I am a beginning graduate student in Mathematics. I have a professor who always brings up the fact that my GPA is not great in my undergraduate degree even though my performance is above the norm in the institution I am enrolled at the moment, so far I got straight A's in the graduate courses that I have completed. He always tries to point out at my flaws in my undergraduate years to humiliate me in front of other professors and my colleagues. What would be a wise reply/reaction to such abuse?

I feel bad about it cause I feel like I am harassed and I don't reply. I am also currently taking a course with that professor.

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    [answer-in-comments moved to chat.] You can also edit your question, mentioning whether you have other options for the possibility of PI changing. – Monika Nov 19 at 14:42
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    Have you asked him why he thinks it's relevant to your graduate position? – JMac Nov 19 at 21:00
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    Where is this happening? What country, and if it's a big country, what state/province? – T.J. Crowder Nov 20 at 7:56
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    Are you sure that his comments are meant in a way to put you down and not just the professor's way to tease you - a poor attempt at humour? Is it only you he makes such "mean" remarks about? Not saying that would completely excuse it, but it could influence what the "best" way to go forward is. – Darkwing Nov 20 at 8:16

As I understand you, you are being publicly shamed (in front of fellow grad students) by this professor by dint of your undergrad record. If you are in the US, this is violating FERPA by revealing your academic record. Other countries have similar privacy laws. File a FERPA complaint and wipe that smug smile off his face.

I'm no expert and I suspect each school is different. But this is a federal law and I think most schools would take such a blatant violation seriously. I'm pretty sure this prof would get his leash yanked pretty hard.

Note that it could backfire. You could an enemy who will make your graduate experience miserable. But I'm betting against it. There have been a number of times when I just let a jerk be a jerk because I thought my life would go more smoothly, but found out later that if I had stood up for myself, I would have gotten a standing ovation from 99% of the people around me. This prof is a jerk and his colleagues will likely appreciate him being called out. Also, in the case of harassment and rights violations, the perpetrator is warned against retaliation in any form. And someone will be watching for it. Someone behind those closed doors will tattle. I think you are perfectly safe.

My experience

When I taught small classes, I would write all the test scores on the board, so that students could see where they ranked. One young lady thought I was violating FERPA with this tattled on me. I got hauled into the chairs office where he was accompanied with one of those university JD types (the law students who never pass the bar, but get jobs at universities being annoying.) and the dean. They were ready to have a field day with me. They had already talked to other students and had corroboration that I had, in fact, written all the scores on the board. The JD was salivating.

We talked at cross purposes for a while, then they figured out that I was writing numbers only. No names. No personal information was being displayed. They were so disappointed. An administrator gets to be administrative so rarely and here they had an open-and-shut case go up in smoke.

So the point here is that at this school at this time, FERPA violations were a big deal. I suspect that in the current safe-room environment, they might be a bigger deal. Telling the class that that guy right there has a low GPA could traumatize him for life, eh?

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    For completion's sake (and I guess mine too), would you mind fleshing out a little more how a FERPA complaint would play out? Namely, the possible outcomes and maybe how likely each is? For example, if you said "he'll probably know it was you and it's likely little more would come of it than a write-up on his record," well that's probably not worth one smug grin. – Lord Farquaad Nov 19 at 21:41
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    My two cents, since you accepted this answer. I'd stay away from this public legal approach until all else fails. I go for @Buffy 's answer, perhaps along with talking to another professor you trust. – Ethan Bolker Nov 20 at 14:54
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    Interesting that there is a thing like FERPA. In my country, I believe all exams results are entirely public, by law. Which is entirely the opposite. – Bzazz Nov 20 at 16:48
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    The general discussion about the pros and cons of privacy laws as well as comments which I considered addressed have been moved to chat. Please continue the discussion there and be nice while doing so. Before you post another comment, please read this FAQ. – Wrzlprmft Nov 21 at 6:42
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    @Peter Of course it's the last resort. The point of my answer is that when he talks to the prof, he can say that this is a FERPA issue. Connect the dots. – B. Goddard Nov 21 at 16:31

There are several possibilities. Some may be appropriate. Some may work. Or not.

Avoidance. If possible, just avoid this person. Don't have anything to do with him. Difficult, I know. There are probably limited options to do that.

Ignore his taunts. My guess is that he disgraces himself when he does this. If he does this publicly, other students probably see it for what it is. But a public, angry, response from you would probably do yourself more harm than it is worth.

Formal Complaint. This will have consequences all 'round, but might be effective. His department chair might be interested to hear what you have to say, especially if the professor is un-tenured. But a complaint from a group of students would be more effective than one from a single student. And make the complaint in person or using a formal mail. Email is too easy to ignore, for this.

