Metaphors for the Student

This year, my freshman writing course is organized around the theme of "Reading Metaphors."  In our lesson on the role of the student, I want students to see how metaphors influence public policy. In Texas over the last 5 years, politicians have used metaphors describing the student as a customer to change evaluation procedures for faculty, changes which received national attention. For example, at Texas A&M, student evaluations became more important, and for a while the university awarded money to professors with high ratings (Student Recognition Awards for Teaching Excellence). Now job postings for the A&M system include "The Texas A&M University system requires excellent customer service skills of all applicants."

To discuss the following selections, students answer the questions posted at the end, which ask them to analyze various metaphors, debate the advantages and disadvantages of each, and choose their favorite. Students tend to enjoy discussing these metaphors because they directly affect them, and the lesson gives me a chance to discuss my own views on the role of students. Out of the following metaphors, students tend to have the hardest time getting the dentist one (4), so I have to guide them more deliberately through it.

1. Truma, Mary “Small MBA program in Austin Pioneers‘ Students as Customers'” Approach to Higher Ed” Oct 2011 American Independent.

Founded seven years ago, an intensive MBA program in Austin pioneered the customer satisfaction philosophy that is driving facets of education reform at other Texas public universities today. The Acton School of Business, a nonprofit institution taught by non-academics in the entrepreneurial field, was born from the collective idea of four former University of Texas at Austin professors. Since its inception, the one-year program has rewarded its instructors with financial bonuses based on weekly student evaluation reviews. The questionnaires ask students to rate their professor and course experience on a five-point scale. High professor ratings can lead to a $30,000 bonus, while low ratings nudge professors out at semester’s end. A forced curve system is said to circumvent bias from students based on grades.

“We are very focused on students as customers,” said co-founder Jeff Sandefer, an oil and gas entrepreneur. Ranked by BusinessWeek as one of the top 10 entrepreneurship professors in the country, Sandefer likened the classroom to a free market. “We break the idea that promotes ‘teacher as parent’ and ‘teacher as approver.’ We let classes set their own level which is always further ahead than ours.”

2. Fish, Stanley “Deep in the Heart of Texas June 21, 2010 New York Times.

A number of responses to my column about my high school education rehearsed a story of late-flowering gratitude after an earlier period of frustration and resentment. “I had a college experience like yours,” the poster typically said, “and I hated it and complained all the time about the homework, the demands and the discipline; but now I am so pleased that I stayed the course and acquired skills that have served me well throughout my entire life.”        

Now suppose those who wrote in to me had been asked when they were young if they were satisfied with the instruction they were receiving? Were they getting their money’s worth? Would they recommend the renewal of their teachers’ contracts? I suspect the answers would have been “no,” “no” and “no,” and if their answers had been taken seriously and the curriculum they felt oppressed by had been altered accordingly, they would not have had the rich intellectual lives they now happily report, or acquired some of the skills that have stood them in good stead all these years.

The relationship between present action and the judgment of value is different in other contexts. If a waiter asks me, “Was everything to your taste, sir?”, I am in a position to answer him authoritatively (if I choose to). When I pick up my shirt from the dry cleaner, I immediately know whether the offending spot has been removed. But when, as a student, I exit from a class or even from an entire course, it may be years before I know whether I got my money’s worth, and that goes both ways. A course I absolutely loved may turn out be worthless because the instructor substituted wit and showmanship for an explanation of basic concepts. And a course that left me feeling confused and convinced I had learned very little might turn out to have planted seeds that later grew into mighty trees of understanding. “Deferred judgment” or “judgment in the fullness of time” seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching…

Now an entire state is on the brink of implementing [a “customer satisfaction” style of teaching]. Backed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, the plan calls for college and university teachers to contract with their customers — that is, students — and to be rewarded by as much as $10,000 depending on whether they meet the contract’s terms. The idea is to hold “tenured professors more accountable” (“A&M regents push reforms,” The Eagle, June 13, 2010), and what they will be accountable to are not professional standards but the preferences of their students, who, in advance of being instructed, are presumed to be authorities on how best they should be taught. A corollary proposal is to shift funding to the student-customers by giving them vouchers. One respondent to the June 13 story in The Eagle got it exactly right: “In the recent past, A&M announced that it wanted to be a top ten public university. Now it appears to be announcing it wants to be an investment firm, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, and a car dealership.”

3. Bermudez,  Jose Luis Students are not college customers Sept. 2011 Houston Chronicle
Are students customers? For some, understanding that students are customers is the key to solving ongoing budget problems. For others, even mentioning the words "student" and "customer" in the same sentence is betraying the fundamental principles of higher education. Who is right?

Universities certainly have customers. For us at Texas A&M University, the state of Texas is a customer and we serve it in many ways. We provide a high-quality education to young Texas women and men, enhancing the skills of the work force. Students and faculty work together on research improving the economy and quality of life in Texas. And the university itself is a powerful economic engine for the local community. In some respects our students are obviously part of the customer base. Universities are in the restaurant and hotel business. They are subject to the same constraints and obligations as any other restaurant or hotel. Likewise for athletics facilities and tickets to sporting or artistic events.

Image of a male customer at a store counter. Background sign reads, "The customer is always right." The man and woman behind the counter say, "We've talked it over and we've decided that you must not really be a customer."
But these services are not part of our core mission as a leading research university. Our mission is to create and transmit knowledge. We create knowledge by doing research. And we transmit knowledge by teaching. This is the heart of the issue. Even though we are transmitting knowledge to students, that doesn't make them customers. The real customers are the people on whose behalf we educate our students. This includes the state of Texas; the government agencies, private companies and branches of the armed forces that employ our students; and it includes all those whose lives are enriched by contact with graduates of a great university driven by academic excellence and its own unique spirit.

