Background: I was a senior at a very prestigious, high-ranking university in the US. At the time my GPA was around a 3.9 and had never had any issues with professors (and actually socialized with a few outside of class).

Fall semester I ended up getting pinned taking two classes from a female professor that had a reputation for being an extreme feminist. I only mention the "feminist" part because this reputation preceded her around campus. My adviser who was female, basically said "sorry about this" but I have to put you in her classes. I also mention it because the department head (later in story) is very quick to pull me from her class with little discussion. I am not anti-feminist nor did I care. If anything it made me act more cautious around her.

Both of the classes were very basic so I figured, whatever. Well I get my first few papers back and there is little feedback other than very minor sentence rewording. "C"s. No notes.

I ask her about her office hours (after class) so I can talk about the issues on the papers. She simply told me she finds me intimidating and that she would rather talk to me in class with other people around. This was my first direct interaction with her, and I was standing beside a few friends.

So I ask her what I need to do to not get a "C". She says that she doesn't feel comfortable talking to me because she feels threatened—again I have two or three female friends standing a few feet from me. That's it. She wouldn't talk to me because I was a big male. (At the time I was boxing professionally but I really doubt she knew this. As a 6'3" 200-pound white male, she just would not talk to me based on how I looked.)

Next step was going to the department chair. Basically he looked at a few of my papers and we went around in circles over the grades. But that didn't matter. The professor basically told him exactly what she told me. And she told him that it was the first time I had ever talked to her.

He offered to grade the rest of my papers and give me grades for the classes. I opted out of that because basically I would have started off with a 70% in each class (he could not change my grades, I was told). So he offered pass/fail. I took that option. Didn't go to class. Turned in a bunch of papers and passed both classes.

My question is did I handle this correctly? Should I have paid for those two classes? What would be the norm in this situation from a student's perspective?

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    @EnergyNumbers: He asked to speak in office hours, was rebuffed. He asked her on the spot, and apparently was also rebuffed: So I ask her what I need to do to not get a "C". She says that she doesn't feel comfortable talking to me because she feels threatened—again I have two or three female friends standing a few feet from me. That's it.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 10:12
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    Personally I think it would be reasonable to take this further. If a professor is not able to explain the grades they have given that is a fairly serious issue. Not sure what the correct route is though. I guess its a case of whether the grades you were given were fair (just a rubbish lecturer with some people issues) or not (a far more serious problem).
    – nivag
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 10:58
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    @scaaahu The OP does not know why he got a C. That's the entire point of this question. I agree with StrongBad that the Q has a an anti-feminist tone to it, but I think after deleting the sentence about "extreme feminist", this is totally OK for re-opening.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 12:23
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    We all know that appearances influence perception. The same way that an vastly overweight person is regarded lazy by some or a very beautiful woman might be considered superficial by others, the same way a six foot+ guy with a bodybuilder look might be considered a superficial jock unable to perform well in classes. But all these are forms of racism and that is why this is an interesting question and should be reopened.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 12:37
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    @scaaahu: Many instructors make their office hours "by appointment."
    – aeismail
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 13:29

7 Answers 7


We (and the department) need to ignore any and all issues of appearance and ostensible political leanings. the OP (no matter how he looks), if he pays tuition (which partially pays the professor's salary) has a right to some explanation of the grade. If the professor made no notes on the paper about content (not just style or usage, which if not flagrantly bad, should affect the grade only a little), then the student has a right to hear from the professor what, in the content, she was looking for and was missing in the paper. Alternatively, the professor should convey what was included in the paper that was "wrong" in some sense, either factually incorrect or irrelevant.

This professor should have office hours. If they all conflict with other classes or academic commitments, the student has a right to request some time by appointment. If the professor agrees, make the appointment. You should not need to bring "witnesses". The professor should just do her job.

If the professor continues to stonewall (using her fear of you as an excuse), try getting either your adviser or the department head to stand with you as you ask her again for time to substantively discuss what she is expecting in the work from each student in your class, and specifically where your work came short in her professional opinion. Come prepared about the facts and content in the work that she's grading so poorly.

