I am a new adjunct professor at a US university teaching calculus. I had a student complain during my first lecture and tell me that the order in which I was covering the material was wrong and that they spoke on behalf of all the students in saying that I was confusing them. They were trying to coerce me into teaching their way. So under pressure, I tried to appease them and said that I will try to accommodate the request.

But, in speaking with senior faculty, I actually had reason to cover the material my way and that it followed previous year's syllabus.

Ok, so how do I deal with this? I can't risk them complaining, otherwise my contract won't be renewed and my job is gone. But, on the other hand, I can't just simply change the whole syllabus to cater just one student.


10 Answers 10


First, my sympathies. Even with tenure, old gray bald head, etc., I still routinely have a few students in my grad math courses complain that I'm not doing what they expected. :) (Despite my endless explanations about my choices...)

In your situation, you should just say (to some degree correctly) that the syllabus is not your choice, etc. It's not within your power to change it. That is, you are "just the messenger", and that the complainers can only change things if they persuade "your bosses" [sic].

That is, plead helplessness. Of course, in bad situations, that's potentially unethical and/or immoral, but with regard to syllabi for math courses, it's not usually that bad. :)

True, your students may still be unhappy after you've said it's not within your power to change things... but, perhaps you can attempt to explain "on scientific grounds" why the syllabus is reasonable, at least as a good-faith demonstration.

Sigh. Good luck. :)

Btw, it was even more "hilarious" decades ago, when it was not really feasible to create typeset notes, etc., ... and authors of books were inarguable "authorities". (Note the etymology...) Back then, having a textbook for a (grad) course (in Minnesota, unlike perhaps-fancier places) was required. It was seemingly not possible to disagree even with mere conventions in the official text, no matter what the mathematical explanation/justification. The most hilarious things were "definitions", especially regarding things that in reality do not have universal definitions... and, duh, anyway, are just conventions, to explain what we mean when we say a thing.

My point (apart from some potential entertainment value) is that it's an uphill battle to explain to people (even grad students) that some things are just conventions, that there's no sacred logical order, and so on. So, first, don't be surprised. Second, if you're in a junior/vulnerable position, try to pass off responsibility (even for sensible choices) to "your boss(es)".

  • 3
    I think the misconception that certain definitions are sacred rather than just being conventions has been spread in part to students by popular mathematics Youtube videos.
    – Tom
    Aug 25 at 10:25
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    I had a graduate signal processing course where the professor followed a horizontal vector convention. He was the only one I've ever encountered that did that. Everything in his notes and lectures was transpose and conjugate and in reverse order from the book. Aug 25 at 17:55
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    @paulgarrett so the drama didn't end there. Just got an email from my supervisor saying the student complained today. And I was trying hard today to "review" what I did last time, so that they could get it. But my good faith attempt to help was quite frankly shat upon by this person. Aug 26 at 3:07
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    A Professor is not helpless, not a mindless cog in the machine. And switching the order of subjects in a sequence of lectures is a perfectly legitimate thing to do... if it is merited, which is typically not the case. Anyway, pleading helpless is a mis-education of students to accept the situation of a hierarchy of passivity. Certainly not what we want to encourage in academia.
    – einpoklum
    Aug 26 at 8:27
  • @einpoklum, well, of course, what you say is true, but is a bit idealistic, I think. In my experience, when dealing with unreasonable people (and that is a judgement call, of course), "honesty" is sometimes a very suboptimal strategy... as opposed to some version of "disengagement", which "pleading helplessness" is, I think. But, again, yes, this is highly undesirable as a general approach, for most students! :) Aug 28 at 21:13

I had a student complain during my first lecture and tell me that the order in which I was covering the material was wrong

I would recommend being polite, but firm.

  • Start with a simple explanation ("we cover limits before derivatives because limits are needed for the definition of the derivative"). Try not to be defensive, just treat it like you're answering a genuine question.
  • If that fails, simply state that your course covers the topics in a certain order, and there is good reason for that, though it may be different from what you expected. The trick is to say it politely and calmly but firmly; do not give the impression that the matter is open to debate.
  • If that fails, become even firmer. "I don't have anything further to say on this matter, let's get back to the lecture."

I can't risk them complaining, otherwise my contract won't be renewed and my job is gone.

One student complaining is unlikely to be much of a problem.

