How to Call Out an Offensive Professor
A guide to making your voice heard without catching heat or damaging your grade.
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Imagine this: you’re in a classroom and your professor says or does something that leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth—or worse. Maybe they keep mixing up you and the only other Black, Latinx, Asian, or Native student. Or maybe one of your fellow students makes a sexist joke and, instead of shutting it down, your professor joins in. I'm sure you have had your own scenario, or have had a friend tell you about their own.
Racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise offensive incidents are common in college classrooms. A 2015 study conducted on the University of Illinois Urbana campus surveyed nearly 4,800 students of color and found that over half experienced stereotyping in the classroom, while nearly 40 percent reported feeling uncomfortable because of their race. These incidents can impact how safe you feel going to class—not to mention speaking up. Yet, they often go unaddressed because professors have so much power in the classroom. They control the books you read, the content of the lectures and, importantly, your grade. Considering the immensely uneven dynamic between you and your professor, how do you go about expressing that something wasn’t OK? What if you get in trouble? What if it makes the situation worse?
Throughout my many years as a university teacher, I have seen the worst that academia has to offer: professors who make jokes about disabilities; overt sexual harassment. Sometimes I’ve been on the receiving end. Here are some tips from a freshly minted doctor who spent the last eight years teaching and learning in various college classrooms. Every professor is different, so use your best judgment above all.
Prioritize your privacy
The student teacher relationship is inherently uneven. Instructors, lecturers, and professors are positioned as public authority figures in college classrooms with little external oversight. While many scholars critique this relationship, the fact remains that the person at the front of the room customarily has a tremendous amount of power. For that reason, some professors may get defensive if critiqued—after all, it’s always touchy to tell someone you don’t think they’re doing their job well. One way to mediate this potential sense of public failure and get your professor to listen to you is going to their office hours for a private discussion.
A few years ago, I was lecturing about feminist social movements. During discussion, some of my students felt I had supported transphobic remarks. After class, they told me how my comments landed. Initially, I felt defensive and ashamed, but the privacy they afforded me by approaching me in a one-on-one manner gave me ample space to apologize and grow.
Behind closed doors, your professor may be more open and willing to talk, and will hopefully change their behavior going forward. Try writing a quick, respectful email. For instance, “Dear Professor ____. I hope this email finds you well. I am interested in discussing some recent classroom dynamics. Would it be possible to attend your office hours or otherwise meet? I have some concerns and would like to address them with you privately.” Tell them that you’re happy to keep it between you two and that what you want more than anything is to resolve the issue, and you might just get them to open up.
Stay calm in one-on-one meetings
Once you’re in the door, stay calm. Don’t get me wrong: If your professor was racist, misogynist, transphobic, etc, you have every right to be angry. While your indignation is likely appropriately placed, however, it might not be the most productive thing to bring with you to a meeting. So, take a deep breath and leave your anger at the door.
During this conversation, you might want to explicitly blame your professor because they were the one who made you uncomfortable. But focusing on shame isn’t always the best strategy. In a lot of cases, it exacerbates an already heightened defensiveness. Instead of fixating on what this person did wrong or what their intentions might have been, try describing how their actions negatively impacted you. For instance, you could say something like, “Hi Professor ___. I want you to know that I appreciate the readings and your lectures. However, some of the recent comments you made about [women, people of color, trans folks] have made me uncomfortable. I want to participate in discussions, but these comments have affected me and distracted me from doing well in class.” (Keep in mind that you don’t need to get specific about exactly how or why they've affected you because you’re already making yourself vulnerable.) Make sure you clarify that your intention is to further your education and cultivate classroom community, not necessarily critique your teacher as a person or professional.
Find an ally to support you at school
Find effective allies who will support you. In my first year of graduate school, I took a seminar with a tenured faculty member. During a project I spent three hours presenting, he openly shamed my field, gender studies, and was dismissive of my work. At the end, he stood up and said that in the grand scheme of all academic things, “Gender is a moot point.” I was shocked, stunned, and had no idea what to do. During our customary break in the middle of class, I shared my feelings with my classmates. Together, we decided that it would be best if my male peers responded to his comments instead of me. Because they were men, the professor was less likely to interrupt or talk down to them. Together, they explained that gender studies is a necessary field because it analyzes power in the way that a lot of popular fields refuse to do. Their allyship took the emotional burden of action off my shoulders and made the rest of the class—as well as the rest of the semester—easier to get through. Allies may be useful if you need to interrupt the cycles of marginalization that can happen in the classroom. By distributing both the work of speaking up and the alienation of doing so, allies can make college just a little bit more bearable.
Know how to use Title IX
Let’s say you follow all these steps perfectly. A microaggression occurs in the classroom and you jump into action. You approach your professor for a one-on-one. You’re calm and talk about how it impacted you. You’re clear that all you want is a better classroom climate. But—your professor reacts really poorly. Maybe they’re angry and take it out on you. Maybe they threaten your grade. What happens then?
If all else fails, universities have anti-harassment laws and protocols on the books. Across the country, students have used laws like Title IX to guard against sexual assault and harassment and make college a safer place for people of all genders. Your school most likely has a mediator and policies that protect you from harassment—as well as retaliation by your professor or others, should you choose to report that harassment. At UC Berkeley, where I mentor students, there are student advocates, an ombudsmen, and a separate Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination. By law, your university at least has a Title IX coordinator who most likely handles other forms of discrimination and harassment, too. Reach out to people in these positions to file a formal complaint. And if the Title IX coordinator can’t help you, consider the national Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, where they investigate campus discrimination based on race, gender, disability, and other protected categories.
While the classroom should be a democratic, healthy, and safe place to learn, it frequently fails to live up to that standard, forcing students to do the work of ensuring a better education for themselves. Though this reality is unfair, having a strategy can be a helpful starting point for how to ensure your classroom welcomes everyone; especially you.