Dear Trapped Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Dear Ms. Scholar, A student came to me with a significant complaint against a senior faculty member — luckily not in my department! I really don’t know what to do. I want to be helpful, and think he should file a complaint, but am worrying about what this will this do to my colleague. I’m feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Trapped Between a Rock and a Hard Place, It seems that you’re seeing only one way of being helpful, and that one isn’t looking like very attractive. My rule of thumb when I’m stuck — as you seem to be — is to pause and take a step back.

In general, when there’s a complaint, students should, if possible, first talk to the person with whom they are having problems; most complaints are easily handled there. When complaints aren’t resolved at that level, students should talk to their department chair, then their dean, etc.

In practice, however, many complaints are first heard by a sympathetic faculty member or mentor. As that sympathetic faculty member, remember that a story always has more than one side. Rather than passing judgment in favor of either party, your job is to listen, then help the student approach the problem from multiple vantages and eventually consider options.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to a student making an official complaint. In the best of all possible situations, students will have felt “heard,” experienced a sense of righted justice, be empowered, and experience some sort of resolution to the problem. They may also, however, lose the complaint, believe that they don’t matter, and conclude that the department/university/world is unfair. Even when students win the complaint, however, making a complaint can be a very stressful process. Some students may not feel that the possible benefits are worth the costs. Other students might not recognize all the benefits — or all the costs.

Ms. Scholar understands that there are often gaps between a faculty member’s and a student’s expectations, especially in terms of workload and grades. Students ask, “Is it fair to have so many assignments (or so few)?” “Should I have earned this grade?” “Are expectations reasonable?” Despite student concerns, a situation may be “fair” and follow the rules laid out in the syllabus, even though it is not necessarily desirable from an outsider’s viewpoint. Sometimes, however, the student’s concerns are justified and legitimate.

Ms. Scholar believes that sometimes parents, advisors, faculty, and friends push people into a corner where they believe they should complain. She has heard parents make complaints that do not match the facts and that really are not in the best interests of the student. What would best help a particular student in the long run, rather than only the short run? From this vantage, parents should welcome faculty who are demanding and hold high standards. Further, all parties should examine their motives to consider why they are considering making a complaint. Revenge and a sense of righteousness are poor motives, while educating all parties and preventing future problems can be more positive ones.

It is useful to consider how we want to respond to a student’s informal complaint. As sympathetic listeners, it is helpful to consider all sides — or be willing to accept that there may be more than one side to the conflict, that the parties aren’t necessarily “right” or “wrong.” Listening to all sides — rather than siding firmly with the student or the faculty member — can de-escalate problems and lead to a resolution.

Sympathetic listeners can also counsel students on how they can respond. Ms. Scholar does not believe that name-calling and accusations are helpful and that, instead, such approaches can escalate problems. On the other hand, some strategies may gracefully defuse a situation, lead to a resolution, and provide some measure of satisfaction for all parties. In general, it can be helpful to approach a situation in an open, respectful, and assertive manner (not deferential, and neither passive nor aggressive). “I statements” rather than “you statements” are useful. For example, a student might say “I didn’t feel like you listened to my side of the story,” rather than “You didn’t listen to my side of the story.” The faculty member with whom the student has issues may have listened, yet the student didn’t recognize this.

We haven’t addressed your feelings yet. Examining your motives for encouraging (or discouraging) a complaint can be helpful. It is very difficult to make a complaint, especially against someone with more power.  In the midst of a conflict, it often feels like there are winners and losers, rather than that all parties have the potential of winning. Ms. Scholar has made mistakes, has had people unhappy with her, yet also profited from such a dilemma. Finding ways of handling such dilemmas well is something she aims for in a conflict such as yours. — Ms. Scholar


If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com

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