Degree In Sight

A few months ago after a class, a student approached Roberta Nutt, PhD, director of the Texas Woman's University counseling psychology program. She wanted to know why her comments during an in-class discussion provoked Nutt to give her a strange look. "Were you offended by my comment?" the student asked.

It turned out Nutt wasn't offended. She simply didn't understand the student's slang term. But the chat allowed Nutt and her student to ensure that there was no larger issue that needed to be addressed. The student's directness was not only appreciated, it illustrates how students who feel mistreated or neglected can address a potentially touchy issue in a productive way, Nutt says.

"One of my biggest frustrations is when students are afraid of [approaching] faculty because of power, frustrations or other reasons," she says, adding that in the long run students can harm themselves by not speaking up if, for example, they withdraw in class for fear of a professor's reproach.

Nutt is not alone. Many faculty and students agree that communication is a necessary first step for a student looking to resolve or head off a potential conflict. And sometimes it may be the only step needed, Nutt says. Other times, a student may need to consult with peers, seek a faculty mentor's help or follow university procedures on resolving a faculty-student conflict, experts say.

Here are some examples of the types of faculty conflicts students may encounter and steps students can take to resolve them.

PROBLEM: A grading disagreement


First and foremost, talk with your professor, say faculty. Detail how his or her grading protocol differed from your expectations. If a direct talk doesn't work, research your university's grade challenge policies and procedures and work your way up the administrative hierarchy.

"Slowly going up the hierarchy allows you to cover your bases and inform the necessary people about the situation," says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, who heads the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers' informal problem consultation and resolution process.

That's what third-year clinical graduate student Mathew Rariden did when he felt he earned an unfair grade for his "Latino Sociocultural Diversity" course during his first year. Rariden was the only Caucasian male in the course. At times, other students in the class drifted into discussions that Rariden considered racist, but each time his adjunct professor would quickly identify the problem and steer the class back on track. For that reason, Rariden expected his professor to grade fairly.

But when the professor assigned Rariden a "B" at the end of the class, the student--who recalls acing nearly every assignment and actively participating in class discussions--was shocked, especially because the professor intended for the class to be graded as pass/fail. In response, Rariden e-mailed the professor and asked him to consider raising his grade or revisiting the pass/fail option.

"He became angry and told me I was too narcissistic and blinded by my white privilege to see his point and furthermore, that it was absolutely rude of me to challenge his authority," recalls Rariden, noting that his professor never explained "his point."

So Rariden followed his school's guidelines for challenging a grade and contacted the school's dean, who agreed with Rariden. The dean resolved the situation by making the class pass/fail for everyone and creating a one-day workshop for adjunct faculty on fair grading. Following the university's grievance procedures provided a simple, clear path to addressing the conflict, Rariden says.

PROBLEM: A personality conflict


Ask a few trusted peers if their perception of the conflict is in line with yours; often other students are the best judges of whether a faculty member is out of line, says Kaslow. Then, look inward and determine if you are adding to or provoking the problem, such as by challenging their lectures or otherwise speaking out inappropriately. If not, discuss the issue with the faculty member by explaining how it makes you feel. One approach is to say, "You'll get better performance out of me if you treat me in a different way," says Kaslow.

Too often, students fail to address such situations, according to Kaslow.

"Everyone deserves to be treated with respect," she says. "If you're feeling mistreated you shouldn't have to put up with it."

A case in point: When clinical psychology graduate student Christine Senn arrived on her university's campus for orientation, administrators broke the students into small groups to share their life stories. Senn thought the project was "a little touchy-feely," but nonetheless shared her family's past, which includes suicide, rape and alcoholism. To make other students feel more comfortable hearing the sordid details, she lightened the story's tone with humor.

The faculty member leading the group disagreed with Senn's strategy: Later that day she cornered Senn, raised her voice, and told her that she didn't belong in the program because "You can't be a practitioner if you're cut off from your emotions," Senn recalls.

After the incident, Senn says the professor mandated she take several advanced courses that are recommended, not required, before she could begin her practicum. Senn has jumped through these added hoops because she doesn't know what recourse she has.

According to Jim Oraker, PhD, co-chair of the Colorado Psychological Association's Colleague Assistance Program and a Colorado School of Professional Psychology ethics professor, Senn could still resolve the situation by seeking out a trusted faculty member who could mediate the situation or offer advice on next steps. And if no one in the department can help, Oraker suggests students file a grievance with the school or, if the program is accredited, to contact the appropriate accreditation entity-which may be either a regional accrediting body or the APA Office of Program Consultation and Accreditation Office-to file a complaint.

PROBLEM: An absentee adviser


Consult with peers to see if they are experiencing the same issue. If the situation is widespread, you can band together to inform the adviser about your need for more attention, says Nutt. If that approach fails, ask another professor to help mediate the situation or offer guidance on what to do next.

The wrong approach is to ignore the problem, experts say. For instance, the semester Mai Ly began graduate school in counseling psychology, her assigned adviser was on a leave of absence; when he returned, his colleagues nominated him to chair the department. According to Ly, the commitments led him to neglect his adviser role. For example, her adviser didn't have time to help her correct an administrative error in her grade point average that caused her average to fall below the standard to remain in the program. Instead, he referred her to the dean's office and told her that her standing in the program was in jeopardy. Rather than confront the situation, Ly transferred to a recreational therapy program at another university.

Nutt suggests that Ly might have been better off polling his other advisees on whether they felt neglected, confronting her adviser about his availability or taking up the issue with an administrator.

PROBLEM: An authorship dispute


First, head off a dispute before the research project starts by determining each person's role in the study and how individual efforts will correspond with the authorship order on the paper, says Nutt.

If you don't have a conversation beforehand or an issue arises later, address the problem with the professor and ask about criteria for credit. Generally, devising the study's idea and writing the paper are considered most worthy of author credit, while study design and data analysis are often secondarily important, say faculty.

When an authorship question can't be resolved through informal discussions, decide whether to pursue the issue or drop it, says Nutt, noting that the matter can be particularly sticky when the dispute is with someone who holds power over the student, like an adviser.

A case in point: When the adviser of Holly Krause (a pseudonym), a second-year experimental psychology student, submitted a paper the two co-authored for APA's 2006 Annual Convention, Krause was the first author listed. A few months later, when an APA journal accepted the paper, Krause saw that she was listed fourth-behind two undergraduates who had compiled a data set that was no longer a part of the paper.

When Krause queried her adviser, Krause says that her adviser told her the undergraduates had worked on the data first. Even though Krause had worked on the article for more than a year and the original data set was no longer a part of the article, she dropped the issue.

"I felt that I had to pick and choose my battles," says Krause. "I was funded by her grant, and I just wanted to graduate from my master's program."

But students who want to dispute such matters have options, says Kaslow. The university's ombudsperson, department chair and trusted faculty are all helpful resources in an authorship problem, she says. Students can also consult APA's Ethics Office about the best course of action to take or to file a formal complaint, she says.

Students who feel that an ethical violation has occurred with a faculty member can file a complaint with the APA Ethics Office or contact their state's licensing board.

Zak Stambor is a former staff writer.

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