Some useful and interesting thoughts in this essay on the college experience by Steven Bell. In part, it’s a response to concerns about students seeking an experience rather than an education mentioned in a number of recent works. From Lowering Higher Education, he provides the following representative quote:
The corporate model treats students like customers, and as customers they expect services and products for their tuition fees. The services include high grades in return for little effort. The products include guaranteed credentials with a guaranteed value. With this sense of entitlement, most will not prepare for classes, and expect all material to be told to them in simple terms in entertaining classes.
In response, he suggests three strategies:
- Start with why: explain to the students why the topic matters
- Create an experience brand statement: explain what experience you want students to have and what you bring uniquely to it
- Move toward totality: creating a common experience beyond the course “silo” (across departments and even in an entire curriculum)
I’m sympathetic to much of what Bell suggests; in fact, I think a teacher would be wise to try their best to incorporate as much of this in a course/curriculum as possible. Nevertheless, the structural barriers seem to me to be severe. I’ll mention one for each just to get it started:
- Why: what do do with students who flat out don’t care about the why? In my particular setting, students frequently have expressed to me their total lack of interest in some of their general education courses. This is a broad cultural presupposition, and I doubt a cleverly crafted introduction will overcome all of the resistance here. Some, certainly. But not all. Moreover, if they really view their college education as credential rather than education, how do I even get them to listen as I attempt to explain why? I agree we should do it, but I’m not all that hopeful for universal success.
- Experience Brand: In a multiversity, where you have a student for only one or two courses, how does this work? When students don’t know the professors, how do you develop a brand? It’s a little easier in smaller institutions, where you can be known for a distinctive voice. But even then, if you think it is valuable for students to encounter different experiences, how do you avoid them choosing a familiar and comfortable style rather than one that challenges them? And what if you think it’s less about your experience brand, and more about the importance of learning about physics, or Shakespeare, or any other field. I don’t think most teachers bring that much that is truly unique, nor do I think they should. Excellence, yes. Passion, yes. But I’m old-fashioned enough to think I don’t need uniqueness to be moved. I fear this one might not end in the right direction.
- Totality: I just don’t understand how in most settings we can hope to shape curriculum that broadly, again with the one possible exception in a smaller school where you can have more cross-disciplinary dialog. In fact, it seems a bit contradictory to the experience brand suggestion: create a unified brand as you create a unique and individual brand. I agree it’s desirable, but the political and institutional will to do this (and the struggle to decide who gets to shape the totality) make this unrealistic in most institutions, I would guess. At least without gutting the academic independence of the faculty and creating commodified courses. On the other hand, I’ve pushed for efforts to create common interface and format for regularly accessed materials (e.g., LMS) so that students will know where things are – and haven’t had much luck on that yet.
Getting past the “student is the customer” mentality is fairly simple. I always explain to my students that they are not my customer, their future is. If the student were my customer then I should just give them the A they ask for but since their future is my customer I have an obligation to help them identify their strengths and weaknesses so they can use that knowledge to build a better future. If that requires me giving them an F then so be it. Working for an A will also improve their future by teaching them the value of hard work. For those that earn a B or C after hard work, it teaches them that working hard isn’t always enough, at least in the short term, and sometimes they won’t win no matter how hard they work because they started out behind or have to many other constraints. Again all messages they need to make their best future.