I'm attending university 100% online. I have the same professor for three classes, which are all structured the same way. Every week there is assigned reading, videos, and a discussion board post with a prompt written by her. We have to make an original post, reply to any comments and comment on other's posts a minimum of 6 times spread over 3 days. And we also must submit a weekly journal reflection after all assignments and posts are complete. I'm in week 10 of doing this, times 3. The instructions say to summarize what we've learned this week and to tell her if we are struggling, and it's okay to occasionally vent. She's commented on my submissions several times and given me positive feedback. I never really vent, but I have told her when I've been struggling with certain parts of the class. This last week I wrote a short reflection, first saying what we were focusing on this week, then commenting that I'm feeling overwhelmed with all the new terms because there are so many. I said, "but I am trusting the process and will continue to go through the lessons one at a time." she graded me 7 out of 10 points, which was really surprising. Then she sent a comment that began fine, just saying she's sorry I'm struggling. But then this :

P. S. It isn't necessary to waste your time reiterating the content of each lesson--your takeaways are what's important if you have any. Are you okay? One week you are kind and appear happy and the next week you act as though you want to tear my head off. Is there anything I can do to help?

I'm very confused by this. I replied saying this :

I'm super confused by this question! I have no desire to tear your head off! If I've said anything to give that impression, I am very sorry. Please let me know where I may have misstepped.

She has not responded at all, though she did comment on my post in the discussion board last night. I don't know what to think. I've been racking my brain trying to see where my reflections sounded angry or anything and I have nothing. Should I just try and forget about it? Or should I request a zoom meeting to discuss the misunderstanding?

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    You say you're in week 10, so I assume you're nearing the end. Will you have this professor again, in future classes? Or are you reaching the end of your time with her?
    – cag51
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 23:40
  • Yes we have six more weeks. And I have at least one more semester where she could possibly be the instructor. Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 3:24
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    Imagined or wildly misinterpreted emotional content is almost certain to come up when so much communication is done via text only with no tone of voice or non-verbal cues. Seems like the teacher is unaware of how much she really cannot tell about your emotional state when everything is text, and she is most likely inventing and/or projecting non-verbal content into your verbal content and thinks she’s seeing emotions that just aren’t there. Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 7:21
  • Try giving her the zoom call, it's much easier to resolve such things by talking than by textual messages.
    – Bergi
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 9:12
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    Are you and your professor from the same country/culture? This sort of thing can often be exacerbated by cultural differences. For example, as a Greek studying in the UK, I was once told I had gotten into "a fight" with a friend of mine. I had no idea, I thought we were having a very pleasant and interesting political discussion. What seemed "animated" to me, came across as "angry and aggressive" to them.
    – terdon
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 10:25

3 Answers 3


My attention is focused on this comment, which I see very often in different guises: "I've been racking my brain trying to see where my reflections sounded angry or anything and I have nothing." This might not be the right thing to check. This may be privileged on my behalf, but it seems stressful to review all your communication for nuances that may be inaccurate or inadvertent - especially if you are trying to hide real feelings. Please recognize you send nonverbal cues that are likely beyond your control, unless you are a professional actor or salesperson. I would consider evaluating the content of your own feelings (which will get expressed one way or another) rather than your messages for nuance that may simply not exist. Are you stressed? Or mad at the professor? If so, that's allowed - some of my favorite students are mad at me (the last test had a too-hard essay).

Professors generally can tell if you are struggling - or at least, they think they can. I also get the sense you are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. These feelings are okay - there are resources for you at your school usually available through councilors. I consider stress a practical matter that must be attended to, much like food, shelter, and water. Some people do not get the help they need (whatever form that might be) and they also fail to thrive as a result. Please take care of yourself.

In your particular case, I believe the professor is offering you an olive branch by allowing you to lower your workload - "You don't need to summarize each of these." It doesn't appear to be a criticism of your existing work. I see your response is apologetic - this is a valid response, but reminds me that you are probably under a lot of stress.