Perhaps your poor grade is appropriate and you can learn something. Perhaps it was not appropriate and she can learn something. Either way, you have a right to specific information for how your paper falls short, and what she expects of you for a better grade. You might not like the information, but she has no right (since she is partially paid by the tuition you pay) to deny her services, as a professor and teacher, to you.

  • 28
    +1 I liked your answer, but all your points are still valid, even if the student is not paying tuition. Even for public universities with no tuition, the professor's salary is still paid by taxes, i.e., again indirectly by the student or its parents.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 20:31
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    Third paragraph is especially important: either document everything or have a witness for everything. In situations where things may escalate, you do not want it to become, in the end, a situation of your word against hers. Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 8:04
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    I voted this down. If the professor feels threatened they have a right to request a third party or witness. This is for the safety of both the student and the professor. The student may also request a third party. In some cases, a faculty member to support staff, and a student advisor to support the student may be present.
    – awsoci
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 22:33
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    @awsoci, apparently you didn't read the original post and have a fondness for strawmen. Commented May 12, 2015 at 16:21
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    @awsoci, it's still a strawman: "If the professor continues to stonewall (using her fear of you as an excuse), try getting either your adviser or the department head to stand with you as you ask her again for time to substantively discuss what she is expecting in the work from each student in your class..." Commented May 13, 2015 at 18:26

Generally speaking, humans - even professors with a bad reputation - behave the way they do in a way that is sensible in at least some context, even if that context is only in their own mind. Without knowing the situation, this behavior could be anywhere from an indefensible prejudice to a "reasonable person" response that one simply fails to understand or have sufficient information to interpret.

So, let's walk through a couple of reasonable interpretations.

Honest Interpretation

In the first interpretation, the professor responded honestly - she felt fear or discomfort in meeting with you privately. "Why" she felt that way cannot be determined from a simple reading of the narrative presented. She could have a disability (panic/anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress), she could have been threatened in the past, she could have believed you were affiliated with people who had threatened her or wished her ill, or she could have interpreted your tone or body language as being angry or...well, intimidating, and surely other reasons I cannot so easily imagine.

People have a right to feel safe, and to insist they not be put in a position where they are made to be in perceived or real danger. When one can un-self-consciously walk down a dark street alone without fear because of one's skin color, size, gender, or physical training, it is easy to be unaware of the fear that others who are not so fortunate must live in continually - often for all too real reasons. As I have two daughters, I can attest that this is a rather disgusting realization to have to come to - but it is an important one in understanding our place in the world and our relationships to others.

Legally and ethically, the University is almost universally required to provide reasonable accommodations to this end for both students and faculty - both you and your professor.

In all this, this does not require that you did anything wrong, nor that you should receive adverse treatment. If the professor was hard of hearing she could require all advisement to be by email, and this would be a reasonable accommodation. To request an appointment with a chaperon might feel silly when you don't see the need, but it can be a reasonable accommodation none the less.

Unfair Treatment Interpretation

Interpretation Two: you were singled out for unfair treatment. In this interpretation, you were treated explicitly unfairly and the professors attitude and actions culminated in adverse, unwarranted treatment.

As a student and "paying customer", you have the right to receive services you paid for, comparably valued substitute services, or a refund. The University makes certain guarantees of service, and they are obligated to make good on their contract.

The University, along with applicable law, usually provides for how complaints should be handled. Generally, the head/chair of the department is involved, and at times special departments (like an Ombudsman or Student Services) can also seek to find a reasonable resolution.

There is not, however, always a guarantee that a class will be offered by a professor who likes you, or whom you like, or who is even in any way helpful or beyond vaguely useful. It's hard to bar passive-aggressive behavior that's shielded by unethical but hard to disprove veils of personal boundaries or safety.

From your writing, it seems a member of administration offered a number of remedies. You likely had the right to complain to administration, be given an administrative (no cost/fault) withdrawal from the class with potential return of related fees, receive 3rd party grading to remove questions of improper marks, a pass/fail opportunity for credit, etc. While none of these are ideal resolutions, there are often no perfect fixes for problems like this.

