After experiencing a lot of stress during my last undergrad. semester (and an episode of depression caused by my favorite professor declining to be my grad. advisor due to retirement), I worried that she didn't see me as graduate school material. (I received an A in her grad. level course but my final paper, I felt, was poorly written.) So, hoping to impress her, I submitted a proposal to a conference I knew she was attending, and it was accepted. Afterward, I emailed her asking for minor assistance with the project, but I perceived her response (obviously declining) as "curt." (I had no background in this area, submitted the proposal before beginning the project, and this was the first proposal I'd ever submitted to a conference.)

My anxiety disorder was out of control during this time, and I concluded that she was either angry at me for an unrelated reason (i.e. maybe I had spoken to a faculty member she didn't like etc.) or had simply "devalued" me after that paper. (I had thought we had a good rapport during the 2 semesters she taught me.) At that point I just wanted reassurance that our rapport was intact, so I emailed her a few days later, offering to withdraw the proposal but still asking for her assistance (explaining that I wanted to show her that I could produce better work when not under stress). When she didn't respond to this email within in 24 hrs. like she usually did, I "freaked out" and wrote to the Department Chair complaining not only about the unanswered email but also about her "tone" causing me anxiety on a few occasions.

The Chair told me (by email, never bothered to meet with me) that my "grievances were being formally recorded" and that he was meeting with the dean to discuss the situation etc. He also asked the professor to respond to the unanswered email, where she more gently declined to help with the project. However, we never had the chance to have a conversation and work out any misunderstandings. For example, I wanted to know if she was upset with me for any reason and if she was comfortable writing me a lor after my research paper etc.

I later met with the dean to explain that my anxiety disorder was out of control when I had written to the chair, and she said that she had spoken to the professor, knew she wasn't upset with me, and even seemed inclined to write a letter of recommendation etc. Thus, after that conversation, I decided to email the professor to apologize and mentioned having GAD, but because of the Dean's reassurances, I also included a lor request. The professor, however, did not respond. (Including the lor request probably made my apology seem insincere, and the letter looked more like an attempt at excusing poor work than a sincere apology). I then went to every level of administration, explaining that I had written to the chair during an acute mental health episode and wanted the grievance dismissed (and the chance to sincerely apologize to the prof.) but no one would reach out to her. Instead, I was told that "she was not obligated to respond to me but that I shouldn't take her lack of response as a sign of "ill will." Long story short, after continuously trying to have the grievance dismissed, the university sent me a cease and desist letter, which seems to be functioning as a no contact order, as it prohibits me from communicating with anyone except the General Counsel's office.

Ordinarily, I could understand a professor resenting a student who complained the department chair/dean, but my behavior was caused by a mental health condition, and I was genuinely remorseful and did everything I could to rectify the situation. So, I want to ask how you'd react if a student or former student (whom you previously liked) filed a complaint during an episode of mental illness and later tried to have it dismissed? Would you forgive them or cut contact with them? Even if you forgave them, would you write them a letter of recommendation if their work was good? (My apology is sincere but I sometimes worry that she didn't respond because she was unimpressed with my work.) Alternatively, are professors typically advised against communicating with a student who brings a complaint against them, even if they try to retract it (i.e. to avoid legal liability)?

*The professor was living out of state during this time, so I couldn't schedule a visit during office hours to discuss the project/the letter etc. Email was our only means of communication.

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    You are asking the wrong question. It does not matter if the professor forgives you or not, and getting a LOR is a bit of a stretch at this point. The question you should be asking is how can I stop my anxiety from sabotaging my life going forward? And the answer is "get good, professional help". – xLeitix May 25 '20 at 6:53
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    Please everyone, let's refrain from making diagnoses and let's leave them to the professionals. – Massimo Ortolano May 25 '20 at 16:57
  • This question already underwent significant editing, to clarify various points discussed in the comments. Most of the comments have been now moved to chat. – Massimo Ortolano May 27 '20 at 19:20
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    I cannot write this as an answer in the current situation, but: if you want to do that prof the best kindness, just stop communicating with them. Probably they have "forgiven you", but, with reason, are very wary of any interaction, whether or not they know "the reason" that the troubles occurred. I'd think that asking for a LOR could all too easily be construed as some sort of extortion. Don't do it. Good luck... – paul garrett May 30 '20 at 20:23
  • I agree that the lor request can be construed as extortion (or at best insincerity), but the only reason I asked for it is because the dean assured me that everything was okay and said she seemed inclined to write one. Thus, afterward, I wanted the chance to sincerely apologize/explain my anxiety disorder without asking for anything in return as well as let her know that I requested to have the grievance retracted. – Gemini May 30 '20 at 20:31

