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I am a master's student, and I will complete my master's program soon. During my second year of my MA program, I had to work on a two-semester group project because it was a requirement for the program. My question is the types of critical issues universities care about because universities seem to see issues like academic dishonesty as the most serious offense. Would universities care about the types of incidents that I am about to share below?

Example:

I was in a group project of five people, and four of the members were Caucasians (I am a racial minority female). I was treated terribly by two of the members (one female and one male). We had the final paper that was due just yesterday. The male, who was the editor, tends to procrastinate, and he literally waited until the last minute to make significant changes, and demanded from everyone to make the changes. We did this paper in a shared Google Doc by the way. I had another paper that was due at exactly the same date and time, so by the time that he started to become actively involved, I was much more focused on my other paper. He sent everyone an email on the morning of the day just before the due date, demanding significant changes. I was able to look at emails late that night, and he had sent me another email in the evening, asking if I was still involved in the project. By this time, I was already much more focused on my other paper. My response to his email was that I understand that we all have different schedules, and it is possible that we do things at different times. I had worked on the document and made changes a few days before he became actively involved. His response was basically how dare I challenge him, and called me a passive-aggressive person. He even dropped the F-bomb in his response. Now, the other girl. She also had similar tendencies to procrastinate and got along well with this male. On the document, she purposefully deleted my name, and put a comment, "Let's keep it this way." My relationships with these two individuals had not been positive throughout the year, but I think this incident went very far.

I never had these kinds of incidents during my four years of undergrad at a different university in the US. I am certain that this type of incident is very rare, especially at the graduate school level. I think that I should share my experience with the school because I think that this is a critical issue.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal May 10 '18 at 1:27
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    It doesn't seem clear what you mean by "do universities care". Are you actually asking whether this is the sort of thing you should report to the university? (It seems you're not asking how you would go about doing so.) – user8283 May 11 '18 at 5:54
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I'm going to come this from the other (probably less popular!) direction.

I see no evidence of racial bias in your description. Of course I wasn't there and can't judge it, but to me it seems like you describe a straightforward disagreement between classmates. I would be very careful about raising the issue of race unless you have compelling evidence.

It is true that the group you describe is dysfunctional. For sure the others shouldn't have waited until the last minute, or should have made an appointment for everyone to work together on the last day. Still, I wonder if you are partly to blame for this. Again, I wasn't there, but:

  • Looking at this from the light most favorable to you, it seems like you did a good job on your part, submitted it ahead of schedule, and were planning to address the remaining edits later that night.
  • Looking at it from the light most favorable to them, it seems like you just dumped a bunch of stuff into a word doc, didn't help them edit/integrate/merge/revise/fact-check, didn't respond to requests for changes for an entire day (on the day before it was due!), then became hostile when they asked about it. If there was any misunderstanding about what "your piece" of the project was, so much the worse.

Regardless of whether the second viewpoint is accurate, learning to foresee and avoid such blow-ups before they happen is a valuable skill. (Of course, this is not to make excuses for racism or plagiarism, if those things actually happened).

The university will not intervene in dysfunctional groups. If you can make a serious case for racial discrimination, of course they should investigate that. But the dysfunctional group is really not a university issue; such things fall to the instructor of the course. The instructor probably views learning to navigate such problems as one of the course aims, and will view this as valuable experience for you. The insults, the use of the f-word in this manner, etc., is a very inappropriate way to resolve conflict, but since it is student-to-student, I doubt the university will get involved (unless you are in a culture / campus code-of-conduct that takes such things especially seriously).

Deleting your name from the assignment is probably the most actionable piece of this. Since you can prove that you contributed to this (assuming any of your pieces survived), and if they submitted it without your name, you could bring a plagiarism charge. I imagine the professor would just smooth it over (giving you the same grade as the rest of the group) -- this is likely to be his/her choice (depending on your university's rules).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal May 10 '18 at 1:26
  • Couldn't the OP take the plagiarism charge directly to the university / college? – Kelly S. French May 11 '18 at 15:25
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    If they did this in a Google Doc, there is very detailed (automatic) revision history that you can’t remove/change. The only way to do that would be to copy the contents to a new document. So, if the OP wants to challenge having her name edited out of the document, it should be extremely simple to prove. – Chris Cirefice May 12 '18 at 20:26
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I basically echo @cactus_pardner's comments, but/and with some further points:

First, again, universities (like corporations) behave like feral, amoral entities whose only genuine concern is self-preservation or self-aggrandizement. In particular, disturbingly, they can shed administrators who in-effect impede that. So it's not that "all we have to do" is get university presidents and regents that are honest, fair, scrupulous, etc., because the very entity that is the university itself may either prevent that, or manage to get such people out of the system.

