I am not your friend, but I do want students to feel comfortable approaching me. And I am not “Mr.” That would be my father.
Last week in this same space, Katrina Gulliver, made an argument regarding “an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates” that directly implicated white male faculty for “resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority.” I have witnessed this alleged epidemic in my very own classroom; and I have — much to the chagrin of Gulliver — done nothing to prevent it. Some, in fact, may even accuse me of silently fostering it.
Who I am is a white, male, millennial faculty member and college administrator who prefers creating a respectful environment in which my students are afforded the greatest opportunity for success without worrying about the same interaction in other classrooms. I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. That’s not my goal, however: I did not pursue a doctoral degree with visions of becoming Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society." Instead, I worry about making sure I deserve the respect of my students rather than expecting my title or position to simply demand it. I want students to respect me as an individual, not solely for my role, title, or degrees.
I strongly believe there is no need to rest on my apparent genetic laurels. I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom. And more importantly, I think it has little to do with why students can respect me despite knowing my first name and using it if they feel so inclined. The underlying current of any college classroom involves a faculty member who is supposed to be more educated then the students on the topic being covered and understanding that this person will control assessment and grading. No matter how formal or informal interactions may be between faculty and students, those facts rest squarely in the backdrop of everything. If what students call me determines whether I am respected or not, I’m not deserving to be in a classroom.
Rather than worry incessantly about how an email is drafted, I am thankful students are asking questions. On the first day of class I consciously do not demand to be referred to by any particular title. There is no need for a lecture on why I want to be called Dr. Miller, Professor, Will, or even Master of the Universe. I may have a reputation for being laid-back and getting good teaching evaluations, but I also carry a hefty DWF percentage. Being informal does not imply that I am an easy A. In fact, I’d argue the opposite. If students respect me as an individual, I firmly believe I am able to push students to do more because of that mutual respect.
In an era of discussions throughout higher education about flipped classrooms, student engagement, and whether faculty should be a sage on the stage or a guide by their side, some faculty seem to be forgetting the importance of place, comfort, and feel in determining how to run their classes and manage their relationships with students. Like Gulliver, I did not use first names with my undergraduate instructors and still struggle using the first name of my dissertation chair. In fact, I still have nightmares about accidentally slipping and using the first name of a particular faculty member during an office hours meeting and the subsequent tongue lashing I received. Yet I did not lose respect for her nor her for me. Because the interaction fit the expectation for that particular faculty member.
And that is my major concern with the line of reasoning used by Gulliver yesterday. Without question, certain colleges, programs, and student bodies necessitate different levels of familiarity between faculty and students. Even perhaps more importantly students do need to be exposed to professional work behavior. Unlike Gulliver, however, I believe a part of that process is being able to navigate different environments and interactions. Students are fully capable of discerning what is acceptable with one faculty member and is not with another. If we look at today’s work environment, it is hard to believe that a student would fare well attempting to enter the workplace at Zappos.com or Google if they demonstrated the type of behavior Gulliver mandates with students.
In short, it is about fit. I am at time envious of my friends and colleagues who wear bow ties, five piece suits, or even just sports coats to class every day. But that’s not me. And I do not view colleagues any differently who wear Vans and comic book t-shirts into the classroom. What I wear, how I allow students to address me, and the way I conduct class sessions does not make me an inferior instructor or complicit in some alleged epidemic of familiarity. In my experience, it creates the learning environment that I feel best allows students in my classes to succeed.
Faculty should make expectations clear to students, but in an era where higher education faces regular attacks from outside actors, should we really be casting stones at each other regarding interpersonal style and choices? So, Dr. Gulliver, I apologize for not helping you out. But, in the grand scheme of things, I am considerably more concerned with making an environment that works for my students and I then worrying about you thinking I’m “down with the kids.” After all, am I not here for the kids? There is an important difference between formality and professionalism that appears to be misunderstood by some in the academy. I feel more comfortable teaching in jeans and being called Will than being Dr. Miller with a necktie on. Yet I’d welcome someone to attend one of my classes and suggest that I am ineffective as an instructor for these reasons.
Will Miller is director of institutional research and effectiveness and teaches at Flagler College.
Is it just me, or are we witnessing an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates?
They’re all calling me by my first name. Is this happening in your classroom too?
I’m not that much older than a lot of my students, generationally (I’m apparently just on the cusp between being an echo-boomer and a millennial, for those who keep track -- but old enough I don’t think they’re mistaking me for a fellow undergrad). However, I feel like their grandmother when I receive their emails, and clutch my pearls when I get a message addressed to “Hi Katrina” (or just “hi”) from students I haven’t even met.
Perhaps this has struck me particularly as I went from living in Germany, where even to colleagues I was “Frau Gulliver,” to teaching in Australia where students seem surprised I even have a last name.
As an undergraduate I never addressed my teachers by their first names (and I walked 10 miles a day, neck deep in snow ... believe me, I KNOW how fogeyish this all sounds); for me becoming a grad student and getting onto first names with my adviser was a big step. I’ve felt it sends a message to graduate students that they are more like colleagues than undergraduates.
I address my undergraduates as Ms. or Mr., in the classroom and when I reply to their emails. Some get the hint but many are apparently oblivious. I’ve tried joking about it when students use my first name in class, or writing in emails that I do not do first names with undergrads. It’s hard not to come off as uptight, and some students seem genuinely surprised. Other times it’s clearly an attempt to rile me with some disrespect (typically coming from male students who like to undermine female authority).
But I understand that students are often confused about how to approach their teachers at university. The world of academic ranks is all pretty confusing to anyone outside it, and the various titles on people’s doors doesn’t really help (Do any associate professors and vice presidents people get emails addressed to “Dear Associate” or “Dear Vice”?).
Add to that the fact that many undergraduates will be in classes led by T.A.s who tend to go by first names (and are themselves graduate students). I think this is where part of the confusion starts for undergraduates. They’re not clear on all of the respective statuses of the teachers they encounter.
Into this mix too there is of course a gender dimension. I’m often addressed in class as “Miss.” I recently asked students about this, and I was told it was a habit from high school, where they were used to addressing their teachers in high school as “Miss” or “Sir.” I pointed out that these terms are hardly equal, and that they are quite welcome to call me Sir (nobody took me up on that one).
I’ve always been of the view that I don’t want to undermine my own authority in the classroom by dressing like the students, inviting them to use my first name, or making any other gestures towards “being down with the kids.” I find many other female academics also take this approach.
To add to the confusion, in most departments there is the species of (white) male professor, who wants to be seen as “cool” (you know the one, who shows up dressed like he’s come to mow the lawn), who invites all the youngsters to “call me Dave,” resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority. If you’re one of these guys: you are not helping the rest of us.
(For those who are going to slam me for being uptight, watch your privilege).
I also feel it’s our job to teach students how to behave in a professional setting, and not sending the kind of emails that are all lower-case is part of it. (Lisa Wade quoted the hilariously awful email she received from a student when she was visiting another university to give a talk -- read it here.) Addressing someone you don’t know by their first name is also something that won’t always win you any prizes in the real world.
So I’ll keep insisting on formality from my students, even if they make comments about my being pedantic or bossy on their student evaluations. And I thank goodness I’m not the friend of mine who received an email from a student that started “hello kitten.”
Katrina Gulliver teaches at the University of New South Wales.
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.