• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Prof. Laura

Clear lines.

September 3, 2014

In the past I have complained when I see students (and their parents) treating college attendance as a consumer commodity. It sometimes seems that what they want out of the experience compares to ordering fast food from a restaurant drive-through window. My colleagues have put forward to students alternative models to frame their experience. One of the most interesting I’ve heard compares the collegiate professor/student relationship to a professional doctor/patient interaction. In this example, a patient can choose a doctor and expect a certain level of customer service from the office staff, but no one would presume to tell the doctor how to treat a patient. Of course, I’m not sure this analogy still holds true today, as I know of many friends who walk into their doctor’s office already self-diagnosed with the help of websites like WebMD and a proposed prescription as suggested by televised big pharma ads.

I’ve always felt that the line between faculty and students must be made clear. At the end of the day, the faculty member must assess each student’s work and assign a grade. These days, though, it seems a new age of collegiate customer service is obfuscating this line. Private liberal arts colleges increasingly struggle to stay solvent (though this concern may be misguided). Colleges seek ever more creative ways to recruit new students, and retention has become a mantra for just about every school. In other words, the implicit message is that students need to be happy in order to come to your college and stay.

Nate Kreuter has persuasively argued that the customer service model leads to confusion over whether a student’s education or the college itself is the product, yet faculty are increasingly called upon to offer students a more “customer friendly” atmosphere. We are increasing our advising load, making ourselves available for more events, answering parents’ email messages (with proper FERPA waivers in place), and listening to students tell us about their work/life challenges.

On the one hand, a more customer-friendly approach can lead to positive outcomes. I think students who are spending a significant amount of money to attend schools should have a right to not be closed out of classes, experience a smooth registration process, and have access to excellent teaching. Yet, I am not interested in catering to a millennial generation used to clicking a button to get what they want. What happens when their every request cannot be accommodated? The reality is that, while all students should have access to the classes they need, everyone cannot enroll into the most coveted time slots. While students should be able to discuss with faculty their concerns about a class, they shouldn’t feel entitled to demand that a faculty member change their teaching method or syllabus. While faculty should be in touch with students, they should not feel pressured to answer emails at all times of the day and night (as I’ve explored in my previous post).

On the first day of class, I tell my students that they may call me Dr. Tropp, Professor Tropp, or Laura. I explain that I prefer not to be referred to as Mrs., Miss, or Ms. Tropp, because if they insist on using a title within our context, they should use my academic title. Plus, I do not like the marital status question defined by the first two. Now, though, I’m wondering if the use of Laura implies a familiar relationship that we do not have. After all, I’m not their friend, but their professor or chairperson.

Do you find that the boundaries between faculty and students have burred too much? How do you serve students’ needs while preserving a professional relationship? What is unique about this generation of students, and what are perennial conflicts?


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