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I've recently been the subject of bullying by a group of students. I taught a difficult module alongside another module, which was taught by somebody else. The other module was much easier and offered huge amounts of support. Students described having their hands held in this module. One student told me that this module felt like students were being treated as newbies, whereas my module felt like they were being treated as second year students at a Russell Group university. The university where I work is more teaching focused.

Having heard feedback from students, I think that the tasks I set them were quite challenging, and I don't think they were used to it. I'm still adjusting to the level that the students are operating at in this university, and were I to I teach in the module again, I would adjust the level.

However, the main issue is that students posted rude, personal and abusive feedback in the module evaluations and also posted nasty comments on the module forum. I also got nasty emails from some students, and although I passed this up to management, nothing was done and I was left to deal with this alone.

It has affected my self esteem and my confidence as a lecturer. I've always had plenty of good feedback before and I've always felt competent in my role. I don't know if I have any rights in terms of being bullied by students, but one student has just told me that there is a Facebook group where I was being slated and there were really personal comments. The student I spoke to today described it as a bit of a hate group, directed at me. One student even copied an email that I had sent her (a photograph of it) and posted it on a Facebook group. I'm not sure if this contravenes any confidentiality regulations.

Anyway, I just wondered if anyone else had experienced this and if anyone had any advice. I've been teaching for 10 years and I was on the verge of quitting my job, and I don't feel like I can easily face teaching these students again. On a personal level, I see it as an opportunity to develop greater resilience, but I can't help the fact that it really feels undermining and threatening to be in this situation.

Any advice or support would be appreciated.

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    You might want to remove your name from the post and change your account name, in case it is your real name. – Mark Feb 3 '18 at 17:37
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    To the OP: I've added the UK tag. If this is not happening in the UK, feel free to remove the tag, but please specify a country tag because it's relevant. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 4 '18 at 10:34
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    Honestly I'm not sure any of that really amounts to bullying. The only group effort seems to have been a facebook page group, which, if neither you nor your colleagues are part of it, can't really be construed to be bullying - Talking badly about the boss behind their back surely isn't bullying. – sgf Feb 4 '18 at 12:01
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    @sgf What about this part of the original post? "However, the main issue is that students posted rude, personal and abusive feedback in the module evaluations and also posted nasty comments on the module forum. I also got nasty emails from some students, and although I passed this up to management, nothing was done and I was left to deal with this alone." – Yemon Choi Feb 4 '18 at 20:39
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    Get used to students not liking you... grow a thick skin. You're not there to make friends, you're there to be fair and teach a tough subject. You will have many students not like you because your course is challenging. Read the feedback impartially, and see if there is a common theme that needs attention that you can improve upon. Otherwise, disregard it as grumbling students. You'll have a tough career if you take personal offense to every negative grumbling from students, and an even worse career if you try to fight each one. – SnakeDoc Feb 4 '18 at 21:49
39

In short, the behaviour of your students is not acceptable - no matter how good or bad your teaching was.

If something like this were to happen at my university, I as vice dean for teaching would invite the whole group for a face-to-face meeting and explain to them how adults should solve problems.

In fact, this is something you should aim for, since the problem will persist and affect others as well, since the students' behaviour will not change.

We had good success with early feedback opportunities (not just the end term evaluation), micro-evaluations (anonymous feedback which can be a one-liner) which are discussed with the whole group, an honest open door policy, and with involving student organizations and representatives early on. Some course formats have to be explained to students over and over again... This might be helpful in the future, but won't help for now.

If you are still teaching this course, I'd suggest an intervention (if possible with the help of another neutral professor) where you address the problem in front of the class. If possible, summon an extra meeting which does not take place in your usual teaching room. For such a setting, I would suggest just asking the students about feedback regarding your lecture, but ask them to follow commonly accepted feedback rules. Afterwards, tell them what you took as the take home message from the feedback.

Afterwards, you should tell them that you prefer direct communication about any issues.

In the best case, they should be ashamed afterwards...

24

I'm sorry to say this, but - as I see it, I don't think you were bullied.

You got negative (individual) feedback, and perhaps some of the messages were even nasty like you said they were. People may have even complained about you in a Facebook group (which, if I understand correctly, you have not actually read the contents of). That does not constitute bullying.

Remember, you are the person in a position of power relative to these students. You set their grades, you can make demands of them, you decide if they face a module that's easier or harder.

If they had contacted your friends or family to deride you; if they had spread lies about you; if had tried to publicize their derisive comments to as many people as possible on campus; if they had threatened you with some kind of retribution, or been physically violent towards you; etc. - then you might have called it bullying.

It's perfectly legitimate to feel shaken, insulted, hurt, by their behavior; but it seems to have been within the bounds of what you should just tolerate.

