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I'm attending a graduate lecture at a university in Europe. Two lecturers, both PhD students, are giving their first lecture. One of the PhD students is senior and another just recently enrolled in the PhD program. Technically, I'm not so sure if it is legal or acceptable (within EU education system) that having PhD students organize the whole course when the professor never show up.

The lecture is a completely new lecture not given before at this university. As the lecture is new and domain wise narrow, there isn't any remotely related lectures I can find in other universities, thus hardly any reference material is available through the internet. So practically, the only references are their slides.

Personally for me, the material/slides given by them are insufficient to solve the assignment. According to university regulations, the course requires theoretically not more than 6 hours per week on it, but practically, I have spent more than 20 hours every week re-watching the lecture video and re-reading the slides, yet still struggling for the assignment. I asked for help or hints from the lectures when stuck in an assignment, but got always rejected with "NO, given materials are good enough, fill the gap yourself." Other conversations are like: "function X is not mentioned anywhere else other than slide Y, it looks critical to our assignment, but no other references or examples can be borrowed. Could you provide some hints on what is it actually?", the lecturers response with "It can be easily inferred from the name, we don't give any more information other than the slides." Such questions are never answered, let alone getting "hints" from them.

As much as I don't enjoy the way they teach, they are not bad people to me. Perhaps their expectation to students is largely biases as their research topic are pretty narrow and unpopular. They simply don't have a good image of how students (statistically wise) like for those who are not doing research in their direction , and expect every audience is like them 5/10 years younger. Of course none of this was mentioned on course website or prerequisites.

The difficulties are not about understanding a brilliant paper, or improve some obscure algorithms, but to implement programs in a certainly constrained way they propose. An analogy to the coursework requirement would be, to implement heap sorting or ray tracing in CMake script. You would understand how weird this is if you study computer science. Thus for sure, there is no reference or any other material we could use.

I tend to believe as they lack formal teaching experience, they set an unrealistically high standard for students.

More than half of the students dropped out half way through the course already, now there are only less than 10 students left. After talking to these students, most of them agree with my impression that it is too demanding as a non-major course and also struggle a lot with the deadlines.

I don't want to fail the course, and I will stay and suck it up anyway. But other than "sucking it up", what are other (diplomatic) actions I can do at the same time to secure my chance of passing this lecture?

Updates:

  • The professor in charge of this course replied to my email that he won't discuss with an anonymous email address, and that he could perhaps set up a meeting including these two lecturers if I resend the email with my university account. I'm afraid exposing my identity would fail me for the course (I am just not comfortable with this after my previous attempts to discuss this with the lecturers were rebuffed).
  • I contacted the student union with an anonymous email. They are willing to investigate the matter, and collect students' opinion on it, then possibly talk to the lecturers as a student group.
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  • Some info has been edited into the post; the rest of this conversation has been moved to chat. Please see this FAQ before adding additional comments.
    – cag51
    Jun 16 at 22:19
  • 2
    Student union activity on this matter will likely fizzle out, or at best, take a long while. I wouldn't put much stock in that progressing unless a large number of people complained, which probably can't happen anyway. Really, you need to talk to the course teachers and/or the senior staff member in charge.
    – einpoklum
    Jun 18 at 13:41
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The professor in charge of this course replies my email that he won't discuss with an anonymous email address, and could perhaps set up a meeting including these 2 lectures if I send it with university email. I'm afraid exposing my identity would fail me for the course.

You absolutely need to get over this latter concern, as it's simply not rational. You must have a frank, open discussion with your professor at this time. Being "known" to your professors in graduate school is both a base-level expectation and a completely positive situation. You won't be able to advance in your discipline without a professor lobbying for you, guiding your research, helping through rough spots, writing recommendation letters, etc.

It sounds like you may be operating under some level of John Henryism syndrome:

John Henryism (JH) is a strategy for coping with prolonged exposure to stresses such as social discrimination by expending high levels of effort which results in accumulating physiological costs...

The term was conceived in the 1970s by African-American epidemiologist and public health researcher Sherman James while he was investigating racial health disparities between blacks and others in North Carolina...

James' hypothesis was that African Americans sometimes attempted to control their environment through similar attempts at superhuman performance. The expression of this superhuman performance may not necessarily involve a steel hammer. It may involve working harder at the office or working long to prove one’s worth. The end results, however, may still involve the same negative consequences that befell John Henry...

As noted, the JH theory was developed in reference specifically to African-American experiences in academia. Personal note: although I'm a white man in the U.S., I come from a rural "pick yourself up by your bootstraps" culture, and the first time I read about JH I was stunned at how much it illustrated my own experiences in grad school (Master's level). Did I ever go to my professors' office hours (or reach out to other students) for assistance? No, I did not. Did I go on to achieve the PhD? No, I did not, and I think that oversight at the time is largely to blame.

