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I am taking a graduate-level summer course and have observed several problems. I would like outside opinion on whether these observations are valid grounds for an official complaint, or whether I am the one being unreasonable.

First, the professor canceled one lecture entirely and cut short another 8 lectures. (There are 18 scheduled lectures of 1 hour, 50 minutes.) In most cases, the early endings were by more than 50%. All told, there were supposed to be 33 hours of lecture, but we received only 24 hours. This is an approximate 27% shortage. All of the lectures are recorded as part of my university's distance education program so there is a trail of indisputable video evidence here.

The professor is also the director of an academic program at the university. His most frequent reason given for the class times being cut short was that his other duties as director created schedule conflicts. Little if any advance notice was given about the canceled or reduced lectures.

In every class I had ever taken, from elementary school through graduate school, if the teacher/professor/lecturer could not attend for any reason, some alternate arrangement like the following was done:

  • Substitute lecturer
  • Recovering the lost time through alternatively scheduled class meeting. This "make up" session was recorded and made online to the entire class, so students having conflicts could still watch it.
  • With student approval, extending the duration of the remaining lectures

However, in these cases, the professor did not do any of those.

I might be willing to understand a 5-10% reduction in received lecture time as part of random noise or "stuff happens", but 27% seems ridiculous to me.

My university's faculty handbook states:

For brief absences, faculty members shall make appropriate arrangements subject to the review of the chair or dean as requested and according to University and school policies, so that absences interfere only minimally with their normal teaching and other responsibilities.

No arrangements were made in these cases, and 27% seems to me far beyond a "minimal" interference.

I consider this first issue to be the most egregious. It seems like a flagrant dereliction of the professor's job duties. This course for several thousand dollars in tuition. Is it fair to say I have not gotten my money's worth? Would a university ever issue a partial refund in such a case?

Second, the homework assignments were not graded according to the written instructions. For each of the assignment for the course, the professor posted an "instructions" document that said what we were supposed to do.

The first assignment's instructions had language along the lines of "You must implement these visual features...". The second through fourth assignment documents had no language whatsoever about look or feel. The fourth assignment grade is still pending. But I was penalized on the second and third assignments for look/beauty/aesthetic reasons.

Only after I questioned the TAs did they give me a grading rubric that showed how exactly we were to be graded. In most cases, there was a correspondence between the instruction documents and the rubric documents. However, the rubrics had additional criteria relating to aesthetics and beauty that are indisputably absent from the instruction documents. This "beauty" aspect varied between 10-12.5% of the grade. These are the exact words in the grading guidelines: "Grader subjective score of look and feel." Again, this was not documented up front. Only after my assignments were graded did the TAs send this document, and only because I specifically asked for it.

I emailed the professor about this, and his response was: "I thought I made it clear on the first day of class that you were to [make visually pleasing products]". However, assignments 2-4, in direct contrast with the first assignment, had no documented requirement for this. It seems completely nonsensical for an instruction document to be only "partially" complete. We ought to be graded by only what the documentation says, and exactly what it says. Or am I being overly "grubby" by insisting that we only be graded by exactly what the instructions said to do?

Should documentation not trump everything? Is this a valid grounds for making an official dispute/appeal of the grade to the department chair?

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    The number of hours taught is objective and I think you have a legitimate reason to file a complaint. I am not sure about the look feel issue. Is the class about design of something?
    – Nobody
    Jul 26, 2015 at 6:54
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    Another question is what do you want to come out of this? I think you have a legitimate complaint, but whenever you complain about someone or something, its worth thinking about what is likely the likely outcome. I'm not sure what will happen, considering it seems like this professor is senior.
    – Neo
    Jul 26, 2015 at 8:28
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    You should split the lecture time question from the grading question because the answers are unrelated.
    – StrongBad
    Jul 26, 2015 at 14:57
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    I wish you wouldn't include the name of the university. Since there are probably few graduate courses in the field offered in summer, the faculty member in question might be easily identified. Please consider editing.
    – ewormuth
    Jul 26, 2015 at 16:27
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    Should documentation not trump everything? — <snark> In a web programming class? </snark>
    – JeffE
    Jul 26, 2015 at 18:05

2 Answers 2

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I think we can all agree that missing more than 25% of the lectures is unacceptable (and the excuse that the instructor has other academic commitments is unconvincing to say the least: if I cancelled class every time I had other looming academic commitments, I would be cancelling class a lot more than 27% of the time). This is one of the more serious complaints I can think of bringing against an instructor: literally, you did not get what you paid for and what the university is committed to provide.

