example, the students affairs office or something similar).

Edited by pzabbythesecond
Lol at autocorrect changing coddles to cuddles

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Personally I'd either discuss it with the professor like an adult, or let it go and move on. I don't think anything is likely to be gained by going through a complaint process, particularly since it doesn't sound like OPs complaint is a clear cut case at all. Anonymous complaints, with few exceptions, strike me as cowardly and immature. 

If the concern is related to being identified and retaliated against, I have three thoughts. First, I don't know how the professor could retaliate after grades have been filed. You presumably do not want to or have to take any further courses with this professor. Second, most formal complaint processes identify the complainant – I have to imagine any retaliation in response to a formal complaint is likely to be worse than retaliation for approaching a professor privately with concerns. Finally, to the extent the concern is related to retaliation by other faculty against the student, I again have to imagine said retaliation would be worse in response to a formal complaint. 

It may shock readers to discover this, but I'm a strong minded individual. i've never had any issues with professors when voicing my opinions, even when we're decidedly on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum on a given issue. I've certainly never heard of a professor becoming "aggressive" with a student. 

Edited by BlockedQuebecois

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6 hours ago, Hegdis said:

The power imbalance is significant here. This is not two colleagues who disagree or calling out a buddy over pizza. 

I think you should reach out to a trusted professor or admin person and explain you have concerns (up to you if you name the prof or not) and you to figure out how they can be addressed. If you focus on what next steps would be you can make a more informed decision about whether to take them. It’s a cautious route but should get you better situated to act.

You can also be more direct and email the Dean about your concerns. It may be that you wouldn’t be the first to do so. An email - something in writing - is harder to ignore than a simple conversation. 

I suppose this goes without saying but there are ways and ways to approach the actual complaint. “I have concerns about X topic as it was phrased because it relies on offensive stereotypes about lesbians” is a lot more effective than “Professor Y is a homophobic misogynist”. (To use extremes - you get the idea.)

Focus on what you want the resolution to be: a change to any future class assignments? An apology from the prof to the student body? A formal complaint filed against them with the University? You might not get it but it will focus you and inform how you go about this. 

I don't think this advice can be topped. Lock the thread!

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13 hours ago, Cookies20000 said:

Long story short, I had a low-value assignment where the professor's answer (according to the answer key) to a fact pattern was, in my opinion, (one of) racist/homophobic/sexist/transphobic. I am being deliberately vague and do not want to get much further into detail. The species of racism/homophobia/sexism/transphobia in this case is the more subtle or indirect kind. The professor also seems to express similar opinions during his or her lectures.

I have solicited honest opinions from select friends in and outside law school and friends who are practising lawyers. So far, they all agree with me. 

If we assume that I have a legitimate complaint, would anything meaningful come from filing a complaint with the administration? Or is it a complete waste of time? Also, what penalties could I possibly incur?

If anyone has experience in this area, I would greatly appreciate it.

In my limited experience, these types of issues do not go well for anyone involved. I'm not suggesting that you should ignore it or "let it go", but I'm just trying to warn you that I've seen this type of thing play out a couple of times and no one ever seems happy with the outcomes. 

It's possible prof just says "yeah, you're right, that was stupid, i won't do it again and i'm sorry" and everyone will be happy. 

But I expect prof to dig in, I expect the university to try to cover its ass as much as possible, and I expect for you to get an unsatisfactory result and potentially strained relationship with the prof or the law school staff (or both).

I hope I'm wrong. Good luck. 

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4 hours ago, conge said:

But I expect prof to dig in, I expect the university to try to cover its ass as much as possible, and I expect for you to get an unsatisfactory result and potentially strained relationship with the prof or the law school staff (or both).

Ding ding ding. For all the progressive hate universities get for being "left leaning echo chamber cess pools", they are shockingly regressive when it comes to dealing with tenured professors.

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11 hours ago, Hegdis said:

The power imbalance is significant here. This is not two colleagues who disagree or calling out a buddy over pizza. 

I think you should reach out to a trusted professor or admin person and explain you have concerns (up to you if you name the prof or not) and you to figure out how they can be addressed. If you focus on what next steps would be you can make a more informed decision about whether to take them. It’s a cautious route but should get you better situated to act.

Is it though?  @Cookies20000 isn't a child, isn't an 18 year old undergrad - they're a law student in their 20s (or older).  They're set up to be a lawyer soon - and part of being a lawyer is being able to stand up for yourself against people in power.  And there's very little ability for a single professor to harm a student.  Exams are graded anonymously.  The semester is over, and the OP may never have this prof again.  Maybe you won't get a reference letter from this prof, but by the sounds of it the OP wasn't going to ask for one anyways.

As well, I think universities are pretty gun-shy about accusations of racism/sexism/ etc.  Recall that Yale professor who ultimately resigned after sending out an email defending tasteless Halloween costumes.  In short I don't see a power imbalance here.

