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  • Editors' IntroductionThe Bottom Line
  • Jennifer L. Holberg and Marcy Taylor

It seems that everywhere one looks these days, the debate over the "crisis in the humanities" is raging unabated. The profession, as all our readers have undoubtedly noticed, is in a full-on identity crisis: Who are we as a discipline? What is our work? Who do we serve? What values undergird our practice? These perennial questions and others are more insistent than ever, especially as they intersect with the economic issues that dominate higher education today.

For example, in a twist on recent discussions of the cost of higher education, Bill Sams (2010), Executive in Residence at Ohio University, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education that college students need to behave more like customers. For Sams, the focus is on the "failed service" of the teacher (a.k.a. the "service provider") and the implied lunacy of students (a.k.a. the "customers") to put up with such "failure." Accordingly, he argues:

A student is a person to whom something is done (the student is taught); a customer is a person for whom something is done (a customer is provided a learning experience). Students take it as a given that they are acted upon and controlled by professors, who in turn will judge them on their performance. Students never question the fact that they pay the same for an F as an A. Customers, on the other hand, would find it incredible if a service provider charged the same amount for a failed service as for a top-level service — to say nothing of expecting to be paid a second time to overcome the original failure. [End Page 1]

Thus, concludes Sams, it is not the students who have failed to perform in a class but the teacher, and it is only when students adapt a "productivity-based customer perspective" that new ideas and more effective teaching methods can be developed. Perhaps Sams would like to meet the disgruntled student who recently came to see Marcy (as chair of the English department) to complain that his professor had refused to speak to him right after a class in which the instructor had handed back graded papers; the instructor asked that students wait a day to read through comments and formulate responses before seeking a conference about their grades. This student found the "cooling off period" inconvenient and asserted, "Hey, I paid for those office hours." Is that the kind of customer Sams longs for?1

Many have responded to Sams's letter on the Chronicle's blog, some surmising that perhaps Sams has written a well-crafted satire, but we are not so sure. Like Michael J. Armstrong (2010), we think that unless he is being facetious, Sams's definition of students/customers is way off base. Armstrong writes: "A good student is not someone to whom something is done (teaching), but rather someone who does something for [him- or herself] (learning). Some of our students do adopt the former attitude, and approach their classes as if they can be passive recipients of knowledge transfer. But in doing so, they are behaving too much like customers, not too little like them." In addition, casting the teacher as "service provider" misses the mark. For Armstrong, this analogy works only if we imagine the service provided as a professional service, along the lines of services provided by accountants, lawyers, and engineers, not retailers. In his argument, "the professionals exercise their expert judgment in deciding what services the client needs and how to provide them, and then the client is responsible for implementing the advice."

One thing that Sams's consumer model of higher education highlights is an increasingly popular definition of "value" — that is, one measured in terms of student satisfaction. Richard E. Miller (2004: 375) characterizes this situation perfectly:

With the state backing out of the higher education business and tuition climbing as best it can to make up the difference, the time has passed when public institutions of higher education can afford to disregard the question of whether their graduates leave feeling they were well served during their years in the...


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