In today's Academic Minute, Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Houston, explains that while food-insecure families struggle to pay for healthy food, the roots of the problem go beyond economics. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
The University of Connecticut on Thursday informed two tenured music professors that it was seeking to fire them. The move came the day after the university released a report -- prepared by an outside lawyer -- that detailed how the university responded to numerous allegations and rumors that Robert Miller, one of the professors, inappropriately touched children at a summer camp and engaged in inappropriate touching and other behavior with male UConn students. The report found extensive evidence to back the allegations against Miller. Further, the report found that David Woods -- the other professor and formerly Miller's dean -- did nothing appropriate about the allegations. (The report quotes Miller as saying he did try to dismiss Miller, but said that there is no evidence for this.) Under UConn's collective bargaining procedures, Thursday's letters to the two professors start a process that they could contest.
Why do they come? Thirty-seven smiling young faces in a classroom look up at me, oozing confidence that I will teach them successfully and help them pass the course. I confide in them: the course should really have 24 students for an optimum presentation. Nobody moves. And the smiles stay fixed.
I tell them that everything I teach is available online, and the jokes there are probably funnier than the ones I use. They sit still. As they do in the classes of almost two million other faculty members.
They will continue to come, the 14 or 15 million students who can’t or won’t learn by themselves. Yes, there are two million or so students who can master difficult material on their own, and there are mature individuals whose life circumstances makes it necessary to learn essentials, to pass a course, and to move on.
But for the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.
And so they come….
Now picture a full colored photo on glossy paper of college students, gathered happily at graduation. Idyllic, but misleading. Look closely, very closely at the picture and find that the picture isn’t a picture at all, but an assemblage of thousands of individual dots. Separate, and often strikingly different from each other. Now take away the color and a further grim graininess appears.
That’s the real-world picture a faculty member sees in the classes s/he teaches. A group of individuals, each with different life experience, family circumstance, personal growth pattern, goals, and course selections.
Pretty pictures are for people who look at higher education from the far periphery; it is they who dare make general statements, universal predictions and global pronouncements about what will take place in college. I know better. I know that every one of the 2200 or so minutes I will be with this particular group of individuals will present its own challenges, its own opportunities for teaching and learning, and its own possibilities for failure.
I am alert to the pressures and influences that divert so many young people, and am no longer surprised at the number of hours many of them spend online. Nor do I express disappointment at the number of students who expect to be taught, who expect to know – but who will not do the work involved in learning. They are, after all, the children who learned the alphabet painlessly on Sesame Street, and grew up one click away from the world’s store of knowledge.
For the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.
My students need hand-holding, human-hand-holding, to become engaged, and focus on the depth of material rather than on obtaining a quick, superficial answer. They live in a digital world, but remain analog beings and must learn to acquire and assimilate great bodies of knowledge, comprehensive, continuous, and coherent.
Fortunately, they don’t face this task alone. Together with their 30-odd peers, they begin to form a class. Even though this class will not reach the level of a community of scholars, the collective plays its role. Students begin to share notes, discuss homework, assist each other in understanding difficult material, and interact during class. There is argument, shared humor and collective disappointment; a sudden scurry when an exam is announced, a flurry of conversation just before the exam takes place, and consultation right after it ends. Every one of these interactions enhances student engagement.
There is something about the structure of the classroom that contributes to the learning process, perhaps akin to a group of musicians whose joint effort is so much more effective than it would be were they to play their instrument at a separate location with an expert mixing the sounds. People do interact and college students better than most.
Fortunately, too, there is the faculty member who knows that teaching is more than presenting information and that learning is a very complex process, difficult and unusual for most people. A whole range of strategies is needed to keep students striving and stretching for a whole period, let alone a whole term. Students must be induced, sometimes with humor, to concentrate. There must be challenge, repetition, surprise and praise.
A successful teacher can offer spontaneity, immediacy, and instant, interactive feedback. He/she knows that a question is not just a request for information. A question can signal to the teacher that something is wrong with the presentation. Often, it can enable a teacher to involve all the others in the class, becoming part of a different, sometimes unanticipated learning experience.
Teachers learn to walk the aisles, to watch faces, to orchestrate discussion and stimulate questions. Eye contact and a smile – or lack of it – can guide the next part of the discussion, and one student’s difficulties can be used to address those who can’t even formulate their lack of understanding.
Some teachers know how to seize on a recent event and weave it into the discussion, or look at a student’s notebook to determine whether the student was following properly or not.
Depending on the course and the class, a faculty member will help students overcome anxiety, shyness and diffidence. College teachers will use connection and analogies to get a point across. And alert students will follow as a scholar approaches a new problem or situation to understand how an expert thinks.
