How to Deal with an Abusive Online Student

Like anyone who’s been around the academic block more than once or twice, I’ve had my share of classroom bullies and wack jobs, the sort who disrupt class and become threatening in one way or another, whether it’s to the peace and order of the classroom or to classmates and the instructor personally. In the face-to-face classroom, one expects to encounter some degree of hassle and abuse.

But online?

One of the few benefits of teaching online is not having to deal with a certain type of student given to certain types of attitude.

Now comes a woman from the online magazine writing course who, ticked off at a B+ grade on a paper (a query letter for the next assigned article) that really deserved, at best, a C+, sends a rebuttal of all my comments full of all-caps SCREAMING. She suggests that my assessment of her paper was “emotional” (because I had to remind her that my syllabus specifically states “no late papers”—her first paper was late, and when reminded of this policy she said she was taking a vacation and did not plan to turn in the present assignment on time), and demands a complete re-read and reassessment of the thing.

What do you do with someone like this?

Me, I no longer have time for it. At first I thought I’d just forward the whole rant to the departmental chair. But then I thought why bother him with something I ought to be able to handle myself.

But…I don’t want to handle it. I’m royally sick of dealing with garbage like this. And I’m certainly not paid to spend extra hours taking out the garbage.

My response, shot off altogether too quickly, was probably not the best:

I’m not going to quibble with you over the grade on this paper. All I can do for you is offer you advice based on 20 years of experience as a magazine journalist. You want an A on the paper, it’s yours. 100 points.

When it comes to skills courses, grades are irrelevant. What matters is whether you can make it in the field. ;-)

And trust me: this one will not.

If I were being paid a full-time salary, or even a fair rate for the hours I put in on a part-time basis, I probably would have gone through her paper line by line by line and responded to every one of her rants. Probably, too, I would  not have restrained myself from firmly putting down her explicit insult.

But you know…I simply do not earn enough to justify getting myself exercised over this kind of bullsh!t.

It’s not like she’s going to end up in a hospital doing respiratory therapy or drawing blood or any of the many other trades the junior colleges train students to do. No real business or professional functions will depend on whether this person can write a credible query letter or a credible anything else. No one’s life or death will be determined by whether she can convince an editor to publish a half-baked article.

So, if she thinks she deserves an A on her C+ paper, let her have it. She’ll learn quick enough when she hits the real world.

LOL! If she ever does.

What would you do with a load of abuse from an online student?

Image: Fresco detail of devils from the Rila Monastery, Bulgaria (must be where my student is corresponding from…).  Edal Anton Lefterov. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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11 Responses to How to Deal with an Abusive Online Student

  1. UGH. I say–Yeah, I know why you’re upset blahblahblah. Then I say: to get the A, you need to do this, this, and this. Get it to me in two days.

    Both parties save face.

    • Melete says:

      Uh huh.

      No question I was lâche in my response. This was a function of annoyance and exhaustion. I certainly should have told her what she needed to do…

      However, I’d already done that. The advice entered on the student’s paper, a proposal for a magazine article, explained what I thought could improve the thing. Her complaint was that my suggestions were wrong. This would have been OK had she not phrased her complaint in rude terms and all caps.

      This is an eight-week course; that time frame doesn’t leave much space for reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading several iterations of an assignment a student should have gotten right in the first place. Nor do I really feel inclined to spend some more of my unpaid time (we are paid for the number of hours spent in class, not for the real work of teaching writing, which is done outside the classroom) to come up with a whole new set of suggestions.

      She turned in the assigned article based on this query, and as a practical matter it was pretty good. My concerns may, in fact, have been off-base. When she converted her ideas into a fully formed article, the result was more than acceptable.

  2. First, I usually tell the student as professionally as I can manage why that sort of tone is improper. I then reiterate my policy on late work along with any relevant but extremely brief commentary on why her paper earned the grade it did. Then I wrap up by briefly explaining the meaning of the letter grades as defined by my department, tell the student that I am cc’ing whoever the relevant higher up is, and that she is welcome to appeal the grade at the end of the term and that she can find the appropriate appeal paperwork online. End of story.

    I find the mention of a higher up to be very intimidating to the student, as well it should be. After all, you’re right. We’re not paid enough to be screamed at. That’s what those upper echelon muckity-mucks are for. It also covers my behind, as on a few rare occasions, the student has tried to go over my head and this way the higher up gets the heads up about what could be coming down the pike.

    If the student continues to email me demanding a change, I just respond back with something along the lines of “I’ve outlined my position on this in the previous email. I am not changing my mind.” I totally understand your frustration, though.

    Oh, and why is it that it’s always the damn B+ students?! They are almost always the ones who do the complaining. Does the taste of an A really seem that close to them? LOL!

    • Melete says:

      Some of them actually consider a B to be insulting. And a C is regarded as tantamount to failing. That, I think, is because they’re fully aware of the degree of grade inflation that goes on. They do understand that a B is really a C.

      Normally I do cc my responses to these things to the chair, who is (mercifully!) very supportive to faculty. If the quarrelsomeness had escalated, I definitely would ship it upstairs. However, she’s mellowed out now, thank goodness.

