Advice: dealing with difficult professors

From undergraduates to post-graduates, difficult professors can be an obstacle to success in your school career. A quick poll of classmates and a scan of RateMyProfessor suggests students at Portland State have a lot of opinions on the methods and approaches of various faculty. With an overall rating of 3.4 according to RateMyProfessor, PSU is fairly average as it comes to student complaints and disagreements—rather surprising given RateMyProfessor’s reputation as an outlet for mostly extremely negative comments.

With so much on the line, what can you do? What should you do? Remembering the power differential at play in student-professor relations, students are often left in a fog when dealing with a professor that makes their education difficult. Here are some great tips and advice on dealing.

Read the syllabus carefully, and ask as many questions about your professor’s expectations as you need to 

Understanding the professor’s basic guideline for the course is the first step in putting yourself on more steady ground. Even more importantly, being able to recognize deviations even when they don’t impact your performance in the class is a good way to stay ahead of the curve before unwanted surprises trip you up.

Learn to recognize the signs of unfair treatment 

The only basis upon which complaints can be filed in the first place is a clear recognition of what was unfair about your treatment. Documenting periods when unreasonable requests are made or when a professor makes lessons inaccessible to you are extremely pivotal if you need to raise the issue.

Talk to your professor regularly if it’s not uncomfortable 

Having an open line of communication prior to escalating a problem is important, but remember to only do so if you feel safe to do so. While retaliation is not allowed for filing a complaint, you should still avoid putting yourself in an unsafe position. Furthermore, it’s likely you can better understand your professor’s approach this way.

Ask a classmate for their view on the issue 

Sharing grades among classmates isn’t a crime; it’s usually not even frowned upon. If you feel like you’re falling behind due to a problem with the teaching, it’s a good idea to ask classmates about their own experiences.

Talk to your department chair or advisor for some guidance 

Be sure that anything that might impact your life as a student is communicated clearly to your advisor or the department chair. It’s fair to involve heads of the department in these issues, especially if they can help defuse the situation. Your advisor, too, can be a major help, and their position is there for this kind of thing.

Finally, remember to take a breath and take a minute. Sometimes the difference between a misunderstanding and coming to an agreement is the amount of time it takes to stop and just think about this again. 

Below the shield:

There is no reason to accept abuse of any kind from professors. For complaints about potential discrimination or sexual harassment, visit the Global Diversity and Inclusion website’s Equity and Compliance page for information on unacceptable conduct and how to file a complaint (