The Professor as Personal Trainer

Academics worry too much about consumer values in higher education, but Alex Golub writes that it's not about the money -- it's about the relationship.

October 24, 2005

When asked to list the top 10 problems facing the academy today, I bet most professors would include the "commodification" of education. By that they mean a sort of creeping penetration of market-forces into the academy such that earning a B.A. is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from, say, buying a Camaro.

As an adjunct I am not privy to the way this trend has altered the wider institutional structure of higher education, beyond noticing that that very little of the tuition my students pay finds its way back to me. However, as someone who regularly teaches service courses I have extensive experience with bread and butter teaching, and I am familiar with what "commodification" is supposed to mean in this context: the idea that professors are expected to produce "customer satisfaction" in their students, and students are supposed to actually "enjoy" the classes they take.

The blogosphere is full of rants by tenured, pseudonymous faculty members about how terrible this sort of thing is. I must admit, I've always been skeptical that these fears are overblown. Too often, concerns about commodification seem to be nothing but the digital version of the litany of excuses that cynical, mediocre teachers have made since time immemorial. What is often missing from this sort of kvetching is some sort of positive theory of pedagogy -- a vision of how things ought to be, which is more than some warmed over nostalgia for The Good Old Days. In my opinion, it's not about the money, it's about the relationship: There are a wealth of interactions that are mediated by monetary concerns, and some of them are good and some of them are not. The question is then which of them you as an educator choose to model yourself on. I think of myself as my students' personal trainer: I help them develop minds -- rather than buns -- of steel.

Like pretty much everyone, I cringe when people demand "customer satisfaction" or when people suggest that "academic freedom" means a student's freedom from exposure to viewpoints they dislike. But are these the biggest problems we as educators face? In my experience, a more worrying development is an emphasis on credentialing rather than educating. Students who I've encountered at the various universities where I've adjuncted are less worried about achieving a state of satisfaction than earning an A, and approach classes more concerned about the cultivation of their transcript than their sensibilities.

These students don't think of college as something to enjoy; they think of it as a sort of amoral, Hobbesian struggle where they will use any means necessary to produce a college record that will get them a job. Obviously, trying to get a great grade in a course is not exactly antithetical to learning, but underlying this concern with credentialing is a very particular understanding of what is being bought and sold when tuition changes hands. While this shift of emphasis from earning an A to actually learning something can be subtle at times, it does ultimately make it difficult for my students to understand what I am doing when I act as their personal trainer.

I like the image of the personal trainer because it provides a positive account of what people are getting for their money without modeling my job on retail or fast food. I provide students an opportunity to undergo a personal transformation -- an opportunity which they may or may not take advantage of. If you want to loose 20 pounds of intellectual flab, you can spend three hours a week in classes with me and I will show you how to do it. But I can't make you do anything, and if you never exercise at home by doing your home work and reading, you are never going to acquire the lean, rock-hard intellect that so many employers swoon over.

To be sure, if you stick around long enough you will have a piece of paper that certifies that you graduated, and that's a useful thing to have. But ultimately what I try to provide my student are capabilities, not certifications. I want them to come out of my classes more able to become whoever they want to be than they were before I met them. Unlike the mediocre professor who argues that their students can't learn, I firmly believe all of my students are capable of undergoing this personal transformation provided I can live up to my end of the bargain. Of course, just because they can doesn't mean they will. So I believe that while I can lead my students to water, I can't make them think. That last step is up to them.

Another reason I like the idea of the personal trainer is that it helps underline another, very un-PC aspect of the teacher-student relationship that I believe in quite strongly despite the prevailing egalitarianism of our times: I don't think students necessarily know what they want or need out of an education -- like Odysseus or Cinderella, they need patrons willing to use their awesome magical powers so that they can fulfill their destiny. I'm often struck by pedagogies that oppose the commodification of education with a notion that instead of producing customers who are satisfied they should be turning out students who feel "empowered." My hunch is that this sort of talk is already infected by a commodification which these teachers consider to be so tainting. I'm reminded of a line I heard recently from (of all people!) a Unitarian pastor who remarked to me that he didn't want his congregants to have a better self-image -- he wanted them to have better selves.

Similarly, I believe that empowering students and making them feel empowered are closely related but sneakily different educational strategies. Indeed, if there is one thing that I learned in my decade-long career in graduate school, it is that a mix of guilt, anxiety, and raw animal fear is a much surer path to greatness than confidence in your own abilities. My point is not that I think students learn best when they are miserable. My point is simply that, unlike the Spice Girls, I do not often ask my audience what they want, what they really really want. I just let them know that they are going to get it. To this extent I think teaching is like the menus of truly superb prix fixe French restaurant, which often simply read "five courses of fish in progressively complex sauces." They didn’t elaborate, because the chef was clearly more capable of deciding what you ought to eat than you were. The client, after all, waits on the soufflé -- not the other way around.

This example of fine dining illustrates yet another reason I'm suspicious of critics of the "commodification" of the classroom: they treat "the business world" as one pathological, undifferentiated whole, when in fact there are a variety of different kinds of relationships that people have with those they pay. Music lessons provide an even more embodied exemplification of how a relationship might be mediated by money and yet be more than merely "commodified": the deeply incarnated, emancipatory joy I felt the first time my voice teacher made my body produce effortless high A's was almost as intense as the luminous, geeky bliss I had felt years before after finishing Heidegger's analysis of das Mann in the first division of Being and Time. It was something that I knew was right the first time I felt it, and yet it was something I was not able to do on my own. So in some ways the chef, the professor, and the voice teacher are aligned: Even if we know what students want better than they do, we've all seen that click of revelation in their faces when they realize that they have finally gotten it. And let's face it: You probably wouldn't be reading this if you yourself had not had the scales fall from your own eyes at least once in your life, and are now addicted to being on the teaching end of that experience.

I recently read a blog entry from the superb Web design company 37 Signals, where the designers noted that "nobody knows what they really want before they get it. Not consumers, not conference goers, not programmers, and certainly not clients. Delivering greatness requires you to let go of the safety in mediocrity where you just do as you’re told." For people working in an industry where the client is always right, this is quite an insight. But this shouldn't be news to us in the academy. 37 Signals’s willingness to come to where the flavor is helps to remind educators wary of creeping consumerism that companies that Get It -- and 37 Signals is certainly that -- are moving in the exact opposite direction of the trend that they fear. It turns out that business is done best when it is inspired by models of vision and mentoring drawn from the academy, and not the other way around. Is the taint of filthy lucre so great that we should be afraid to borrow back if we see something we like?


Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa while looking for permanent work. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.


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