Try not to feel bad. The actions of the prof are inexcusable and aren't due to anything in you or that you can actually correct. Know it for what it is: unprofessional behavior.

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    I'd vote for "ignore", combined with continuing to get A's (and ultimately writing a superb thesis). This professor's negative comments will look sillier and sillier as more of his colleagues see you doing A work. – Andreas Blass Nov 19 at 16:06
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    From experience dealing with bullies, ignoring them just makes them feel more empowered to do what they're doing. I would really not recommend it. Also, if you don't present the relevant facts, people will assume that the information they're hearing is correct -- after all, if it was wrong, wouldn't you be pointing that out? – Nic Hartley Nov 19 at 20:34
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    +1. I'd go straight to the student affairs office and lodge a complaint. Harassment is never okay. – bwDraco Nov 19 at 21:59
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    @JeffreyJWeimer, that might be fine in private or in a conference with the department head. In public it might not be wise. Retaliation by the powerful can be pretty devastating. Sometimes you just need to act (or don't act) strategically in your own interests. I find it ok to suggest this action, but hesitate to recommend it without knowing the personalities. – Buffy Nov 19 at 22:27
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    @JeffreyJWeimer If you want to play barrack-room lawyer, you had better be sure you will always be on the right side of the letter of the law for the rest of your stay in the institution. Don't expect to be cut any slack if you are not! Tl:dr: only fight battles you KNOW you will win. – alephzero Nov 19 at 22:51

Seek advice from a trusted mentor.

If you have another professor or advisor who you believe you can speak to about this, I would encourage you to explore that option. Not only is it important to have a positive influence to counteract the negative impact of this professor in your personal development, but quality mentorship is also a component in your future career success.

A mentor who has already passed these trials and tribulations in their career may have very well witnessed and experienced these same behaviors. They can offer a more informed plan for how to treat this with your best interests in mind. What your mentor advises may boil down to the same options @Buffy has laid-out. In the case that you should choose formal action, a mentor supporting you in this could be very influential in how it concludes.

One of the unfortunate realities of academia currently is that institutional mechanisms to discourage and rectify this type of behavior are (in my opinion) rare and frequently ineffective. For better or worse, your professors often have an inordinate amount of influence on your career once you are at the graduate level. For this reason, it's really difficult for a student to utilize formal recourse options. Some schools do have specific anti-bullying resources, and you should investigate if these exist at your institution.

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    I feel like asking this question on the Academia StackExchange is seeking advice from a trusted mentor. Or put it another way: imagine a student coming up to you and telling you that they feel safe talking to you about this thing. Is your response going to be essentially "go ask somebody else" as in the answer you wrote here...? – Daniel Wagner Nov 20 at 4:56
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    @DanielWagner You are right. On the other hand we are just a troup of internet strangers all here on SE. I think Nathan recomends seeking a mentor one can physically touch rather than anonymous mentor hidden behind an SE account. – Crowley Nov 20 at 9:49
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    @DanielWagner: Basically there is a trade-off. HybridAlien is anonymous here, and it is difficult for the abusive professor to know he is the subject here, since there are quite a number of abusive professors. On the other hand, a 'trusted' party at the institution itself may for all you know have ties with the abusive professor... – user21820 Nov 20 at 15:45
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    @DanielWagner an actual in-person mentor has a lot to offer that SE never can though. Not only do they know the poster's situation better, but if they are involved in the department they may have all sorts of knowledge and abilities that can better aid HybridAlien. Additionally, they are a continuing presence which will be important. There are a number of recognized benefits to having an actual mentor, and I have alluded to that in my answer. – Nathan Nov 20 at 19:02

I will copy on B.Goddard's answer - wipe the arrogant smile off their face.

On the other hand, this will backfire to you in a matter of seconds, maybe sooner. So be ready for that.

  • File as many instances as you can of when you were mocked by that professor.
  • Look for a different advisor, discuss your issue with them honestly. (Do not mention the mocker's name until directly asked for it)
  • Look for a different university to minimise the mocker's/bully's options to interfere with your career.

With the backup plan go for the complaint and leave. Take your lesson and forget about this professor.

It is highly probable that you were not the only one to be bullied by this professor so there is a chance you will start an avalanche of complaints against them. This might lead not only to wipe the smile off their face but to wipe them off their position as well.

I feel you have to be careful not to go nuclear, because if he is your professor you have to be careful not to move from "annoyance" to "threat" in his eyes, given he presumably grades your work. However, it seems like he's already put himself in a bad position since you said he "tries ... to humiliate me in front of other professors", not just in class.

