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I got a surprising email from the department chair today, saying that one student has made a complaint against me. It seems that he felt that my tone in an office hour was mocking, and felt uncomfortable because of it.

I have not yet heard the details of the incident. So I have no idea who this student is (I'm teaching several hundred students this semester), or what it was that I actually said. I'll arrange a meeting with the chair soon to figure out the details. As far as I remember, I have never been angry or annoyed with a student, and I can't even begin to guess at the particular incident.

Nonetheless, I can't help but feel hurt and defensive at this allegation. I have received a prestigious teaching award just a couple of years ago, and my teaching evaluations have always been stellar. In fact, I have never received a negative feedback from students until now. Furthermore, the one common thing that all students have said is the fact that I'm very friendly and approachable.

I can feel it in my current classes that I'm teaching well, because multiple students who are enrolled in other sections show up to my 8am classes (I regularly have my classroom overflowing, and students often have to stand or sit in the floor to listen to my lectures), and I've gotten the students to a point where they feel comfortable asking even trivial questions in class (I feel that the majority of students are unafraid to speak up when they're confused about something, etc.)

So I feel that this student must have some sort of a personal grudge against me (midterms were just handed back last week), and decided to elevate this to a never-experienced-before level.

And even more hurtful is that my colleagues might start viewing me as a cruel person who mocks the weaker students.

I'd like to fight this allegation to the end to prove my innocence, and I'm not sure what the right way to do this is. Obviously, I realize that despite all this, I'm still in the position of power, and that I need to be very careful not to make this student feel retaliated or singled out (that is not my intention at all; I just want to prove beyond any doubt that I am a competent professor and a good person). So I am thinking of offering to do the following:

  • disclose all of my teaching evaluations that I have received from the beginning of my teaching career

  • offer to have representatives from the department visit my classes/office hours to see the kind of environment I have created for my students

  • offer to make recordings of all of my classes/office hours and other interactions with students

  • offer to conduct a mid-year teaching review/survey from my students, collecting anonymous comments to see if I am indeed unconsciously being thoughtless towards the weaker students

  • I did have a couple of students be very rude to me over emails; although I was courteous towards them in my responses, I wonder if the complaint came from one of them. Thus, gather all offensive emails that came from the students and give this information to the chair, to see if he can check if the complaint came from one of them

My question to you is, what else can I do to get myself completely acquitted from these allegations, while staying professional? I think that maybe I'm overreacting a bit, but I also don't want to let the students walk all over me in such a fashion, especially if the allegation turns out to be unwarranted or false. I am quite young (younger than some of the TA's that work for me, actually...) and sometimes do have these authority issues in the classroom, where students see me as their equal.

Edit: just to keep the discussion relevant to my case, let's assume that it's clear from the chair's email that the student is very weak (my paraphrasing attempt didn't work as well as I had hoped).

Update: I met with the chair to figure out exactly what the complaint was about. It seems that the student (who I remember to be completely lost) did not like that I was not giving out answers (I conduct my office hours by posing small step-by-step questions for my students, and never give out direct answers, instead guiding them to the answer), and that I smiled while he felt lost in my office hour(!!). I expressed my regrets at the misunderstanding, and the rest of the chat consisted of the chair saying encouraging things to me, and that I should continue what I am doing with my students. Needless to say, I do not plan on changing anything.

It is still upsetting to me that students can just fling off these wild allegations, though. From past experiences (with cheating) I know that students almost always win, since the onus is on the professor to prove that the student indeed cheated. In a situation like this, I feel that there should be a reasonable measure put in place, which requires the students to prove that the professor indeed acted in a problematic way, instead of making a complaint and asking the professor to prove that he did not do any of these things.

Anyway, thank you for your overwhelming support. Reading through your arguments, advice, and anecdotes really helped. I guess this was especially upsetting as it was my first time receiving a complaint like this, but as this won't be my last time (you can't please everyone!) I think I will be able to handle things much better next time.