Part of this is often what is really sought in remedy is not possible or not stated. If you felt insulted and discriminated against, you might have wanted the professor penalized or to apologize to you - which might have been objectively inappropriate or just impossible. You might have wanted your paper regraded as stated, but there may have been insufficient grounds for this is as it is simply an extraordinary request. If a 3rd party can look at your paper and say "it is not beyond reason that a professor, even if they would be very harsh, would have given this paper a C" then it's just a no go there, too.

So, administration has a duty to find a way to make the best of a bad situation. From the sounds of it, they offered pretty much all the recourse they had to offer to you. You could take it or leave it, but by staying in the class and taking the pass/fail offer and receiving credit (and choosing not to attend lecture - which was certainly understandable but not strictly demanded by the situation) the University upheld their end of the bargain - albeit in a not very satisfying way.

A Word on Feminism

One note of issue: the problem with how this is stated in the post is that feminism isn't actually related. If someone is known to have a militant or unkind attitude, behave in a way that discriminates against certain genders or types of people, or just has a reputation for being a terrible teacher or nasty person, say so.

The problem is when words are used as code words for something else entirely. If the administration was unwilling to give a refund it would be appropriate to say they were playing hard ball or being stingy or greedy - not to say they were known to be of a certain ethnicity renowned for thrift (to be time-insensitive, I am presently aware of three entirely different sets of people who have this notion assigned to them).

So, if a professor has a reputation of being nasty or terrible or discriminatory, please just say so outright. To say "feminist" or "extreme feminist" to imply being a man-hating shrew does a dis-service to yourself, your question, to feminists, to man-hating shrews, and to society as a whole.

  • 8
    That is a really good answer. I have been treated different though out my life and I understand that women need to feel safe. That is why I was so careful around her (and having two classes). One of the classes was so basic that I could have received an "A" without ever showing up. Now when you get grades back on junior high quality assignments and they are all poor while girls in your class all receive "A"s with markup... well at some point you take the C or you say something. I decided to bring a few friends with me and talk as nice as possible... obviously didn't work.
    – blankip
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 22:47
  • 40
    People have a right to be safe, but when it comes to feeling safe that's something else. In many cases both are related, but when a professor is not able to discuss grading because she feels threatened (for no reason) -- there's something seriously wrong with this professor. A student -- who needs feedback to improve -- shouldn't be disadvantaged because the professor seems to have psychological or ideological issues. The question here would be how other students, e.g., women and smaller men, are treated. Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 12:23
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    +1 misandry is NOT feminism, as much as the misandrists and misogynists both insist that it is. Commented May 8, 2015 at 14:15
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    @awsoci Ah please, don't come with "narrative of the situation". Just because a person does not feel safe (and I don't deny that she feels this way) does not mean that this a) is founded in reality, and b) that this person has the right to discard her/his duties. Feelings do not evidence make -- and it's a confession of failure if this professor is going by her feelings. Even if scared the professional thing would be to have another person in the office. But this behavior is extremely unprofessional. Commented May 9, 2015 at 1:31
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    @awsoci I see no reason to excuse bad behavior with sex/gender, and expect more from profs, male or female. OP did not threaten her and she didn't even want to discuss with other students nearby. Looks like personal problem. You seem to think that all feelings of threat are equally valid and that errors in judgment never happen. There are differences and humans can err, which harms innocent and damages academia. Putting this case in one category with people who actually receive threats lacks differentiation and isn't helpful -- not for her and not for her students. Commented May 13, 2015 at 9:30

I once had a comparative politics professor that was a short, older Latina. She included attendance and tardiness in the course grade. I recall once a rather big fellow once tried to get her to not mark him tardy by physically intimidating her.

She didn't back down and she told him to have a seat - and he did.

However, I could see someone else having a very different response, and I was watching carefully to intervene if he became belligerent.

What's going on in her mind may or may not reflect an objective view of reality, but being a boxer, it strikes me that your gauge of your aggressiveness when you confronted her about your grade could be off.

I'd like to present you with a specific principle that might help in future situations:

Assume Positive Intent

No one shows up at work telling themselves they're going to be evil today. (Except maybe Dr. Evil.)