(Parenthetically, it's common in some institutions to have a requirement that student inquiries only get replies if sent via in-system email. Your professor may not have any choice about that limitation. I am in a department with a similar mandate.)

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  • 2
    "it's common in some institutions to have a non-negotiable requirement that only in-system emails get responses." Confused student here: I understand it being strange and not likely to be productive to send a professor course-related emails from an intentionally anonymous account, but that rule seems much broader and wild to me. Don't professors often need to work and communicate with people outside of the institution? How can that be realistic if they aren't able to email them? Jun 16 at 12:54
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    @ElizaWilson: The context is student communications. I think the motivation is in assuming that any contact with students (e.g., in the U.S.) entails FERPA-protected information for which the identity of the student needs to be authenticated. Personally, I don't think that argument is generally persuasive -- but I've now been at multiple institutions that dictate such. Edited my answer to clarify. Jun 16 at 13:32
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    OP's apprehension is probably unjustified given we don't know that their professor will vindictively fail them for speaking up, but this depends on the culture at the institution and even the individual professor. At my undergraduate institution in India, some professors would hold grudges against you over multiple semesters for criticizing their teaching style or otherwise rubbing them the wrong way. Administrators would just brush aside complaints about these professors. I have personally experienced professors getting away with bad behavior that would never fly in a US university. Jun 16 at 18:56
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    @DanielR.Collins Thank you. This answer is excellent. Never heard of JH before either, but applies to so many "pioneer"/minority cases.
    – Williams
    Jun 17 at 2:03
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    @ElizaWilson as someone working at an elite university for a long time: part of the point is to teach professionalism and discipline, so a student communicating with their educators NOT using their university email address would be a huge red flag. Further professors get tons of student emails, parsing them is a nightmare. Also we don't want emails from students' friends and parents making excuses on their behalf (yes this happens). Of course we interact with people outside uni but not for strictly academic teaching matters.
    – Williams
    Jun 17 at 2:07
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You seem to have set the parameters here such that your only options are to drop the course or to do your best on the assignments. You've closed off communication, insisting it be anonymous.

I'll note that in some situations, saying something intelligent on an assignment is worth something, maybe a lot, even if you don't come to a full solution. Leaving things blank is never a good strategy. I once won a lot of "points" on an oral exam by explaining to the questioners what my block was and where my analysis was going wrong. The actual solution was very simple, but I just wasn't seeing it.

I (and the rest of us here) can't judge if you are making an accurate assessment of the difficulty and lack of help, but, even in the most generous analysis, the situation you describe might be intentional - a goad to get you to learn to learn on your own.

A less generous interpretation might suggest that you want things to be easy with mostly pro-forma assignments that simply give back the presented material in a different form. For unimportant courses in fields about which you care little, that may be enough. But gaining insight requires hard work.

I didn't start to gain insight into mathematics until I started to do things beyond what the instructor demanded.

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  • I would stay anyway and won't submit an empty solution. But as there isn't really much I can do on the assignment itself, I am at the same time actively seeking diplomatic solution to improve the situation. Jun 16 at 20:45
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A few suggestions:

Gather some allies

This is a problem that is unlikely to be solved by anonymous complaints. But in particular, if you are afraid to be singled out for repercussions, try to convince some of the other students to talk to the supervising professor together. This also helps to convince them that you are not a lone complainer, but that there might be an actual problem.

Similarly there might be some student organisation in your faculty or elsewhere, part of whose job description is being the students advocate in such cases. Even if you do not officially want to involve them, it would be good to inform them and to get some of their advice. In particular they may be able to tell you how the professor will react, based on previous experiences.

Seek conciliation not confrontation

Since you are starting the discussion, you have the chance to set the tone, so use this to your advantage. If you immediately demand that the class should be made easier, then you will immediately be dismissed as someone who instead of doing his classwork rather spends all his time complaining about it, maybe even rightfully so.

Instead try to pose it as a common problem to be solved together. E.g. tell them that you appreciate their work and understand that the classes are demanding, because the topic is demanding and that while you are not opposed to doing more work than the regulations say, there are other classes as well and simply only so many hours in a week. Don't ask them to dumb the class down, instead ask for more office hours or additional repetition classes.

And in regards to these two, if you get them, use them. First of all, not doing so will make you complaints look bad and secondly, these also help them to gauge how the class is going. Personally I've taught more than one class, which I thought went well, until I've had to answer the students questions one office hour later and noticed that I completely failed to get the point across and had to change my approach for the next class.

