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I currently have a (graduate) professor who clearly does not understand the material she teaches at the level required by the course. This normally would not be a problem - I'm fine with educating myself via textbook - but unfortunately her inaccurate knowledge also extends to grading. I have no problem with studying hard for a difficult class, but I can't possibly know how to predict the exact incorrect ideas that the professor has and incorporate them into my work.

My first response was to very, verrrrry diplomatically approach the professor and talk to her about the questions - but she immediately became angry. I then talked to my advisor, who said that this isn't the first time she's heard of problems with this teacher. My advisor said that her only idea is for me to go to the head of the department, but I'd really prefer not to do this for two reasons:

  1. Relatively small department; it's likely that this professor has a good relationship with the department head, and I would look bad
  2. It seems like a "nuclear option" and I would prefer to avoid it (if possible)

This is my last semester of graduate coursework in molecular biology, and I have never had a problem like this before. I feel like my only option is to drop the course - without it, I would still have all my coursework requirements fulfilled - but I don't want to have a W on my transcript.

I have been unable to come up with a satisfactory way to resolve the problem.

Possibly helpful additional information

  • I have talked to other students in the class; all (of the six I have talked to about the issue) have experienced similar problems in grading
  • I have confirmation from other teachers that my answers are correct, but they don't want to confront a colleague (and I can't fault them for this)
  • I don't dislike the teacher; she seems like a relatively OK person. I just wish she understood the content better
  • The teacher can't possibly have a grudge against me, since I had never met her before the class
  • I'm very interested in what this class covers, which is why I took it despite not needing to
  • I have taught some of this material at the undergraduate and graduate level; I understand it's difficult stuff. It's more the teacher's attitude towards grading that is the problem.
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"I currently have a (graduate) professor who clearly does not understand the material she teaches at the level required by the course. This normally would not be a problem - I'm fine with educating myself via textbook " then why are you wasting time and money in graduate school? – emory Feb 28 at 2:12
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@emory: Often people want a credential that shows they know the material. – Bob Brown Feb 28 at 2:26
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@emory: Because for one thing, it's pretty darned hard to get a job in academia or research without a PhD union card. – jamesqf Feb 28 at 4:37
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@emory: (1) Getting guidance on what literature to read, (2) interacting with experts when you have questions, (3) achieving certifications needed for many jobs (academic and otherwise), (4) getting started with a research/publishing career, (5) developing a network of colleagues to help with that research, etc.? – Daniel R. Collins Feb 28 at 5:22
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@emory: Just because someone is an expert in their field doesn't mean that he is an expert at whatever he is teaching. I, for one, was once asked to do problem sessions in a topic I had no clue about, and learned as I went. I didn't pretend to know more than I actually did, though. – tomasz Feb 28 at 9:08

10 Answers 10

up vote 105 down vote accepted

Not a definitive answer, since I’m a postdoc with comparatively limited experience of such conflict situations, but I do have a few suggestions. They aim to:

  • maximise the chance of getting better grading without ruffling too many feathers;
  • give you solid documentation if you do end up escalating the complaint;
  • minimise the embarrassment in case it turns out that you’re misunderstanding something and your lecturer’s grading is defensible after all.

If you confront the teacher again, do so by email rather than in person. This has several advantages. Firstly, it allows you to look over what you’ve written and make sure you’re phrasing everything as tactfully as possible. Secondly, it gives her time to (hopefully) get over any initial anger/embarrassment and give a considered response. Confronted on a sensitive topic in person, it’s easy to get flustered and defensive, and entrenched in a position it’s difficult to climb down from later. Finally, if she doesn’t respond constructively, you have the exchange in writing, so are on firmer ground for escalating the issue to the department head.

If possible, phrase the question/request so that your desired outcome is also palatable for her. If you argue that she’s fundamentally misunderstanding the course material, she’s pretty unlikely to accept that — admitting that one’s wrong about something is already difficult, admitting one’s incompetent is a whole lot harder again. Instead, you could say that (e.g.) you have learned some of the material previously, and so know it with a different viewpoint from hers (and maybe give a couple of examples here, ideally with sources in well-established literature) and you would like to check that this angle will also be acceptable for work on the course. I’m not saying you should say exactly that — but look for something that allows her to concede that your understanding is correct, without having to admit (to you or herself) that hers is wrong; and down the line this makes it easier for her to improve her understanding of the subject, rather than remaining antagonistic towards your suggestions. On the other hand, if she does defend her current approach, this gives her a chance to lay out her case more clearly and carefully.

If you do this and she still doesn’t engage constructively, you’re now on very solid ground to escalate the complaint. You have a written record of your good-faith effort to sort this out tactfully. You have specific examples where she has doubled down on her misunderstanding of the material. (I’d suggest double-checking these with your advisor or another faculty member to be absolutely sure you’re right about them.) Even if the head of department supports this teacher in general, it will be comparatively difficult for them to dismiss the complaint or paint you as a troublemaker.

