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I'm a lecturer at a small university. In a class I taught last year, one grad student disagreed with his grade and complained as high up in the university as possible. The result was the grade stayed the same.

I see this student on campus from time to time, and he usually ignores me, which is totally fine. However, this week I saw him on campus and as he walked by he said something insulting. Nothing awful but certainly disrespectful (along the lines of "you suck"). The student was also disrespectful during class. I'm thinking about discussing this with the chair of his department. Is this an over reaction? What would an appropriate response be (if any)?

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    It would help if you quote the student’s exact words, otherwise it’s impossible to assess whether you are overreacting or not. I can certainly think of scenarios where it would be appropriate for you to talk to the department chair, and others where the best thing to do would probably be to ignore the incident. – Dan Romik Oct 3 '19 at 2:30
  • Check with your academic affairs office to see if there's a procedure for this. My university has a way for me to report in and out of classroom issues like this so they can see if there's a trend of problems for a student. If not, I would definitely email the department chair with a friendly "how do you suggest I handle this?" question. – Kathy Oct 4 '19 at 14:59
  • Are there any indications that this person may have an unstable personality and might go "postal" at some point? I'd be inclined to ignore a one-off verbal comment, but at the first hint of escalation I'd suggest contacting campus security. – pjs Oct 4 '19 at 15:42
  • It is crucial to make a complaint immediately. Students like that one (obviously extremely rude) are potentially extremely dangerous. – John B Oct 5 '19 at 13:27
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I'd definitely document it like Bryan said. Depending on how I imagine the comment, it could be kinda scary, in an unhinged way.

If it wasn't that scary, though, allow me to project a bit onto this guy. I've been in classes before where I felt I didn't have a fair chance to do well, and been mad at the professor about it. If this guy has been harboring resentment and every time you pass each other, you awkwardly ignore each other, I could see that resentment growing, especially if the student is having a rough go of it in life (which, being a grad student, he probably is).

In fact, I've had that experience too. There's a professor whose class I disliked my first year who figured out that a rather criticism saturated student evaluation must have come from me. (I was really trying to be constructive.) He didn't take it well, and to this day still never acknowledges my existence when we see each other around, despite working in my research area, and even living on my street. I'm not really mad about the class anymore, but this still annoys me. You know me, man-- can't you at least give me the nod?

My point is, you might be able to de-escalate things just by acknowledging him. If you make some friendly small talk and show him that you didn't take it personally, it's possible that he will cool off and not make things so tense. Of course, it's also possible that my reading is totally off and he will just be rude, so be prepared for that possibility. But it may be worth a shot before going to his chair.

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I'd probably document it (make a dated note to yourself someplace noting what occurred and exactly what was said, while you still remember it) and then ignore it, unless it becomes a pattern. The purpose of documentation is to start a record in case the behavior turns into something more regular.

The exception I would make is if you have any reason to believe this student is abusive/insulting to anyone vulnerable or deserving more protection. For example, if the commentary is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. If it's more of a "(expletive) you" I'd let it go.

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    This seems like a good idea. I think I'll also mention it to a colleague who was a part of the grade complaint, that way the documentation isn't simply a word document I made. – user114675 Oct 3 '19 at 3:18
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    @user114675 Sounds like a good plan. In any case, you didn't deserve and shouldn't have to be subject to behavior like this. Still, it says a lot more about the other person than it does about you. – Bryan Krause Oct 3 '19 at 3:20
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    @CedricH. Many people may not be happy with their grade, and perhaps even the prof is a jerk. But, independently of the grade story (on which we know very little), insulting a teacher to his face is unacceptable. I have rarely encountered that (as student or teacher), and, without exception, by people who themselves are bullies or seriously lack manners. – Captain Emacs Oct 3 '19 at 13:45
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    @CedricH. Regardless of the merits of the grade dispute, tossing an even minor insult towards someone on the street like that kind of surrenders their benefit of the doubt. It's enough to give me the prior assumption that they probably didn't have the best judgment in their grade dispute, either. – Bryan Krause Oct 3 '19 at 15:17
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    @aherocalledFrog If the student were an 8 year old instead of a graduate student, yes, there would be some imperative for instruction. – Bryan Krause Oct 3 '19 at 16:28
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Normally you can simply ignore such things. People like that mostly harm themselves and other students are unlikely to support them in their bad behavior. I was once publicly, but anonymously insulted and didn't respond. My students jumped in to explain to the miscreant why they were wrong. Problem solved.

However, you have a right to respect in the classroom. If they behave incorrectly you can ask them to leave, especially if it is disruptive. I think that you would get wide support for ending disruptions, both with the other students and with administration.

But, yes, as Bryan Krause says, document it.

  • Often I am sorry to lose contact with former students who graduate. But occasionally not. Document if you like, but try to ignore it (+1). – BruceET Oct 5 '19 at 20:53
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Unless he is actively stalking you outside of classes, I would just ignore his comment on the campus. The problem will go away when he leaves college (either voluntarily or involuntarily), or when he grows up, whichever happens first.

On the other hand if his behaviour is unacceptable in your classes, you are in a position of authority and you need to maintain that authority for the benefit of all the students.

If he does it again, I would give him a public verbal reprimand, and remind him (and the rest of the class, of course) of what powers you have - I assume that includes the right to remove him from the lecture room either temporarily or permanently.

If he is bone-headed enough to escalate the situation, let nature take its course - evidently he didn't win his first battle, and the details of that will already be on the record somewhere.

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