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  • I contacted the students union with an anonymous email. They are willing to investigate the matter, and collect students' opinion on it, then possibly talk to the lecturers as a student group. Jun 16 at 20:50
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Most probably, the teachers are overzealous and overambitious in how much they want to teach you.

In practical terms, you have two options: either to find motivation to soldier on, or to reveal your identity and have a meeting with the teachers and the professor. I will go through them one by one.

Motivation to soldier on. Think about it that way: inexperienced and overzealous teachers tend to choose assignments they find interesting, instructive and challenging. They take you to higher levels of the Bloom's taxonomy. So, if you do them, you will learn a lot. If you are not motivated to learn a lot about this particular subject, note that you will also enhance your problem-solving skills. If you end up in an intellectually demanding job (academia or not), the problems you'll need to solve will be nothing like spoon-fed exercises at the end of a polished textbook chapter. More often, you'll need to summon all your knowledge to look for the right approach, search through scattered, incomplete and poorly written sources without any idea what you are looking for. The assignments you get might be a good training in exactly that.

Reveal your identity. This may be over-idealistic, but I don't think that the risk of retaliation is as high as it appears. Most people are enthusiastic about teaching their first course. At this stage, they are ambitious about being good teachers, and probably have some notion that they need to accommodate feedback. If they have self-esteem, they will also try not to retaliate - they will realize that your only fault is that you are too weak compared to their dream student, but ambitious to finish the course and assertive. No-one reasonable will hold you at fault for that. That said, you want to be careful not to hurt their egos. This is non-trivial, since you've come to their boss over their heads to complain. So, if you go to the meeting, don't in any circumstances mention their lack of experience. Say what good you can say (e. g., lectures are interesting etc.). Be factual - state how much time you spend on their course, how it compares to previous courses you have taken, etc. You may humbly bring up your previous grades and prerequisites. Believe in yourself - you are a good, motivated student, but you are struggling. Be non-confrontational, solution-oriented: it's nobody's fault, there's just a mismatch between the audience present and the course level, that has to be addressed. Of course, it will be much better if you convince one or two of your peers to come out with you. Of course, if everyone comes out, there's less even risk individually, but it may force the teachers on the defensive.

This is a generic advice, you may want to take into account the culture in your country, and whatever you know about personalities involved.

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When studying CS with a side-dish of maths, I heard a course about Abelian Groups; this was for senior students, i.e. in the later semesters. It started out simple enough, you know, plenty of definitions, theorems etc.; it had no prerequisites except "the usual" (familiarity with mathematic principles, basics from Linear Algebra etc.); all mathematical structures were laid out from first principles, clear and plain, with complete derivations written on the whiteboard.

Before I knew it, I was way over my head. I could follow along with the lectures just fine, I remembered most of the theorems and definitions, but had not a single clue of how to tackle any of the assignments.

Turns out this lecture was based around the principle that students are supposed to study the topic. In contrast to me, the other students would spend hours and hours sitting at home or in a library, reading books on the topic, repeating the proofs for the theorems, tackling them from other angles, discussing them in small groups maybe. That was before the bachelor/master system was introduced in my country, and at my uni there was no measure of how many hours of additional study was required. Needless to say, I let go of that particular lecture and found a more interesting (to me) one which for some reason I "groked" without any particular effort.

It could well be that this is what's going here. It seems to me that the courses are designed to spark self-study. University is not school, some profs see it as their job to give students a kind of guidance into a field, with the students doing the main work. Your teachers saying that the "name of the topic implies the solution" looks to me like they think you'll either read books, do online searches, discuss it with your fellow students, etc...

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I'm afraid exposing my identity would fail me for the course.

It might be helpful if you think about this anonymous email issue from the professor’s point of view. Professors are used to students complaining that the material is too hard: this literally happens to them all the time (even when the course is at a perfectly reasonable level), since practically every course will have some weak students who will struggle, or even decent students who just like to complain. Knowing the identity of the person complaining is the minimal mechanism a professor has to even begin to evaluate the credibility of such a complaint — even with that knowledge it can still sometimes be quite difficult to know how seriously to take it. Now, by using an anonymous email, you take away even that relatively weak mechanism. This undermines the professor’s ability to make decisions to support effective teaching. You also send a signal that you are ashamed or embarrassed of struggling in the class, which suggests that you potentially know or believe your own complaint to be frivolous. Considering all of this, I cannot say I find it surprising that the professor is being dismissive — I might very well do the same in their position.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that your fear of exposing your identity is not rational. I can imagine situations in which it would be rational. However, at the end of the day, this is a fear you simply need to get over. Graduate school is a professional environment in which people are expected to behave professionally and maturely, and to work with others around them to achieve a shared goal. Hiding your identity is not compatible with those expectations.

