Tuesday, August 09, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Hate Mail

A returning correspondent writes:

I received a communication from a student who failed my class. The communication was short and not so sweet: f*** you! I replied saying that I understood the student's frustration, but that he violated the student code of conduct and that I forwarded his email to the dean. Well, it seems the emails I sent the dean entered a black hole. The dean does not answer my emails and the student has not been disciplined. Is this the usual course of action that takes place when students violate the student code of conduct? Does this not create a hostile work environment?

My first thought is, I’ve seen worse. (In fact, that note is the title of a disarmingly catchy pop hit.) But maybe that’s me.

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give a definitive answer on the “hostile work environment” claim. My impression -- and it’s only an impression -- is that it takes more than one verbal incident to constitute an ‘environment.’ It’s also harder to get legal recognition of harassment from below than of harassment from above. Although contrapower harassment is real, it’s generally given less consideration than top-down harassment. People in authority positions -- which professors certainly are, relative to students -- are generally expected to tolerate a certain amount of abuse as a cost of doing business. A certain thickness of skin is expected. Whether that’s fair or not, it’s the way things currently are.

Leaving aside the merits of the case, though, the question seems to be about perceived administrative non-response to a complaint. Here, too, my first question would be whether this is a single incident or part of a larger pattern. Since you refer to “emails” (plural) I’ll assume that you’ve followed up and eliminated the possibility that it was just a matter of a message getting lost.

It may be the case that your Dean is ignoring you maliciously; there’s nothing in your note proving otherwise. It could be that s/he is trying to make you so miserable that you leave, for whatever reason. But it could also be something less sinister than that.

For example, depending on your college’s rules, you may or may not be privy to the outcome of the case. Just because you haven’t heard the outcome may not mean that there wasn’t one. Alternately, the hearing may be delayed until the Fall, when everyone is back. The student may have dropped out and/or transferred, rendering internal discipline moot. The student may be known to the college as having psychological issues, so the college may be addressing the situation on that basis, rather than a disciplinary one. (In that case, there could be very real limits to what it could disclose, even assuming it wanted to.) Or the Dean may be using prosecutorial discretion, deciding that the case is too trivial to be worth pursuing.

A few suggestions:

First, consult the student handbook. Look up the disciplinary procedures, and address your followup questions to the Dean’s office in those terms. (“I see that there is supposed to be a hearing within thirty days. Do you need any more evidence from me?”) Although you’re experiencing this as an employment issue, the college is more likely looking at it (if at all) as a student conduct issue. Knowing the procedures there can tell you what to expect, especially in terms of timeframes. The answer may be something as simple and pedestrian as “the wheels turn more slowly than that.”

Second, talk to a trusted mentor on campus. This could be a union rep, if you have one, or it could be a department chair or senior professor whose judgment you take seriously. (For that matter, if you have a good rapport with another administrator, you could even try that.) Since local culture matters a great deal with something like this, it would be helpful to know the patterns over time. Is the Dean of Students (I assume that’s who is handling this) usually slow to respond, or is this out of character?

Finally, you could always approach the Dean personally and just ask. I wouldn’t advise doing that until you’ve done your homework on processes and deadlines, though. If you can make this about process, rather than about you, you stand a better chance of getting an outcome you want.

Or you may be told to suck it up. Again, local culture matters.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you advise? Is this a ‘hostile environment’ claim, a student conduct issue, or a nuisance of modern life? And is there a better way to handle it?

Good luck. Whatever happens, I hope you don’t let it rattle you.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'm wondering if the correspondent is new to teaching. Unfortunately, this type of thing goes along with the territory, to an extent, and DD's point about having to develop a bit of a thick skin rings true. I wouldn't have been thrilled to receive that one liner, but I don't even think it would have occurred to me to forward it to the dean.
I think I would have let the dean know in case the student escalates his frustration. If that choice phrase were etched into my car 37 times over the next week, it would be good to have some documentation beforehand. I don't think I'd expect any kind of consequences from the administration, though. It's probably just an un-thought out shot from a frustrated and immature 19 year old kid. That may be its own commentary on society, though.
And sending multiple e-mails on the same subject to your Dean constitute creating a hostile work environment?

(If it sounds like I am channeling my inner Dean Dad, that is only because of a blog entry I need to write about a snowflake prof.)

IMHO, the message would have to be much more threatening than that for me to be concerned that the Dean has not arranged a personal security escort and a secure undisclosed location for my home and office. I'd remind the writer (who also sounds naive to me) that raising the stakes for the student beyond a failing grade could increase the risk to you. It was correct to report the incident, if only for the reason "oldsbone" gave, but I wouldn't expect much from the dean except a quick "Thanks for the FYI" in reply.

It might also help to know just what sort of college we are talking about, including how many people report to that Dean. At a large school, where the Dean is often quite remote from the faculty, incidents like that are a dime a dozen. More so if it offers what RH referred to the other day as a "one-year program in sports spectatorship with a concentration in beer". At a small expensive school, where I'd expect you to know the Dean personally, returning student tuition might take precedence over language that is not as unusual as it was 60 years ago when the Conduct Code was written. After all, that e-mail subject line is the title of a really good hit song!
While I don't know if this email from a student constitutes a "hostile" work environment, I am a bit surprised that some faculty members would simply say to grow thicker skin. If we don't take some sort of action, then are we teaching a student that this is the correct way to deal with an issue? (Yes, I know there are professionals who deal with issues like this student, but it doesn't make it right)

I'm not much older than my students, and if I would have rattled off an email like this to a college professor, I would have been disciplined.

I agree that looking at the Student Code of Conduct may help with this issue.
This email does not constitute a hostile work environment: it is very rude, and there is a huge difference.

