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If all students of a class sign a petition claiming that a professor of a course is disqualified to teach, does the department/faculty change that professor?

Do students have this right? and what is the procedure to do so?

When ALL students sign a letter that they do not learn in the class of a professor, what is the responsibility of the department/university?

Some mentioned the need for solid evidence. What evidence students can provide that they do not learn anything in a class?

Isn't it the university responsibility to satisfy students by offering high quality education?

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Such a petition is something that a department head or dean would take seriously. But at most universities, it would be their decision what action to take, if any; a petition wouldn't obligate them to make a change.

Consider that if such petitions were binding, it would give the students an undue amount of leverage over the professor; if they got a difficult homework assignment or something else they just didn't like, they could threaten to submit a petition to get the professor removed.

There is a principle of "academic freedom" that the administration will generally avoid interfering with how courses are taught, within reason, so it would probably take a pretty egregious deficiency for the administration to take the disruptive step of removing a professor in the middle of a course.

It is likely to be more effective to start with one or two students having an informal discussion with the department head about the situation; a petition doesn't leave much opportunity for dialogue or compromise.

Note also that the department head's decision would likely be based less on the students' opinion of the course, and more on objective information about what the professor is actually doing. So it would be more helpful to avoid phrases like "everyone hates this class" and prefer specific examples: "the professor did this and this, and here is why we think this is a problem".

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    @ff524: Yes, I meant this as a first step, and I've clarified. But ultimately, I think the decision is not going to be based on how many students think the professor's teaching is problematic, but rather whether the students can provide evidence to convince the department head that the teaching is objectively problematic. – Nate Eldredge Feb 20 '15 at 20:10
  • Depending on the university, there may be nothing the higher authorities can do. In my alma mater, the courses were distributed by inside each department by personal preference by rank, and no one can force any change upon that. That lead to some extremely absurd situations. – Davidmh Feb 20 '15 at 21:44
  • You don't have elections to choose student representatives in your universities? – Federico Poloni Feb 21 '15 at 11:22
  • @Federico: Can you explain what you have in mind? In US universities, there is usually a university wide "Associated Students" organization with elected representatives, but they wouldn't have a role in a situation like this. – Nate Eldredge Feb 21 '15 at 12:13
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    @Federico: In the US there usually isn't such direct student involvement in academic matters, certainly not at the level of a department. The Associated Students groups are usually concerned with non-academic campus issues. – Nate Eldredge Feb 21 '15 at 13:17
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I faced this as a student. A small group of us went to the head. Getting someone else to take over the course during the term is rarely an option. It's not like there is someone else who knows the material and is teaching one course less than a full load just waiting to be asked to take this on. However the department can assign a TA to reduce marking workload (or increase marking fairness) and help students during extra tutorials, they can reduce some of the prof's other duties to allow more time to be spent prepping your course, and they can generally tell the prof "pull up your socks." These things may help you a lot more than getting the prof turfed and having the course taught by a contract lecturer.

If you intend to go to the administration, here are some tips:

  • go with a problem (our prof is not doing a good job) not a solution (please fire this prof). Let your head or chair come up with solutions
  • go early rather than later. I understand you need some time to be sure there's a problem, but every week that goes by people are not learning and flexibility is diminishing
  • two or three leaders should go. As an undergrad we had "class reps" for this, but it should be easy to get a small group who can meet the head.
  • do not bring petitions or other "we all think this" artifacts. You want to discuss a problem early and listen to the head's plan to deal with it. Petitions set the wrong tone.
  • Remember your true goal is to get a good education. Not to win a political battle, get someone fired, or be awarded a mark you don't deserve.
  • be there to listen as much as to talk. Your head may surprise you
  • don't assume your unanimity gives you power. You think they can't fail the entire class? Think again. You will live on in legend like the entire fourth year class at my undergrad alma mater who failed and were expelled. Not for trying to turf a prof, to be fair, but for deciding they didn't need to do assignments since "they can't fail all of us."

Decades later, I filled in for someone during his sabbatical and taught one course for one term. I had triple the normal enrollment. Everybody had to take the course; nobody wanted to take it from him. The department never gave it back to him :-). So another option may be to drop this course and see if someone else offers it in the future.