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Side comment: as a student (because of privacy concerns) I would feel very uncomfortable if my teachers recorded me during office hours or other interactions. (I realize you probably would ask them before recording, but even being asked would make me a little uncomfortable because I'd feel I'd need to give a reason for declining.) – coldnumber Feb 23 at 1:45
In my experience, when these things come down to what the student said happened versus what the professor said happened, unless there have been multiple complaints about the professor's behavior, nothing is going to happen to the faculty member. This is similar to what happens with course evaluation forms where there are almost always some students who complain. – Brian Borchers Feb 23 at 2:02
Take a deep breath. Relax. Even if your "tone" was "mocking," that's not a major accusation. A certain number of students will complain. A certain number of students will never be satisfied. – Ben Crowell Feb 23 at 2:28
No one who wasn't in the room at the time will ever be sure that you didn't say something mean to this student. Even you cannot be sure that you didn't say something mean to the student. You can be sure you didn't intentionally say something mean, but that's not the same thing. The professional way to react is to be open (at least outwardly) to the possibility you may be at fault. Aggressively insisting on clearing your name makes this look worse for you, in a "methinks he doth protest too much" way. – user37208 Feb 23 at 3:21
I had a professor (for about three weeks) who was constantly, unambiguously mocking towards the weaker students, who maintained a class forum just to make fun of students who posted for help there, who took obvious joy in students' failures, who required us all to send him a picture so he could post it next to our grade on the class web site, and whose attitude was universally condescending, rude, and tyrannical. The entire department knew what a horrible teacher he was, and they did nothing about it. Given that, I doubt you'll face any consequences for an isolated complaint like this. – tsleyson Feb 23 at 7:07
up vote 82 down vote accepted

Sorry to hear that and calm down. I think the suggested approach is destructive and will only serve to highlight the property of being overly sensitive, defensive, and irritable.

First, this is a small complaint possibly caused by miscommunication. It's not serious charges such as assault or sexual harassment. Miscommunications happen even we aren't intended to, and it's a two-way process. Even you are 100% communicating well, the other may still misunderstand. If you're upholding your best friendly behavior you claimed that was loved by the other students, then you're doing something that is right for most but one student. The effort you'd need to put to prove the you're innocent and the output of nullifying that accusation don't look like balanced to me.

Second, don't care too much about how other lecturers view you on this issue. First, you found this out because it's reported. But how do you know if the same rumor has not been spread to everyone informally? A sensible well-educated adult (like, I hope, your colleagues) does not usually just believe or even propagate unsupported claims. Sensible students do not just skip taking your class because they heard that you mock people. Instead, they'd look at the publicly available evaluation reports and know that you are a decent teacher.

Third, just re-read your own question. The department head has not claimed that the complaint is from a weaker student, and you also have no proof that the rude e-mail senders had any motivation to taint your reputation, and yet the stereotypes, extrapolations, and unsupported claims in your post are immense. This is not to say I think you're a bad teacher, I want to point out that you may not be as objective and just as you may want to believe. And the past successes in teaching might indeed have biased how you see your teaching self.

Fourth, good records imply one is less likely to have committed wrongdoing. Good records do not guarantee no wrongdoing. Piling up all these positive records only serve to prove that you're not likely to mock people, but anyone can also ask "so what?" and you'll be left speechless. What if they think you have become too confident and full of yourself? What if there are other what ifs?

I have only taught for 10 years so I can't say I am very experienced, but one thing I learn is that just by random distribution some students are bound to dislike me, but deep down I know I learned my subjects, I am passionate about teaching them, I made reasonable teaching goals and make sure to best facilitate my students to get there, I am open to new evidence-based teaching methods and experiment, I yell "Okay class, let's start!" happily in every class. I am happy. A couple "neutral" or "disagree" in my course evaluation? A couple complaints about me being condescending, or annoying, or not pronouncing English 100% right? I'd reflect on them and see if I can improve, but I will not let them drag on; there are just too many other more important tasks to attend to.

My suggested approach is to present your record to your department chair and express your confusion about this comment. Escalating it may draw even more attention than it is now. (But I do agree that some of your measures such as peer observation will be a good learning activity among faculty.) Ask for his/her advice on how to deal with abnormal evaluation or complaint like this in future. I'd guarantee any experienced teacher (including your department head, I bet) will say something along the line of "We've all been there." If he/she becomes very negative about this one complaint and ignores all your past positive records, then you probably should evaluate if this environment will allow you to thrive.

