25 July 2014

Acad Men; or, Entrepreneurial in All the Wrong Places

This right here is why education is not customer service, as described by a math professor in an op-ed piece for the New York Times:
With the college students I teach, it’s a straightforward transaction. They’re paying me to teach them math, and my job is to cajole or incentivize them into doing the work that’s necessary to learn the subject, whether they feel like it or not.
Jordan Ellenberg's point here is that coaching (as in Little-League "have fun while learning the sport" coaching) is a good model for teaching.  Mine is a little different: for administrators and educational entrepreneurs looking to make education cheap and scalable, education has to be equated with the delivery of information, preferably information that can be neatly packaged in textbooks, online courses, and marketable units.  Instructors experience education as a complex interaction: that combination of cajolery, incentivizing, performance, and passion that can cause students to absorb the information that gets delivered.

The customer service model of education (which David Perry has taken down in the CHE) prevents the two sides from noticing that they are talking past each other.  Administrators want their "customers" to buy their brand of academic credential and so strive to create a mutually beneficial and trouble-free commercial transaction. Instructors, too, want happy "customers."  Instructors are acutely aware of how students are responding to a lecture or discussion.  Every classroom interaction provides implicit feedback that a good instructor will use to shape future interactions; many instructors know that they can reach happy, engaged students better than hostile, bored ones and so they look for ways to make their instruction both rigorous and user-friendly.

Teaching is ultimately about getting students to do things.  The administrative customer service model stops dead at the doorway where the educational package gets delivered, as if that was all that mattered.  Instructors know, however, that the doorway is where education starts.  The instructional version of customer service stands over customers as they open the package and try to assemble the contents; it helps them read the instructions, find the right tools, recognize when the thing they've ordered works like it's supposed to, and use it effectively.

But of course, it's also more complicated than that.  As anyone who has advanced beyond the minimum-wage front lines of retail knows, the customer is not always right.  Customers can be greedy and mendacious.  Customers can be out to scam the company.  Customers can desire what's bad for them, for their health, for their neighborhoods, and for the planet.  Moreover, customers are made, not born.  Customers don't always know what they want until it's getting sold to them.

Somewhere between administrative pressure to offer better and narrowly conceived customer service and act of salesmanship performed by a talented instructor lies the black hole into which the future of the literature and language study has fallen. In Unmaking the Public University (Harvard UP 2008), Christopher Newfield explains the problem:
In its attempt to be realistic about economic forces, LCS [literary and cultural studies] learned one half of the lesson of business. It was the half the culture war taught again and again: the market was to be adapted to, not to be criticized or changed. The market model blocked rather than answered a simple question: who or what decides the level of demand? The other half of the lesson of business, the half LCS ignored, was the requirement to respond to "market" environments by increasing one's own influence over the market's demand decisions. This meant learning how to manage markets--how to discover hidden demands, how to create demand for products one thinks are important, how to adapt the market to one's output, how to subordinate markets to the needs of one's "customers," not to mention the wider society. (150)   
Recently, a three-part series in Inside Higher Ed urges academics (particularly those outside the STEM fields) to find markets for their skills and knowledge beyond their day jobs.  "My purpose in offering this series" writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore, "is to both encourage any academic who has a big idea for change to move forward AND to encourage college and university incubators to rethink who belongs there and which ideas are worthy of support."

Nothing wrong with that! Academics have good ideas, institutions can be remarkably short-sighted, the remuneration and prestige of conventional academic work is dwindling. Why not find alternative ways to matter and get paid for it, particularly if you can do some good in the process?

What's remarkable here is not that Dr. Rockquemore has perceived a need and is filling it, but that she's advocating a mind-set that the academic humanities seem incapable of applying on a disciplinary or institutional level but that individual faculty members are, presumably, receptive to.  As she explains,

At the most basic level, there are three components to making a new venture successful. Your idea has to help people solve a problem that they already know they have and are actively seeking to solve. It really is that simple: there’s a problem, people know they have a problem, and they are looking for an answer to the problem.
Right. "There's a problem": dwindling public resources for higher education are putting a squeeze on the humanities.  "People know they have a problem": well, yes--see the ample stats on the oversupply and underemployment of Ph.D. grads.  "They are looking for an answer to the problem": see every tendentious blog post ever on what to do about the oversupply/underemployment problem.

A real solution to the problem has to involve addressing the dwindling public resources for higher education.  It involves reframing the problem in the entrepreneurial way that Dr. Rockquemore advocates: what problems does the tuition- and tax-paying public have that literature and language education can solve?  How can we explain what we do in those terms and make them persuasive to people who aren't already convinced of the value of a broad liberal education?  How can we reframe the conversation so that it's not about job skills, narrowly conceived, but about informed citizens, well-lived lives, an educated society, the ability to understand?

If we who are in the literature and language business just laugh those questions off as quixotic and ill-conceived, maybe we don't deserve the limited public resources we're getting.  If we mean what we say to each other about the value of what we do, then we need to use our powers over text and language to say it to others.

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