My question is this: the correspondent is a teacher, so why not -- as a teacher -- instead of kicking the can to someone else, have the kid in and say that this was utterly inappropriate? Having a third party present, like a department chair or a senior colleague, would be a great idea. The student clearly saw the failing grade as an attack and retaliated, but may even have rethought it all by hirself by now. If not, ze needs to be corrected on this, and it would be graceful for the faculty member to do so.

When did we get to the point where every error in judgment deserved punishment?
If the koriginal mail to the dean and all subsequent followups included the student's initial email including the expletive, it's not impossible that they've all simply been eaten by a spam filter.
The student in this example is a true "dink" but i think bugging the dean with this is pretty short-sighted (i agree with the 'snowflake' comments). What i've always found useful is to send an email to the undergraduate chair in my department (We've got a pretty good relationship) with a note of 'I don't want you to do anything, i just wanted something documented in writing if this goes anywhere'.

This approach works for lots of sticky situations, including bitter students seeking grades, possible cheaters, students you suspect might retell an interaction in a different way... Having something on record before the student begins a process shows you as 'proactive' rather than 'reactive
This is a very simple situation. First of all, if you will never teach this student again--just forget about it. There are overachievers who will love you, and there are underacheivers who will hate you and blame you for their obviously personal issues. Not your problem either way. You aren't as great as you best student or as bad as your worst. If you have to teach this student again, you need to deal with them to see what their issues are/were. Emails, as with all electronic communication, are instant and therefore likely to be off the cuff, or thoughtless. Thus, it's best to talk to the student first. If the student is truly hostile, then go through the DD motions.
The correspondent didn't say how many students were in his class, but if it is 25 or less, I think the correspondent could be proactive by contacting his failing students weeks before the end of semester. Spending a few minutes with a failing student and giving them warning of failure and offering suggestions of how to bring the grade up sets up a different kind of relationship than just seeing the student only in class. It works for me.

I agree the student is probably immature and was unthinking when sending the note. I do what Brain Canadian said, anytime I have any disturbance by a student, I send a brief facts-only to my department chair for her to be in the loop in case the situation goes further.

At my college, there is a chain for student complaints -instructor, department chair, dean. If the student won't talk with the instructor, then directly to chair. I tell my students this chain the second day of class. That is why I keep my chair informed of any student disruption. She may hear it anyway from the student.
Yeah, I've seen way worse. (And I think it's far from "hostile workplace--a one-off is hardly pervasive.) However, it's still not acceptable, and the writer, thin skin or no, deserves at least a response from the dean or designee. Had this come across my desktop, I would asked the instructor to respond to the student, copying me, that this kind of email is completely inappropriate, violates student conduct rules, yadda yadda, any further messages like this will be forwarded to the campus discpinline officer. That usually puts an end to it.
I wonder if the e-mails to the dean got ignored because the teacher wasn't following the correct chain of command. At every school I've been at, there's a proper path, and instructor to dean is rarely it.

Keep the e-mails. If things escalate, find the correct channel of communication and use it. Otherwise, suck it up. Grades are emotional and it usually all blows over.
Yeah, I'm not sure what the appropriate response would even be. Academic probation? A stern talking-to?
The fact that this kind of stuff is par for the course (and it IS; I wouldn't go to the dean over something as common as this) is what's going to make me quit my faculty career someday. I recognize that my job is to let naive students know what is and is not appropriate. But I hate that it's my job to take shit (and it is).

The one time recently I did go to my chair about a male student pervasively harassing me and my female TAs for most of the semester, in writing, she hauled him in her office and then decided he was doing it because he had a crush on me, and no discipline or report ever ensued. He got away scot-free. This is one illustration of why I hate teaching -- I've encountered stuff like this at all 3 schools I've taught at.
As an adjunct, I would just pretend I never got the email. After all, that's what the full-time faculty and administrators say to me (not in words, obviously) every day of every semester.

Grow up. Maybe the letter writer had a point?
Yeah, in a general sense, I wouldn't have bothered to follow up. I would've deleted the email and just forgotten about it. Not worth the energy.

@nicoleandmaggie: I'm heading in that direction. I love the act of teaching, and I'm quite good at it. But our society values it so little that it's not worth the many ways it's made clear to me that I am valueless in the eyes of those with whom I interact.
Sad to say this comes with the territory. I had a coworker who was threatened by the failed student along the lines of finding out his address and cutting off his arm. Even then, not a lot happened. (In fairness, the coworker had just moved across the country for a new job and thus shrugged it off.) Basically, the main reason you forward it to the dean is to CYA.
I'm wondering if the correspondent is new to teaching.

I'm wondering if the correspondent is new to life.
I think everyone else here has covered my sentiments, so I won't repeat them. But an employment lawyer covered literally just this topic recently, about how one remark does not constitute a hostile workplace claim.
I sorry you experienced that!I guess many students are feeling the pressure to be perfect. Perhaps if there was less emphasis on competition and more on learning then grades would not elicit such a knee jerk reaction.
That is some heroic victim blaming right there.
Wow. Your correspondent sure has a thin skin. I'm guessing he/she is new to the job?

First off: The best answer is to just ignore the email. Most likely the email was sent on an impulse, in a moment better forgotten. Either way, if it helped the student blow off some steam, what's the harm?

This is not creating a hostile workplace. Goodness, folks are so touchy these days.

If this were a credible threat, or if it were bona fide sexual harassment, obviously you should take action. But it falls far short of that threshold. Just ignore it and move on. Life is too short to get worked up over a terribly rude, but otherwise harmless, email.
Don't screw around with the Dean or the student. Get an attorney and sue the bastards. It is the ONLY language they understand.
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