However it turns out, I hope you and the said student will find peace and understanding soon. Remember to chill, and good luck.

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you taught for 10 years and you dont consider yourself experienced????????!!!=== – SSimon Feb 23 at 12:54
@SSimon, yes, and I wasn't trying to look humble there. In the first 3-5 years I really just worked on design and delivery, making things are presented nicely. Using educational literature, "reading" the classroom, using more interactive modules, etc. only started 5 years ago, after I had become more comfortable in delivery. Since then I realized every semester was a bit different: demographics, culture, new technology, etc. are constant moving targets; the only "experience" I gained is that I have to adapt constantly as well, prep work never reduces. (Sobbing) – Penguin_Knight Feb 23 at 13:19
@Penguin_Knight you are right on at the second-to-last paragraph. Escalating the problem will trigger Streisand Effect. – Mindwin Feb 23 at 13:28
Very nice response. You cannot affect other people. On a course which one may think ran brilliant, one suddenly gets almost out-of-order comments. On a course which seemed middling, one gets enthusiastic comments. Who knows what bad day the student had? Some weak students may not be able to distinguish their own faults from those of the teacher. The teacher may not realise a gaffe they have done. It happens to the best of us (and to the not-so-best of us, too, just more often, so they are less put out by it). – Captain Emacs Feb 24 at 21:21

First: No matter what you do, you will get some complaints, especially if you deal with large student populations. That's simply impossible to avoid. Your institution will probably have some formal requirements for dealing with such complaints, and your chairperson is compelled to follow through with those.

The practical response is going to depend on your department chair and institutional environment. Hopefully your chair is someone who weighs your prior excellent track record, and gives you the benefit of the doubt (student complaint has burden of proof for any action). This has been my experience, but I've heard from people in other situations where the reverse may be true (e.g., institutions where there is no department chair, or maybe a Dean or Provost of particular persuasion). Probably the face-to-face with the chair will make this clear, and your word will be taken at face value, and that can be the end (barring some kind of hard evidence on the part of the student).

One thing I would point out is that if this or any other case veers into accusations of sexual misconduct, then you have to be very careful indeed. If you are part of a union in the U.S., then you have an ironclad right to have union representation during any investigatory interview (see: Weingarten Rights). The advice I've received is that if anyone from a potentially unfriendly bureau asks for an interview about a student complaint (e.g., in my case, certain places outside the academic department), definitely say that you'll want union representation with you; in some cases the requested interview is then called off. Also I have colleagues who only meet with students with the office door open, or within the department office where they have witnesses at all times.

Hopefully you have a reasonably supportive chair/department, and if your experience matches mine then likely you'll have a 2 minute discussion of your side and it will be over at that point (and none of the prior paragraph will be necessary). But be aware that there will be occasional unjustified complaints from upset students over any otherwise long and successful career.

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Your comment about union representation makes it sound like it's universal, but at many universities in many countries, faculty are not unionized. – Nate Eldredge Feb 23 at 3:41
Edited to specify unionized faculty in the U.S. – Daniel R. Collins Feb 23 at 6:46
Why would anyone meet with students behind closed doors? That's definitely asking for trouble. – user49602 Feb 23 at 22:31
@user49602 It's almost 20 years that I meet with students, and frequently with close doors. I've never had any trouble. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 23 at 23:28

I agree that you're over-reacting, and I think once the shock wears off and you take it a bit easier you'll see for yourself what's wrong here.

It's definitely not professional to prepare your defence before you even know what you're accused of. Just because you have an award, and almost all your students like you, doesn't prove you're infallible and doesn't prove you didn't do this one thing wrong that's been complained about. You're not accused of always being wrong or of being a certain kind of person, you're accused of one incident. If you act as though your general good character proves you innocent of a single incident, then you would be presenting yourself as arrogant, entitled and, frankly, clueless.

So don't go in with the attitude that "I don't know what it is you think I did wrong, but I've never done anything wrong in my life and I can prove that because most people like me". Don't think, "I'd like to fight this allegation to the end to prove my innocence" before you even know whether you're innocent or not.

Instead, listen to the complaint.

