"How can I help you?" I try to deliver those words with a smile each time students walk into my office. When they leave, I remind myself to smile again and offer a "Have a nice day!"
Customer-service refrains now permeate my professional life, and to my surprise I find myself meaning them sincerely. I like to help my students. I genuinely hope that, after they leave my office, they do indeed have a nice day.
Four years ago, when I was still a faculty member teaching history, I took to the pages of The Chronicle to fulminate against the notion that professors should treat students like customers ("Faculty Members Are Not Cashiers"). There’s nothing wrong with serving customers, I argued then, but bringing that rhetoric into the classroom is detrimental to professors, to institutions, and, especially, to students. Alas, although the piece was widely read, the spread of pseudocorporate rhetoric continues to dominate too much of what we do in higher education.
Now that I am in an academic-advising position, my work experience is very much in the world of customer service, and I have this to say: I was right all along. We must avoid "customer" language in the classroom, keep corporate mentalities away from learning, and stop referring to a syllabus as a contract.
I have nothing against service. Everyone in higher education could probably spend more time considering what it means to serve — a word that wasn’t really in my vocabulary when I finished graduate school. I was lucky enough to land a tenure-track position at Dominican University, a teaching-oriented campus in the suburbs of Chicago. I arrived there as a secular Jewish medieval historian with no experience at an institution like Dominican, which takes seriously its mission to build a better world. Service is honored there, a stance I came to appreciate as my own career morphed from mild-mannered-medievalist to social-justice-journalist and activist.
Alas, Illinois’s budget woes and long-term priorities in disability funding made the state a poor fit for my family’s long-term needs. So when a job popped up in 2017 as an undergraduate adviser in the history department at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where I’d earned my Ph.D., I jumped at it.
Now, instead of teaching, I manage a roster of more than 350 majors and minors — promoting the major, advocating for the undergraduate curriculum, and trying to provide excellent service. At a university of more than 50,000 students, it’s easy for an undergraduate to feel lost, so my job on a macro level is to help make our curriculum coherent to each student and to create community among like-minded learners. But also, I’m just here to serve — during brief interactions with students as they show up in my office or via email.
Our relationship, in fact, often becomes explicitly transactional. Students sign up for the program, and I give them a set of simple guidelines to follow. They come with questions, I provide clear answers (or promise to find the answers and follow through). In a classroom, I might direct students to think about how to answer the questions themselves. But not in this position.
What’s more, unlike the iterative, day-to-day interactions between professors and students, I may see a given student only once a year. I serve students’ needs because I want to see them learn and succeed, but I also have a highly specific sense of my financial obligation to them. One of the things that students buy with their tuition dollars is access to good advising. The financial relationship between us is direct.
Think about how different that is from what happens — or should happen — in a classroom. Tuition surely plays a role in student expectations in the classroom, but there the student has not bought answers or a grade. Faculty members create the context in which students themselves do the work, while in my advising job, I do a lot of work on behalf of my students. Showing up to class guarantees a student nothing but the chance to learn. Showing up in my office means that they receive a document laying out the precise requirements to complete a major. That document has a contract-like element. I don’t have the power to alter those requirements for an individual student.
The syllabus, on the other hand, shouldn’t be a contract, even though that language remains widely deployed. Students aren’t buying knowledge with their tuition money; they’re buying an opportunity to learn. While a syllabus contains elements of a promise, it should be viewed more as a map, guiding students on a journey they undertake. I’ve been encouraged to see some activist faculty members, particularly scholars of color, reappropriate that notion of a syllabus. Two examples: the Ferguson syllabus and Trump syllabus. In both, experts lay out a pathway toward understanding and knowledge, rather than artificially asserting that a contractual situation exists in which the customers might buy their way to enlightenment.
In fact, a syllabus doesn’t work like a contract, anyway. A contract is a compact agreed upon by two parties, each of them, ideally, informed of the terms. Some of the legalese-laden syllabi I’ve seen function more like end-user agreements, those vast documents outlining terms of service that we all click "agree" on without actually reading. We don’t know what they say; we just know we have to click agree to get back to Candy Crush.
Students do the same thing with a long, policy-laden syllabus. Sure, writing that sort of a syllabus might help you defend yourself against litigious types later on. But student complaints are not signs that we need to follow the business world in erecting defenses against unsatisfied customers. Rather, they are evidence of the deleterious effects of bringing corporate ideas about customer service into the classroom. You’re inviting consumer lawsuits in the classroom once you cede ground by treating the syllabus (and the classroom as a whole) as a business contract rather than a pedagogical tool.
The modern campus is a complicated place that requires many relationships to work. The problem is that too many of the folks setting the terms of our labor — quite reasonably concerned by the bottom line — want to run all of higher education like a business. It’s not just customer-service rhetoric but also the inexorable rise of metrics that try to quantify the qualitative. They mischaracterize the very nature of learning and push both professors and students into the wrong sorts of transactions, with one side demanding high grades because "they’ve paid," and the other side feeling pressured to give the customers what they want.
The questions I hear from students in my new position are usually discrete and the answers finite. As a historian, I pushed my students to pursue complexity and ask questions. As an adviser, I provide answers.
We need to honor the ways that people engage with students in various jobs across a college campus, and avoid the category collapse that comes from pushing all the types of work we do under the hegemony of customer service.