Listening, correcting, suggesting, modeling, prodding, affirming, critiquing, reflecting, admitting, weighing, arguing, and guiding are but some of the other strategies faculty will use to move students along on a trajectory of learning.
For many there is nothing as effective as face-to-face teaching, and the five-minute explanation at the chalkboard after class has rescued many a student.
There is so much more. Experienced instructors know how to address the blank stare, and are able to evoke expression from students who seat themselves at the back of the room. Reinforcement, encouragement, constructive argumentation all help develop patterns of thinking and behavior which will long outlast the specific topic being taught.
A traditional college education usually comprises 40 or so separate courses offered by as many different faculty members, each of whom will bring to bear those qualities and strategies appropriate to the subject, reflecting his/her character and talents. Students will be brought into discussions where they will venture opinions – and defend them without anger. Most will learn to evaluate disagreeable perspectives and remain friends with both proponents and opponents.
They will learn how to change their minds, to deal with mistakes, and to respect the rights of others.
Faculty members know how to jostle students into active learning. As often as not they are enthusiastic advocates as well as practitioners of the subject at hand, and students will experience the passion as well as the process of a presentation.
Learning from a scholar enables a student to acquire knowledge in an organized framework from someone who has assimilated so much, and knows how to provide a roadmap that is uniquely effective for each particular group.
A scholar knows how to form connections with other courses and plant ideas and insights that will bear fruit in a subsequent course, or later in life. Students must be taught how to approach the unknown, the impossible, the unanticipated and the future. It is the competent, confident scholar/faculty member who will see the need for this kind of learning and have the ability to present it.
Only after the usual 1,800 hours (over 100,000 minutes in the classroom) and the hoped-for 3,600 hours of after class assignments have been completed is it possible to compose the glossy, colored picture. Only then do the thousands of interactions, lessons, topics, and learnings combine to make the graduate and the graduating class.
Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics and a former accreditor.
A faculty committee has recommended that Harvard University adopt policies designating specific officials to authorize an email search and -- in most cases -- to inform anyone whose email is searched, The Boston Globe reported. The recommendation follows a controversy in 2012 in which many email accounts were secretly searched. Harvard has not had clear policies on the issue, the committee found. The panel said that there needs to be a "legitimate" or "important" reason for such searches. And that reason -- not an email account holder's status as a student or employee or as a certain kind of employee, such as tenured professor -- should dictate whether a search is performed.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, the university built a posh outdoor swimming pool next to the campus’s main recreational facility. But it wasn’t a lap pool or an Olympic-style pool. It wasn’t built primarily for exercise. It was a lounging pool, with serpentine borders, tons of deck chairs, shady palms, and a snack bar. It looked in every way like something that you might see at a fancy resort, minus the booze. That pool, built purely for the purposes of coeducational sunning and fraternizing, represents an investment that UT-Austin made into the social experiences of students, arguably a distant remove from the university’s academic mission.
I suspect that when you have a high-end and highly identifiable brand, as UT-Austin does, that such amenities help to further “sell” the university to well-heeled undergrads. For better or worse, universities can and will maintain enrollments, at least for a time, not by (or not only by) improving academic experiences, but by improving students’ material surroundings and social experiences. The logic of such expenditures — which are common and ongoing on different scales at many campuses nationally — makes sense only if we view students as customers, as payers of tuition that colleges need to rope in with sweeter and sweeter deals.
We are undeniably in an era where the governing model of education is one that conceives of students as customers. In fact, this cognitive model of how colleges and students relate to one another, that of a business selling to customer, is currently so deeply rooted in how we see and discuss higher education that it can be difficult to even imagine other frames or metaphors for the relationship between educators and those who access that education. In our era of economic survivalism, students are not only customers, but, insidiously, are becoming marks, the unwitting victims propping up an unsustainable model of education.
Here are some of the symptoms of the corrosiveness of the student-as-customer model:
We woo students with slick advertising. Some people feel that, as an industry, higher education over-recruits students. I’m not sure that we do or don’t. Yet, instead of asking the question of whether or not we over-recruit, we simply invest more and more in advertising and public relations endeavors designed to recruit more and more students, perhaps unsustainably so. The fundamental thinking, writing, and analytical development that takes place within the core of liberal studies education (while atrophying, still the core collegiate experience that connects students of all majors at most colleges and universities) benefits all students of all majors, and even students in two-year degree programs. Instead of investing in the liberal studies or general education elements of curricular experience, we recruit, recruit, recruit. Our institutions focus on the point of sale, often to the neglect of the delivery of the educational product.