The absolute first step has to be to sit down with the professor in question.  It's the mature, professional thing to do when one has a complaint with a person.  Without making it personal, express how the fact pattern could be perceived.  I'm moderately sure than even if the professor disagrees with how you see it, they will want to avoid such allegations in the future.

Then ask what exactly you want to get out of all this.  Do you just want the question changed in the future?  Do you want an apology? Do you want to make some kind of official complaint that may have repercussions for the prof down the road.  If, after meeting, you don't feel you are satisfied, then look at further options.  Emailing the Dean is one option, but each university has it's own processes for racism/sexism allegations.

 

Now all of that being said, if it was me, and the matter was "subtle" and "indirect", I would just roll my eyes and move on.  But since the OP is inclined to do more than that, the first step is absolutely to meet with the professor.

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52 minutes ago, pzabbythesecond said:

Ding ding ding. For all the progressive hate universities get for being "left leaning echo chamber cess pools", they are shockingly regressive when it comes to dealing with tenured professors.

The entire point of tenure is that its better for society if professors are free to hold, express, and examine a variety of views.

 

Re: @Hegdis’s comment, I agree in whole with @Malicious Prosecutor’s view. There really isn’t a significant power imbalance, as I pointed out in relation to concerns about retaliation. And even if there was a significant power imbalance, that doesn’t justify not pursuing the issue by first raising it with the individual.

To put it in lawyerly terms, if you had a minor problem with something a judge said, what would you do? Would your first step be a complaint to the Canadian Judicial Council? Or would it be to either approach the judge, during or after their involvement with the case, and express your concern or let the issue go? I’m not a lawyer yet, but I have to imagine that most lawyers here would suggest approaching the judge or letting it go rather than filing an official complaint. 

As with the judge example, I think the mature thing to do here is to approach the professor like an adult and explain your concerns. If, after doing that, you still have concerns, you should consider more formal options. 

I also agree with @conge, having been involved with these kinds of things at my school. The students, used to being coddled throughout the rest of the education, are often shocked and disappointed to discover that they usually can’t anonymously tattle on their prof. They’re also similarly shocked to discover that meeting with the professor with a third-party mediator present is often the first step in the complaints process. So at the end of the day, nobody is satisfied – the professor is annoyed that the student didn’t come talk to them like an adult, the administration is annoyed that they had to get involved, and the student is annoyed that the professor wasn’t pilloried for expressing a non-conformist opinion. 

Edited by BlockedQuebecois
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Blocked seems to have blinders on that all professors act in good faith, and that all professors don't hold unacceptable beliefs and use their significant power over students because of their tenure, given for another reason, to abuse it.

I wonder if there was a term for that. Abuse of, something? Strength? No. Power. Abuse of power.

With that I'm out.

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When I was a 21 year old law student I wouldn’t have dared to take on a tenured prof. There is a gap in age, in experience, in power. Whether or not there could be actual repercussions, the fact remains there is a legitimate intimidation factor. The student might not feel they can address this head on. 

Also, behind a closed door you are putting a person who is seasoned in making arguments and defending positions against a person who is barely beginning to learn these skills. That isn’t fair.

It may be some students have the maturity and self confidence to carry on that conversation without any trouble at all. I was not one of them and the OP may not be either. 

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2 minutes ago, Hegdis said:

When I was a 21 year old law student I wouldn’t have dared to take on a tenured prof. There is a gap in age, in experience, in power. Whether or not there could be actual repercussions, the fact remains there is a legitimate intimidation factor. The student might not feel they can address this head on. 

Also, behind a closed door you are putting a person who is seasoned in making arguments and defending positions against a person who is barely beginning to learn these skills. That isn’t fair.

It may be some students have the maturity and self confidence to carry on that conversation without any trouble at all. I was not one of them and the OP may not be either. 

I'm not saying you can't be "coached up" ahead of time, as the OP has done.  Also I'm not saying that meeting has to be the end of the matter.  If the OP feels like they got snowed by this professor they can take it further.  But that's absolutely where this needs to start.

And it's not a matter of "taking on" a prof - not in a private meeting like I'm suggesting.

Look, as a Malicious Prosecutor, I get lots of complaints.  Defence lawyers, police officers, witnesses, you name it.  The number one thing that irritates me though is when people don't come to me first.  There are lots of times a simple phone call could have cleared matters right up.  And if it doesn't, then by all means call up my boss, or complain to the judge (or even the Law Society).  But show me that courtesy first.

I don't know, it's pretty easy for me to imagine that even if this professor doesn't agree that his fact scenario was problematic, that he or she will promise to change it in future so as to avoid even a hint of inappropriateness.

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45 minutes ago, pzabbythesecond said:

redacted

So I don't know anything about McGill's process, but it's obvious that at that point you'd already engaged in a process - which is going to get the professor's back up.  I'm suggesting an unofficial meeting, where the prof is more likely to be receptive.

