Tuesday, August 09, 2011
Ask the Administrator: Hate Mail
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.
(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!
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
Grow up. Maybe the letter writer had a point?
@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.
I'm wondering if the correspondent is new to life.
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.