So: Bear in mind the positive feedback that you often get; it's an assurance that you can and do teach well, in most situations. Talk about this experience with close friends and colleagues, or your spouse if you have one. In fact, given the severity of what you describe, perhaps you should consult a psychologist, for more personalized advice about how to handle this situation. It seems to have touched a nerve that runs much deeper than the experience with these students.

Edit: Note that even if you don't agree with my point of view, it's a point of view which many may adopt, given the information we have. And if there are many whom you can't convinceyou were wronged, your justification for any retaliatory action or complaint would be very shaky. Try to turn the tables and see what this scenario sounds like from the students' point of view.

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    I agree that there's a line between private communications between students and actions that directly engage the OP, but there is also a line between comments in a general-purpose group and the formation of a dedicated group to discuss an individual teacher. It doesn't have to be bullying to be inappropriate behaviour that should (in an ideal world, anyway) be addressed by the university in some form. (Other than that, +1 - there is a real need to objectively consider just how bad the behaviour is, ideally with input from external observers.) – E.P. Feb 4 '18 at 0:34
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    Indeed, I agree there's a high chance that this is unlikely to be bullying. But I'll say it again: it does not have to be bullying to be inappropriate behaviour. And there's a huge range of possible institutional responses that do not entail curtailing speech, starting with a frank chat between a tutor and the students about how to handle adversity in a professional way (particularly if it does turn out to be the case that a dedicated "hate group" (OP's term) has been set up). I'm amazed with your virulent reaction at someone (mostly) agreeing with you, though. – E.P. Feb 4 '18 at 0:47
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    @E.P.: The reaction was due to the suggestion that university authorities may need to be involved. I tend to be touchy about the prospect of exercise of coercive power. Anyway, I agree with your last comment. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Feb 4 '18 at 1:11
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    OP says she's been teaching for ten years. I'm sure she's encountered her fair share of negative and even nasty feedback and can tell the difference between this and bullying. What's the point in downplaying her experience and her current situation? – henning Feb 4 '18 at 9:51
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    Hi, I clarified the bullying situation below. Also, colleagues of mine came to me because they were concerned about what students were saying and posting on a university forum about me, and described the situation as being a witch hunt. Other colleagues teaching my module have been supportive and cannot understand why do students are behaving in this way, and have apologized that I am going through this. I am certainly not up playing anything. I'm not new to this game, but I'm new to this behaviour – Dharma Jane Feb 5 '18 at 8:53
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Capable lecturers, especially if they come from research-heavy institutions, treat students as copies of themselves - assuming maximum competence, enthusiasm, skill and perseverance. But you cannot assume that. If you are lucky, you have 5-10% of students coming close to that level.

But you are a teacher, and you have to serve the grand majority. So, your next task is learning how to teach effectively. Most students react well to being taken seriously.

So, rather than semi-formal evaluations, one thing that works well is getting face-to-face response from students early on about whether the course is too easy, too fast, etc. If they say it is way too difficult, you have a gauge that you are probably too fast. You then may want to slow down. If they say it is "a bit too hard", you are in good shape, because you most likely want to stretch them - make it clear to them, though. Students, again, in my experience, respond well to explanations why the course is not and should not be too easy, as long as they see a reasonable chance to pass it and serious effort on the side of the lecturer to help them achieve the desired level.

The key is and remains: communication. However, it is the face-to-face that matters. Once communication begins to go on behind your back, we get to a more problematic situation.

And so, now to the matter of bullying. This is, unfortunately, a self-reinforcing process. It is doubtful that this can be stopped short of a very serious warning by the university, but I suspect anything short of a direct threat of violence will not mobilise the department to your protection.

One idea is really to block any of these negative messages. You are not likely to be helped by the department. There is almost nothing you can do to stop a collective of students to run their bullying activity against you, once it has taken off. But you can minimise the effect on you. If hate-mail is sent to you, archive it, but do not read it in detail. Do not respond to statements about people having Facebook pages about you. Far too often, these people project their own shortcomings onto whoever made them face them.

The past cohort is pretty much a lost cause. Cut your losses. However, for the new year, adapt your pedagogy, get feedback early and often, even face-to-face. Do not be subservient, but demonstrate that you are interested in students' opinion, even if you may not always be able to follow their requests. Finding the right balance is a learning process on your side. With this, hopefully, this negative experience of yours will soon fade into an indistinct past.