Some tips:

1) Your second complaint is so much less serious than your first that I suggest that you totally swallow it for the time being and possibly take it up later if it is still relevant after you are finished pursuing your first complaint. With respect to the second assignment the instructor can say "I mentioned the aesthetics early on in class and I even put it explicitly on the first problem set. If at that point a student doesn't understand that aesthetic considerations are important in web programming then giving them a lower grade on assignments is the best way to drive the point home." And I think that the instructor may have a point there...but anyway, this is all quite debatable compared to the missed classes, which is really not.

2) Your first complaint ought to be taken seriously by everyone who hears it. I think it is overwhelmingly likely that you will hear "We'll look into the matter and ensure that it does not happen in the future." But would such a response be satisfactory to you? I think it probably shouldn't be. So you should think of specific, reasonable suggestions for what can be done. Could you ask for a partial refund? Yes, it is reasonable to ask. It would also be reasonable to ask to be withdrawn from the course (without any penalty or stigma) and get all your money back. I would also consider asking to be withdrawn without penalty from the current course and given free enrollment in the next semester (or during the following summer). Which of these two to ask for depends on your own schedule, your level of interest and commitment in the material, and also whether the same person will be teaching the course the next time around. Note also that these resolutions render moot the grading issue in your homework.

I'm sorry that this happened to you. Good luck.

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    As a teacher academically nurtured in central Europe, I find it interesting to see that you as a experienced professor find the first issue egregious. Here in the german-speaking area, where universities are typically tuition-free, I can safely say that in many cases teachers don't even know nor care how many hours a course is supposed to be. Honestly, courses being more than 27% shorter in actual teaching time than what it says on the can is extremely usual in both, Austria and Switzerland (likely Germany as well, but can't tell for sure).
    – xLeitix
    Jul 26, 2015 at 21:04
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    If you want to know how it works then - basically, there is sort of an formal or informal understanding what is supposed to be taught in a course, and then the teacher pretty much independently decides on class time that suits this goal. Yes, of course there are formal rules, but they are so loosely correlated with reality that you can spend years at a university without even knowing the formal rules.
    – xLeitix
    Jul 26, 2015 at 21:07
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    @xLeitix, If your scheduled to teach 20 times - in 2x2 lessons - during this fall, your saying it is normal to cancel 5 of these lectures? Without any form of replacement? I've studied in Denmark - which is also tuition free - and I would say this would result in a outcry from the students.
    – Thorst
    Jul 27, 2015 at 9:03
  • @xLeitix I can confirm for some professors in Czechia (but it is not the norm). But the only full professor I know well enough from Germany is not allowed to go anywhere else when he is teaching. He was a leader of an international project and in some weaks there was no chance for having him for a meating. Jul 27, 2015 at 9:35
  • @xLeitix Apparently (but not surprisingly) this seems to hold only at public and tuition-free schools. In private universities in Austria, students regularly demand (and get) replacements for missed lessons. (And as a student at a public university, I always was happy if there was one less course I needed to go to.)
    – sgf
    Dec 5, 2018 at 14:09
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I am only going to focus on the lecture issue. There is no question that missing over a quarter of the scheduled lecture time is inappropriate.

The effectiveness of complaining depends on who is doing the teaching. A complaint like this could get cause an adjunct to not be hired again. For tenure track and tenured faculty, the depaetment head MIGHT say something in passing. For a department head, nothing is likely to happen. Complaints like this are not worth a Dean's time.

As for a refund, it is more likely the university will alow you to sit in for free the next time the course is taught.

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    "Complaints like this are not worth a Dean's time." I'm not completely sure about that. We just went through an accreditation cycle, and something that was emphasized to faculty was "Make sure all classes meet for the full scheduled time." Apparently this was something the accreditors were paying special attention to. (I presume because it is easier to check than more subjective issues of teaching quality.) I think a dean is likely to be very attentive to anything that impacts accreditation. Jul 26, 2015 at 15:47
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    But I agree that even so, the most likely outcome would be "professor told to be more careful in future" - not necessarily much consolation to the student. Jul 26, 2015 at 15:49
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    I think engineering accreditation can be even fussier about contact hours than general accreditation is, but this may not apply to web development the same way it could apply to more formal or well established branches of engineering. Jul 26, 2015 at 15:53
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    It's unlikely that problems with a graduate-level class would have any effect on accreditation, because only undergraduate programs in computer science are accredited in the US.
    – JeffE
    Jul 26, 2015 at 18:10

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