In this case, you might have been careful to cooperate with her, and credit her with innocent (if misguided) fearfulness, which would have allowed you to further test your hypothesis, and you would have either won her over (possible, but unlikely, given most professors' fondness for acknowledging a misgrade) or had more evidence for the department chair.

Nevertheless, you ask:

Did I handle this correctly?"

You did the best you knew how, and a "Pass" beats a C (for an A student) any day.

  • 6
    It is very hard to deal with people treating you different when you don't fall into the obvious categories of discrimination. Let me tell you that I get looks from people and my wife notices it. She laughs actually. What is funny is if I have my two little ones with me these same people will act totally different. I try not to think about it and really don't care. However I maybe let her get in my head (having to see her 5-6 times a week) and knowing her reactions to me.
    – blankip
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 22:55

My opinion is that you handled this difficult situation appropriately, assuming what you have described is accurate and forthcoming. The only suggestion I could make is this: When she said that "she wouldn't talk to you because you were a big male", you might have suggested that she send you an email with the explanation. She may or may not have done it, but at least you'd be giving her a path of communication that didn't involve you being present with her.

In the end, the "pass" result was probably as good as you could expect.

  • 7
    What I didn't mention because it is more opinion was her look of disgust that I was even talking with her. My friends were in such shock that they were laughing. So I really didn't feel like giving her an out. I understood that this isn't a "normal prejudice" so I felt anything that helped was good enough at the time. I was just fortunate that I had witnesses around and that she was cocky enough to basically tell the head of the department the truth.
    – blankip
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 3:45

This hasn't been said yet so I'd like to draw your attention to a couple of situations with students that I've experienced. But first....

Coded Body Language/Image

First, you mentioned that you are a white, 200+ pound male training to be a boxer. Western culture has coded muscular bodies in two ways, the first, as 'healthy' (a completely different discussion) and the second, as 'powerful' 'aggressive' and 'hostile'. So while you may not have meant to appear threatening, she may have read your body language and attitude as threatening just by the way you look. Is this discrimination? Yes BUT bear with me.

After all, if we constantly receive messages through various mediums that men with muscular bodies are meant to be aggressive and violent (sports, action movies, body building etc) than it is not all that surprising that she reads you as threatening even if this was not your intention. There are also socio-cultural and historical contexts here at play. As a white male you do have access to levels of privilege (depending on other factors, such as class, ability etc) and combining this with a hard body, it is very well that she may have perceived you as a threat despite what your intentions may have been.

As a female, she has also been taught that men are threatening. Through various forms of mediums, women are constantly told that men are threatening, that they can't behave themselves, that women risk provoking men, women are victims of men and often deserve it and so on. So again, the socio-historical-context here is that she has been taught to perceive men as a threat.

This isn't to excuse her behaviour, it's just a more nuanced explanation. Combining the historical context of what women are told, and the coded messages around a hard, male muscular body you may have come across as threatening.

You also mentioned that her face had a look of 'disgust' but just as YOU felt you weren't in a body position of hostility/aggression, perhaps her look was not disgust but actually fear. How you receive a message is not necessarily how people give them. To be honest, as a young female with a severe knee injury, if I perceived you as highly threatening, I might also be wary of meeting with you privately...

Options She Should Have Offered

If she felt threatened, a more appropriate response from her would have been to arrange a meeting in which a neutral third (and perhaps fourth party) could be involved to mediate the discussion. She does have the right to turn you away from a private one-on-one discussion if she genuinely feels threatened. However, offering an option in which perhaps a faculty member, and a student rep like an adviser to sit in on the discussion would have been a more tactful way of handling the situation, giving you a fair chance to discuss where you went wrong (if you did go wrong).

This should have been offered for you, especially as this was a first time request for office hours. It does not sound as though you had repeatedly harassed her in any way. This is what I would have offered. I'm aware that this may come across as insulting or offensive, but this would not be my intention. It would be to protect myself and offer you a fair chance for discussion.

I know there's that hashtag #notallmen; however, I would say that enough men engage in violence and threatening behaviour to warrant some caution around those we do not know. Which is very unfortunate, I disagree living in a world where I have to constantly be cautious as the result of my gender, but this is where we are at.