In that context, to "induce" such an entity to "care" is rather difficult. Further, it may also be a bit difficult even to induce individuals in that system to "care" in a helpful/useful way, first because many relatively-powerful players will have been "selected-for" not-caring-too-much, and second because even more altruistic experience people will know all too well the uphill battle that you'd face.

E.g., even the HR (=human resources) department, and "ombudsman" office, are fundamentally (in the U.S., in my observation) "CYA" implementers. That is, they exist and operate so that the entity that is the university can say that they have such offices (purportedly) acting on behalf of students, staff, and faculty who'd otherwise have too little power to change anything or even defend themselves. But their fundamental loyalty has to be to their employer... and, again, the situation will tend to drive out too-altruistic players, because the university-entity will usually prefer less-altruistic rule-players.

This is just explanation of the context. But then the point is that a relatively powerless person such as you or me has to "play" things in a way that makes the powerful entity (=university/corporation) see an advantage to itself to take your side or care about your situation. "Justice" alone, or human compassion, etc., are not adequate motivations, sadly.

EDIT: as requested by @aparente001's comment: first, I'd claim that I'm not being so much "bitter" as "cynical", if that distinction has content. But, yes, my current thinking on this is based on several decades of direct observation, not gossip. For that matter, my initial state was a belief that universities really are the idealized and idealistic entities we might imagine they are, as opposed to for-profit corporations. To begin with, it appears that people appointed-to or otherwise hired for various high-level positions are chosen in part because they always know the right thing to say. This is presumably better than not knowing what is right (in the vein of "hypocrisy is the first step toward virtue, because it at least recognizes virtue"), but, as it turns out, this means that it is impossible to predict what action will be taken, from the words spoken.

I've seen more than one denial-of-tenure episodes that led to grievances, and I testified on behalf of the junior person who was denied tenure. In all cases, the institution decided that, yes, procedures were violated, but the conclusion stands. Even then, the "violation of procedures" really were blackballing attempts (which succeeded) by one or two "powerful" individuals. In at least one case, a higher-level committee was inappropriately influenced by a single individual, with the effect being to attempt to deny tenure, but, luckily, at that time the Dean was actually a conscientious person, and smelled something fishy, so the injustice was averted. My interpretation of this was that some individuals can be trusted, but that the institution is much easier to manipulate, and, therefore, cannot be trusted in the same way.

Having seen many university presidents and deans come and go, the pattern of selection process becomes clear, and it is not reassuring. The best dean I recall so far was an "acting dean", who'd been associate dean, as placeholder while looking for a more glamorous (!?) candidate. Luckily, for whatever reason, we had him in that role for many years.

There was the episode 15 years ago when I was Director of Grad Studies in math, and was "ordered" by "the Graduate School" to unilaterally change the conditions-of-employment of the entering class of math grad students, to worsen their insurance coverage. (This was motivated entirely by that entity's scrounging for money, and targeting what they perceived as a defenseless group.) I objected, both because it was exactly an attempt to take advantage of relatively powerless people, and because I'd already signed my own name on all the offers (which included, as we can understand, specifics about healthcare and other stuff). I was told that it didn't matter, because these were only kids, and anyway they'd never know the difference. Shocking... but eventually the institution relented, after some suggestions from me (and others) that with documentation of this sort of communication, local newspapers might be interested...

Chronically, women in math (traditionally wildly under-represented) have been, in my observation, treated badly, both in large and small senses. Attempts by me and a few other individuals to remedy this, while officially approved, are not actually functionally supported. E.g., recently every employee had to do a Title IX training... the point of which was in effect that nowadays by university policy people outside the Title IX office are not to do anything at all about such things, except report them to the Title IX office. This is a perfect cover-your-ass strategy for the institution, but is far too blunt an instrument for dealing with subtler things, that are essentially impossible to document. Thus, the effect is to squelch any crap below a certain (high) thresh-hold... but the institution can claim that they've taken decisive steps.

