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.




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