consumer metaphors, Higher Education

It’s Not Customer Service

Many of us in the field of higher education flinch when we hear things that take place at universities described as “customer service.”  Customer service implies a consumer metaphor, most closely associated with sales and repeat shoppers.  Customers make purchases and decide if they are happy with them  or not. They are not required to put in an effort to achieve that potential happiness, the responsibility lies with the product, not the  consumer.  This is the opposite of education.

It is the case that our students and their families are making a significant financial investment in their futures.  Tuition, plus the cost of supporting oneself while in college, can range from $10,000 to $25,000 per year at WCSU and much more elsewhere. It is fair to want some promise of quality as part of the bargain.  It is also fair to expect a campus community to strike a civil tone and try to be helpful.  But, the burden of success is on the student.

Let me illustrate. If you were to decide you wanted to become a pianist, you might start by investing in a piano.  No matter how wonderful the piano (perhaps you can afford a Steinway), and no matter how responsive the company who sold it to you, the burden of succeeding as a pianist is on you.  The same can be said of the piano lessons.  A great teacher may inspire you, or have a neat trick for remembering your scales, but in the end, there are hours in practice rooms required for any measure of mastery.  And that practicing is generally on your own and often tedious.

The same is true of learning chemistry, or literature, or marketing.  Universities can invest in highly qualified faculty (perhaps a few Harvard or MIT grads, but certainly a lot of folks with Ph.D.s from well respected universities).  The faculty then take the time to organize information and resources in a way that they think will best help students achieve some measure of mastery in a subject (perhaps offering a neat trick for remembering the periodic table), but in the end there are hours in study carrels, often alone, frequently tedious. No matter how much we spend on our education or how much we love a subject, those difficult hours working through problems and texts must be spent.

Education is not something we receive (or purchase), it is something we actively pursue.  And while we’re on the subject, grades are not something received or given, they are something earned. Sometimes we struggle, sometimes we triumph, but always we are responsible for our pursuit of knowledge.

This does not mean there is no room for complaint or questions or improvement at a university.  Students are routinely asked for feedback in courses, and that feedback is taken into consideration as faculty continuously design and redesign their courses.  We also take seriously patterns in outcomes, looking for best ways to support learning in courses that appear to present extraordinary challenges.  We regularly examine our practices in advising and tutoring to make sure we are supporting our students well.  And like many other universities, WCSU is working hard to simplify complex processes that sometimes keep students from succeeding.

Education is complex and student needs varied. It is important that universities actively engage in questions about the quality of what we do and work to support the success of students with those varied needs. It is important that our curriculum reflect current thinking on a subject. It is important that our pedagogies reflect current thinking about teaching. It is important that we set a civil tone in all areas, especially when nerves are frayed and we all feel like we’ve done all we can.

But none of this is customer service.  It is a coordinated effort to create an environment that supports student success in their efforts to learn.




Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Cultivating Curiosity

Curiosity. We value the questions that drive learning, innovation, and creativity, which serve as the beginning and the desired outcome of education.

— Western Connecticut State University Core Value

This statement emerged during a three-year process of revising our mission, vision, and values statement, as part of the development of our strategic plan. It is my favorite part of the whole thing.  While nearly everything else speaks to the institution, this statement celebrates the very purpose of education.

But what next?  Can we make this value statement an action statement? Should we try to do so?

For those of us who decided to pursue advanced degrees, curiosity is likely second nature. We find our disciplines fascinating, and care enough about the contexts of our knowledge to pursue connections to other disciplines.  We certainly didn’t like everything we studied, but we enjoyed enough to develop inquiring minds.  As we moved into careers in higher education, many of us had to adjust to the realities of the classroom.  As it turns out, not everyone is passionate about our discipline and not everyone approaches learning with an interest in the broader context.  Quite the opposite appears to be true.

It is a kind of culture shock at the start.  We dive into teaching assuming that our passions will be shared by our students.  Yet, in nearly every class, there are students who simply want to pass the class.  Our passions are not intrinsically interesting to them.  Nor do they see education as interdisciplinary linkages.  It is more compartmentalized, with courses experienced in isolation, not connected to a whole.  This realization can make us despair and ask the silliest question of all, “Why aren’t they like us”?