And so on...

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    As depressing as it is, this philosophical comment applies to most organizations from churches and hospitals to large corporations and states. – user21264 May 9 '18 at 6:07
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    Just to give a different perspective: in Europe (Germany and the UK), my experience with HR (personal as well as that shared by other people) has been been almost always positive, even/especially in cases where there was a conflict with the employer. Seeing HR as the enemy seems to be mostly a US thing. – Konrad Rudolph May 9 '18 at 11:26
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    Would you be comfortable adding some observations that your assessment is based on? (The tremendously bitter tone of your post leads me to think that your assessment is based on your own observations, as opposed to vague comments that you've heard here and there.) – aparente001 May 10 '18 at 1:03
  • I don't see why this is the slightest bit controversial: "the system" (for almost any meaning of "the system") is far more concerned with itself than anything else, and framing a situation as an attack on it is the best way to elicit a response. I do however reject your value judgement: expecting the situation to be otherwise is analogous to expecting water to flow uphill. – Jared Smith May 11 '18 at 13:38
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I'm so sorry this happened to you. A really functionalist answer is that universities all care about whatever they are accountable for. Things like complying with federal funding requirements and filing paperwork are, functionally, what all universities care about.

Plagiarism: Ultimately it detracts from school reputation and accreditation, not to mention frustrating faculty members. Plagiarism happens so often that schools tend to have really strongly developed rules about it.

Racially-motivated incidents: In the U.S., the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education can threaten to withhold federal funding from universities that have racial disparities. Even more important, that means that there is some reporting structure in place on most campuses, and people who (should) understand those laws.

Luckily, lots of people at universities care about a lot of things beyond what they're required to care about for the university to stay afloat. Sometimes student codes of conduct or statements on academic integrity include how students treat each other. On campuses I've been at, I believe that racially-motivated incidents between students are taken seriously.

I'm out of my depth in this part, but if you're in a situation where you feel strongly like racial bias is involved, that alone is probably enough to characterize it that way. Without iron-clad evidence that race was involved, something would probably never be pursued as a racial-bias incident (i.e. there wouldn't be repercussions to the students beyond what they would get for being non-biased jerks). However, it could be an important indicator of the campus racial climate, and that's probably how the information would be used if you reported it to the relevant office at the university.


It is also instructive to realize that this situation is exactly what many bias situations are like. People might gang up on someone in a way where it is obvious to or strongly suspected by that person to be racial, gender, etc. bias, but unless those people explicitly mention that bias, it is hard to prove. Yet over time, if one is in a less powerful group, they will tend to experience more and more of these people acting like jerks toward them than people who are in the more powerful group.

The fact that the bias angle would be hard to prove is a key element of the question, because it tremendously complicates how this can be addressed.


In terms of this specific situation, Google Docs should show what they typed in the revision history, so you have some proof of the incident. Telling your instructor what happened is definitely worthwhile. I'm sorry this has happened, and I wish you luck as you graduate!

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I took from your description of the situation: there may have been some intersection of racism and sexism in your particular experience in that course. That sort of intersection can weigh a person down more than one or the other type of bias on its own.

I also took from your question that the sort of information you're hoping to get out of this Q and A could be useful for you over time, not just in relation to your recent experience this semester.

Here is some information that I hope will be helpful. I will assume that your university receives federal funds, as that's the most common situation.

  • As cactus said, the US Dept of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has a lot of clout. In addition to enforcing civil rights laws, it also enforces Title IX, which has to do with gender discrimination. Note that in almost all situations, there is a six-month time limit for filing a complaint with OCR. The legislation that protects you does not only cover racially motivated incidents, but also pervasive patterns that affect someone deeply.

  • Going to OCR is a sledgehammer. There are a couple of flyswatters also available to you (regarding gender and/or racial discrimination):

    1. a formal, local complaint

    2. an informal, local complaint

    3. not a complaint per se, but something more along the lines of constructive feedback

    For all four avenues, except perhaps the last one (constructive feedback), it is very helpful to have proof, such as witnesses and/or email messages.

