Okay, so you’ve read my posts about managing your expectations in college, taking responsibility for your own behavior, and understanding what grades do and do not mean. And you still think your professor is being unfair.
Okay, it’s possible your professor is being unfair. It happens. It happens partly because failure happens in every field everywhere. And in academia a professor’s failure may happen because of the insane constraints imposed on contingent faculty or the insane workload of full-time faculty or the incredible pressures of trying to make ends meet with a faculty workload and low faculty salary (more on that soon). Whatever is the cause of the failure of an individual faculty member, let’s remember that it isn’t the tenure system.
Okay, whatever, what do you do when your prof is being unfair?
First, double-check yet again that he or she really is unfair. Re-read the syllabus, and the assignments, and all other course materials, and be honest with yourself about your work.
Okay, still unfair?
Talk to your professor. Most likely, there’s a miscommunication issue, or a simple mistake, at bottom. Typos happen, on assignment sheets and on grades. It’s not totally uncommon, and it can usually be easily remedied.
Eternally Good Advice: Always submit your work electronically as well as in hard copy, if you can. Whether by email or through course software, if you submit your work electronically it is time-stamped, proving that you did it on time. This is a good way of covering your butt in any case of confusion.
Talk to your professor respectfully, honestly and with an open mind. Be fair to yourself and to your professor.
If your professor does not respond to email, give it a week or two and then send a gentle reminder (knowing that faculty inboxes are inundated constantly with demands, most of which have more immediate deadlines than yours).
If, after directly trying to resolve any situation with your professor, you still feel that you are being treated unfairly in a way that will have serious consequences on your final grade, you can refer your complaint to the chair of the professor’s department. Again, be respectful, honest, open-minded, and fair (and if communicating via email, allow 2 weeks for response).
In extreme cases (and this is very rare), if you have a real case and you are stone-walled even by the chair of the relevant department, you can try explaining the case to the dean of students.
There are cases of real unfairness, and in those cases you absolutely should bring it to higher authorities. They really need to know if something seriously wrong is going on. Faculty can and should be held accountable for real incompetence.
But it’s also true that you are a student, and the vast majority of faculty members would not have gotten anywhere near the positions they’re in without many years of incredibly rigorous evaluation and training, so don’t take what they tell you lightly.
And in still other cases, there may be real unfairness going on, and whether or not you can get the department chair or dean to listen to you (and I certainly hope you do), it may not be worth killing yourself over. Ultimately, one grade in one class is not a matter of life and death. Do an honest evaluation of the costs and benefits to yourself of pursuing a case where you believe you have been treated unfairly. In any such case, you should always make sure someone knows what happened (with as much documentation as possible), in case there is a larger pattern at work, but once you’ve done that, it may not be worth what it costs you to pursue the matter further. The best course of action will depend very much on your individual circumstances.
I say this both as a professor who has seen many students upset and indignant over their own complete misunderstanding of basic policies that apply to everyone, and as a former student who was once or twice indignant myself over faculty behavior that felt—and may have been—very unfair. The best course of action really does depend on many factors.
Rogue professors do exist—they do—but they are not as common as your friends will tell you.