Finally, none of this is to indicate that your complaint itself is unsound or invalid. My suggestion is to try to enter a good faith dialogue with the professor and share your concerns, taking my feedback above into account. Hopefully he will be reasonable, listen to what you have to say, and instruct the lecturers to be more helpful and/or make some other adaptations to make the class more survivable. Good luck!

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  • "this literally happens to them all the time" - this assumes that the OP is in the "default country", while they explicitly stated that they are in Europe. Cultures are different.
    – Kostya_I
    Jun 16 at 6:53
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    @Kostya_I yes, I heard that even Europe has at least 2-3 cultures. Who knows, maybe what I said is true in some of them as well. For what it’s worth, it is definitely true in the two countries where I have experience teaching, so it didn’t seem like such a dangerous generalization to make.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 16 at 6:58
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    @Kostya_I In my limited experience in Europe (Italy, France, Germany), yeah that happens every time. Not every student, of course, but for a sufficiently big class it's basically impossible not to find a complainer. Jun 17 at 6:28
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  1. Spending 20 hours a week on a graduate level course is not necessarily excessive. This is basically the upper limit of what I would consider reasonable in graduate school. If the subject is useful to you (even tangentially) in the future, your future self will be grateful that you took a more rigorous course that gave you a better foundation.
  2. It's not necessarily unusual for more than half of the initial enrollment to drop. Probably many people thought the course is too hard and aren't interested in the subject, they would rather take something easier for an equivalent amount of credits.
  3. It is a red flag that the instructors don't want to help you. If you are going to office hours, and showing the instructors where you are stuck, they should be able to give you hints or point you in the right direction. Are you asking questions in the office hours or just asking over email? Because you should not expect responses over email. If the student teachers aren't holding office hours, or aren't answering questions in office hours, those are legitimate grievances you should discuss with the professor in charge of the course.
  4. It is a red flag that phd students are teaching the course. This is doubly true if it's the first time the course is being offered. Both situations are conducive to less effective teaching.
  5. It's unlikely that anything you do will change the difficulty of the course. The homeworks and lesson plans are probably already planned out and will be unlikely to change when the course is already underway. Depending on the current course progress, it may actually be impossible to change the course content based on time constraints.

Your best strategy here is to work together with the other students in the class. You say you have already talked with some of them, if you all agree the homework is difficult and time consuming you should all be pooling together to solve the homework together.

As other responses have already pointed out, don't try to communicate anonymously.

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  • 3. I asked through an online channel, they response, but refuse to answer my question. Conversation examples are in the description. 4. It was not taught before, not in this university, and similar topics are not found in other universities. Jun 16 at 8:09
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    Assuming the exchange you give are true quotes, this is a very bad and unprofessional response from the instructor. However, "I have no idea what this function is" is a bad way to ask a question because it can be easily interpreted as rude/dismissive and is overly vague. A better question could be something like "What is the difference between this function and function X" or "how to calculate X in this function/does this function have property X".
    – Taw
    Jun 16 at 10:29
  • my original question was "function X is not mentioned anywhere else other than slide Y, it looks critical to our assignment, but no other references or examples can be borrowed. Could you provide some hints on what is it actually?" Then I got reply from them as written. Jun 16 at 12:16
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As the others have already said before: Do not fear to reveal your name and get in touch with the prof asap. I have been working on a European university for many years now, and I have never encountered a situation where a student failed because the teachers did not like them and wanted to punish them. (On the contrary, sometimes a teacher really wants a student to pass just because they do not want to see this student in their course again next semester!)

Of course, if you have to encounter the prof and the two PhD students in a meeting, this is a scary situation. If possible, try to find other students that are not happy with the course either so that you are not alone. But in any case, get an appointment with the prof.

In this appointment, try to be as neutral as possible. If you accuse the PhD students of being incompetent and rude, the prof will defend them. Of course you are angry and disappointed, but do not show these feelings. Do not be aggressive or whiny, this does not help.

Instead, try to concentrate on you and your problems with the course. You want to pass this course, but you have severe problems to understand what they teach you. You need help, and so far nobody has helped you, that is why you are here.

Profs are usually interested in students passing their exams, so if you concentrate on the help you need, you will most likely get it.

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  • Your second point describes exactly my concern on revealing my identity. Currently student union accepts my anonymous complaint and are investigating. I would talk to the professor with my university email if this doesn't work out. Jun 17 at 12:12

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