The Educated Consumer
There has always been some kind of a consumer ethic in education, and rightly so. During my own Time of Tuition Captivity, I and friends in the same situation constantly made judgments about what our money bought. The differences between then--which was not so long ago--and now are twofold. First, when things went wrong, we blamed our kids, not the teacher or the school. ("Over $100K in tuition and you can't spell 'again'?") Second, we never assumed that it was the school's job to entertain our children or accommodate their social lives. ("You'd be less bored if you paid attention.")
Many students and parents now view the faculty differently, like a group of concierges to guide young adults through a pleasant four-year excursion. Students routinely ask "Is your course interesting?" "Would I really have to write all those papers?" and "Are you a hard grader?" They regard office hours as the only inappropriate time to contact a faculty member. E-mail brings a new level of imperiousness. I am not unique in receiving messages like one last semester requesting a letter of recommendation for business school. The student ended this missive, sent on a Friday evening, with "please respond immediately." (My reply: "I note you already use the 'please respond immediately' form popular in the business world. As a way to impress a boss, it is 'sure-fire.' You will go fast.")
I hear comparable stories about students who want to be accommodated and amused from public colleges and universities. A friend described teaching in a highly enrollment-driven state school where space problems mandate courses at odd times, including Saturday morning ones. To keep the minimum number of bodies in such a class, he practiced "stand-up history." At the end of the term students reviewed his jokes and suggested changes in his delivery. It used to be that dead or dying relatives justified late papers. Now it is the ski season.
Should we meet the consumer ethic like the old fogies we are, with staunch resistance? Or, should we sell out and treat education as a form of consumption competing with other forms? I say "sell out." If educational institutions are having trouble in a good economy, it is scary to think what will happen when hard times return. We ought to be building product loyalty.
The place to begin is with image. We can worry about reality later. Conventional majors sound stodgy to a generation raised on products, graphics, and sound bites. We need to be more visual. It would help to have departmental logos. History could go for the Hell's Angels look: a flaming book with wings, framed by the motto Born to Raise Questions. Catchy departmental slogans would likewise be far more attractive than dull descriptions in the catalog: "Anthropology: Best Parties in Academia"; "Biology: The Facts of Life"; "Chemistry: The Other Big Bang"; "Civil Engineering: Beyond the Erector Set"; "Electrical Engineering: Clean and Mean"; "English is Our Name, Hermeneutics Our Game"; "Philosophy: We _ Intellectual Rigor"; and "Political Science Rules."
That raises product liability issues--we don't train future lawyers for nothing--but the obvious solution is warning labels: THIS COURSE MAY CAUSE DROWSINESS; THIS MAJOR MAY RENDER YOU EMPLOYABLE ONLY AT A BORDERS BOOK STORE; THIS COURSE CONTAINS STATISTICALLY EXPLICIT MATERIAL UNSUITABLE FOR PEOPLE WITH QUANTITATIVE DEFICIENCIES.
Risks aside, there is enormous potential for tapping into the consumer ethic. The Homewood campus recently took an intriguing step by implementing an electronic on-line course evaluation system called Merlin, named after the teacher of a future king. (He also could change people into animals, so the symbolism is murky.) The trouble is that Merlin only reviews courses the old-fashioned way, after they are over.What about instantaneous weekly reviews, like television ratings? It would keep faculty on our toes if every Monday we logged on to the latest reviews-- "babbled" would be devastating; "changed my life," exhilarating. We know what a "ratings sweeps" period does for TV programming. The prospect of a similar period for course ratings is staggering, especially if it coincided with contract renewals. ("Good-bye, Professor Chipps, the overnight numbers were bad.") For a week we would have blockbuster lectures, special guest appearances, and all the other tricks networks use to grab ratings, with the possible exception of nudity.
Perhaps I am a traitor to my class in making such suggestions. But I have faith in unintended consequences, and I am not sure the slackers among among our students would truly like the brave new world of consumer-based education. To rate a TV show you have to watch it.
"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.
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