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I'm a lab assistant at my university and one day some of my coworkers who are underclassmen asked me about my experience with a professor I had taken a couple classes with. I told them that every class that professor teaches is hard and that one specific class, is a "flipped" course in which students have teach themselves the material and come to class ready to just answer questions and do classwork. I also mentioned that in that particular class the professor would get frustrated when students asked her questions during class time (so much so that she would yell at whoever asked her a question and in one instance became so frustrated that she stabbed the white board with her expo marker and could no longer write with the marker because the tip was completely sunken in). I also mentioned that this particular class put me under so much stress that it caused me to develop anxiety. Everything that I told my coworkers was my honest experience with said professor.

It is not the first time I've told others at work about my experience while taking classes with this professor as well as with any of my other professors (in fact, on that same day I had talked about many of my previous professors and my time in their classrooms). Somehow one professor who manages some of the labs found out that I was talking about that particular professor (I'm not sure what exactly she heard or how much of what I said she heard) and decided to get right in my face and yell at me to stop talking about said professor because she didn't like what I said. After having yelled at me she just briskly walked away. When she confronted me, I was standing right next to my coworker and I noticed that even my coworker had to pull her head back because of how loud and close the professor got to me/us. My ears were also ringing for a few moments.

I am not upset at the fact that whatever I said got out because I don't think I made any personal attacks, I simply talked about my experience in that particular professor's class. What upsets me is that the way the professor confronted me has really increased my stress levels and anxiety to the point that my blood pressure has risen. I am also experiencing dizzy spells, fatigue, and aches all over my body. I suspect that this is due to my anxiety. I have been stressing over this incident for the past couple of days and I'm not sure what to do.

For now I've decided to go speak with a counselor to try and calm down and seek a different perspective on the situation. I'm also going to discuss the situation with one of my superiors at work and ask her for advice as well as get her perspective on the situation. I don't want to make any rash decisions or actions based on poor judgement and wild emotions. I am not comfortable enough to talk to the professor who confronted me (at least not 1-on-1). Can anyone give me any suggestions on what I should do? Do I contact the Dean? (Is there even enough basis to do this?)

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    Are you a full-time lab assistant i.e. is this your workplace, or are you a student who helps in the lab as part-time/work-study? Either way, I would try to escalate this situation. That kind of abuse is not OK. You could try the department head, or also see if your university's HR department covers you. – nengel Oct 16 '17 at 2:24
  • This is my workplace. I will try to tell my PI along with my other superior. This will be hard because my PI is very close with this professor who confronted me and I'm not sure if they'll do anything because that professor is not only in charge of some of the labs ran on campus, but they also are the head of one of the major departments on campus. I will also bring my co-worker along as a witness just in case when I talk to my PI. – mstar Oct 16 '17 at 21:30
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    In that case that miiiight actually fall under retribution for protected speech - you cannot forbid employees to talk about working conditions (although it sounds like you didn't actually work with that professor, only attended as a student?). Workplace.SE or (my personal favorite for this type of question) Ask a Manager might have more tips on how to deal with this. – nengel Oct 17 '17 at 1:31
  • decided to get right in my face and yell at me to stop talking about said professor — I'm afraid my immediate response would have been two words and one finger. And that would have made things worse. – JeffE Oct 18 '17 at 21:01
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It sounds like you were the victim of a (relatively moderate) kind of abusive workplace behavior. I would not seek to handle this through the department-level chain of command but rather through the university level policies on such things.

You don't say where in the world you are, but at a US university there will be something quite formalized in place about this: e.g. see this policy at my university. Note that the prohibited conduct includes

harassment of any nature such as stalking, swearing or shouting.

The webpage goes on to explain that any employee who witnesses this kind of behavior should report it to human resources (HR).

You want to find the equivalent at your university. When you report it, you should mention the name of your coworker, and they will very likely be contacted. The rest of it is really up to HR, and they will know how to approach it confidentially and so forth. They are also the experts on how serious the behavior is, but I think there is no question but that it is serious enough to report to them.

By the way, none of this sounds like it will be much fun for you, but I really encourage you to do it anyway. I suspect that the likely outcome is that if this is an isolated incident, the professor in question will get nothing more than a talking-to. But what if it isn't an isolated incident? The community needs your help to identify and deal with the problem.

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    Really? You're not allowed to swear in front of people? I can't imagine that all faculty meetings follow this code of conduct. – Kimball Oct 17 '17 at 4:06
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    @Kimball: I don't make the rules! But I think that there is a distinction to be made between swearing in front of someone and swearing at them. There are times in academia when shouting is appropriate as well... – Pete L. Clark Oct 17 '17 at 4:08
  • I was on board with your answer and comment until "There are times in academia when shouting is appropriate". When is it? Unless you're on the field and a tree is falling, I can't find how shouting is appropriate in a professional context. – Emilie Oct 17 '17 at 12:20
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    @Emilie: Or if you're on the other side of the lab and someone is about to stick their hand in something they shouldn't, or if you're playing Richard III and you would trade your kingdom for a horse, or...Almost all actions are appropriate or inappropriate largely because of context and permission. – Pete L. Clark Oct 17 '17 at 12:26
  • @PeteL.Clark I'd rather use voice projection for that ;) – Emilie Oct 17 '17 at 19:45
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I'd like to suggest that while it's fine to share your experience of attending a certain class, try to portrait that with a little bit of neutrality and perhaps empathy.

Let's say, the said professor could have just lost a baby, she was going through a rough time and maybe depression. She could only share with her close friend, who was the other professor that yelled at you. If that's the case, would you still be so fond to share the negative experience in such a vivid manner? Are they unprofessional? Of course; are they inhuman? Probably not.

What I'd like to get at is that in a usual world, people don't just burst into rage for his/her friend based on overhearing some negative comments. This case does not seem that straightforward to me.

And while I don't wish to invalidate your experience, what good can come out from such strong advice that you gave to your peers? Now they may go to her class all anxious, do not volunteer to answer any questions, and the said professor would get all upset, thinking her teaching might not be working. Have you ever thought that your advice might have ripped away your peers' opportunity to appraise their own experience?

Perhaps consider something like:

  • I didn't have the best time cause I felt that it's very demanding, but hopefully you'd have a better experience. [Emphasize that your mileage may differ.]

  • When I was taking her class, she seemed to prefer a tighter control on the flow of her lecture. Feel it for yourself but for the first class, just jot down your questions for later and see how it goes. [Downplay the whiteboard incident, give positive advice to prevent possible shock.]

Fortify empathy and positiveness, and we may find that the surrounding is actually not that threatening and anxiety-inducing. I'd like to end this comment with a quote that was attributed to so many people form Ben Franklin to Eleanor Roosevelt that I am not sure any more:

Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.

  • +1 I agree that the main action the student should take is to learn about the value of appropriate criticism in public places. Furthermore, I would suggest you remove the emotion-related caveat from your answer. It is stronger without the apology. – Dawn Oct 18 '17 at 14:29
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    Furthermore, it has not escaped my notice that both of the faculty in this story are females. We know that female faculty are much more likely to get criticized for being "insufficiently nurturing" and I can't help but think that someone would take a stern talking to by a woman to be more off-putting than one by a man. – Dawn Oct 18 '17 at 14:33

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