Back in October, I took some heat for writing that "many complaints from students . . . are baseless."
One e-mail correspondent accused me of making "sweeping generalizations." Another insisted that since I had made the remark in a column in The Two-Year Track series, I was singling out community-college students, "the vast majority [of whom] do not have time to create baseless complaints and follow up with administrators, deans, and department chairs about them."
Of course, I never said, "Many two-year college students make baseless complaints." I said, "Many complaints are baseless." There's a huge difference. It's true that the majority of community-college students rarely complain, even when they should. Complainers constitute a small minority.
And yet they are a vocal and persistent minority. In fact, students with complaints about faculty members -- baseless or otherwise -- take up a great deal of a typical department head's day. Deans and other senior administrators end up seeing some of those students, too, but when it comes to dealing with complaints, the chairs are on the front lines.
During my seven years as a department chairman, I supervised close to 200 full-time and part-time faculty members, most of them excellent teachers. And yet I can honestly say that I received complaints about every single one.
At least 70 per cent of those complaints were of the "my teacher doesn't like me" variety from students convinced that their own failings were actually their professors' fault. This category also includes gripes about grading standards ("I don't understand why this essay got a C"), fairness ("I think she has a bias against men"), and rigor ("He expects us to do way too much reading").
Let me be clear: Students have a right to complain and deserve to be heard. But beyond that, the chairman's job is to determine whether the complaint is valid and then deal with it accordingly.
Here's the procedure I developed for handling student complaints -- one I would recommend to new or prospective department heads:
First, I would ask if the student had talked to the professor about the perceived problem. If the answer was "no," I would politely end the discussion by suggesting that the student take up the issue with the professor directly. Rarely would I see that student back in my office to follow up on the same complaint.
If a student had talked to the professor about the problem but was still unsatisfied, then my approach was to listen carefully to the complaint to see if I could detect any hint of validity. If not, I would make vaguely sympathetic noises at appropriate intervals and ultimately suggest some positive course of action, such as going to the writing lab, forming a study group, or not logging onto Facebook during class.
Obviously, my judgment in those cases was often influenced by what I already knew of the faculty members in question. For example, a student once came to me claiming that her humanities professor had a personal vendetta against her. In the student's estimation, the low grades she had received on several tests constituted proof positive.
Unfortunately for the student, her professor was one of the most highly respected people on the campus, admired (as her classroom evaluations showed) by students and colleagues alike. I had visited her classroom on more than one occasion and knew first-hand of her teaching ability and professionalism.
Rather than jumping to the conclusion that this esteemed co-worker must have some sinister personality flaw that no one had ever noticed, I recognized the student's complaint for what it was: sour grapes. I listened to her, thanked her for coming, politely suggested she apply herself a bit more vigorously to her studies, and showed her to the door.
Admittedly, on a few occasions, prior knowledge of faculty members has influenced my judgment in the opposite direction. For example, when several students complained that their professor was using inordinate amounts of class time to espouse bizarre conspiracy theories, I had no problem believing them -- having been buttonholed more than once myself by that same professor espousing those same theories. Soon after, he and I had a frank discussion about appropriate subject matter for the classroom.
I've also been influenced, in a number of cases, by the complaining students themselves. Some of them I knew beforehand, while others simply impressed me with their sincerity. And sometimes the sheer volume of complaints cannot be ignored.
Several years ago my department hired a young faculty member who interviewed extremely well and came to us highly recommended. Yet within a few weeks I began hearing complaints about her tests. According to the students coming by my office, she would assign them to write three 500-word essays during a one-hour test period. Several of the complainants were former students of mine who had done well in my courses and who had high GPA's. All of them were failing her class.
When I spoke to the faculty member, she confirmed what the students had said but expressed her belief that "they were college students" and "ought to be able to handle it." So we talked, and I shared with her my experiences teaching sophomore survey courses as well as a few thoughts regarding realistic expectations.
Such examples, however, are the exception. The majority of student complaints turn out to be baseless. Department heads who follow up each gripe with a CSI-worthy investigation will find themselves overworked and unpopular, while trying to explain to their superiors why faculty morale and department productivity continue to decline.
Effective chairs, on the other hand, deal with each complaint as common sense dictates -- which, about 70 percent of the time, means ignoring it.
That is not, as my e-mail correspondents might argue, an anti-student position. On the contrary, our obligation as higher-education professionals is to act in students' best interests, which sometimes means letting them suffer the consequences of their irresponsible behavior -- procrastination, laziness, poor study habits -- rather than allowing them to shift the blame onto their professors. Bailing students out in those situations doesn't do them any good and, in fact, may do them a great deal of harm.
And if taking such a practical approach to student complaints means that a department head gets labeled "profaculty," well then, so much the better. After all, my experience has clearly shown that, in disputes with students, faculty members are usually in the right.
Not to make a sweeping generalization or anything.
Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He writes occasionally for our community-college column.