  • If you have deeper problems (e.g., if the students generally think your lectures are incomprehensible and disorganized), then this incident is a symptom of that and you are likely to continue to have problems regardless of how you handle this incident.
  • But if things are generally fine and this student is just being obnoxious, then one student is unlikely to derail things. Trying to appease obnoxious students is a losing game; you are likely to lose the respect of other students without even achieving the respect of the obnoxious student.
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    "polite but firm" is also a trick that one of my PhD supervisors taught me for dealing with reviewers
    – einar
    Aug 25 at 12:00
  • In no way disagreeing with your comment, but he also said that this was only half way through his first lecture. Aug 25 at 12:37
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    "That's a great point, but let's put a pin in it because my next lecture answers that question". And then never come back to it.
    – Valorum
    Aug 25 at 16:43
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    I tried to give an answer that didn't require lying or deflecting blame. Personally, I'm not above doing those things in certain circumstances, but not sure this is one of those circumstances.
    – cag51
    Aug 25 at 16:59
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    Re: Misplaced meta-issues, I find that some variant of, "We don't have time for that right now, please write me an email and I'll get back to you", results 90% of the time in no further contact from the student in question. YMMV. Aug 25 at 22:59

The first obvious thing to check is that you are actually teaching things in the best possible order. It takes a lot of courage to admit being wrong, especially in front of students, and when one is in a position of authority. It's my opinion that one of the worst things a lecturer can do is lean on their authority to save face, e.g. "It might be wrong, but it's my way!" I still remember the college professors who pulled that, and still hate them for it.

You said that you checked with your colleagues and you are justified in doing things the way you do them for pedagogical reasons (the fact that last year's syllabus did it one way is no reason; the syllabus can be wrong two years in a row.) So I'll assume that you are correct.

To teach effectively, one needs to adopt the difficult position of the benevolent dictator. You need to create an environment where students feel free to question you about anything and everything, and this is OK, because being the expert in the room, you should have an answer to everything and anything they throw at you. Even if the answer is "that is outside of the scope of the class, but if you come to my office hours we can talk about it." So when a student claims that they know a better way to teach the class, you just need to calmly explain why you are teaching it this way, and how it is to their benefit. Then you move on. I'm going to call BS on any student who says they are talking on behalf of the class -- they are just the loud ones, and if your explanation is reasonable, most students will silently agree with you.

Back to the benevolent dictator metaphor, part of your responsibility is also to keep order in the class. Some students, usually early in the semester, try to poke holes in your authority, and if you let them there's no way to get your authority back. They'll go to the chair of the department, and then to the dean and then to the provost over the smallest of grading disagreements. And being an adjunct, there's a risk that somewhere along the chain of command someone will say "this guy/gal is too much trouble, don't renew the contract." So paradoxically, to keep your job you have to be stern, especially at the start of the semester, establishing your authority.

Just to be on the safe side, you can go by the chair of the department and check with them if they agree why you are teaching in that particular order. Something along the lines of "I am OK with teaching it either way, but I think this way is best for the students because of this. What do you think?" When that student, the one complaining in your classroom, inevitably goes to the chair to complain, they'll get their ass thrown to the hallway, and you've re-established your authority in the classroom.

There's always a risk that the department will not back you up, but it's also impossible to teach without authority. Students can't run the classroom. I once taught as an adjunct, and a student kept not showing up for exams and then demanding a make-up. I let it happen once (thus undermining my own authority), and then the student kept demanding it for every subsequent exam. When I tried to stand my ground, the student went on to complain up the chain of command. I knew they were complaining, but I never heard anything from the department other than my contract was not renewed. I took two lessons out of this: (1) I did this to myself by undermining my own authority early in the semester (breaking my own rule of no make-ups unless you're at the hospital) and (2) I don't want to work at a department where they don't back up their adjuncts.

  • @Cheery Actually, they already complained. I got an email from the head today outlining their main issues. So yeah, only 1 week of classes and already a complaint to my boss. Aug 26 at 3:00
  • It's terrible if your contract wasn't renewed because a student bad-mouthed you about not giving them extra makeup exams. Too bad the (adjunct) teachers weren't unionized at that university/college.
    – einpoklum
    Aug 26 at 8:31
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    you are actually teaching things in the best possible order - I don't think "the best possible order" exists. Different eachers and textbooks present things in different orders, and they each have their pros and cons.
    – Kimball
    Aug 26 at 13:08
  • The point is that the adjunct should be able to justify the decision, according to a criterion. If they present it to the department as the optimal order under a reasonable pedagogical criterion, they should be good. Less-than-ideal criteria are "the textbook says so", "last year's syllabus did it this way", etc.
    – Cheery
    Aug 26 at 13:11
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    @einpoklum This was at another university, close to where I work as tenured professor. As such, I didn't have the immense pressure that most adjuncts live under, that of pleasing students vs. paying rent. It's an impossible situation without union protection, agreed.
    – Cheery
    Aug 26 at 13:13

As I wrote in the selected answer to this related question:

This is the kiss of death. It's a common mistake for first-time teachers. I made the same mistake in my first semester.