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Thank you. I think this is the best option that I have available to me. – Jan Vincent Feb 28 at 16:01

My recommendation would be to withdraw from the course. I'd almost go so far as to say you have a prime opportunity to do so in this case: it's not a required course, and you know you can learn it on your own, and you have other things that take priority with your time. Granted how defensive she got (and noncommittal your advisor was), the overall trajectory seems to be some combination of (a) getting into an ongoing and escalating dispute with her, (b) contending with department interactions over an extended period, (c) triggering end-of-course grade disputes, etc. This threatens to be a huge sink in your time and emotional energy, so I would recommend simply sidestepping the whole issue as the best option.

Now: The one thing that makes me hesitate with this advice is that I don't have very deep experience with what a effect a "W" has on a PhD transcript. Personally, I have a whole bunch of W's on my undergraduate transcript (albeit none in my major), and they have never been an issue or mentioned in any context: not on applying to graduate school, getting industry employment, or getting a full-time lecturer position.

Edit: Thanks to @vadim123 for the comment: "Nobody cares what you have on your PhD transcript. They care about (1) what you've published, (2) what's in your thesis, and as a distant third (3) your GPA. Oh, and (0) what your letters of recommendation say about you." Sounds about right.

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I'm not certain, but my sense is that a W would require explanation. And that is not something you want to need to give. Whereas a less-good-pass is likely a non-issue and won't even register as anything but 'fine'. – cfr Feb 28 at 4:42
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Good point. I think this question is more about "what should I do", and if OP do not like the nuclear option (where most serious argument would escalate anyway), the other clear way is the W. – Greg Feb 28 at 16:00
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Nobody cares what you have on your PhD transcript. They care about (1) what you've published, (2) what's in your thesis, and as a distant third (3) your GPA. Oh, and (0) what your letters of recommendation say about you. – vadim123 Feb 29 at 17:49

Find out the final-grade appeals process in your department/at your university. (Where I am the procedure is department-level, but that may or may not be the case where you are.) Keep every assignment your professor has graded; separately, write up where and how the grading is incorrect.

Follow the procedure to the letter. Be apologetic and accommodating (as you have here) rather than angry. Explain that you did try to raise this with the professor directly, and the result was not positive.

This deflects the situation into being about your grade, which is impersonal, rather than a personal dispute between you and the professor, which you (probably quite correctly, graduate departments being as clannish as they are) wish to avoid.

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Realistically, how much do the actual grades matter in your program? In many programs they do not matter as long as you pass. The main purpose of graduate courses is for you to learn so you can do better research, and it seems you have achieved that goal.

If this is the case, a reasonable option would be just to ignore it (you are about to finish your graduate coursework anyway) and just focus on the most important part - research.

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Really? In the two graduate programs I know about, grades are A, B, and C-U-later. – Bob Brown Feb 27 at 22:16
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@BobBrown So A and B pass. Does it really matter if you get an A or a B as long as you pass? – Bitwise Feb 27 at 22:57
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Well, it mattered to me. – Bob Brown Feb 27 at 23:05
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Grades are not so unimportant. If you ever go into industry or seek a teaching position or even research position at a lesser institution, they may ask for your grad school GPA. And it can very well matter. – Chan-Ho Suh Feb 28 at 2:59
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especially if you didn't produce a very strong research output — So don't do that then. – JeffE Feb 28 at 5:58

Basically, I agree with @PLL. I wouldn't tell to the professor directly that she is wrong. It may be hard for her to realize that she is wrong if you directly tell her that. Also, I agree with you in a part of preferring of not going to the head of the department. She is a professor and it is a little bit sensitive topic.

Still, I think she should know that she teaches wrong because students have an issue with a wrong teaching, and she has an issue even though she doesn't know that (or she knows but she doesn't want to change?).

I would send her a mail. You may write that you are confused because you thought that some other thing is correct and now you don't know anymore which approach to take. Also you can ask her for a help. Of course you don't need a help but she should think more about the problem and at the same time she shouldn't feel that she is under attack because she may start to act "too defensive". You can be stubborn in your reply (e.g. "I really thought differently/ I would like to know which part of my approach is wrong so I don't make any mistake/ What should I change", etc.).

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Beyond your department, your university most likely has an ombudsperson who can help you navigate this issue. They may be an essential resource, since they are helpfully outside of your small department, and should (hopefully) be knowledgeable and well-versed in the areas you need: grade disputes, university policy/procedure, academic politics, etc. Reasons why it might be good to get this person involved:

  • You don't know what is going on in the professor's life. We don't have enough information to form a conclusion about the cause of the situation, but it's worth entertaining a number of explanations for conspicuous behavior, and the ombudsperson might be able to help.

  • I've also once heard through the grapevine of a department head complicit in assigning a gravely unqualified teacher to a course, and it would almost certainly be unwise to try and force that issue by yourself.