      That — supportive administrator — has not always been the case in my experience at other institutions, but this particular chair has a strong grip on common sense and is pretty firm in supporting faculty if the instructor has spelled out all the rules in the syllabus. And I’m careful to be sure policies on attendance/participation, disruptive behavior, and late papers are described in detail.

      It’s hard to second-guess students, though. The department has a very good boilerplate syllabus that you can use to kick off your own production, which does seem to be based on collective experience. I use that as the basis of my syllabus and then add assignments, a calendar, and the numeric scores for grading to that. So far, it’s been effective in resolving the few disputes and disciplinary issues that have come up.

  3. I remember the story out of Penn State a few years ago about a student who threatened to put his professor in a wheelchair — over a B-. He pled down to a misdemeanor I think. Scary.

  4. vinny says:

    You gotta read this – I sputtered coffee on my screen. The joys of marking 800 term papers…McSweeneys usually cheers me up.

  5. Melete says:

    @ All: Welp, come the end of the semester, things turned out surprisingly well with this student.

    a) All of her remaining papers came in on time or even early.
    b) She came up with creative and interesting ideas for the remaining articles, all of them focusing on her current passion.
    c) One of her papers was almost good enough to be publishable — with a little tweaking, it probably would be publishable.
    d) Her attitude mellowed quickly, and she became cooperative and even enthusiastic.

    Who knows what mysteries lurk in the hearts of students? ;-)

    • Jane Doe says:

      Maybe things changed in her life and she as able to better interact with your class. Or maybe your down to earth anti-competitive response let her think about enjoying learning instead trying to write kiss ass bullshit that gets you good grades in school.

  6. Jeannie says:

    I came across this posting after googling “dealing with an abusive online student.” Thanks for the pick-me-up. I have a student emailing me insults on my teaching. It’s laughable because he participated in my class for all of about a week and a half: he participated in two discussion boards and completed one minor assignment. At midterm, when he hadn’t logged on in three weeks and hadn’t turned in the first two papers, I dropped him.

    I’m a writing instructor, so it’s laughable that a student who every chance he got chose to b!tch and complain about how useless my class is fails to write a coherent paragraph. He’s turning into a train wreck that is hard to look away from. But like you said, it’s also way too time consuming to get sucked into such nonsense. While it’s tempting to deconstruct his next email with all it’s bogus and unfounded points, it will only serve to make my life more miserable when I have to receive another one of his ignorant rants. But why bother: his $h!tty attitude and lofty opinion of his superiority will bite him in the a$$ some day.

    Did I mention this is his third time taking English 101? Maybe the fourth time will work out for him. He’s already “threatened” to enroll in another one of my classes in the Spring. I totally dare him to.

    • Melete says:

      @ Jeannie: That is creepy. If he’s sending insulting e-mails, it might be good to forward them to your chair or dean. I don’t think that sort of behavior would be looked upon kindly at Heavenly Gardens, and they probably would not allow him to register in another of your courses. Also, I’d take a look at what he’s writing at Rate My Professor, which regularly publishes actionable libel.

      I believe we are allowed to request that certain students not be enrolled in our sections, although I don’t know that’s true. What I do know is a kid showed up in one of my classes, an ex-convict, who had frightened some other instructor by writing a paper describing his criminal capers. She apparently thought he was threatening, and they had Security escort him out of the classroom and dropped him from the course. He was quiet and benign enough in my class, so she may have been overreacting or there could have been a personality clash…whatever the explanation, she did manage to get him out of her hair.

      • Jeannie says:

        Thanks! I’m actually going to see the dean of student affairs on Monday. This kid has left enough of a paper trail. Here are some examples for your amusement.

        “I suffer from an unwillingness to be open with my work, inventing words, and the failure to understand the need of a rough draft. I hope this internet microcosm can improve my attitude and academic prowess.”

        “You dropped me without trying to talk? I wrote you a note on the worthless homework you assigned to the class. [I had no idea what he was talking about] I dont mind not being in your class. It is remedial and YOU don’t even use proper english (I suggest proof-reading and relearning the difference between your and you’re). [Oh dear God. I had one typo and I'm branded an idiot for life by some chuckle head who logged in to my class 3x to show how he cannot compose a coherent paragraph. I'm so crushed] What’s the point of a disussion bored [yes, that's how he spelled it] if you’re not even required to write like an intelligent person?”

        I sent a polite response to explain and address all his bullshit (although I did tell him if my class was so remedial that he should try for an honors class instead) and here’s some of what I got back.

        “I wrote you a note on a homework assignment about the comma [which he never turned in]. You need to grade homework assignments that you assign [I would if you'd turned it in]. . . . If I had the misfortune of waking up to be an internet teacher of basic grammar skills, [yes, it's unfortunate that I make a living from the comfort of my home where I can be there for my kids], I would at least make some effort to respond to all the students. [Did I mention that at least 2 of his 3 assignments were late--late = I don't have time for you.]

        Thank you so much for listening and responding. I’ve been reading through your blog and I’m having a blast. Working form home keeps me in a bubble sometimes and it’s easy to start believing that I deserve this kind of shit for whatever reason.

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