As I observed in that other answer, you've given the signal that you're a pushover, and as a result all of the students will be expecting to push you around every day all semester, about everything (lecture content, assignments, due dates, grades, etc.). You've put blood in the water while surrounded by a bunch of sharks.

This is already a situation that will be very difficult to correct! At least you have the advantage over the prior querent that you're asking this after one day, instead at the end of the semester. Your only option now is to reject any further complaints or requests for dispensation firmly (even harshly).

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    Yes... and/but, sadly, this does presume the "adversarial" model of teacher-student... (which, yes, I agree, many students do take up, and ...) Aug 25 at 22:36
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    "is to reject any further complaints or requests for dispensation firmly" if and only if the complaints have no validity. If you reject valid complaints you are likely to get into trouble if those complaints are escalated (especially if rejected harshly), as well as being a poor approach to quality control over your work. Aug 26 at 17:54
  • @DikranMarsupial: I think at this point (or at the start of any term), it's much better to err to the side of "no" in any case. (a) The OP crucially needs an opportunity to show that "no" is in their vocabulary. (b) While the OP currently lacks confidence, they've received at battle-tested syllabus and curriculum from the department, and if in doubt they should trust that more than a random complaint from an entitled student. (c) If correction is necessary, it's much easier to grant extra dispensation later, vs. retract one granted earlier. Aug 26 at 22:17
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    @DanielR.Collins respect is earned and can be lost. Being arbitrary in an academic context is a good way of losing respect and is unlikely to earn it. My own approach would be "thank you, I will give that some thought offline" and actually do so. An immediate "yes" or "no" is not required, just make sure the lecture is not disrupted, but at the same time give the student the respect of considering their input. "they've received at battle-tested syllabus and curriculum from the department," I don't think that is a given, not all faculty care about logical ordering. Aug 27 at 7:00

You listen to the complaint. You don't believe for one second his claim that he is "speaking for all students". You think about his complaint. Is he right or is he wrong? If you are teaching things in the wrong order, then you change the order. If according to your best judgement you are teaching things in the right order, then you keep that order unchanged. You tell the student that you thought about his complaint, and in your professional opinion the order is correct and will remain unchanged.

Hopefully that is the end of it. You don't need to justify yourself to this student. He has an opinion, which is based on listening to half a lecture. You have an opinion based on studying the subject for a long time. Your opinion counts more for two reasons: First, because you have more justification for your opinion. Second, because it is you who has to do the extra work if you make a change, not him. If he continues complaining then you may suggest that maybe he should take this course elsewhere.


Of course, as a starter, you should respond professionally and consider their comment seriously. Explain the general pattern of the course and why it makes sense, and inform them of the department's requirements of you to teach it in this order in any case. Reading your question and the comments you've left, it seems like you did all of this.

If the student continued to complain, then I would remind them that they've only been in the class for 20 minutes and that they need to give it a chance and if they've got concerns at the end of the class you're happy to continue the conversation. At some point for practical reasons you've got to keep the class moving, and you can't allow one person to derail the course. (I don't know if this person kept complaining or if it was a one time thing, that would really change how this went.) If they're continually wasting class time trying to coach you, then you're going to have issues with students doing poorly simply because they've lost instructional time to Karen or Darren.

Beyond this, there are some questions you've got to consider. Why is this student taking calculus if they already know the subject well enough to complain about your order of topics in the first lecture? Presumably they've taken a calculus course and done poorly, which doesn't really speak well for their understanding of the topic in the first place and perhaps implies that the order that they were expecting was less than effective.

In my experience a problem that many students fall into is trying to learn algorithmically - particularly those students for whom the class is not in their area of interest (ex: a chemistry student who has to take calculus). They want to learn how to do one problem and then copy their method to every other problem directly by looking at an example. If they are presented with another method for solving a problem they will often reject it regardless of its quality simply because it is new. You can sometimes talk to these people and try to get them to change their outlook to wanting to understand how the subject matter works on a deeper level so that they're not trying and failing to cut and paste.

