Viewing Students as “Consumers”

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Recently I have noticed a number of news stories focussing on issues of higher education. These have examined topics from the dwindling number of tenure-track positions, states’ decreasing ability to subsidize public education, and the related problem of escalating tuitions at public universities. One would certainly get a sense from the media attention that higher education in the United States is in a state of crisis. Now comes a new study by two sociologists at New York University and the University of Virginia that purports to show American college students study and learn little in their first two years of schooling. Publication of the study led to further debate in the New York Times and an astonishing number of reader comments and responses. If the point is to focus attention on the issue of academic standards and the value of the higher education in the U.S., then mission accomplished.

I found the debate and a number of the comments fascinating. As a young teacher I also found the debate directly related to my experience as someone at the start of her academic career. I am teaching at a highly selective, liberal arts college with high academic standards. My students would definitely not be in the category of those who read less than 40 pages a week and write less than 20 pages a semester. In many respects, then, it would seem that I am in a happy minority of professors at academically rigorous institutions with good and hardworking students. Yet, at the end of the semester, at this school, as at pretty much every college, the tables are turned and students are given the opportunity to evaluate their instructors. The course evaluation commonly ask students to rank (from 1 to 5 or 6, usually) the difficulty of the course, the relevance of the readings, the timeliness of grading, among other questions. The first time I read through the survey, my first reaction was that the questionnaire placed the weight of learning upon the intructor. More reading, more essays, and tougher grading, the laudable markers of stringent academic standards, would also likely result in a lower “grade” for a course. Since course evaluations are taken into account in tenure review, there is then every incentive for instructors to increase the popularity of a class by creating an “easier” syllabus and handing out higher grades.

If teaching is a vocation, it is also a job. I believe we are paid to teach, with research and time to write as nice perks. The idea of course evaluations makes a lot of sense. Ideally it keeps professors accountable to their students. Ideally it would also help instructors to change aspects of their teaching that do not work. In reality, however, 99.9% of student comments are complaints about 1) the grade and 2) the amount of reading. Evaluations and grading of instructors also reinforce the apparently now culturally acceptable idea in the U.S. that students are primarily consumers, and that they have the same right to shop around in education as they would on Amazon or Ebay. Clearly there are a lot of fundamental issues within higher education. One place to start, I believe, is to get a conversation going about the goals of teaching and learning at the college level and decide whether the current practice of having students “grade” teachers still make sense.

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2 Responses to “Viewing Students as “Consumers””

  1. perkinsy Says:

    Having been a student both in the era when there where there were no student surveys about courses and lecturers and in today’s system where student feedback is requested, I definitely prefer today’s system. People may be nostalgic about the academic system in the past, but my experience was that too many lecturers regarded teaching as an annoying interruption to their research and put no effort into teaching. I cannot say that of any lecturer I had during the degree I completed recently.

    However, I take on board your point that there seems to be a growing culture where students expect everything handed to them without effort on their part. But what are their degrees worth in the end? Any discerning employer would realise after a couple of bad hires that degrees from institutions with students such as these, are not worth as much as from institutions where a good work ethic prevails.

    Ultimately it is in the university’s best interest not to cave into student demands for easy grades. The word will get around that these degrees are not worth so much and demand for student places will diminish.

    I suspect that the reason universities do go soft on students is that they are focussed on maintaining annual enrolments, not on the big picture.

  2. Justin Bengry Says:

    This is an important issue in academia, and one that I don’t think we as educators are going to be able to affect very much. The problem is that this perspective of students as consumers assails us from every side.

    Students have been trained by evaluations, and also simply by a barrage of cultural forces, to see themselves as consumers with a right to demand a product. And while they certainly have the right to demand a superior education, the problem is that many of them feel they are the best ones to evaluate that.

    But worse, I believe, are departmental, university, and state funding pressures that are based on enrollments or economic returns. The courses and programs that attract the most paying consumers are those that seem to be defined as the most valuable and worthy. And those that don’t…well, we have too many examples of respected departments being scaled back or closed altogether in recent months.

    I don’t think it’s doom and gloom though. I have a lot of faith in the ultimate value of the liberal arts, humanities, and the need for us to teach critical thinking skills. I see no problem with us encouraging students to engage critically both with sources/scholars and also the education system which transmits this knowledge and these skills. We can teach that there is value in education, not simply the ‘facts’ and canon of a particular discipline.

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