  • Right now, in the US, in most universities, it is generally possible, with a bit of digging, to find the Title IX Coordinator and his or her contact information on the web. To find the person who handles racial discrimination concerns is sometimes a bit more challenging. There may be a similar gradient when it comes to the person knowing what their job actually entails, and being responsive to things like email and phone messages.

    The university should have their complaint procedure and form available on their website.

  • You are protected from retaliation. That is, if you complain, formally or informally, it is illegal for the university or any of its employees or representatives, to do anything negative to you as a result of your having filed a complaint.

  • It's a good idea to keep a journal (for example by emailing the entries to yourself or a friend) documenting not only incidents as they occur, but also your contacts with university personnel about your concerns.

  • It's easier to advocate for yourself (and future students) if you have moral support. However, sometimes people in certain roles or positions, that you would think would be supportive, turn out to be anything but, and one starts to wonder whether they exist only to keep the lid on the pressure cooker. So, when you reach out for support, I recommend that you not jump into the deep end of the pool, but rather, start at the shallow end and get into the water gradually. That is, let time show you what people's true colors are.

  • Even if your particular problem wouldn't make a strong case to OCR, a lot can be gained from going with one of the flyswatter approaches, including:

    • You learn more about what's allowed, what's not allowed, how to advocate effectively, where to go and how to proceed in case you or someone you know ever experiences a more serious problem

    • You put the university through its paces, and give them the opportunity to practice going through their procedures

    • You'll get better at noticing when something's off, asserting yourself, seeking assistance from the institution, and holding officials and departments accountable.

    • You'll become a better citizen and a better future parent. Experience with advocacy of this type can also prepare you for the workplace.

    • Ideally, we would like to see universities do a good job of handling complaints internally when things don't go right. (Since OCR doesn't have the budget to do it all; and since OCR can move veery sloowly.)

  • If you're interested in providing constructive feedback, a good place to start might be with the instructor or a department administrator. Try to outline succinctly the types of problems that occurred, with specific examples of incidents of bias that you experienced, as well as suggestions for how things could be organized better, so as to prevent problems from surfacing.

Speaking from experience, I would say that the more practice universities get with responding to student complaints about bias, the better they get at it. And the more practice a person gets in taking action about bias, the better one gets at noticing bias and acting constructively about it. It can be extremely helpful to get started somewhere, and do something -- as opposed to passively doing nothing.


Edit to add: Sometimes a university is very glad to receive feedback about even subtle racism/sexism, and I can even more easily imagine diversity staff being glad of the opportunity to work directly with a student who's experienced subtle bias to improve her/his knowledge of what the university has to offer in the way of support. A university that truly supports diversity will want to keep its ear to the ground so as to improve its diversity workshops, pedagogical techniques, etc.

  • Thank you for making clear the sledgehammer vs. flyswatter approaches. Your list of benefits from flyswatter approaches is also inspiring, because they are not futile, but sometimes it is hard to get the motivation to pursue them. – cactus_pardner May 9 '18 at 18:18
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    @cactus_pardner - Well, sometimes the fly swatter doesn't accomplish anything, but for me, at least, it's been helpful to give an educational institution the opportunity to do the right thing before escalating. Also, I've found it helpful to try to find a fine mesh plan of escalation, very step by step, kind of like with disciplining children. It's so easy to get upset and find oneself going from zero to sixty -- which can be very confusing for the person on the other end. Still, I think it's helpful for people to know what sledgehammer they possess in case it ever comes to that. – aparente001 May 9 '18 at 18:29
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    @ScottSeidman - If you've seen an ombudsman be a helpful option, please feel free to add that to my answer. // What did I mean when I wrote "if your particular problem wouldn't make a strong case to OCR"? I meant that OCR is the ultimate nitpicker. It is quite possible to have a situation that merits a complaint, without it necessarily being a situation that would result in a successful OCR complaint. // Am I safe in assuming that you would agree that what was described in the question here would never evolve into a major incident? – aparente001 May 10 '18 at 12:22
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    We absolutely agree that this would not rise to a major incident. I extend on that to say an OCR complaint might be capricious, and result in the waste of university resources that can be put to better use, even if they were directed internally toward reducing bias. I have some serious issues with the rationale behind pursuing a "flyswatter" approach. You pursue those to make a bad situation better. I've lived through a university "going through the paces", and you don't start that up on a whim. It's not so much kicking the tires as kicking a beehive. – Scott Seidman May 10 '18 at 12:40
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    @ScottSeidman - It doesn't have to be that way. // OCR has a preliminary step -- not sure if you've had a chance to see how that works. In that preliminary "evaluation" step, the unfounded or trivial complaints are weeded out, along with, in my personal opinion, some complaints that might not have gotten weeded out if they had been presented in the format and language that OCR looks for. // You're welcome to send links to articles about your university's hoo ha if you like. It sounds like it must have been stressful for your community. – aparente001 May 10 '18 at 12:55
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Without your interaction with the group(emails, Google Doc history) reviewed by somebody impartial it is impossible to say if you interpretation of event is correct.