We extend these student-customers an astounding amount of easy credit. If students are customers, they need money to spend. The student-as-customer model allows us to rationalize (actually, rationalizes for us) the cycles of student-loan debt that increasingly appear to mortgage many young graduates’ futures. Such logic also allows us to write off as unwise those students who accumulate large debts on seemingly “impractical” degrees, without acknowledging the larger cycle of recruitment and easy-credit through which such students are convinced to buy into, literally, their university in the first place.The burden of debt has been shifted onto students in the first place, because state legislatures appear to be less and less inclined to subsidize education, despite it demonstrated long-term benefits, on the very logic that students are “customers” and that we ought not underwrite individual purchases. Not even educational ones that benefit the culture and state at large.
We turn universities into brands. Marquee universities (think state flagships and famous private universities) trade primarily on their brand names. This allows universities to sell the perception of what the university achieves, rather than focusing attention and resources on academics. It also justifies potentially corrupt and exploitative athletic programs in the name of brand recognition and alumni contentment. The impulse to protect the brand also frequently compels universities to shirk responsibility when missteps or scandals occur, rather than immediately taking responsibility and corrective action.
We focus on growth for growth’s sake. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to grow academic programs and colleges and universities. But too many institutions grow for the sake of growing itself, because it is the only way to increase revenue. Such growth is unsustainable, on a variety of fronts. For example, in my state of North Carolina, state funding is tied in part to enrollment growth, and in an era where the state legislature has cut budgets to the bone, one of the few ways for universities to see increased funding is to increase the numbers of students on their campuses, with predictable complications.
We vocationalize higher education. In the student-as-customer model, students and their parents both begin to ask a “what am I buying?” question. A postsecondary education is not a guarantee of success. It is not the straight-forward purchase of a better future. It never has been. But when the entire educational system conceives of students as customers, a burden of responsibility shifts. It shifts from the student, whose responsibility might once have been to go out and put the education to use, to the university, which is increasingly seen as a half-way house to employment. Students, and those who “assess university success,” become fixated on their perception of the end product, a student seated in an office chair, and forget that education is a process, and one that students ought to continue on their own post-graduation. All sorts of higher order thinking is marginalized when we become exclusively fixated on getting students jobs. It is a prime example of privileging short term priorities over long term ones.
The student-as-customer model, because it is premised upon unsustainable growth and unsecured debt, and government abandonment of its responsibilities, is the human equivalent of strip-mining. It is a wholesale mortgage of the future in exchange for fleeting short terms gains. The problem is not even necessarily in having a student-as-customer model, but in assuming that growth, rather than sustainability and equilibrium, is the only forward motion available to higher education.
We know that within the cliché-driven logic of our culture that if students are customers, then the old main street American, folksy business mantra that “the customer is always right” can’t be too far behind. We see the manifestation of the “always right student-customer” everywhere in academe: in grade inflation (who’s going to pay top dollar for Cs and Ds?), in the resort-ification of campuses (come check out our 90-foot climbing wall and palm-shaded socializing pool); in the hesitance to hold students accountable for their behavior (pick your high-profile college athlete crime example, or laughable university honor code); and in the near-pathological zeal with which higher education seeks to turn elements of the curriculum into swappable commodities (think of states’ efforts to create universally transferrable courses or blocks of “general education” or “liberal studies” credits, essentially an exercise in reduction to the lowest common educational denominator).
On campus, the trite but powerful idea that the customer is never wrong also confuses the mission of our universities. In the language of business, the metaphor enables us to forget what our product is. The university itself becomes the product, rather than the education that the university provides. At one of my sister campuses, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, students have begun to speak out against a lavish new recreation center, arguing that it is an unnecessary cost and a distraction from the university’s primary mission.
Off campus, the same logic of student-as-customer cultivates another set of similarly alarming impulses. The mentality treats academic coursework as standardized parts within a Fordian, standardized academic assembly line. The metaphor drives legislation that treats universities as wayward corporations, rather than as the public infrastructure necessary to sustain a vital democracy.
If there’s an upside to thinking of students as customers, I think it is that the model reminds us that we and our universities are directly accountable to students. Ours is a role of service, direct service to the students we enroll, and indirect service to the society those students will populate and some day run. We are accountable to manage university resources — human, financial, and other — around the primary mission of providing education. We are and ought to be accountable to students and to taxpayers. But the student-as-customer model makes us accountable to the wrong values, to purely financial motives, and at the neglect of the many idealistic, ethical, and democratic motives for expanding access to higher education.
Nate Kreuter is an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University and a career advice columnist for Inside Higher Ed.