What should I do if I am experiencing a conflict with one of my courses or instructors?
Conflicts happen. Even under ideal circumstances and between people with the best possible intentions, disagreement or conflict sometimes arises. This may even be more common when individuals are dealing with difficult circumstances, and have competing interests. So, what do you do when you encounter a challenge that impacts your work in a course? How do you communicate with your instructor? We want you to know that you have options.
Turn to Your Academic Advisors for Guidance
A first step might be to let your Academic Advisors know when you are dealing with a difficult situation. Whether in person, by email, phone, or Zoom, we will be glad to help you connect with available Stanford resources and point you towards mechanisms for resolution. And while you don’t need to run anything by us before reaching out to your instructors, we will be glad to help you strategize that outreach. You can make an appointment with your Academic Advisor here.
Please be aware, though, that instructors have wide latitude in the design, delivery, and requirements of their course. Academic Advisors can point you toward official university policies; we can offer guidance as to how to communicate your specific situation, questions, or concerns; and we can let you know about other resources available to you. But we do not have any authority over your instructors.
Reaching Out to Your Faculty
There are a few things to keep in mind when reaching out to your faculty about your concern. Unless you let them know that you are having difficulties, instructors will likely not be aware, and won’t be able to talk with you about any options that may be available in terms of things like extensions on assignment due dates, extra time, and the like, given your particular circumstances.
Before reaching out, it can therefore be extremely useful to write down everything contributing to the difficulties you are having in your class.
- What precisely is the concern?
- Is this about an issue with the course per se, or is this an accommodation that you need due to your personal circumstances?
- When did it happen?
- How has the situation impacted your work in the course?
- What exactly are you requesting and how will this help you complete the course requirements?
Presenting your situation in the clearest possible way will help the instructor understand your concern or personal challenges, direct you to campus resources that may be of help, and respond to you. Clear, professional communication is essential. Verbal attacks, impugning an instructor’s motives, and threats (veiled or otherwise) are inappropriate. They are also highly unlikely to get you the result you seek.
Things to Consider
- The syllabus details the course’s requirements, including required and/or optional assignments, participation and attendance expectations, and grading calculation. Your decision to take the course implies that you agree to these requirements and to the grading rubric spelled out there.
- As noted above, instructors have primary responsibility and wide latitude in the design of their course. As long as the course adheres to university policies, they are not obligated to make changes.
- Instructors have discretion on whether or not to grant extensions and notations of Incomplete in response to student requests. However, instructors are expected to treat all students in the course equitably (e.g., grading them by the same criteria, following the same formulae for calculation of final grade, etc.)
- If you require an academic accommodation, please reach out to the Office of Accessible Education (OAE); this documentation can then be shared with instructors so that they can ensure that these accommodations are provided. Note that OAE can provide certain types of academic accommodations (e.g., extra time on exams and assignments, or a designated class notetaker) based on impairments, such as your physical or mental health, that you may be experiencing. Please contact them for additional information on the kinds of circumstances that would warrant these individual accommodations.
- Sometimes the resolution you seek may not be possible given course or departmental policies, and you should be prepared for your instructors to present alternative resolutions or even to determine that no change or allowance is appropriate. Ideally, even when your faculty have to say no, they will be able to do so in a way that makes their reasons and policies clear.
Reached Out, But Still Dissatisfied?
If you have spoken with your instructors, but feel that they have not adequately addressed your concern, you may need to raise the issue with someone other than the instructor.
To learn more about your options when it comes to expressing your concerns, you may want to talk to the University Ombuds. The Ombuds is a confidential resource on campus that can help students sort through their options regarding conflicts of all sorts. You can read about the ways that the Ombuds can help here: https://ombuds.stanford.edu/how-ombuds-can-help.
If you decide to go forward with a concern, there are a number of university student grievance procedures, including the Student Academic Grievance Procedure and the Non-Academic Grievance Procedure. The ASSU has developed a helpful guide to student grievances. This H&S website also lists all university confidential resources and grievance policies.
Academic Grievances regard situations when a student feels that they have been “subjected to an improper decision on an academic matter.” Non-Academic Grievances include situations when a student believes that they have been improperly treated, particularly with concerns about “potential discrimination and harassment.”
For Academic Grievances, you should attempt to informally resolve your concern in the department. For example, if you are unable to resolve your concern with the instructor, you can then contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS), the Department Chair, or Director of the Program offering the course. Not sure who the DUS, Chair, or Director is? These are listed in the Department or Program’s Bulletin entry on the faculty tab.
If you have questions about academic grievances, you can contact the relevant school Dean’s Office for information. Helpful school contacts are on this ASSU handout.
Want to Talk More About it?
If you have further questions about this, your Academic Advisors are here to offer guidance and support as you navigate this process. Raising concerns can sometimes be stressful or uncomfortable, so please don’t hesitate to let your advisors know if you have any issues about a course, or any questions about this process.