For example claims of bias: There are plenty of people I dislike. It is not because of bias.

With regards if universities care: Due to current political bias in the universities unfortunately university would probably accept that your teammembers were racist sexists just because you said so, but the problem is that if you want to be objective you must admit that you do not know why 2 of your team members interacted with you the way they did.

Did you check their interaction with every other person they worked during their studies? No.

Can you read their minds? No.

Is it easier for you to believe that bias and not something you did could have caused them to be upset at you? Yes.

tl;dr you make a lot of claims that are not just unprovable in legal sense, but you personally do not know they are true(assuming you did not omit anything important in your recap).

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I'm back in uni after 20 yrs in the work force.

Only way to really drop the hammer on jerks like this retroactively is to ask the professor if they have a rubric that lets group members grade each other.

Going forward, when you start a class and prof starts talking about group projects, you need to proactively ask if they have a way for group members to grade each other. Good professors do. Good professors grade the project/presentation, each member, and then let members grade each other. That way they can get insight into who the slackers and problem-makers were.

In dealing with a group, to cut-off procrastinators from the start, you need to treat a project like a real-life work project.

1) make milestones .. what needs to be done, when it needs to be done by, and who's accountable. There needs to be cut-off dates when things are done, that way pushy procrastinators don't end up running the show according to their schedule.

2) if there's prelim work that needs to be done, tell everyone to do it before anyone talks about meeting. eg: you have to find a video to support a case study you need to read. Every member can do that on their own. You will inevitably get a member going "when can we meet?" They want to meet for the sake of meeting, and will waste everyone's time when you're all just sitting around a table ignoring each other while doing the prelim work that could have been done individually. This person either wants folks to do the leg work for them and just brief them in a meeting (because they're lazy) or they are a social butterfly that thinks all work must be done face-to-face. Now is a great time for them to learn to work as an individual. Assign them a milestone and hold them to it.

3) if someone can't get something done in time, tell everyone to let the group know SOONER rather then LATER. Inevitably you're going to have a team member responsible for a major milestone. And at the last minute, when you think they're going to hand it in they go "sorry guys, my grandmother died, so I didn't do any of my work". Gee, you should have told us that 1 week ago when we had a chance to recover. This kind of person can destroy the whole project. Let them know it's ok if life issues come it.. stuff happens. But, if it happens, let the group know sooner rather then later so it doesn't tank the whole project.

4) if you have a pushy team member, there's a few ways to push them aside... you can get with the rest of the group to ostracize them, you can get with professor to let them know of an issue (most prof's will tell you to work out your own issues, unless it's something really serious, like group member is trying to plagarize other work and you've already told them not to... had that happen in a group before), depending on project you might be able to go behind the persons back and work with other team members on the REAL project after you assign the push member "busy work" (true story, on the business simulation, we had a pushy member that thought he was in charge... he started talking about running financial simulations on the other businesses... I told him that was a great idea, so he wasted his time doing that. He'd show up to meetings thinking he had a lot to contribute. He didn't realize that the business strategy I had didn't care about other businsses, because we were hammering them into the ground and they were floundering.. but it made him feel like he was doing something important. To use an analogy, his financial simulations would be like him looking out the rear view window of a race car to tell us who we just passed.. when I was driving the car and looking out the front window to see where we needed to go. I didn't care about passing people, I cared about hitting goal lines. If we just focused on passing people, we would have been in 1st but only slightly. My goal lines put us in 1st WAY far ahead of the competition. So, by keeping idiot mcgee distracted with busy work he thought was helping, it got him out of the way so I could get the real work done.) Sometimes you just need to toss these idiots a bone to chew on, pat them on the head and say "good boy, you do good work!" in order to get them out of the way.