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  • In some cases, all it takes is the prof realizing there's a problem. I had a class where some students went to the prof midterm, and he clarified the goals he had but also revised some stuff amd the course became much easier to understand. – cpast Feb 21 '15 at 17:42
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I would tread carefully with this situation. It seems as though you dislike this professor, and without detailed information as to why, it comes across as that you just don't like them and want them changed.

I also don't think you've given enough information to help us formulate a strong response, so I'm going to just have to go with the bare minimum that you've provided.

My questions to you:

  1. Why do you feel that you are not effectively learning in this course? Have you been doing your assigned readings and putting enough time and effort with your assessments? Have you been attending office hours of the professor or TA to help your learning with topics that you are struggling with?

  2. What is it specifically about this particular course that you feel the professor is doing a poor job in teaching? Are they not explaining concepts clearly enough? Do you not like the structure of the content? Is the professor displaying any behaviours that are sexist/racist etc and making you feel uncomfortable? Is there a large gap between the course content taught, and how you are assessed (i.e. are you being tested on material never covered, either in the lecture or in your reading packages?). Are you utilising other services in the university, such as language and writing services (if you are writing essays) or are you expecting the professor to help you with everything and not taking responsibility for your education?

  3. Are you receiving poor marks on your assessment? Do you feel that you are not receiving enough feedback? Is this frustration about your marks and not necessarily about the professor, in which you are blaming the professor for your performance? Are the students as a collective receiving poor marks across the board (i.e. are all students failing?)?

  4. How much of this 'collective' regarding how students feel about the professor is, in part, a truthful perspective? Sometimes, a person's voice which is the loudest can influence others to feel the same way but is not reflective of reality.

  5. Is this actually about their teaching, or do you just not like the professor? Are they challenging you more than others have? Is the teacher young and female, or of an ethnicity/race that does not conform to the standard white, middle-class heterosexual male? There are studies that have shown on multiple occasions that students are much more likely to disrespect young female professors/professors of colour and believe that they lack the competency to teach. Do you think this could be the case if the above is true?

  6. What kind of university/college are you attending? Some universities are teaching orientated, while others are research orientated. This means that how content is taught and assessed with dramatically vary.

My response based on the limited information you've provided:

  1. Complaining about a professor, even as a group, will be regarded with a high level of scepticism, especially if students are not able to provide objective evidence to support their claims. If the course content matches what you are assessed with, and it comes to light that as a student, you have not attended office hours or put in the extra effort to improve your learning, your concerns will be disregarded. If; however, the content does not match that which is assessed, and the lectures are found to be sporadic and unhelpful, you have a case that should be considered.

  2. If you decide to go meet with the head of school or dean, you need to prepare a list of reasons that can be objectively assessed (i.e. evidence of the lectures and assessments, examples of feedback on your assessments, and so on). You also need to be prepared that if you are doing poorly in the course, that you have evidence that you have done everything you can as a student to try and improve (i.e. meeting with the professor to go over poor assessments) and so on. One suggestion that you can give, or might be met with, is having a member of staff sit in on the class to evaluate the professor's teaching. They will have the expertise to effectively determine whether or not the course content and the lectures are accessible for students.

  3. One thing students seem to forget, and struggle with, is that this is not high school where you might have been (what we call) 'spoonfed.' At university, there is an expectation that you are mostly an independent learner/ A professor is not going to identify you as a student if you are struggling, you have to take responsibility for that yourself.

Some things to think about. I'm not suggesting that you don't go to the head of school or the dean if you really think that something is wrong. What I am asking you to do is think more objectively about why you want to remove a professor from a course, and whether you have a legitimate cause, or if you are just frustrated.

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I had this happen. The teacher in question had some personal problems that caused him to drink (alcohol) to excess. Mostly it did not really impact his teaching. Then one day he came into the class falling-down drunk.

Our class representative went to the head of school's office and brought him (or perhaps it was a trusted colleague; this was 30 years ago) into the class to view what was happening.

In this particular case, the teacher was reprimanded and was given a leave of absence to get over his personal problems. He returned in a later semester and was a much better teacher then.

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    What I like about this approach is its immediacy - no handwringing, petition gathering, is this bad enough to worry about yet - just go get someone to see how bad it is and act on it. It is worth keeping in mind that not everything requires a month or two of due process. Many students would feel the social contract that requires you to stay in the classroom would keep them from going and getting the head on the spot, but clearly that was the right thing to do. – Kate Gregory Feb 25 '15 at 12:51

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