And if the prof yells at you, leave, and then launch a formal complaint.

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3 minutes ago, pzabbythesecond said:

Blocked seems to have blinders on that all professors act in good faith, and that all professors don't hold unacceptable beliefs and use their significant power over students because of their tenure, given for another reason, to abuse it.

I wonder if there was a term for that. Abuse of, something? Strength? No. Power. Abuse of power.

With that I'm out.

I don't have any such blinders. I just think the mature path is always to approach someone when you have an issue with them or their opinions.

It's the same reason subtweeting strikes me as immature. 

5 minutes ago, Hegdis said:

When I was a 21 year old law student I wouldn’t have dared to take on a tenured prof. There is a gap in age, in experience, in power. Whether or not there could be actual repercussions, the fact remains there is a legitimate intimidation factor. The student might not feel they can address this head on. 

Also, behind a closed door you are putting a person who is seasoned in making arguments and defending positions against a person who is barely beginning to learn these skills. That isn’t fair.

It may be some students have the maturity and self confidence to carry on that conversation without any trouble at all. I was not one of them and the OP may not be either. 

I appreciate your point of view here, but it seems that you actually agree with my initial point: that speaking to the professor directly would be the most mature way to handle the issue. Here you're saying that the reason a student may not do that, and may instead decide to pursue a formal complaint, is that the student lacks the self-confidence and maturity necessary to discuss the issue directly. 

Of course, this is a totally fair point, and it's one of the main reasons a formal complaint process generally exists at schools – for people too insecure and immature to handle the issue directly. But I still think we should call out that conduct, if only to warn OP about how they might be perceived for following an official claims process. 

Of course, none of the above applies to serious complaints, where students have many alternative reasons for bringing an official complaint rather than directly addressing the issue. 

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49 minutes ago, BlockedQuebecois said:

 Or would it be to either approach the judge, during or after their involvement with the case, and express your concern or let the issue go? I’m not a lawyer yet, but I have to imagine that most lawyers here would suggest approaching the judge or letting it go rather than filing an official complaint. 

 

I'm not a litigator, but I would NOT suggest approaching a judge to complain about something they said!😄

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1 hour ago, BlockedQuebecois said:

The entire point of tenure is that its better for society if professors are free to hold, express, and examine a variety of views.

 

Re: @Hegdis’s comment, I agree in whole with @Malicious Prosecutor’s view. There really isn’t a significant power imbalance, as I pointed out in relation to concerns about retaliation. And even if there was a significant power imbalance, that doesn’t justify not pursuing the issue by first raising it with the individual.

To put it in lawyerly terms, if you had a minor problem with something a judge said, what would you do? Would your first step be a complaint to the Canadian Judicial Council? Or would it be to either approach the judge, during or after their involvement with the case, and express your concern or let the issue go? I’m not a lawyer yet, but I have to imagine that most lawyers here would suggest approaching the judge or letting it go rather than filing an official complaint. 

As with the judge example, I think the mature thing to do here is to approach the professor like an adult and explain your concerns. If, after doing that, you still have concerns, you should consider more formal options. 

I also agree with @conge, having been involved with these kinds of things at my school. The students, used to being coddled throughout the rest of the education, are often shocked and disappointed to discover that they usually can’t anonymously tattle on their prof. They’re also similarly shocked to discover that meeting with the professor with a third-party mediator present is often the first step in the complaints process. So at the end of the day, nobody is satisfied – the professor is annoyed that the student didn’t come talk to them like an adult, the administration is annoyed that they had to get involved, and the student is annoyed that the professor wasn’t pilloried for expressing a non-conformist opinion. 

It's not easy explaining why a comment is sexist or homophobic to a judge. There is also the issue of balancing your client's needs.  After the head administrative judge told me that I'm making a big deal of a case because "it's same sex and that's popular", I strained a smile and reiterated that was not the point, and drew the judge back in to the issues pertaining to parenting and how my client was more of a parental figure than bio dad ever was. I was fuming inside, my client was once again regulated to outsider status (despite parenting the child literally the whole child's life) but the end result is that we kept it together to appear nice for Her Honour. I risked not having Her Honour understand why it was important for stepparent to have joint decisionmaking had I spent a moment explaining the judge's problematic statement, coupled with having to waste court time at the inevitable "that's not what I meant, I'm sorry you feel that way" explain away. That, unfortunately,  would have been a disservice to my client and taxpayers fielding my bill.

I'm also not going to be going through the trial coordinator to schedule a meeting in 3 weeks to have a judge tell me it's a non-issue and excuse me from her chambers.

It's really easy to categorically state the approach must be X. It would be nice if it can simply be a meeting - there are often starker power imbalances at play, especially if the person is trying to approach the matter to discuss racism/sexism/homophobia.

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