City College administrators encourage students to voice concerns about professor performance
Originally published in the April 23, 2013 print edition of the Sac City Express
The time has finally come to head down the road to the next step of your education, but you find yourself taking a class taught by a professor with whom you don’t have a connection.
What’s more, the professor doesn’t seem to be performing up to par with what you have come to expect from a teacher at City College.
The class is being taught with an expensive and outdated online program that wasn’t advertised in the class catalog, the professor is always late for class, is rude to students, and wastes class time struggling with the technology or class materials.
After speaking to the professor and the dean of the department about your concerns and nothing changes, a student might wonder what to do next.
This is the situation environmental sciences major Claire Sullivan-Halpern once found herself in.
“I went to the dean, and she was just very unresponsive, like, ‘What do you want me to do about it? Do you want to drop the class?’ Of course, I didn’t want to drop the class because I’m required to take it to transfer,” said Sullivan-Halpern. “Basically, she just said, ‘Well, you’re up a creek, and there’s no paddle, and I’m not going to help you find a paddle.’ She actually rolled her eyes at me several times and laughed at me and was just really generally disrespectful.”
Not only had the class been a problem for Sullivan-Halpern but also many other students in the class expressed their concerns to her.
“At [that] point [I was] just frustrated,” said Sullivan-Halpern. “Everyone in the class [was] frustrated. It’s absolute chaos; it’s anarchy. It’s like, what are you doing here, if you’re not going to teach the material? You can’t even fit in the information from the in-class notes because [the professor] is not putting it into context. It’s just a really big waste of time showing up for class when we’re learning it all online.”
According to www.ratemyprofessors.com, complaints about Sullivan-Halpern’s professor were lodged over the past couple of years, and the failure rate of students in this professor’s class has been significantly higher than that of other sections of the class taught by different professors.
While City College administrators make it clear they can’t base disciplinary actions on rating sites, they do look at these sites and encourage professors to take them seriously.
“We cannot use ratemyprofessor.com in our evaluation process, but I will tell you when that’s become brought to a dean’s attention that deans maybe go out and look at that and look at the patterns of comments,” said City College Vice President of Instruction Mary Turner. “[We] encourage professors to look at the comments that are there and see what the students are saying and reflect on them. ‘Is there anything that you can learn from the comments?’”
The district has processes in place that aim to help students get their voices heard and help professors become more aware of these issues so they can address them, according to City College Associate Vice President of Instruction Julia Jolly.
Jolly is one of the administrators in charge of handling student complaints, particularly when it comes to formal grievances and issues with sexual harassment. Jolly said that students can file complaints at her office, located in Rodda North, Room 257.
According to Jolly, between 2009 and 2012, approximately 150 informal complaints and five formal grievances were filed about professors.
“Students tend to come to us wanting a professor to be fired, but students don’t have an impact on whether professors get fired unless there is sexual or physical abuse going on,” said Jolly. “If a failure rate is high, and a student brings issues to our attention, there has to be a conversation. I expect our instructors to bring energy, to find ways of teaching that are engaging with students and getting students excited about learning.”
On the other hand, if a student doesn’t have an issue as serious as sexual or physical abuse or harassment, there is a non-formal complaint process as well. Turner said she encourages students to first have a conversation with their professor. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, she advised students to speak to the dean of the division in which the class is taught, and if the situation is not resolved, then students should come to her.
“Voicing concerns is certainly the first step because a lot of students don’t,” said Turner. “They get their grades, they walk out the door, they know they’re never going to have that professor again, and they don’t worry about it. But then we don’t always know what’s happening.”
According to Turner, students shouldn’t be discouraged to bring up concerns about tenured professors. Tenure is given to professors who demonstrate satisfactory performance during review periods during their first four years of employment, at which point their evaluation periods become less frequent. This actually makes it more important for students dealing with issues with tenured teachers to bring their concerns forward.
“With any faculty member, if they have unsatisfactory performance reviews, then we do expect them to take corrective action to address those issues,” said Turner.
Turner said she encourages students to make sure they are certain where a problem lies before bringing concerns up to the deans or administrators.
“We want the students to do their own internal reflection,” said Turner. “[This way] they know their behavior and performance is the best it should be and not try to say, ‘Well, I failed the class because the professor did something,’ when in reality you find out the student never does their homework, the student never read the book. They’re just looking for someone else to take responsibility.”
Sullivan-Halpern acknowledged Turner’s point, but she said in this case the number of complaints from students and the fact that she considers herself a disciplined student who is still struggling in this particular class demonstrates that there has definitely been a problem with the professor.
“I’m not the type of student who would just jump down a teacher’s throat like, ‘Oh, I’m doing poorly, so it must be the teacher’s fault,’ said Sullivan-Halpern. “I’m very internally motivated, and I generally am very able to get my stuff done without any issues.”
Turner also stressed that students shouldn’t be afraid of professors lowering their grades if a complaint is filed because the school has a strict policy against retaliation.
Turner and Jolly stressed that they need students to properly bring these issues forward because faculty evaluation processes only help so much.
“My job is to solve problems,” said Jolly. “We don’t just not do anything about it. We want these situations resolved. We don’t just let it go because if there’s a problem with an instructor now, it may come up again.”
Sullivan-Halpern added that even if a student is doing well in a class, regardless of a poorly performing professor, it’s important to speak up. Following her conversation with the Express, Sullivan-Halpern filed an informal report with Turner, which is in the process of being reviewed, with Turner.
“[My professor] has no control of the classroom, the dean isn’t taking any responsibility for this teacher’s actions in the classroom,” she said, “and quite frankly, I’d be so heartbroken to hear that next year, next semester, whatever, that some student is in this same boat that I’m in right now.”
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