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Is it a plausible scenario, given the information we have, that the professor has mental problems? No it isn’t. Ungrounded speculations like this does not belong in an answer imo. – Winther Feb 28 at 2:18
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The advice to get a third party involved (ombudsman or similar) is the saving grace here, and by quick glance not covered by the other answers. – tripleee Feb 28 at 10:54
    
@winther My main goal was giving examples of why the student might want to approach an ombudsperson without getting exhaustive. That said, your comment did make me realize I could invert the order of the answer, and make this relationship clearer. Cheers. – abathur Feb 28 at 13:40

In short: approach the professor with a detailed, full and rigorous explanation on why your solution is correct. Deal with it professionally, and base your claims on hard facts alone, not your personal opinions.

Longer answer: I am not completely convinced by your story. That is, I do believe that there might be an ambiguous marking criteria going on in your course, but I don't see how you drew the categorical conclusion that "the teacher doesn't understand what she is teaching". That's only your opinion. The fact your advisor said something about the professor also doesn't establish much. He/she might have said something without thinking much about it.

So I believe you should simply deal professionally with the matter: stick to facts, find out precisely where the marking is incorrect and send an email/contact your teacher. This seems like a quite simple story. You say that "the teacher got angry" when approached. I'm also not convinced this is the full story. People do not generally simply get angry when approached. You need to figure out the precise conversation that led to her getting angry, if indeed.

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I've had a total of three teachers over the years with grading issues. Facts didn't matter to any of them. – Loren Pechtel Mar 1 at 3:59
    
Again, I am not convinced. What does it mean "facts didn't matter to them"? Obviously, some facts did matter to them. So your explanation is almost surely incomplete. Are you claiming that because of their ego they decided not to admit their mistake? Or perhaps because they are afraid of the consequences of admitting a mistake? Or are you claiming that they are sociopaths who arbitrarily give grades, and then they become opaque to students' complaints? Or what exactly are you saying? – Dilworth Mar 2 at 0:03
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I mean that proving your case didn't matter to them. They're the teacher, they're right, you're wrong. – Loren Pechtel Mar 2 at 0:18
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In one case it was totally clear-cut: The professor insisted there was only one way to do something, I had studied a system that did it differently. This same professor was unable to answer a very simple question in class, also despite the confused student asking three times. Another student finally piped up with a correct, one-word answer. – Loren Pechtel Mar 2 at 1:49
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I presented the counterexample to him, he still marked me wrong. – Loren Pechtel Mar 4 at 3:03

Most universities have some sort of grading appeal process, so you can use that if necessary.

However, if you are wanting to do something a bit more diplomatic, the only suggestion I have is to try and get her to recognise that she is incorrect. Fin the most egregious error in her marking, preferably one that you can point to material that shows she is incorrect. Then you can do something like 'I really don't understand why this ... is wrong and would like to go through it with you'. Teachers usually have office hours exactly for this, explaining what the student did wrong. During that discussion, you can say things like 'how does that reconcile with ...' and get the supporting material out. Or, 'the textbook says ..., but I am having trouble integrating that with ... (whatever she said)'. If you make it about you trying to understand, as she tries to explain it, she may well realise that what she's saying doesn't make sense. Avoid saying 'you are wrong' and make it much more like 'but I can't see how that fits with ...'

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This way having a personal tutor assigned by the department (or collage) to each student is very important.

Go to your personal tutor, and explain that you are finding it hard to understand why your answers are being marked as they are. Ask your tutor to explain to you what you do not understand….

Make it all about your lack of understanding, including your lack of understanding of the books.

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Maybe it's important, but in many academic cultures it simply isn't the standard. What do you propose if the OP doesn't have a personal tutor? – Nate Eldredge Mar 2 at 3:34

It is worth knowing that what is taught in coursework or printed in course texts, can be many years behind research frontiers.

If the coursework is in the professor's field of specialisation, there is a very good chance that her knowledge is years ahead of the text.

Google Scholar is your friend.

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The OP states that I have confirmation from other teachers that my answers are correct. – scaaahu Feb 28 at 9:50
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@scaaahu other teachers might be in a fight. – Nemo Feb 28 at 11:48
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@Nemo Other students have similar problems and the OP himself taught some of the materials at undergrad and graduate levels. Everybody is wrong and only the teacher in question is right? – scaaahu Feb 28 at 11:54
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@scaaahu not necessarily, but often in such cases there are at least two groups (of professors, students etc.) on different sides. It's well possible that the persons the OP talks with are just those close to him, who logically belong to the "party" other than the allegedly problematic teacher's. – Nemo Feb 28 at 11:56
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@Nemo I have no interest to engage in a debate about whether the teacher is right. We are supposed to help the OP to resolve the problem (he does not want to withdraw the class). This answer assumes that the OP is at fault (the teacher is right about her lecture and grading). That's why I had the comment. End of discussion here. – scaaahu Feb 28 at 12:06

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