I believe to reduce risk of this going nuclear, you have to present as though you're concerned and not accusing.

So go to his boss. Say you're trying to look out for the organisation as a whole. Point out he's breaching privacy laws by repeatedly bringing this up in front of other professors, and if anyone makes an official complaint for any reason then things aren't going to end well for anyone. Ask his boss if they can have a quiet word to "nip this in the bud" and mitigate reputational risk to the organisation, and by implication also to this guy's boss.

Play up your concern for the organisation and try not to get personal. Mention some of the other staff members he's done this in front of. Stress that you believe it's better for all concerned if this just quietly stops happening.

Afterwards, write down what you believe was discussed in the meeting as clearly and succinctly as you can. Send an email to the person you've just met with, thanking them for their time and including your notes on the "informal meeting" (that is, you're explicitly not making a formal complaint right now) "just for their reference" and to "clear things up if I misinterpreted or misunderstood anything".

Assuming this person's boss doesn't argue your email, you've now established yourself on record as trying to deal with it quietly without reputational risk to the organisation. If it escalates or you need to file a formal complaint later, you've established the moral high ground.

I've gone through this nonsense before. Here is an interaction I had with one of my professors regarding an assignment I had in college, around 20 years ago:

Me: Sir, I know what pride is but what is prejudice?
Him: Prejudice means, "what I have against you"

Best part is, I still did not understand.

That professor is looking for a reaction from you. Detach from the negative experience, don't react negatively and you will stop the very thing that feeds their ego.

You have to attack the core of his belief system.

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    You have to attack the core of his belief system sounds quite enigmatic. What exactly do you mean by this and how do you do this? – henning Nov 23 at 17:16
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    @henning By non-reacting, he's basically showing that he does not consider the opinion of the professor (at least this kind of opinion) worth of consideration, thereby depriving the professor of his power. This will shock the professor's belief that he is a god among men and thus entitled to abuse whoever he wants for no other reason that self-aggrandisement. – Ant Nov 23 at 18:00

Maybe you could be interested in Non Violent Communication.

From wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolent_Communication

It is based on the idea that all human beings have the capacity for compassion and only resort to violence or behavior that harms themselves and others when they do not recognize more effective strategies for meeting needs. Habits of thinking and speaking that lead to the use of violence (social, psychological and physical) are learned through culture. NVC theory supposes all human behavior stems from attempts to meet universal human needs and that these needs are never in conflict. Rather, conflict arises when strategies for meeting needs clash. NVC proposes that people identify shared needs, revealed by the thoughts and feelings that surround these needs, and collaborate to develop strategies that meet them. This creates both harmony and learning for future cooperation.

The idea behind this is that the behavior of the professor is, in some kind of way, the expression of an unmet need. This perception can help you to externalize the problem from yourself and to get out of the mental game.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LuPCAh9FCc

It would appear that he is trying to shame you to make himself feel better. This is not unusual behaviour, though you would hope for better from a senior academic. One solution is to call him on it enough to stop it but not enough to make an enemy of him:

"Yes, my GPA was indeed 3.0. That seems to have really caught your attention because you've mentioned it the last 9 times we've met. I wonder why it stuck in your mind so much...

  • Did you perhaps also get 3.0 when you did your degree?
  • Is 3.0 also your lucky number?
  • I bet you're wondering how I went from a 3.0 to straight AAAs. Well, I started taking amphetamines like Paul Erdos.
  • etc."

I would not try to emphasis that you are getting great grades now. The important bit is to call him on his GPA-focus, particularly if there are other people around. Do it in a manner which suggests that you are genuinely curious about why he is mentioning it, rather than letting him know that it irks you.

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    Sorry, but this approach seems to be extremely dangerous. Poking the tiger, so to speak, when the tiger isn't caged. – Buffy Nov 19 at 19:06
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    @Buffy I completely agree. These ripostes work with a peer, but not with someone much higher up in the hierarchy. Stay away from them. Unfortunately, they will continue doing so - maybe as a power game or maybe for snobbism (not the same thing). You may take notes and go to an ombudsperson if your career depends on it, but if not, just avoid them. – Captain Emacs Nov 19 at 19:52
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    This would be a stronger answer without the "I wonder why...." and following responses. I think "Yes, my GPA was indeed 3.0. You've mentioned that a few times now since we've met." is a good start, but you might want to finish with something closer to "I've been working hard to improve since then, and I was hoping my strong graduate performance so far would supplant that. Is there something else I'm supposed to be doing?" I agree you want to "call him on it enough to stop it but not enough to make an enemy of him", but I don't think your answer does that. – Lord Farquaad Nov 19 at 21:50

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