It may help to remember that professors are only human. You might be looking for "forgiveness" or "justice," but professors are neither priests nor judges; they are researchers. Now they are moving on with their lives, and so must you; for better or worse, this incident is done.

Bearing in mind that professors are human, I think many of your questions can be answered by looking at this case from your professor's point of view.

  • The best case outcome (for her) is that you do not create any more problems. You really have nothing to offer her, since she is retiring and will not be hiring students, etc.
  • The worst case outcome for her is that you continue your erratic behavior and create more stress and wasted time.

Given this, her behavior is quite logical. If she does not engage and leaves the cease-and-desist in place, then she is guaranteed to get the best case scenario. If she re-engages with you, she risks another incident (and the first question her dean and/or counsel will ask is "why did you re-engage??!?!")

she was not obligated to respond to me but that I shouldn't take her response as a sign of ill will.

This sounds about right. Given your genuine remorse and mental health issues, she likely understands and wishes you the best. At the same time, she has nothing to gain by engaging with you further. I would probably have a similar reaction.

Even if you forgave them, would you write them a letter of recommendation if their work was good?

This may be a bridge too far.

  • As discussed above, the professor has nothing to gain by engaging with you further. Writing you an LoR definitely falls under the category of "engaging further."
  • You may feel that your academic work "deserves" a LoR, and this should be separate from your personal issues with the professor. However, this is not how it works: faculty members are not obliged to write LoRs, and many of them see it as a "favor."
  • If she did write a letter, she would have to describe the above incidents. These incidents are highly relevant, and it would be inappropriate for her to pass over such important information. Thus, even if she were well-meaning, it would be difficult for her to write a letter that would strengthen your application. Given this, you're probably better off without her letter in any case. She has likely come to the same conclusion, which further explains her silence.
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    "If she did write a letter, she would have to describe the above incidents" --->Exactly. I fully agree with the last paragraph. The implicit question behind a reference letter is whether X can work with Y. Given the situation, what exactly does the OP expect that academic to write?. Academic work is only one of the topics of a reference letter. – user117109 May 25 '20 at 9:55

What does the professor have to gain by further engaging with you? You have proven to be trouble, to the degree of her getting an official investigation for no good reason at all. You continue raising a ruckus with everybody who does not give you just the kind of response you are angling for. It's not a matter of having good will or bad will towards you as a person: professors have enough pupils that developing relations to a person's character is just not on the agenda.

Stop digging yourself in deeper and carrying a big sign with flashing letters "here comes trouble" in front of you. Get professional help. And make sure that you consult that professional help first whenever you feel the urge to contact official channels. Asking for a "letter of recommendation" at this stage in your relations is somewhere between ridiculous and blackmail. If you manage to have a few years of normal relations with your prof, there may be some sense in trying, but certainly not now.


TL;DR: There is one principle in asking forgiveness. If the other side decides to grant it, they will do it under the premise that, from now on, things will change. You have to convince them that this incident will not repeat. This takes time which you didn't give them.

By pushing them into situations which you are interested in (adopting you as grad student, helping you in the conference/project, etc.), you are essentially pressurising "your" prof into doing what you want; when that didn't happen, or the response - which might have been irritable, we do not know - was not quite as gentle, you fired off an official complaint.

Essentially, from the perspective of the prof, you turned part of your anxiety into theirs (no one likes to be getting a letter from the dean with a complaint with potential disciplinary consequences, not even if they are about to retire). In addition, from their perspective, you imposed your agenda on them with the outlook of negative consequences for them if they didn't comply. It does not matter that the complaint was about their tone - maybe their tone was a response to your pressuring, we do not know. So, in their mind, there will be a link between them not complying with you and your complaint, whether it was intended by you or not.

