Monday, May 12, 2014

Faculty Members Are Not Cashiers by David M. Perry

Why the 'customer service' lingo in academe is bad for students

“[Last] month Texas A&M University at Kingsville posted a new job ad for a faculty member in early-modern/Renaissance literature. The first line of the ‘job summary’ reads, in all capital letters: ‘PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE.’ A bit lower, the job description mentions that the selected candidate will have to teach four courses a semester while remaining ‘active in research, professional development, and service to the university and profession.’

“The ad represents a culmination of dangerous trends in higher education that threaten to erode the single most important relationship we form in our profession: the complex, multifaceted one between teacher and student.

“For years now, corporate language and thinking has invaded academe, correlating with many other trends—the decline of public funding from states, the rising price of tuition, the amenities arms-race in student housing, the administrative bloat, the demands of assessment culture, and, most of all, the general saturation of corporate-speak into academic life. Institutions, especially branch campuses of public university systems and small private colleges, feel perpetually strapped for cash and desperate for tuition revenue.

“In that context, the attempt to shift the world of higher education into the business paradigm seems rational to administrators: Without customers—i.e., students—faculty jobs will be cut, programs shuttered, and staff members ‘downsized…’

“[P]ublic discourse has consequences for how we think and act. Tell faculty members that they are obligated to treat students like customers, and the instructors will either eschew rigor in favor of making satisfaction guaranteed or work defensively lest they be harangued by the irate customer. Tell students that they are consumers, and they will act like consumers but ultimately learn less and perhaps not even receive the credential that they think they are buying.

“Students who believe that they are mere customers are selling themselves short, as are the faculty members and administrators who apply business-speak to the classroom. Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that.

“Customer service implies participating in a system of transaction or exchange in which one side provides a service to another. While plenty of money changes hands, universities don’t really sell a product, not in the sense that ‘customer service’ implies, anyway… When [we] hear students explicitly define themselves as customers, it’s often in the context of perceived bad teaching, a sense that the structure surrounding the learning opportunity is somehow deficient.

“It’s not just that students want simply to buy a degree. Students place reasonable desires—faster grading, fewer lectures, more lectures, more preparation, clearer grading standards, etc.—into the framework of commerce. It’s a way of reversing the power dynamics. A customer holds a special place in our society. They have the right to complain, pressure, and go over the head of the worker to the management…

“[However], education is created, not consumed. [W]e cannot expect students to believe that when every message from academe itself tells them that they can just buy it. In addition, any short-term power that students gain over their professors by introducing a controlling commercial metaphor into the classroom dynamic is more than mitigated by the losses. 

“Faculty members respond to the student-as-consumer by teaching defensively, fearing the management that we formerly referred to as administration. But administrators administrate on behalf of the faculty. Employees delivering customer service get managed…

“The syllabus is one place where the defensive crouch of the customer-service professor hurts student learning. Many faculty members and some teaching centers talk about the syllabus as a contract, an explicit use of the corporate-speech in the classroom. The contractual model has some positive aspects. It’s a way of increasing the stakes in order to push students to actually read the syllabus and try to create a sense of reciprocal obligation. In a contract, both sides are obligated to hold to its terms…

“Encouraging notions of reciprocity lie at the heart of the emergence of the lengthy, faux-legalistic syllabus-as-contract. Instead, such a document functions as a form of pre-emptive defense from lawsuits or disciplinary complaints lodged by students upset about their grades, wanting special exemptions, or otherwise responding to challenges in the classroom—much like a customer angry at a business for providing lousy or incorrect service...

“Students are not mere customers to be wrung out for tuition in the short term and donations in the future. Faculty members are not cashiers, ringing up the bill when students check out with knowledge—and not because that would be demeaning to the professor, but because the responsibility of a teacher to his or her students is far greater than the employee to the customer.”

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