My Experience as a Female Lecturer

I have been threatened and been in hostile situations with students on a few occasions. Surprisingly though, I have never had a situation with a male student, only female. However, a number of my colleagues have been in situations where their male students have harassed them, threatened them, have been physically violent with them and so on. So it is unfortunately, not an uncommon experience.

My worst experience was last year, where a student was taking my class but couldn't handle the controversial content of the material, or the setting of the classroom. They wanted me to change my entire curriculum and change how I was lecturing completely (including changing rooms, changing light settings, not using slides and so on). During and after class they would berate me about how I was not being accommodating despite trying to work with them and their disability case worker. On numerous occasions it was suggested that if they couldn't handle the content they should drop the class, but they refused. It got to the point that all interactions with this student had to be mediated with another member from my department, a member from safer communities unit and their disability caseworker. That's 5 people including myself for ONE student.

To be fair, this student was really struggling mentally, and trying to get into a psychiatric ward for fear for themselves but the medical system was screwing them around. So while I was being harassed and threatened, I also know that this was not so much the student hating me, but rather, venting all of their frustrations and current mental illness onto me. I became a target.

Did You Handle This Correctly?

I think you did the best you could considering the circumstances. I'm surprised a third party option was not offered for you and as others have suggested, perhaps a pass is better than a C. Maybe in future if a professor indicates they feel threatened, you could offer some alternatives to help them feel secure. While they may be in positions of authority, this does not mean they are flawless, or do not have their own concerns and fears.

  • 3
    In addition to third party grading, if she did not feel comfortable meeting him in private why not do so in public? Most colleges have numerous public areas where a professor and a student could meet with dozens of people within shouting distance. Commented May 8, 2015 at 23:13
  • @PatriciaShanahan Agreed. Though I think a response could be (as others have said in responding to this question) "I shouldn't have to discuss my grade/academic standing in front of other people" which a public space might facilitate...hence why I mentioned a more formal approach that involves mediators.
    – awsoci
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 23:27

Whether this female teacher actually had a bad experience with an intimidating student or it was just all in her head, is an irrelevant point. If your interactions with her were just as you stated (and no subtle context was left out, like you standing with your "guns" across your chest, or worse), then you were blatantly discriminated against. The reason that I say her past experience is irrelevant is because had she had a bad experience with a school athlete or body builder, she is still basing her opinion of you on that experience, which is prejudicial, also known as discrimination.

I think that if a professor told me they would rather talk in class, my response would be that you do not discuss other peoples academic status in front of others, so, either 1, you allow me to bring a friend in to the meeting whom I feel comfortable with, or 2 you have another professor or a student aid present, or 3 you call campus security and have them present at the meeting ...

And, actually, this is the best possible scenario, especially if she already has preconceived notions, because it would protect you from false accusations, and other lies, like when she claimed you never approached her before. I dont know how or why she was able to get away with this lie, when you stated you were with friends at the time you approached her about your grade.

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    I disagree with your approach in paragraph 2. That sounds like he would be bullying her into discussing things on his own terms. A better approach would be saying something like: "I'd rather not discuss my grades in front of other students. Could we discuss it another professor present?" The main thing is tone. The OP brought along a gang to meet the professor so he was already trying to dominate the situation. In another comment he mentioned that his friends laughed at the professor during the meeting. As a man, I would have been uncomfortable too.
    – NotMe
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 17:54
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    She probably didn't get away with the lie, just not called on it yet. A few similar incidents and her reputation will be known to the dean.
    – Joshua
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 1:46
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    I disagree with this comment. I have had a number of situations in which I've had to get a third party involved to speak with a student due to continuous harassment or feelings of threat/hostility. While we did not speak in class, we did effectively, speak in front of others for my own safety in a more private setting.
    – awsoci
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 21:18

Most universities have a academic coordinator, or something like that, who you can address with issues like these.

If that fails, I've heard of people who have successfully sued the professor, because if the do something unfair and produce a damage in the finances of people, they can get compensation. That is what laws are for.

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