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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

An Academic Manager's Lot Is Not a Happy One

Managers deal with complaints.  It goes with the territory.  I am a manager--of sorts--and I am no exception.  I frequently have to handle complaints, primarily complaints lodged by students against faculty members or tutors or staff.  This is probably the single most difficult part of my job--almost never satisfying and frequently exasperating.

The main problem is I am never exactly sure what I am supposed to do when a student complains--particularly if she's complaining about a faculty member.  It's never cut and dried, you see.  Well, almost never: I mean if a student complains that an instructor, say, stripped down to his underwear and engaged in simulated sex acts with a piece of canteloupe--well, then I can pretty safely and decisively take action, or at the very least acknowledge that, yes, the instructor acted improperly.  (Unless it was a particularly attractive canteloupe, a possible mitigating factor.)  But circumstances are rarely so clear.

Typically, students complain that instructors (or tutors or staff members) were "rude" to them, or disrespectful, or unfair.  Students might complain that a teacher "isn't teaching them anything."  The problem, of course, is that the only evidence they offer for this is that they "haven't learned anything."  Sort of a chicken-egg scenario at best, you know?  And academia is not retail: The customer is not always right.  Seriously, just look at the test results!  I'm often happy if the "customers" are "right" just enough to earn a 'C.'  Kidding aside, though, most of the complaints I deal with revolve around he-said-she-said situations and/or subjective feelings.  The teacher isn't clear; I deserved a higher grade; that tutor has an "attitude."  What is a manager to do?

Years ago, I dealt with a student's complaint in precisely the wrong way: I tried to reason with him.  I was working as an office manager in a college departmental office.  A student came to see me because he wanted to file a complaint against his teacher for giving him a "bad" grade.  The grade she assigned?  A 'B.'  I pointed out to the student that a 'B' was hardly a bad grade--that, indeed, by definition a 'B' meant that the student had done "good work."  The student felt that he had done 'A' work--not because he had ever earned an 'A' on his assignments, but simply because he felt his work had been excellent.  I pointed out that he could certainly protest the grade (and I should have stopped there), but that it would be difficult if not impossible to prove that his work was "excellent" as opposed to just "quite good."  Things escalated, and we both ended up yelling at each other.  Nothing more came of it, but--well, this was about twenty years ago, and I STILL feel somewhat stymied by the whole customer-relations/complaint-resolution aspect of the academic-manager job.

I know now how to handle complaints, of course.  I do all the proper interpersonal-relations stuff: I listen, I reflect back what the speaker is saying, I try to put myself in the other person's shoes, I am calm but firm in my replies.  But in the end, I almost always find myself wrestling with a fundamental question: What am I supposed to do about this?  Again, if what a student describes is a violation of the law or school policies, I can follow up with the instructor--I must follow up with the instructor.  But if what's being described is purely subjective?  Is it worth following up on?  Will this simply make the instructor (or whoever) feel defensive?  Will it just make the situation worse?  And of course, as an educator, I also feel obligated to help the students make sense of the experience--to look critically at their own role in the situation and to help them identify ways that they could handle future situations better.  The customer is not always right, indeed.

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