Let’s start with the obvious.  Lots of them are like us.  We were the engaged students, in classrooms full of students who were less so. Those engaged students are in all of our classes, alongside those who are simply satisfying requirements. They are different from us because they grew up in another era, and we may need new teaching strategies, but they are still curious and seeking a meaningful educational experience.

As far as the compartmentalization of education, well that’s on us.  If we are not intentional in helping our students see the connections between their learning experiences and if we do not make clear that the undergraduate experience is something more than the sum of its parts, then it will be experienced as a disconnected list.  The extreme version of this was recently expressed to me by a student who was outraged that she had 30 more credits to complete for her degree, with no particular requirements in those credits. She had completed general education and her major and felt that we were simply collecting money for credits because there was no point to the rest of it.  I tried, and failed, to explain otherwise, but everything about her experience validated her assessment of the situation.

Then there is the career language.  Many (most) of our students come to us with goals that drive their educational decisions. They want careers and, if possible, some measure of financial security, that will make the investment in education worthwhile. Given the cost of education and the public discourse surrounding it, these are not unreasonable goals.

So, how do we support curiosity as a core value?  How do we cultivate the asking of questions?  Nothing short of a revolution is required.

We’ve been dabbling.  Professors have flipped classrooms, used clickers, developed applied learning opportunities. They’ve employed universal design, tried learning modules, and talked about badges and competency-based education.  All of this tells me something is shifting. But these experiments are random and experienced in isolation as students happen to encounter an adventurous professor.

Some of that randomness is good.  Education shouldn’t be cookie cutter and predictable. But we need something more than serendipity to engage our students in the kind of learning we love. This isn’t nostalgic impulse (why aren’t they like us), but a commitment to the power curiosity gives us to grow and develop as each new challenge and opportunity arises.  Our current structure is not organized to cultivate curiosity: It is organized for tests and  trivia contests.

I’m not sure what the end of the revolution should look like but I offer three guiding principles for the redesign.

Principal 1: Include students in the design of courses.  Instead of having a syllabus on day one, let’s bring a list of goals and content for students to shape and develop with us. This is very hard work for faculty, but consider the potential for engagement.  If students are asked to co-design the course,  they may be more invested in generating questions and following lines of inquiry. Perhaps we could also encourage them to consider why the topic is worth studying at all.

Principal 2: End all courses with a discussion of follow-up questions.  Make sure those questions are not just in the discipline of the specific course, but connect them to the many other places where questions about the subject might be asked and answered.

Principal 3: Make room for students to follow up on those questions.  This means that our degrees cannot be so over-structured that students have no room to follow a question into another discipline.

There is so much more to do, but these three ideas offer a start.  If we take these steps, perhaps we’ll be able to better answer the question of our value in terms that aren’t about returns on investment or career preparation.  Perhaps we can truly answer that the value of the undergraduate experience is the development of the habit of curiosity that empowers our students to create satisfying and productive lives.

Dialogue, Higher Education

Either/Or Thinking

Election day has come and gone, and as we continue to imagine the impact of the results, I am struck by the problem of the red vs. blue frame.  Last Tuesday, and every day since, numerous media outlets presented red and blue maps to represent broad swaths of voting patterns, ostensibly characterizing the attitudes of an entire state.  We know this red or blue frame isn’t quite right. The lived experience of our attitudes is far more complex than this simple either red or blue suggests.

General Semantics calls this either/or thinking a two-valued orientation.  Two-valued orientations focus on the extremes of arguments, leaving little room for dialogue because they specifically exclude all the ambiguities in the middle. Two-valued orientation is great for dramatic effect and defining clear battle lines, but it isn’t very helpful when trying to solve real problems. If education is meant to help us solve real problems, and I think it is, then we need to move past the this two-valued stalemate.

One way to get beyond or between the poles of an argument is with another general semantics concept called an abstraction ladder.  Abstraction ladders allow us to move to higher and lower levels of specificity revealing inclusion and exclusion of ideas at each level. For example:

  • Education (most abstract)
  • Higher Education
  • Public Higher Education
  • WCSU (least abstract).

Large statements about education are useful when we want to discuss a broadly educated citizenry, but less so when we want to focus on access to affordable post-secondary degrees.  Defining levels of abstraction can help us clarify the topic under discussion and refine our arguments.  It can also help undermine our either/or tendencies by illuminating the larger and smaller categories of our concepts and how they may be intertwined.