It's possible the incident is completely invented (in which case perhaps you can call specific witnesses who were present in the same class it was alleged to happen, rather than general testimony that you're a good teacher). More likely something happened that you thought at the time was fine (perhaps even still think is fine) but the student didn't like. In which case you can probably apologise, learn the lesson that not everyone likes it, and move on. If a student feels mocked or belittled, then chances are what they need to know is that you respect them and that making them feel otherwise was a mistake. That is the professional thing to do, but unfortunately you can't start doing it until you know the details, and you don't know the details yet.

For example, if your friendly and approachable style includes a certain amount of joking around, you have to be prepared for the possibility that not everyone likes being joked around, and it's possible that you did mock something they did or said. That would be fine if they thought it was funny, not so much if they didn't, which is out of your control. And just because someone laughs at the time doesn't mean they really enjoyed it -- people try to cover embarrassment or discomfort. So having separate feedback outside the class is helpful to you, to learn things you otherwise can't, it's just a shame that it's coming in the form of a complaint.

If you go in assuming you did some small thing wrong, you'll be pleasantly surprised if you didn't, or if you did but you can make amends. If you go in assuming that a person with good teaching evaluations cannot possibly have done anything wrong, then you'll get a nasty shock because others disagree.

Try very hard not to form a picture in your mind of your accuser or what you're accused of, because if you go in with pre-conceptions then you will naturally project them onto the actual situation. You think that it's probably a student with a grudge? Well, then when you find out about the incident you'll see a grudge instead of seeing a genuine complaint. Think it was probably a weaker student? Then you'll see an idiot and dismiss their opinions. The professional thing is to control that urge.

In effect, your professional responsibility between now and the meeting with the chair, is to do nothing and think nothing. That's really hard, but there it is.

even more hurtful is that my colleagues might start viewing me as a cruel person who mocks the weaker students.

That would be bad, but it's unlikely that a single minor incident, handled in confidence and settled to the satisfaction of whoever is in charge, will get you that reputation. Again, this is not about what kind of person you are, it's about one incident. And it'd still better than them viewing you as a cruel person who mocks the weak, refuses to accept even the possibility of being wrong, and keeps an exhaustive defence argument ready to go at a moment's notice.

Don't let your (natural, understandable) worry over the accusation, turn you into an even worse person than what you're worried you might be accused of.

Short version:

  1. Try to remain calm. This is not a major incident until your boss says it is.
  2. Prepare yourself in the expectation that you've done some (relatively) small thing wrong.
  3. Don't guess what the complaint is or anything about the person who made it.
  4. Go to the meeting, find out what's wrong.
  5. Do whatever you can to fix the problem once you find out.

From past experiences (with cheating) I know that students almost always win ... [we should require] the students to prove that the professor indeed acted in a problematic way

Be wary of confirmation and selection biases, and be sure to remember in future that your past experiences now include this case, which was settled to your satisfaction. There doesn't need to be a cast-iron case against you before you're even asked for your account of what happened. Are you really saying that in past cases where you raised concerns of cheating that in the end were not proved, that you should not even have been permitted to raise the concern for further investigation until you'd assembled a convincing proof? And that's with you in a position of some authority and with access to the student's work. A student is not the right person to have to put their sleuthing shoes on and assemble all the evidence in the case: your chair is.

In your case there was no proof of wrongdoing and you were not punished. You shouldn't see that as a failure to apply a "beyond reasonable doubt" or other standard of proof. It's a success, the system worked. Generally speaking there should not be a standard of proof for students to even raise concerns, because if there were then students would be unable to get help establishing the evidence when they genuinely have been wronged. At this stage of proceedings it's an inquisitorial not an adversarial system. Even in a serious case that moves to an adversarial venue, the student is not the prosecuting attorney and isn't responsible for proving the case.

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Unpleasant people are best handled via a low-pass filter. You give things a long delay, and significant time to build up and do not act on short-duration events. More opportunities for them to make mistakes. If it's an irrelevant blip, or simply a momentary outburst of disgruntledness, it will pass, and people, including themselves, will forget. As Fontane said: "Happiness is a strong stomach and a bad memory."

