She had waited three weeks for her continued requests for her Psychology 113 lecture notes to be answered. It was made aware to the professor by the student’s counselor, the same day she was sitting at the top corner of Chafee 271 while her professor began that day’s lecture, that the student’s learning disability interrupts her ability to learn.
He held up a piece of paper from the bottom of the room and asked the class, “Who wants a study guide to help with class?” Most of the students raised their hands, and the professor approached an arbitrary student in the front row and told him that if he were to only give him the notes, it would leave the rest of the class at a disadvantage.
Even in a room full of hundreds of students, the girl sitting at the top of the room knew the professor’s comments were directed right at her. He made the notes available to everybody through Sakai subsequently after a professional contacted the professor.
Professor/instructor-to-student bullying happens across the University of Rhode Island campus and students can fall victim to the power that people in higher positions hold.
“I have problem X and need Power Points to deal with Y,” the psychology student said. “He thinks I have troubles learning [the content of] his material, and that’s not the case.”
Marisa Marraccini, a doctoral candidate at URI, conducted a study in Fall 2012 surveying college students’ perceptions of professor and instructor bullying. With her sample size being a little over 300 students, representing multiple majors from different colleges, she found that 50.8 percent of students had witnessed a professor bully another student at some point in their college career at the university.
“The research shows it does not go away, it’s not an experience isolated to childhood,” said Marraccini. “Why did we ever think that it did go away? Why did we think that people grow out of it?”
Defining traditional bullying is simpler than finding an interpretation of what it morphs into when it reaches higher education. Traditionally in primary and secondary education one’s physical size and status can be attributed reasoning behind bullying confrontations. Marraccini said that does not always apply in college.
“It’s a little bit different, there are lots of definitions,” said Marraccini. “It relates to the power of professor and teachers beyond what would be considered accepted behavior.” This might include rude comments, gestures, ignoring students, lying or telling student’s secrets to get them in trouble.
Marraccini said that the deferential power is intrinsic in a professor-to-student relationship. Students and faculty alike can file complaints such as bullying through a specific chain of channels before its final step through the Office of the University Ombud. The Ombud Office exists to investigate complaints where an individual feels they have been unfairly dealt with in the normal channels of administrative process.
Ombud Gerry Tyler and former political science professor feels uncomfortable using bullying as a label for certain professor-student behavior. Tyler said a bullying complaint has not reached her desk, but that vindictive behavior by professors has occurred.
Similar to sexual assault cases, just because the bullying is not being reported it could still be happening.
“Students sometimes feel powerless,” said Marraccini. “It’s something that we have all experienced in our life but it seems to be that it has to be more serious than that for a student to report an incident.”
A freshman Math 111 student during fall 2014, who also asked to remain anonymous for similar reasons, recalled his professor telling his students, “If you don’t understand this [material] it’s not my problem, you have to see me separately.” The student went to multiple office hours and said the professor would quickly become frustrated if he could not keep up at the professor’s pace.
“It made me want to not do his work,” he said. “And made me not like him at all. I thought he was just a teacher that was like that. I think students need to be aware that stuff like that can be fixed.”
According to Marraccini’s study, of those 50.8 percent of students witnessing bullying, 2.5 percent said they witnessed professor bullying frequently. Of the entire sample, 19.5 percent said they had been bullied by a professor or instructor at least once. Less than 1 percent of them said that it was frequent.
“I’d be surprised if the professors were aware that they were perceived as bullies,” said Marraccini. “Some teachers are self aware, but I wonder if the ones that are bullying on a regular basis are.”
Although her study was strictly numbers and received no anecdotal experiences from the students, hierarchies between professors and students seemingly lead to inappropriate behavior. She focused solely on URI, but said that this is a nationwide problem and not specific to this university.
“I do think that University College are savvy with letting students know what they can do,” said Tyler. “It doesn’t mean it’s perfect or that it doesn’t need to be enhanced with more publicity, but it is out there. It’s amazing how little students know about the channels to resolve solutions.”
Tyler said that students should be receiving this information in their URI 101 classes, but that the Ombud Office also exists to help people navigate through channels because it can be difficult to figure out. Marraccini said it is imperative to get students to continue reporting behavior by professors that is not appropriate.
A shift in people’s perceptions in bullying is happening and Marraccini said that is a result of workplace bullying and adult bullying revealing itself.