Our political information environments frequently force us into two-valued thinking. In an effort to predict (or drive) voter behavior, the salient issues of a particular election cycle are lumped into red and blue.

  • Gun control 
  • Pro-business
  • Affordable Healthcare 
  • Strong military 
  • Pro-environment 

But none of these issues are red or blue. These categories reduce to nonsense much larger and complicated discussions about how to achieve safety and security for all people.  Shown under the safety and security heading, we might find a gun control advocate who hunts, a veteran for affordable healthcare, or an entrepreneur promoting environmentally responsible energy solutionsWe know this is true. It is the lived experience of talking with our neighbors every day.

Red and Blue are convenient tropes for storytelling, and they frequently make it appear that we have more divisions than common ground.  And when we add the power of selective exposure, made infinitely possible through both social media and streaming television programming, those tropes become nearly insurmountable.  They don’t shape dialogue, they stop it.

So, what can those of us who work in education do to help our students and ourselves resist the two-valued orientations of election cycles and embrace concepts like abstraction ladders as a tool to see connections between attitudes and ideas that are not so easily summarized as red or blue?

As Thomas Jefferson noted, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”  I will add that education must serve as an antidote to either/or thinking and foster the dialogue necessary for informed decisions about complex questions. It’s a challenge but here’s where I’d like to start.

  • Education should prepare people to make informed decisions about complex questions. (most abstract)
  • Higher education should focus on questioning assumptions and evidence in all disciplines.
  • Public higher education should include demonstrated ability to describe the structure of arguments as a core learning outcome.
  • Western Connecticut State University should include learning opportunities in all Critical Thinking classes that require students to grapple with more than two-sides to a story, question, or debate. (least abstract)

If we meet the challenge, then perhaps we can stop talking about red and blue maps and work to address real problems like water supplies, food production, or access to education for all.

Dialogue, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Election Connection

Last week, in the wake of the violence at the Tree of Life, I wondered if we were doing enough to engage our students in difficult conversations.  One of the challenges faculty face when trying to do so is that a large number of undergraduates feel alienated from politics.  Who can blame them? In a world that favors sound bites over discussion and agonistic tones over evidence, it is hard to feel called to participate. When every “fact” turns out to be at the very least a shaded truth, and sometimes just false, political engagement can seem futile.

I understand the alienation, but to leave it unaddressed would be a failing on the part of education.  We can’t just reveal problems: we must also reveal pathways to solutions. At WCSU, one such pathway to engagement, and perhaps solutions, is a fall course called Election Connection.  


For almost a decade, Dr. JC Barone of our Communication and Media Arts department has been running a television production course focused on local and national elections.  Election Connection invites students to conversations about politics in a really interesting way.  Instead of starting with the issues, the students start with the logistics of producing a quality television show.  Some are tasked with promotional duties, others with casting, and others focus on the local angle of important political issues.  It is wildly popular, with robust enrollments, that include students from multiple disciplines.

The brilliance of this approach is threefold:

  • First, we live in a part of Connecticut that gets very little media coverage, so there is a true need for this show. This need gives it a level of importance that producing for the campus alone would not generate.  Our students run to campaign headquarters to watch the returns. Candidates welcome their presence, and have been known to call in to report results.
  • Second, the casting of the election night broadcast always includes anchors and guests from multiple political perspectives to insure robust dialogue among people who work and study together.  This tends to create some tension, as appropriate, without leading to incivility.  It is also important that the casting blends faculty and student panelists, tearing down some of the barriers that can emerge in the classroom, as students sometimes fear contradicting faculty.  In service to the show, all participants are equal.
  • Third, the production team must produce news packages on important political issues. Students who may not have had any real interest in politics or political processes, suddenly become engaged because they want their story to air.

It all works because, rather than telling students they should be engaged, the are busy pursuing excellence in studio production.  It is the kind of hands-on learning that benefits students by developing tools as media producers and gaining knowledge of the subject at hand.  Dr. Barone sets ground rules that promote inclusive dialogue, diversity of perspectives, and civility. Students rise to the challenge, no longer avoiding tough topics, but digging in for a better understanding of the challenges to consensus.

Today, I salute this innovative approach to teaching. Election Connection truly supports the goals we have for our students, both excellence in media production and a rich understanding of the cultural context for that work.

I look forward to seeing this year’s show.  Check it out at or you can tune in at