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    I know you’re trying to be helpful, but most of this answer feels like victim-blaming. OP seems to be asking for support and advice about how to deal with the abuse, not advice about how to teach and communicate better with her students to avoid future abuse, which is most of what your answer contains, and sounds critical and frankly not very supportive. Have you noticed that you don’t even mention the bullying until the fifth paragraph of your answer? And that nowhere do you say (as another answer does) that this abuse is wrong and unacceptable regardless of the level of OP’s teaching? – Dan Romik Feb 3 '18 at 19:55
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    @DanRomik I know that the word "victim-blaming" is in fashion today. However, I can only talk from my experience and that is that you can change yourself, but not others. Other responses deal with the bullying, so I did not feel it is necessary to replicate their response, but rather add a novel perspective to it. It should be obvious (although in these times every thing seems to have to be spelt out - "Contents may be hot") that bullying is totally unacceptable. Totally. Absolutely. But when you are verbally mugged, and nobody helps you (maybe not even your dept. as some others suggest here). – Captain Emacs Feb 3 '18 at 20:40
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    @DanRomik then, I think the main point is to help OP to find ways to avoid being in such a situation and to deal with it as it is. I think that we have this idea today that somehow every negative interaction can and will be sorted by appealing to a higher authority. The present case is so dire that, if there is such support, the OP can and should use it. However, this is not necessarily the case, and, in any case, prevention is better than cure. Let's face it, the likely reason why OP is in such a position is the fact that students are customers and that the balance of power has completely.. – Captain Emacs Feb 3 '18 at 20:44
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    @DanRomik tipped drastically towards accommodating students, whether they are right or not. Such a situation would have been unthinkable when I studied, it was very clear who wielded the power then - it was not the students; but today, the departments are likely to accommodate the students rather than the teachers. No, I am most definitely not victim-blaming, but rather make suggestions to turn students into OP's allies rather than enemies. If you feel the response does not serve OP, I am prepared to delete it. I have done my best to offer a constructive, tested, working solution. – Captain Emacs Feb 3 '18 at 20:51
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    Downvoted: The question is about how to deal with bullying. Unless you're suggesting that making students think too hard—even MUCH too hard—turns them into bullies, the first half of this answer is utterly irrelevant. – JeffE Feb 3 '18 at 23:31
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I can only answer for the U.S.

Here is a sample excerpt from a Code of Conduct. This one is from the University of Wisconsin:

Harassment or bullying is language or conduct that is unwelcome and sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive such that it could reasonably be expected to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment, or has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with a person's academic or work performance, or a person's ability to participate in or benefit from the university's programs, services, opportunities, or activities, when viewed through both an objective and subjective standard. This includes harassment or bullying that occurs through electronic means, such as electronic media, the internet, social networks, blogs, cell phones, or text messages.

From your description, this seems apt. The start page for the Code of Conduct gives contact information for "Community Standards & Student Conduct."

Please, file a complaint. And check the policies at your institution. If you find something relevant, cite it in your complaint. If you don't, propose that something be added.

Next time: when you start seeing some red flags -- if something feels a bit off -- start documenting, and inform the office that promotes healthy and respectful student conduct (or your department, as the case may be) that you're getting a bad feeling and will update them in a week as to whether things are worse, the same or better. Establishing a line of communication BEFORE things reach crisis point can be helpful.

Why should you file a complaint? Part of being a good university citizen means providing specific negative feedback about something that is not right, so the university can work continually on improving the study and work environment.

Edit: Additional remarks.

  1. The climate in your university will only become more positive if the members of the university community work together toward that goal.

  2. Find a teaching mentor or an office that provides pedagogy support for teachers. Spend 5% of your time reading about teaching and observing other teachers and keep a journal about your observations and your reading. As you gain theoretical knowledge and practical experience your confidence will grow.

4

The only practical advice here is: Get used to it. The system isn't fair and it isn't nice and the University doesn't care. These things are emotionally crippling and no other career has to put up with this nonsense. Every semester, you get your evaluations back and 99 of them are glowing, but that one immature, soon-to-drop-out-anyway leaves you profane and false feedback, and your week is ruined. It's wrong, but it isn't going to change. So the only thing you can do is work on your reaction to it. What I have done over the years is to force myself to think about the 99 every time I start dwelling on the 1. It sort of works. And alcohol helps too.

Having said that, your situation points up a deep problem in academia. With sites like Rate-a-Prof and Reddit and GroupMe, the students have a ready venue for their shark-feeds. The University should exert itself to fight these things. Student grades (which no one cares about) are somehow protected by FERPA, while faculty ratings are "public record." And somehow, it's OK with your employer that these teenagers can slander you and your work with impunity.

If someone started up a website called Rate-A-Dean, and let faculty treat the deans like the students treat faculty, you can bet our collective TIAA-Cref accounts that the University would send in armies of lawyers and get the thing shut down with extreme prejudice.

(I just looked at Obu's answer and I'm shocked. I've never run into an administrator who would take action in such a case. I'm glad to hear of it, but I think this is rare. If your admins take up your case, then I think you're very lucky indeed.)