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Everyone here had excellent responses. Let me just put it more concisely: the student has the right to complaint about whatever he/she likes to. And you have the right to simply ignore it.

(By the way, it is your right to have a general mocking tone. As long as it is not mocking on personal basis, you are entitled to your own style. (I personally don't like mocking tones, but I also don't like people who wear, e.g. sandals. That's a matter of taste.))

Edit clarification:

Mocking on a personal basis is not okay. But here the student seems to claim something else: "a mocking tone". This can be interpreted as the student trying to formalize his/her discontent with the professor into concrete allegations. Since the professor did not mock him/her, the student allegedly has decided to base his accusations on something that is subjective or vague: a "general mocking tone"; which can in fact refer to many things. My claim is that a tone alone cannot be a justifiable basis for a formal complaint.

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-1. Just like the relationship between any other customer and service provider, the student has a right to be treated with professionalism and respect, regardless of the student's attitude towards the teacher. It is absolutely not the teacher's right to have a "general mocking tone". – Moriarty Feb 23 at 13:16
@Moriarty, I disagree. Academia is not a service provider and the student is not a customer; at least not in the standard sense. Because in academia, for instance, the students get judged by the professors, and the judgement is based on many non-objective parameters. Indeed, it is not unprofessional to have a mocking tone---as long it is not personal insults. – Dilworth Feb 23 at 15:54
@Moriarty I am in absolute disagreement. People do have a right to have a certain tone provided it does not break rules or laws. You do not have the right to police anyone's tone. Giving automatic immunity to behavioral scrutiny to customers and students is not an opinion that service providers unanimously share with you. If a student's attitude is a problem, it may very well be true that the professional response is to deal with it in a way that is uncomfortable to the student, such as reprimanding them. You are not there to ensure maximum comfort to them at all times. – The Anathema Feb 23 at 16:22
@Moriarty, I was just making light of the coincidence. I see I should have ended the comment with a :-p or something. Sorry for the confusion. – user1717828 Feb 23 at 16:33
@Moriarty, indeed this is the definition of mocking. But here the OP was talking about a mocking tone, which is presumably something else. And we can interpret this as not real/direct mocking, but a tone which was seemed unpleasant. This is legitimate. People have different personalities, and it is impossible that every student would like the tone of every faculty. – Dilworth Feb 24 at 15:46

I think you've already worried far too much about this.

Malcontents are a fact of life and whining is often their ultimate revenge against the competent simply for being competent, never-mind stellar. While it is reasonable for you not to immediately dismiss these complaints in your own mind - pondering if anything might have any validity however exaggerated by the student, it is not constructive to dwell on it too much. Life is too short already.

The praise others and recognition by them of our efforts and accomplishments is a spice of life, but it is not a nutritious meal for the soul. The locus of our identity should be within ourselves, not external and beyond our control. That is to say: We should NEVER outsource our own happiness. Sometimes we will be castigated for doing the right thing or merely for being an ethical person. That or the envy of others owing to one's own excellence is no reason to retreat from excellence or from what you love to do.

Unless there is something more that comes out during your meeting with the department chair, all you really need to do is point out your previous performance and student reviews. (And abib abib... That's all Folks!)

Do be prepared - mostly emotionally. If a third party you are not expecting is in attendance when you meet with the department chair, especially the dean, a university attorney, or someone from Human Resources; ask immediately, firmly, but without defensiveness WHY they are there. And if it is indicated to you that there is more to the complaint, then just matter-of-factly ask them to get it out in the open directly and if it is a more serious accusation (like sexual harassment) calmly and IMMEDIATELY state on the record that you deny (assuming that is the truth otherwise the issue is out of my league) this and ask for any information you need so that you can present your side of the story. I'm not trying to scare you. Probably nothing like this will happen because if that were in the complaint I think you would have had this conversation already.

But in such a situation you want to neither appear reluctant (easy if they say something that shocks you) nor defensive - just matter-of-fact, direct, to-the-point, no repetition of account.

If all there is to this is what you have already been told (likely I believe) then you don't want to come across as having fretted too much about this.

And for goodness sake, don't spend any more time worrying - especially over things you have no control.

Good luck to you.

