Teaching Students, Not Customers

by Ben Mangrum
4 December 2014

It wasn’t long into my tenure teaching at the college level before I experienced a student frustrated with my course policies. This, of course, is a common enough experience. The student, who disagreed at the end of the semester with the attendance requirements delineated in the course syllabus, wrote something to the following effect: “College is a product that I, the consumer, am buying and I feel like I should do with it what I like. I’m paying to be taught. If I don’t show up, I shouldn’t be docked points.” The student then wrote an impassioned argument on behalf of his perspective that, to be honest, was smart and compelling. But the student’s initial self-characterization as a “consumer” rang hollow to me. In part, the discordant note came from the fact that such a characterization of students makes several bad assumptions about what consumers actually are. For one, the old public relations adage that “the customer is always right” never actually applies, at least not universally, as if there were no rules or conventions established by businesses. At a coffee shop, we are asked to use headphones to keep music, videos, or white noise from disturbing other customers. At the deli, we have to abide by an ordered wait system—“Now serving number fifty-two”—and are prohibited from jumping other customers in line. The point is that consumers are not gods. They have to abide by the rules established (often implicitly) by a provider of goods and services. So if a student insists that she is a consumer, that’s all the more reason that the norms established in a classroom need to be fair and equally enforced: such policies ensure that all students receive the same “product” in a regulated environment.

Yet the construal of students-as-consumers more importantly misses something essential about the point of education. Of course, students may be treated as customers, but should they? Do they get a generic product? Is there such a simple thing as an exchange value between tuition and a semester’s coursework? No, students in the arts, humanities, and sciences learn modes of critical thinking that often—but not always—translate into intellectual equipment for understanding and engaging the wider world. We should not think of their education as a product but as a process. That distinction doesn’t mean we in academia have nothing to learn from the world of business, but my goal as an instructor is based less on a student’s satisfaction in my classroom as her intellectual development—that’s she’s challenged, learns about literary history, becomes a better writer and thinker. For dozens of other reasons the student-as-customer or -consumer metaphor is a fraught one, as Miguel Martinez-Saenz and Steven Schoonover have argued, among many, many others. Such a model for higher education even inspired a New York Times debate among administrators at prominent business schools. These debates show how the metaphor doesn’t map easily onto the work we do as scholars and teachers.

Rather than go down the well-trodden road of arguing against what I take to be a misconceived approach to pedagogy, I’d rather think about practical ways we can avoid treating students like consumers in the classroom. What specific pedagogical practices and in-class habits might aid those of us who want to resist the student-as-customer philosophy?

First, let me say that in resisting this model of education, the pendulum need not swing back to some long-gone era of passive, rote learning. Instead, the way I see excellent teachers today countering the idea of students as customers (which, I think, is itself part of resisting the pervasive corporatization of higher education) is not to place the professor at the center of the classroom. Quite simply, the first step is to invite students to be active participant-learners on multiple registers. Putting the ball in the students’ court allows them to be players, not entertained spectators. This may be as basic as the probing rhetorical question in a lecture hall or frequent short writing assignments. But also giving students more control over intentionally designed aspects of our courses—whether through minor shifts such as student-structured class conversation or even more radical practices, such as collectively-generated syllabi—replace the customer’s expectation for entertainment with a participatory model of active education. Imagining creative ways of engaging students with our course material—giving a sizeable share of the investigative task to them—can actually negate the sense of entitlement that goes along with the consumeristic model.

On a more interpersonal level—and, in fact, our relationships are most often where this particular battle will be fought—we need to be wary of “customer service” norms migrating into our pedagogy. That’s not to say that Publix or Amazon, which are consistently highest in the Temkin rankings, have nothing to teach us on an organizational or professional level. But, for example, the idea that students absolutely shouldn’t be required to participate in class discussions—albeit a perspective that comes from the best of intentions—seems to stifle the discomfort that often accompanies intellectual struggle. Thus, certain practices that make our courses user-friendly may inadvertently allow the classroom to slip into passive hostility toward the disagreeable and the difficult. In contrast, as the contemporary novelist Mark Slouka argues, the “method” of the humanities “is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their ‘product’ not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their ‘success’ something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.” The aspiration for an enjoyable and non-confrontational classroom experience can suffocate deliberation, rather than kindle it.

Similarly, the notion that, like our good neighbors at State Farm, we should always be there to answer emails hours before an assignment is due actually sends the wrong signals to our students about acceptable work habits. Even more to the point, such an imported norm from the world of 24-hour customer service cultivates an environment where the thing that matters most is the assignment—meeting the requirements before the due date, checking all the boxes in the most functional of ways. Getting the paper done by the due date is tacitly privileged above an appetite for inquiry, independence, and the pursuit of knowledge, if only because being an ever-attentive helicopter instructor gives my students the space to treat their academic work in this way.

On a more personal register, I think it’s important to take student course evaluations seriously, which means that we shouldn’t take them personally. If a student says she is considering a double major in English because of a particular course, or if another student says he has no idea what he was supposed to learn from the semester, these aren’t the comments of “satisfied” or “dissatisfied” customers. Rather, student evaluations provide a partial mirror to help us evaluate a given course’s learning goals. Did students find the knots and enigmas of a semester entirely obscure, or were these intellectual problems difficult but obviously important? Were our course conversations a blueprint for independent inquiry or a rabbit hole with no escape in sight? It’s best to have specific questions in mind when reading course evaluations, lest we misunderstand their value. The broader point, though, is that we shouldn’t teach to the evaluations, doing what we know gets the right reviews, but to the student. The former way of teaching tacitly construes students as consumers whom we need to please.

What other practices have you found to invite students to be co-investigators, rather than customers in the classroom?


Ben Mangrum recently defended his dissertation, “Land of Tomorrow: The Postwar Novel and the Rise of the New Conservative Movement,” in the Department of English at UNC-Chapel Hill. In addition to editing Ethos, Ben also writes for the project on politics, the business of sports, contemporary novels, and the academy. His academic work has appeared in such journals as Genre, Philosophy and Literature, and Literature and Theology.

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