Now, having anxiety disorder may have caused this whole avalanche to be not under your control and people nowadays have a higher degree of understanding for this.

A genuine apology can be accepted when it's clear that you have understood the problem; not only of complaining to the department, but in fact, of creating pressure on the prof to further your agendas.

By immediately connecting your apology with the LOR request, you nullify the effect of the apology: you signal that you still pursue single-mindedly your interests and the apology appears just to be wallpapering over this. I quite understand that this may not be the case, or a consequence of your anxiety; but this is how it comes across. This is a "Yes, but" apology, in the sense that you "get done with" the apology, put it behind you and continue with business-as-usual. Such an apology fails to convince that things will not continue as in the past and a situation like that will not repeat.

After an apology, you need to give it a lot of time to heal. As with a damaged limb, it takes time before you can use it again, if at all.

[Note that I have only talked about the human factor and not at all about the legal ramifications of the matter which creates considerable additional potential complexities.]

What to do

I think in the present case, you lost the lead and I do not see much point to pursue it further. I am not sure in the particular situation whether you had any serious lead in the first place, as your favourite prof clearly did not want to work with you. You have tried to convince them for a bit, but overpersistence is impressive only in movies. In real life, it creates the opposite effect, especially in our times where people have far more opportunities than time to pursue them. Why should they embark on a collaboration that they can expect a lot of difficulties and pressures from?

In sum:

  • Important for you is to understand the other person.
  • They have an agenda, too, and you need to respect it.
  • Do not turn your anxiety into theirs.
  • Do not turn your problems/agendas into theirs.
  • An apology is message that you accept that you did wrong, not a ticket for a second round. Maybe there will be one at some point, maybe not.

Reduce the frequency drastically by which you ask people to do stuff for you (You have not only pressured your prof, but also the department with your repeated requests - "continuously trying" - to take the grievance down). Only send every (4th, 5th, 6th, depends on frequency) mail you want to send. Note that your department has already put you on arms length with the cease and desist letter - you need to convince them that you will not proceed with your current strategy; the only way to do so is by "doing less", especially "pressuring less", not "more". Do not try to inundate them with explanations how you understood the problem now.

Accept that you will have to select a different person to work with if you do not wish (or are unable to) to change departments for a fresh start.

And, apart from above short-term advice, of course, as you probably will already do so, getting professional support to help you overcome anxiety will be the medium/long-term strategy to prepare you to avoid such situations in the future. Good luck!

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    I have downvoted this because of the what to do section; those rules and recommendations are not something someone with an anxiety disorder is likely to be able to follow and it doesn't address the real issues, it just if anything helps other people around him/her. I humbly submit my answer which leaves recommendations up to a professional therapist is the wisest choice here especially as posting this question is likely another behaviour to fuel his/her anxiety. – JNS May 26 '20 at 14:31
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    @JNS even if OP suffers from a condition that makes it impossible to follow these recommendations, they are still useful in that they show what the appropriate behavior would be. In this way they may help OP to understand that their actual behavior is somewhat irrational and that they should consider counseling or therapy. – henning -- reinstate Monica May 26 '20 at 14:52

While I cannot relate to your story in the academia setting, it is something I can in my personal life, which for myself I attribute to behaviours like rumination, which in turn all stem from emotional dysregulation.

As others have stressed, since every subsequent engagement with the professor has led to more stress and anxiety for you, that isn't the solution going forward, for you or the professor.

I would use this situation now as a valuable opportunity to practice the skill of letting go of a conflict, even if it was not intended to become one on your part, and you would like to make some sort of amends.

I don't think the academia SE will ultimately be helpful because with an anxiety disorder, it isn't defeated by logic or reasoning, the real work is in engaging with your emotions. In fact, I would go as far as to say that posting this question is probably another way for you to ruminate over the issue, feeding the anxiety.

That being said, if you have a therapist, now would be the time for a session, and if not I recommend you find one, because they're best equipped to help you process this and equip you with skills to manage the anxiety.

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