I think the only real consolation I can give you is that in the real world, groups often work better then in college.

In college, you have slackers that know they can get away with things, you have pushy people you can't fire, etc, etc.

In the real world, you have slackers, but they often get fired for lack of performance over time (people know who the slackers are eventually). Push people will butt heads with other pushy people, but often only the pushy people that get things done and have a brain in their head are the ones that last, because idiots that boss people around without a clue of what's going on will get let go eventually due to lack of performance.

College is just this weird pseudo-simulation of the business world, but with all kinds of loopholes that let jerks get their way, and bosses (professors) that don't care. Because in the real world, a boss wouldn't simply tell a group "well, you guys get a C on this project... do better next time." No. A boss goes "THIS IS THE WORST WORK EVER! I'm going to get with each of you individually to see why, and someone's going to get fired for this!" That's when the troublemaker gets let go.

As for your current problem.. get with the professor.

  • Welcome, and awesome name! This is a good answer on making teams work, but the OP's big question is who in the university might care that things went wrong the way they did. And (in my experience) you're right that group projects at work go better than artificial group projects in a classroom. :) – cactus_pardner May 9 '18 at 18:16
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    I suggest you look for an existing question about group dynamics and move your answer over there. Could make quite a splash! (Proofread it a little bit before you post it. Choose the question carefully where it would fit best.) – aparente001 May 10 '18 at 1:12
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    Peer marking can let others bully the OP even further. – Vladimir F May 10 '18 at 15:42
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Yes, universities care about the environment their students work and study in, increasingly more so as time goes on.

The more actionable bias issues are often those committed by employees and faculty of a university. It is difficult to respond to every student-to-student of conscious or unconscious bias incident. They happen every day. The worst cases often cause disciplinary action, but the less major incidents are often not effectively responded to. Universities have started to take a more active role in training students to recognize bias, both their own and on the part of others. Things are moving in the right direction, but have a ways to go.

I confess, I've been working hard to overcome my own biases, because my school has gotten pretty good at training faculty to recognize bias. Let's say a student who looks on the ball, and is an involved student leader comes to me and says "I have three exams on the same day, can I get an extension on my assignment". Without saying how I would respond, the next day, a student who comes to class every day in a tie dye with red eyes and reeking of pot,comes to me, and asks for an extension. The two students asked me for exactly the same thing, and they're both entitled to exactly the same answer! If I alter my answer according to what I expect from the student, that would make one student the victim of confirmational bias on my part.

Now, having interacted with more than a hundred project-based teams of students, the actions you describe are not uncommon. That said, sometimes they have something to do with bias, sometimes they don't. Just because in this case the target was someone in a group associated with bias, that doesn't automatically make this a bias incident. It is very hard to tell.

My recommendation would be to pursue correction of the action, and not the cause. If you have been excluded from credit despite your best efforts to be included, talk to the prof about it and make sure your efforts receive the credit you've earned. I know this might not be palatable, especially if you have good reason to suspect bias, but I think it might be the easiest path to getting credit you deserve.

The situation you found yourself in is a problem with the team, and not necessarily an individual. As you develop experience in things like this (and you've just had a valuable experience!!), you learn to see things like this coming, and move to avert a problem. If six weeks ago, you sat down with your team and said "I'm not comfortable working under tight deadline unnecessarily... can we prearrange a schedule we can all live with?" this might have been a happier experience. I train students on my teams to watch out for stuff like this, but incidents obviously still happen.

  • The part about you as an instructor coming to terms with your own hidden biases is interesting -- I suggest you write a question about that, and then write an answer, with the relevant portion of this answer. Also, if there's already a question about how students can prevent this type of disaster, another good chunk of this post could go to an answer there. (If there isn't one, that would make a great question.) – aparente001 May 10 '18 at 1:18
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    @aparente001 I'll consider it. The point is that we all have bias. It's a human thing. What we can do is learn to recognize when it effects our actions. I confess, I've had access to some outstanding trainers on unconscious bias. – Scott Seidman May 10 '18 at 1:30
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    "We all have bias. It's a human thing" - I wish more people realized that. – aparente001 May 10 '18 at 1:45

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