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Well, you start with the (correct) assertion that the OP has already dwelled too much on this minor issue, to then launch into "maybe this becomes a sexual harassment story", and end with "Good luck to you". Frankly, from what the OP has posted it seems borderline paranoid to assume that there is anything more to this than a slightly disgruntled student. – xLeitix Feb 23 at 9:48
@xLeitix, Call it "borderline paranoid" if you want to, but I've seen curves thrown like this before in comparable situations that I've been privy to. How one reacts in the first few seconds matters. I was clear that this is probably (emphasize probably) not the case here but one never knows what one does not know. It helps to be mentally ready for anything and a minute or two (no more) of quiet reflection in advance is all that is required. No reason to look guilty or defensive when you are innocent. – Ken Clement Feb 23 at 15:49

I agree with the answers that say you should stop worrying so much. You're planning to meet with the department chair to find out what's going on. You might well find out that nothing is going on. Perhaps the chair knows perfectly well that you're a great teacher but some university policy requires him/her to inform you when there's a complaint. Many years ago, I was the associate chair in charge of handling complaints about faculty; how I handled them depended on what I already knew about the person's teaching. A known problem teacher got a visit from me immediately after a complaint; a known excellent teacher never even knew that there was a complaint --- I wasn't going to bother him about one student's complaint, and there was no policy requiring me to bother him. Of course, if I got more complaints about the excellent teacher, then I'd have to do something (and revise my opinion about his excellence), but there were no more complaints about him. Your department chair may well have a similar attitude; the message you get when you meet with him/her may well be the same message you're getting here: Don't worry about it.

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I'm not an academic, but I am a professional. You need to handle this professionally. What is the primary difference between a professional and an amateur? Well, okay, aside from the amount of time invested... It's discipline!

Professionals are disciplined. The approach you're taking is anything but disciplined. To be perfectly frank, you're kind of freaking out a little. I'll grant that it's better to freak out to US than to your department chair or the student, but it's best to remain rational the entire time.

You need to do three simple things:

1. Get the facts. Don't make any plans until you understand what you're being accused of, what the student wants done about it, etc. You seem to be assuming the worst, but honestly if it was seriously bad, you would already be in meetings to get to the bottom of it. But you're not, so it can't be that bad...

2. Accept that you were wrong. "Wrong?!" you're thinking. "I've done nothing wrong!" Well that can't be true or this complaint wouldn't have happened, logically. Just view this as a way to improve. What if you've been doing something that has been making students feel uncomfortable for years and you didn't know because they all just never said anything? Wouldn't you want to fix that?

3. Move past this. It's a small bump in what appears to be a road filled with accolades. Use this to influence both how you handle criticism in the future and how you interact with your students.

One last comment: your post seems to be an awful lot about you. You weren't the one who felt uncomfortable. Don't make this about you. This is about them. Keep it about them. If your passion for making a positive impact on students lives is as true as your post makes it out to be, you'll make sure you keep this one about the student that (for whatever reason, whether it's reasonable or not) felt you had a negative impact on theirs. You're the only one who can turn it around for them!

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"What is the primary difference between a professional and an amateur" - one is paid, the other isn't. It's also the only difference. I hate how people attach all of this crazy baggage to common words to the point of making them completely useless. – Davor Feb 23 at 15:32
No, that is exactly the degradation of the word that I'm talking about. A professional is someone who earns money performing their profession. Muhammad Ali was a professional boxer, but he was a rude asshole to people all the time. People who distort the word professional would say that he wasn't very professional because of that. I'm an amateur boxer, because I don't get paid, I do it for fun, and I'm not rude to people, I'm very polite to anyone who trains with me. And yet, I'm not professional. – Davor Feb 23 at 16:13
-1 for "accept that you were wrong". That may or may not be the case, and to be blind to one of those possibilities is silly and counter-productive. – Daniel R. Collins Feb 23 at 16:52
Disagree. Compare to:… – Daniel R. Collins Feb 23 at 19:13
@corsiKa After my meeting with the chair, I still stand by my actions in my office hours. However, previous to the meeting, I did take your advice (with a grain of salt, I admit), and readied myself for the possibility that I had inadvertently done something wrong, which is hopefully what you meant. – user49602 Feb 23 at 22:55

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