Good luck, try not to get discouraged. Teaching does get easier with practice.


This student's complaint doesn't make sense on several levels:

  • Why would a student think they are in a position to tell the instructor what order materials should be taught?

  • How could a student claim, after only half of a single lecture, to be speaking for the entire rest of the class?

My first instinct is that your student is a troublemaker, and my internal response was not worth reproducing here.

But after reflection: Maybe there is an issue with the prerequisites for the class. Since this is a class where the syllabus has been developed in advance by the department, it seems unlikely that the problem is on the university end. But maybe there's been some error somewhere and the student lacks mastery (or even exposure to) some key material for the class.

It would be a kindness to help the student rule that out, especially early enough in a term for them to do something about it.

  • Because, they said they were retaking the class. The second question, I don't have an answer to... Aug 26 at 3:05
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    "Why would a student think they are in a position to tell the instructor what order materials should be taught?" <- Any number of reasons, be it a desire to help future students, the venting of frustration, etc. And some of the reasons are legitimate.
    – einpoklum
    Aug 26 at 8:33
  • @VegetathePrinceofSaiyans that information is relevant enough to edit into the original question, I think.
    – Anonymous
    Aug 26 at 16:35
  • "Why would a student think they are in a position to tell the instructor what order materials should be taught?" because they are paying and the customer is always right? Aug 26 at 17:57
  • @DikranMarsupial I worked in retail for a while, so that answer doesn't have much weight for me....
    – Anonymous
    Aug 27 at 16:45

Have you explained to them why you cover materials in certain order? Maybe they cannot see the big picture or you failed to explain how some materials have to be explained first before they get to some other materials. It is OK to have your own way but it needs to be justified. Otherwise, you will come across as incompetent.

  • 1
    I did, actually. And like I mention, this is following a departmental syllabus. This isn't just some weird arrangement of topics. There is a reason to it too. Aug 25 at 1:44
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    In most cases, that may work. However, the student may not see any rationale in the department's syllabus. In this case, you will have to justify the department's syllabus. Alternatively, you can provide additional help for that particular student to sort out any confusion, and continue to use the department's syllabus.
    – VitaminE
    Aug 25 at 1:48
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    Yeah, I can do that too no problem. I'll for sure have to explain why it is ordered that way, so it is clear. Thanks! Aug 25 at 2:00

As a student, I've never felt the need to criticise a lecturer in this way, as if I disagreed with the way the material was presented or found presentation skills incompetent, I would resort to self-study which was my preferred method anyway.

While there may be some malicious or arrogant motivation to the student's criticism, I think it's worth ascertaining if they are genuinely struggling and what the source of that is. Assuming it's an introductory calculus class and they've come straight from school for example, it may be the case they haven't been adequately prepared.

I would try to reframe the student's objections to them, so they stop seeing it as a "the lecturer needs to change" problem and instead an issue of them potentially needing some initial additional support with the course. I don't know how your university handles that but in my BSc years I had a sort of supervisor that was a member of faculty that I'd see once a week in a small group (our 'tutor' in the UK) that was available to answer questions in that session and during office hours.


I actually had a similar situation when I was teaching in the US in 2011. I was teaching a class from a syllabus prepared by the faculty, but it was an introductory calculus class in which we were supposed to teach concepts from real analysis (e.g. semi-rigorous limits) that were way too difficult for students at precalculus level.

The students were very upset with me and started complaining to the other faculty. For example, I asked the question "If two functions have the same graph, are they the same function?" in an assignment, and the students showed it to various other faculty members, who said they were not sure of the answer.

Eventually, driven by complaining students, the head of department came and sat in on the class to find out what was going so wrong. I never found out, because he didn't really have any constructive criticism for me, except for a few minor things.

In the end, I think it might just come down to the students not liking being taught confusing stuff by a foreigner. But I don't know, because some of my other classes ran really well.

Anyway, my point is that offering to have a senior faculty member sit in on your teaching might be a good strategy (not after class one obviously, but if things continue to deteriorate. And they probably will! Once you are, in the terminology of Patrick O'Brien, a "shot-rolling ship", there is not likely to be any going back. My ratings for the class were terrible, but I remained in the faculty's good books.)

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