I'm not usually phased by bad teaching. I went to public high school in LA, after all, and it doesn't get much worse than that. But last quarter, on the last day of Introduction to Computer Science, Mike Abrams outdid even the LA Unified School District.
After five weeks of lectures that more than one classmate politely called "boring," Abrams gave a tough mid-term and graded it harshly. Guess what happened. The class did poorly. Almost all of us failed.
But instead of re-evaluating his teaching or his standards, Abrams, a first-time lecturer, decided that it must be the class's fault. And on that final day, instead of giving us a lecture, he decided to lecture us.
He spoke to the class as a collective "you." He likened our college career to the fable of the emperor's new clothes, where every teacher we've ever had has told us how smart we are, but really we're not. He said we couldn't put together a sentence. He said he wouldn't hire us. Always fond of witty stories, he told us about his kids, again, and how we were like them, except, of course, that they were smarter.
But don't take my word for it. Amanda Crawford is a first year student in Abrams' class. She said the experience was "completely horrible."
"He told us we were all stupid and lazy. Whether or not those things are true, I don't think he had any right to say anything like that," she said. "I didn't come to UC Santa Cruz to be treated like that."
Jason Welle, a senior in his last quarter, was also there. "He called us all whiners because we were complaining about the way he graded the exam," he said. "[Abrams] called us all screw-ups, his exact words, because we had failed the mid-term. He said we don't deserve to be in a university."
Earlier in the quarter, shortly after the mid-term, Welle e-mailed Abrams. He was afraid that he'd done poorly on the exam and was seeking a little help. According to Welle, Abrams "responded in the most condescending manner."
According to Welle, Abrams responded to each point in the letter. "Where I said, `I need this class to graduate,' he said, `that's your problem, not mine,'" said Welle. "[He made] really nasty, condescending comments that didn't do me any good. It was the only time I've been afraid to approach a teacher with problems."
So what's a student to do? Welle and Crawford decided to contact the Computer Science Board. "I e-mailed a really lengthy letter to the board explaining why I think his lectures weren't productive, what happened the last day of class, and what happened to me personally," said Welle. "They responded almost immediately and said: `Rest assured that your comments are taken seriously. If other students corroborate what you said, [Abrams] won't be teaching here again.'"
Though that's good news to Welle, he's still concerned. "If I don't pass this class I'm not going to graduate this quarter, which could screw me up for graduate school," he said.
Crawford was timid at first. "Being a first year [student], I didn't know we could do anything," she said. "I basically assumed that I had to put up with what I had to put up with." But she was wrong.
"I went down and talked to Virginia [Carrillo, Computer Science Board Administrative Manager] about it," Crawford said. "She said that it was definitely out of line and we could have done something about it earlier in the quarter, which I didn't know."
Which got me to wondering. What rights do students have when faced with a problematic, unresponsive teacher?
My wondering led me to Charlie McDowell, chair of the Computer and Information Sciences Board. Though he refused to talk specifically about Abrams, he did say that, hypothetically, if a first-time lecturer received overwhelmingly negative student evaluations, the lecturer "would not be re-hired."
And what if a hypothetical, first-time lecturer decided to fail an overwhelming amount of his hypothetical class? "I would certainly step in," McDowell said. "If I determined that the exams were graded unfairly, then there's certainly an option for going in and revising grades on exams," said McDowell.
There's also a university procedure for disputing an evaluation. According to the 1994-95 Navigator, students "have a right to discuss a grade notation or evaluation with an instructor." A meeting must be scheduled with the student and the instructor, but "if the instructor is no longer on campus, the chairperson of the board acts in lieu of the instructor." If you are found to have a legitimate claim, the evaluation can be changed. So if Abrams' students want to dispute their evaluations, they're going to end up in Charlie McDowell's office.
And that's okay with him. "All I can do is encourage students to try to come forward when they feel that they have a legitimate gripe and bring it to the attention to their board chair," said McDowell. "Have confidence that the board chair will deal with it discreetly and appropriately."
The lesson here for students is clear: complain early and often, and you just might have a chance at getting a quality education.
SIDEBAR: Know Your Rights
You have the right to not be silent. Anything you say or do cannot be held against you. You have the right to an instructor. If you cannot afford one, you're probably out of luck, but that's another story. Do you understand these rights?
You also have the right to a quality education. Remember, you're paying for it. If you're faced with an instructor that is treating you unfairly, there are a few things you can do:
1. Go to the instructor first. It's always best if the problem can stop here. But if it can't...
2. Go to your classmates. Do other people feel the same way? Though you can always go in on your own, there is strength in numbers when you...
3. Go to the board chair. They're the people who decide who teaches what, especially when it comes to lecturers. It's their job to talk to you. Go talk to them.
4. Remember to fill out the Instructor Evaluation at the end of the quarter. They are taken seriously especially for first-time lecturers.
5. College provosts also make good arbiters. Go to your college office and meet your provost if you haven't already. They're there to help students, though you may have to remind them of that.
6. The Ombuds Office (x2073) is a confidential resource for students. They can help you work out problems, facilitate discussion and, in some cases, investigate.
7. Finally, if things get really nuts, go straight to the Academic Senate (x2086). Tell them what's bugging you. Most likely, you'll be sent to the Committee on Things that Bug. I'll see you there.
I passed the class. Mike Abrams has not been re-hired. There is justice in the world. DMP