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    This answer is partially confusing to me. If someone said to me "one week you are kind and the next week you want to tear my head off" (implying I am unkind), I'd have to assume it's a lot more than nuance, and I would be confused as well if someone is implying I feel a way about them that I do not. I can agree about the importance of caring for stress and the olive branch, but the key confusion to me remains. If a professor says to a student "you act as though you want to tear my head off", it seems to me that either the professor or the student (or both) have acted inappropriately.
    – Alwin
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 20:32
  • Perhaps - and I have been at institutions where the implication of aggressive feelings would indeed be inappropriate. Some might even feel it is inappropriate to imply my students might be mad at me. But - it might also be that they are at an institution with very high levels of candor. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 22:02
  • Thanks for your response. Maybe "inappropriate" is not the best word to use. But I think even in a situation with high candor, we can do better. For example, if you feel someone is angry at you, you can say "I feel that you might be upset at me" (unquestionably true, since it refers to your internal state) rather than "you are acting upset," (subjective and judgmental) especially over written communication. You are definitely in every right to say your students are mad at you, if they have informed you so. But I'd argue it would be better not to make assumptions.
    – Alwin
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 22:16
  • Just to clarify, I am saying the professor referred to in the question can do better than "you act as though you want to tear my head off," and not making any statements about you in particular. And originally I am pointing out that to me, this seems to go further than just nuance. A person in a position of power making a statement like that to a student is a big deal, IMO.
    – Alwin
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 22:27
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    I've read your comment a few times, I think I understand better now. Some problems with the teachers' statement: 1) imagery is rough, possibly inappropriate depending on context, 2) best to always use "I feel" statements when engaging with emotions and the emotions of other people. Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 2:48

I think you're focusing on the wrong part of the message. Let's look at what she wrote:

  1. "It isn't necessary to waste your time reiterating the content of each lesson--your takeaways are what's important if you have any."
  2. "Are you okay? One week you are kind and appear happy and the next week you act as though you want to tear my head off. Is there anything I can do to help?"

The first part is useful feedback, take it to heart. It means less work for you, less work for her, making you both happier.

The second part is not criticism, it's an offer for help! "To tear someone's head of" is a hyperbolic figure of speech, nothing more, nothing less. If she had known how much her choice of words distressed you, she would have likely used a different (weaker) metaphor. If it helps, imagine her smiling playfully while saying this, or imagine that she said (more boringly) "...and the next week you appear unhappy and struggling". Be generous and cut her some slack: Getting non-verbal communication right is hard, and professors are just as human and fallible as we are.

Thus, my advice is to ignore that ill-chosen phrase and focus on the real content of the message: "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to help?" So... are you okay? And is there anything she can do to help?

  • This is the most likely explanation, but still, I think the OP should go to their (virtual) office hours, or schedule a one-on-one zoom meeting with them. This kind of discussion needs to be done over zoom, or over the phone, not over email. Also, the OP should let the Professor talk before getting too defensive. Perhaps, the Professor made a mistake in using the language they used, or perhaps they confused them with another student, but also perhaps, they've picked up on some stress coming from the student. Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 17:57

In my experience, it has always been fruitful to clarify misunderstandings in a meeting, and moreover it develops your relationship with your professor. In short, try not to worry/overthink too much about it (stop racking your brain!), since that will not be fruitful, but I do think it's a good idea to request a Zoom meeting to have a discussion.

You'll have the chance to clarify your comments and emphasize that you trust the process even if you are struggling. You'll also have a chance to jointly figure out if there is anything your professor can do to help you, or anything you can do differently (your professor may give you useful learning advice!) As one example, I do not personally know if this is an outstanding question for you, but you can also clarify the difference between reiterating content and takeaways, and ask for examples of the desired summary format. Or you can clarify what you could have done better next time to improve your score from a 7/10.

Professors are people too, and they are generally particularly time-crunched and stressed as well. Your professor may not have had the time to really take in all your words and perhaps only the negative ones stuck (there are a plethora of human negativity biases). Your professor may even have been hungry at the time! Thus, taking the chance to clarify things will be helpful for your professor as well, in the case that your professor has accidentally developed an incorrect assessment of the situation or misread you.

Since your professor has already kindly asked if there is any way to help, I am sure a Zoom meeting will be welcome.

Edit: I think it may even be possible that the professor was making a dry joke or being hyperbolic and it landed poorly. Nevertheless, you will probably benefit from a meeting. Office hours are a highlight of both a student's and an educator's experience.

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