After their professor failed to show for a couple of classes, ended class early and reportedly refused to grade assignments, a group of Portland State engineering students decided to protest what they consider to be unacceptable teaching practices in a math course in summer 2005.
According to a letter sent to both the math department and to President Bernstine’s office, Statistics 451 professor Mohammed Talebi refused to assign, grade, or provide solutions to homework problems, despite student requests, joking that he did not get paid enough for the extra time.
The teacher also missed at least two classes without notice, while cutting several other meetings short. During the class before the midterm, Professor Talebi said that the confused students were asking “too many questions,” and ended the session early.
“This is just unacceptable. He didn’t teach in class, and when I went to his office hours – I felt like I was just annoying him,” said Justin Stenkamp, who received a C in the class.
Professor Talebi does not dispute the veracity of most of the students’ claims, but he says that his actions were misinterpreted. He stated that it was not uncommon for instructors to leave students on their own for homework in larger classes. Talebi said that he had been absent or cut classes short, but that he sent a substitute for one of those classes.
Professor Talebi pointed to his five years of teaching at PSU, and said that these criticisms “do not match” with his record as an instructor. Referring to the question of pay, Talebi said, “This is a joke that I have told many, many times. It is a cheap shot for them to use it this way.”
Although it may have been intended as a joke, Stenkamp was surprised by the comment.
“I couldn’t believe he would say that over and over, I know what we all paid for the class, and I was working my ass off,” he said.
Another problem, according to student Dennis Petross, was that Talebi lectured and tested from a different book than the one the students were assigned. He said that several students asked to borrow Talebi’s book, and even looked for it at the library and at Powell’s. Talebi told the students to use their own text for homework assignments, but Petross said that these were much easier than the class examples,
“If statistics and probability were what was in the book, I would have passed the class without taking the class,” Petross said.
About 15 of the class’ 40 students, who received grades ranging from A’s to F’s, signed the letter of protest. The letter demands that any student who wishes, should have their tuition refunded and the course removed from their record. The original letter was drafted by Stenkamp, who said he personally delivered a signed copy to the math department in mid-October.
When there was no reply, Stenkamp sent another letter, along with a copy of the original to President Bernstine’s office just before Thanksgiving. When there was still no response, Stenkamp grew more determined.
“I really think they thought this was just going to go away,” he said.
On Dec. 11, Stenkamp contacted the Ombudsman’s office, an independent group that offers impartial advice and aid in resolving disputes on campus. Two days later, Stenkamp received an e-mail from Dean Marvin Kaiser of the College of Arts and Science.
“I am sorry about this experience. We pride ourselves at PSU in attending to our students, and ensuring that the classroom is a place of real learning,” Kaiser wrote.
On Dec. 15, after several e-mails, and nearly two months after the initial letter, Stenkamp received an e-mail from Dr. Marek Elzanowski, chair of the department of math and sciences. Dr. Elzanowski said he was looking in to the matter, but that he would have to talk to Talebi. He also emphasized that Talebi was no longer teaching at the university.
However, at the beginning of winter term, Talebi had returned as a substitute in the very same class, Statistics 451.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw him up there at the front,” Petross said. “And then he missed the very next class. Elzanowski showed up and told us that Talebi wasn’t coming.”
In a recent class session, though, Talebi lectured until the end, engaging students and answering questions thoroughly. He seemed surprised by the students’ frustration.
“This is a difficult class,” he said. “Not everyone understands that they may need to take it two or even three times to understand it.”
Justin Stenkamp says that the C he received in the course was the lowest grade he has received in college. Talebi’s class was the first Dennis Petross has failed, but he still had praise for the professor’s abilities.
“He obviously knew math through and through, and could even relate it to physics,” Petross said. “I think he would have been easy to learn from, if he had just taught.”