It is true that students and their families pay for the education that universities provide. But there are things that we pay for without thereby becoming customers. It is better to think of the money students pay for their education as an investment. They are investing both in their own future and in the university to which they have entrusted their education. We can measure the return that students receive on this investment. It takes different forms. One is financial. Texas A&M provides an outstanding "payback ratio" when graduate-earning levels are compared to tuition, fees and living costs. In fact, Texas A&M was recently ranked first in the nation for its payback ratio by Smart Money magazine. There are other, indirect, forms of return on investment. I have met many in Texas and elsewhere who have told me how their lives have been transformed by a single, transformative learning experience — often in an arts or literature course in the College of Liberal Arts.

[The current budgetary climate] will involve discussions with many different groups of stakeholders, customers and investors. But these discussions will only be constructive when we move beyond the idea that students themselves are customers. Universities do have customers. And they educate students on behalf of those customers. But the students themselves are not the customers.

4. Taylor, John S. “Absolutely the Best Dentist” Abbreviated. The School Administrator (2000)

My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don't forget checkups. He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me. And, at 52, I've still got all my teeth. When I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he'd heard about the state’s new initiative to help him succeed in his work. I knew he'd think it was great....

"Did you hear about the new state program to measure the effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I said. “They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14 and 18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating. Dentists will be rated as Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average and Unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. It will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better," I said. "Poor dentists who don’t improve could lose their licenses to practice in South Carolina."

"But that's not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry."

"Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me."

"Well, it's so obvious," he said. "Don't you see that dentists don’t all work with the same clientele? So much depends on things we can’t control.”

"For example," he went on, "I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don’t bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem and I don't get to do much preventive work.

"Also, many of the parents I serve have allowed their kids to consume way too much candy and soda from an early age, unlike more-educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay.

"To top it all off," he continued, "so many of my clients have well water that is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"

"In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average or worse. My more-educated patients who see these ratings may believe this so-called state rating actually is a measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I’ll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?"

The program still sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, "How else would you measure good dentistry?"

"Come watch me work," he said. "Observe my processes."

"That's too complicated and time consuming," I said. "Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."

"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score on a test of children’s progress without regard to influences outside the school, the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."

5. Pausch, Randy. The Last Lecture (2008)

I don’t fully reject the customer-service model, but I think it’s important to use the right industry metaphor. It’s not retail. I’d compare college tuition to paying for a personal trainer at an athletic club. We professors play the roles of trainers, giving people access to the equipment (books, labs, our expertise) and after that, it’s our job to be demanding. We need to make sure that students are exerting themselves. We need to praise them when they deserve it and to tell them honestly when they have it in them to work harder. Most importantly, we need to let them know how to judge for themselves how they’re coming along. The great thing about working out at a gym is that if you put in effort, you get very obvious results. The same can be true of college. A professor’s job is to teach students how to see their minds growing in the same way they can see their muscles grow when they look in a mirror.

6. Perry, David M. "Faculty Members are Not Cashiers." The Chronicle for Higher Ed 17 March 2014.

For years now, corporate language and thinking has invaded academe....[T]he attempt to shift the world of higher education into the business paradigm seems rational to administrators: Without customers--i.e., students--faculty jobs will be cut, programs shuttered, and staff members 'downsized.'

Meanwhile, students (and their families) are taking on ever-increasing amounts of debt, paying higher tuition, and fearing they will never earn enough to make those costs worthwhile....They've paid their money--or they will over the next 30 years or so--now they want service.

But public discourse has consequences for how we think and act...Students who believe that they are mere customers are selling themselves short, as are the faculty members and administrators who apply business-speak to the classroom. Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that...

Perhaps I'm a romantic, but I believe in teaching as a vocation and a craft, not a sale. I believe that it's possible to turn a class into a microcommunity of learners and teachers. Such an approach yields some of the power back to the students and makes us collaborators, all governed by expectations, feedback, evaluations, and conversations.

7. hooks, bell. "Teaching as Prophetic Vocation." Teaching Critical Thinking (2010), page 181.

The more I teach, the more I learn that teaching is a prophetic vocation. It demands of us allegiance to integrity of vision and belief in the face of those who would either seek to silence, censor, or discredit our words. In Jim Wallis's book The Soul of Politics he maintains that the prophetic vocations requires us to be "bold in telling the truth and ready to uphold an alternative vision--one that enables people to imagine new possibilities." The prophetic dimension of teaching is the least recognized in our nation.

Questions for Discussion

1. What metaphors for student and teacher does each author embrace?
2. What metaphors does each author reject?
3. Analyze the implications of these metaphors—think deeply. What are the connotations and associations with each metaphor for the student?
4. What are the benefits of each metaphor? What are the problems? Do you think any of these metaphors are false analogies? Why or why not? Which metaphors seems most appropriate?

More articles on the Topic

Anya Kamenetz, "Student Course Evaluations get an 'F'" NPR Ed 26 Sept. 2014.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, "The Discomfort Zone: Want to teach your students about structural racism? Prepare for a formal reprimand." Slate 3 Dec. 2013.

Michael S. Roth, "How Four Years Can and Should Transform You" New York Times 30 Aug. 2013.

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