We all have those moments of doubt when we suspect someone doesn’t like us for one reason or another. Maybe we did something to warrant this dislike, such as kicking this person’s puppy into oncoming traffic. Maybe they met someone like us once and they didn’t like that person, so they don’t like you by extension. Maybe they’re just misanthropes and they hate everyone equally. Usually, it’s easy enough to brush these thoughts aside or, if they simply won’t go away, to just avoid that person and the awkwardness that comes with being around them.
But what happens when you get that feeling and the person just happens to be your professor? That’s when things can get pretty tricky.
Unless you’ve gone out of your way to make your teacher miserable, odds are, they don’t actually hate you or even dislike you to any great extent. Fact of the matter is that professors deal with so many different students on a daily basis that, generally speaking, they just don’t have the time to actively dislike you even if you’ve given them a reason to do so. Assuming that you’re a typical student and you do your work as best you can and at least pretend to pay attention in class, relax. Your prof doesn’t hate you.
“Then why did I fail that test?” you ask. Well, the most obvious explanation would be that you just didn’t know the material. But let’s say you studied hard and you’re certain that you knew everything involved with the test. How’s your spelling and grammar? Did you do anything to make your essay stand out from the twenty or thirty (or more!) your professor also had to grade? As a TA myself, I can assure you that adding a little extra style to your essays can often be the difference between half a point grade (e.g., between a B- and a C+). As well, many professors grade on a competitive basis, meaning that they have a general idea in their head about how many “As” they’re willing to give out, and only the very best essays receive those high marks.
Let’s say that you’re not dealing with essays here, but rather a bitter, perpetually angry professor who uses his tenured status to get by with whatever he wants. Let’s further say that this person is an art professor and seems to thrive on publicly humiliating students in front of their peers. Purely hypothetical situation, mind you. Anyway, let’s also say that for whatever reason, you’ve ended up on this professor’s bad side. Maybe you’re not as good an artist as others in the class, or maybe it’s because you call him out on his disrespectful and unacceptable behavior. What are you supposed to do in this case? Should you keep your mouth shut and suffer quietly through the class, take whatever abuse he heaps on you and hope he’s feeling charitable when assigning your final grade? Do you fight back? Do you drop the class? Tell his superiors? Any of these are valid options, so let’s explore.
Staying quiet is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this professor is a bully and like every other bully in history, if you show him he’s not getting to you, he’ll move on and find another target. On the other hand, you also don’t deserve to be talked down to, insulted, given lower grades than others for the same work, or otherwise singled out for negative treatment, and remaining silent may very well just encourage this professor to keep treating you poorly.
Fighting back is an option. Please keep in mind that I don’t mean literal fighting with fists and/or weapons, but just letting your professor know that you feel he or she is treating you unfairly and that you’d appreciate it if you were treated with more respect. As long as you remain in the class, it’s a bad idea to fight fire with fire. Yes, that’s popular advice for how to defeat a bully, but playground bullies don’t hold your grades and your education in their hands.
If you’re in a seriously antagonistic relationship with your professor and the class is non-essential to your studies, drop it. There’s no use in torturing yourself for three or four months and giving yourself an ulcer because you’re dreading that class so much. If you really do need the class, find out if different professors offer other sections and take it from them next semester.
Your first and best line of defense is to just talk to your professor. I know it sounds terrifying when this person is already making you miserable, but it could honestly just be a misunderstanding. Maybe they’re really not picking on you; maybe they’re the type that only pick on those they actually like. Whatever the case, arrange a private meeting with them during office hours to discuss your concerns. Make it clear that you are trying your best and that this behavior is neither deserved nor acceptable. Be polite about it (i.e., don’t barge in ranting like a lunatic), but be firm as well to prevent your prof from simply blowing you off as another thin-skinned student.
But this is your last semester. You have to have this class to graduate on time, but you’re absolutely certain that this professor is mistreating you without any valid reason. This isn’t to say that there’s ever a reason for mistreatment, of course, but if you knowingly slack off in class and barely even show up most of the time, you’re not exactly blameless in this situation. So what do you do now? Your best bet is to schedule a meeting with the chair of the professor’s department. Be firm but rational during the meeting; explain that you understand that everyone has good and bad days, but that you’ve been the victim of repeated insults/unfair grades/whatever that you don’t feel you deserved, and that your performance in class is suffering accordingly. If it gets to the point that you have to complain to a professor’s superior about his or her behavior, it’s highly unlikely that you’re the first person to ever do so. If the department chair sees this from multiple students, the pattern of abusive behavior becomes much clearer and much easier to target.
Then what? What if your discussion with the chair didn’t produce the results you wanted? Just like in any bureaucratic system, go one step further and arrange another meeting, this time with the dean of the college. To use our strictly hypothetical art professor, this would be the dean of the College of Fine Arts. Theoretically, you could keep going all the way to the university president, though getting a meeting there might be next to impossible. Regardless, make it clear that you are very serious about your grievances and that you feel very strongly that this professor is in the wrong. Ultimately, it may not resolve your personal conflict, but it may well save future students from going through the same turmoil.