Well, here's another practical thing you can do: Give informal evaluations early and frequently. If the students are allowed to vent early on, it tempers their immature behavior when the formal evaluations roll around. Since they get to vent, there is less urgency to start a Reddit thread for a shark feed. Since they've already ranted once, they don't feel so much like ranting again. You can pitch the informal evaluations whether you read them or not. Their still immature and still unfair, but now you control the channel.

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    This wasn't about one rude comment in a course evalutation, nor about one difficult student. The situation as described by OP is bullying, online and offline, committed by a group. "Get used to it" is not a helpful answer in this situation, I fear. – henning Feb 3 '18 at 18:06
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    I downvoted this answer for two reasons. First, alcohol is of no help in this situation: it could be a palliative, but doesn't solve the problem (and I'm quite a good drinker). Second, your answer is more of a rant and it's totally focussed on the US system (FERPA?), but there is no indication that the OP is from the US. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 3 '18 at 18:34
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    I do think that alcohol in fun situations is quite different from being used as a palliative. The latter is actually dangerous, it should not be recommended in a response. One can suggest sports, yoga, or other similar activity, but alcohol is seriously bad advice. Maybe the responder has a good self-discipline, but there are enough people for whom beginning to drown sorrow in alcohol this is a slippery slope. I would remove this from the response. – Captain Emacs Feb 3 '18 at 19:29
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    @MassimoOrtolano OP all but confirms that they're in the UK. I agree that the US-centered rant on FERPA is rather off the mark. – E.P. Feb 3 '18 at 22:52
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    The point is that those matters change, often significantly, from country to country, and particularly between the US and Europe. Your point may well be true in the US and it may even hold in the UK, but the fact that you're explicitly talking about a different situation than the OP's indicates that you don't know the standing of those issues in the UK and does huge damage to the usefulness and on-topicness of this answer. I was explaining my downvote as a courtesy to you, since the answer has valuable additions, but if you really can't see those distinctions then I have nothing else to add. – E.P. Feb 4 '18 at 0:27
1

I moved to the UK from a different country and got some really harsh evaluations in my first year, even though I also had quite some teaching experience before that. The level of students (especially at a teaching-oriented university) is unfortunately not very high.

I am disappointed about the management though. Did you mean professors or people outside your department? In my experience, nothing good comes from outside the department... One thing I would recommend is to discuss this with your colleagues (at the same level as you). They might have similar experiences and might even have suggestions for how to handle this. I think it is not unusual to get bad evaluations in your first year.

I assume that your teaching evaluations go onto your record and that you are therefore worried about them, especially as you may still be on probation. The good thing is that you have time to recover, and you will be able to show a positive trend over the years. Anyway, the most important thing to realize is that it is not you - it is the students. If you adapt (dumb things down enough where possible) your evaluations WILL improve. It is sad that this is necessary, but given the level of students that are accepted to many universities, it seems to be the only way.

Also, these students will move on soon enough and you will be able to make a better impression on the next batch. Having said this, the behaviour of this batch really is unacceptable. Do the students have personal tutors that you could contact?

0

There are three issues here:

  • Student comments on feedback forms

  • Abusive language in direct communication

  • Comments on a facebook group.

There is little last on of these unless the language would meet some definition of Hate Speech: i.e. comments were based on your race, gender, sexual orientation or other protected characteristic. In which case it would be a police matter.

On the first of these - student feedback is useful where it comments on the teaching it self in a constructive way that can be used to change the teaching. Thus our office filters out purely person feedback before it is pass on to us: comments on dress sense, personal manner, appearance, sex, race etc are not constructive and cause only harm. The filtering was felt necessary because such comments disproportionately affected women and lecturers from minority groups. However, comments that do address teaching in an actionable way, even if they do so with potentially offensive language, are left in.

For the direct communications I would start by giving the student a warning - tell them that such impolite communication is unprofessional and potentially harassing and that you will address their concerns if they phrase them in a polite and constructive manner. Point our that if they did this to their boss at work, they'd find themselves in trouble very quickly. If they ignore this report them to the HoD/Head tutor with evidence. If you receive no response, particularly if this happens repeatedly I'd talk to your union rep (you are in the union right?).

-2

If you are working in an institution where you are assessed based on your student feedback, you have two choices.

  1. You can leave and get a job where you will be supported and developed by your employer.
  2. You can make your course so easy that even the dumbest students get B's and spend way over your paid time to hold their hands (when they want it, rather than in office hours). But over time the students will get dumber and you will lose the will to live.

So, I would recommend looking for a new job, probably outside of academia.

  • I guess your answer is well intentioned, but perhaps it's been downvoted because some people found it glib? (FWIW I didn't downvote or upvote it) – Yemon Choi Feb 13 '18 at 3:11
  • Perhaps that is what they think, it is based on solid experience. – Ian Turton Feb 13 '18 at 8:39

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