In late September, a professor in the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences delivered her Engineering Design Division 103: Engineering Communications I students an extra credit assignment: writing a formal letter of complaint to the director of the program. Extra credit assignments are against the policy of the course, and formal letters of complaint are not built into its curriculum. The conflict that resides at the heart of this assignment, however, is that students speculated the letters were motivated by the professor’s displeasure at not having received the position she applied for in the Watson school, something she mentioned briefly in class.

The alternative assignment to the letter to the department was a “formal professional letter explaining the brilliance of The Backstreet Boys.” In the alternative, the students were tasked with analyzing the Backstreet Boys’ music videos and interviews spanning from the late 1990s to the early 2000s and comparing them to those made in 2019, substantiating any claims with evidence from the video clips.

Students felt that, beyond the sheer absurdity of writing an analytical letter on the media of The Backstreet Boys for an engineering course, the difference in difficulty of the extra credit options and the sizable impact they could possibly have on their final marks in the class was wrong. Adding 10 points to an assignment the professor describes as having “a large impact on students’ grades,” was perceived as an abuse of the professor’s power as they were an authority figure going beyond curriculum and program structure for noneducational purposes.

Particulars aside, this conflict beckons conversation about the power dynamic in the classroom that should be happening between students, professors and administrators. Entering any institution of higher education, students will inevitably encounter a learning experience unlike previous ones, as the removal from childhood dependencies on doting parents means that they have complete ownership over their education. Teachers are more apt to foster their own learning environments without ceding to the demands of students and their families. Professors can curse freely, openly discuss their thoughts on current policy and dole out personal anecdotes that would shake pearl-clutching parents.

Barring hate speech, discriminatory or derogatory comments and entirely irrelevant stories, the college classroom is at its best when professors can speak candidly to students and their discussions can have a natural, conversational flow. When a professor imbues their course with a personal spark, students respond by becoming more actively engaged in the coursework, as they’re able to connect with the material in a more intimate, humanistic capacity.

The line is drawn when the professor begins taking liberties with the curriculum and the grading system. The intermingling of a professor’s personal opinion and the graded coursework has the adverse effect, breeding animosity between those taking the class and those teaching it, as any semblance of objectivity is scrapped with the proper, department-endorsed curriculum. Several students approached a higher-ranking professor in the Watson school to notify them of the professor’s adjustment to the curriculum and their personal agenda-fueled genesis. Their professor subsequently issued an email apology to her students, nullifying both extra credit assignments. However, this should be a springboard for a conversation about what is appropriate conduct for the professor-student relationship in the Watson school and beyond.

Madelaine Hastings is a freshman double-majoring in English and economics.