Educating our 'Customers'

Brian Taylor

March 30, 2011

In the middle of a semester, one of my students in my developmental English course came to my office to tell me that he had to withdraw and that it was my fault. He couldn't continue because my teaching style didn't meet his needs.

Foolishly, I asked for an explanation, and he spent the next five minutes outlining every instance in which I had interfered with his learning style, including by assigning homework, giving tests, taking attendance, and requiring that all essays be typed, printed out, and handed in at the very beginning of class.

When I began to tell him that I do all of those things because I'm trying to teach academic responsibility, he interrupted and said, "You're not letting me be me."

As a faculty member, I have found myself on a number of occasions dealing with students who are upset with me for not letting them be them, or, as some say, for "disrespecting" them. I'll admit that my definition of "respect" must be different from theirs, because many times when I'm told I've been disrespectful, it usually occurs when I don't give the lecture notes to a student who missed two or more weeks of class, or when I tell a student not to answer her cellphone in my class, or when I tell a student that he lost points from his final grade for disrupting the classroom when his friend entered my class to ask when it would be over because he was hungry and my student was his ride.

In all of those conversations, I was trying to prove how their actions were the disrespectful ones, not mine, but they never believed me.

For some time, I wondered why certain students acted that way. When I was in college, I would never ask my teacher for lecture notes of the days I had missed. I never answered my cellphone in class, or even acknowledged a friend who decided to interrupt a lecture to ask me a question.

I was the first person in my immediate family to complete college. As an undergraduate, I had no idea what my responsibilities were in the college classroom, but I must have innately known that if I wanted to earn the respect of the professor, I should first show the professor some respect.

But maybe times have changed. Maybe students are so used to our consumer-driven society that they have an inaccurate sense of entitlement. They believe the customer is always right. Maybe it's true, and customers are always right. Maybe the academic and business sides of education have become so blurred that my title of assistant professor has actually been changed to "educational liaison," and I am only supposed to teach students what they want to know and nothing more.

I'm sure if that change did actually happen, it would make my job easier. I would no longer have to worry about disrespecting anyone because students—or as they would probably be called, learning clients—would be permitted to answer the phone in class whenever they wanted, to pick which days to come to class, and to determine when, or even if, tests and papers would be assigned.

If students were dissatisfied with my service, they could fill out a complaint form, and I would tell them that someone would contact them in 24 to 48 hours. Or I could use some of the great customer-service lines I've heard in my life. For example, when my cellphone wouldn't work in my new house, a customer-service representative said that he could see on the company's map that I live near a lake, and the lake was "absorbing the cellphone waves, and there's nothing we can do about it."

So if students ever questioned why they hadn't learned anything in my class, I guess I could simply state, "The lake has absorbed all of your knowledge, and there's nothing we can do about that."

Recently, in another developmental English course I teach, students complained about some of the services on the campus, including those provided by teachers. Teachers need to show that they care about the students more, I was told.

I asked how that could be accomplished. One student raised his hand and said, "By understanding that we have lives outside of class—so we shouldn't be expected to be here all the time." Another student said, "And by turning papers back to us sooner."

Although both students swore that they were talking about other teachers, their comments were specific to my course because I have a strict attendance policy, and I had collected essays during the previous session, which was on a Wednesday, and they were upset that the papers were not graded for the following class on a Friday. When I asked if the students felt disrespected by tough attendance policies and papers not being graded within 48 hours, they all said yes. I have heard similar complaints before, though not in my own courses. At several colleges where I've taught, outside companies have been brought in to survey students and determine how to make their educational experience more rewarding. The survey results showed that students wanted more lenient attendance polices and a faster turnaround on graded papers. One "expert" presenting the results at a faculty meeting even told us it was our responsibility to institute changes that were more student-friendly.

Faculty members were being asked to be responsible for students instead of creating a system within the classroom that makes the students responsible for themselves.

It does seem that the customer-care model has invaded the college classroom. Maybe I will just have to learn to accept it, but it will be difficult because any time a teacher focuses on dealing with a particular student, the others in the classroom suffer. No one is paying attention to their needs, which might just be to learn the material.

Some time ago, I had a student answer his phone in class and carry on a conversation as he walked out of the room. When he returned, I approached him and quietly reminded him that he lost points for answering the phone in class. He asked me where the dean's office was located—the academic version of "I want to see the manager."

I told him where to find the dean and if he left, he wouldn't be permitted back because the class had been disrupted too many times that day. He did leave, and later that day, an administrative assistant from the dean's office contacted me and said the student had filed a complaint against me. She wanted to know if he could re-enter my class.

I know the customer should get what he wants, but I said no. I had to keep him out because the phone incident was one of many disruptions from that student. Plus, I had to think of the other customers who earned my respect by taking their academic success seriously. Those students acted like they saw the giant lake and wanted to do everything they could to keep it from absorbing them.

Brian P. Hall is an assistant professor of English at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.