Who Are We Here For?

I was talking to a colleague the other day, and we were reflecting on how student-centered our campus is.  We often joke that students have more power than we do, a statement that might not be that much of a joke.  We were talking about a controversial subject, and she said, “I guess we’ll see how student-centered we really are.”

This conversation reminded me of when I worked at a Kroger grocery store in high school.  We had signs on the doors that separated our areas of the store (the loading dock, our break room, and the area where we processed incoming shipments) from the shelves where the customers were.  I saw those signs so often I’ve never forgotten them:  “The Customer is the only reason we’re here.”

On a literal level, that’s true, of course.  If we hadn’t had customers, then we wouldn’t have been able to stay in business.  However, that’s not the way those signs were attended (I hope).  Instead, the conversations management had with us focused on meeting customers’ needs, interpreting the sign to mean that the customer is the end goal of our work, not the bottom line or even our own financial well-being, which is clearly why most, if not all, of us were there.

What I discovered, even as a teenager, though, is that the policies of the store didn’t back that up.  One rather silly example centers around name tags.  I would often get bored at work and try to think up ways to entertain myself.  When I found out that office workers could make us name tags, I decided to have some minor fun with them.  I ended up with three name tags, one that had my real name, two that had fake names: Clyde and Elvis.

The customers greatly enjoyed these name tags.  Even if the customers were not regulars and didn’t know my real name, they often read the names and chuckled, leading to a fun conversation while I was ringing up their groceries.  Management, however, didn’t find these name tags humorous.  Our front end manager pulled me into a hallway off the main area and said that I needed to use one that reflected my real name.  I tried to explain that customers liked them, but she didn’t listen.  Her argument was that the people in the office needed to know who customers were referring to if they called in with a complaint.  I tried to explain that, should a customer call in with a complaint about Clyde or Elvis, it would be easy to see that the complaint was about me, but she wouldn’t hear that line of argument.

Essentially, she was unhappy because I was breaking some unwritten rule, going against the order the company wanted from its employees.  What strikes me as really interesting is that her argument centered around complaints, as if they expected complaints about employees.  One could argue that she was thinking about the customers, and I’m sure she would have framed her argument that way, if pushed; however, I was the one who seemed to be making the customers happy, not her.  Several even complained when I went back to my normal name tag.

In the year when I went up for tenure, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Because it involved people who were working in our department at the time, I needed to publish it under a pen name.  I was proud, though, of having them publish one of my essays (my first one in that particular publication), so I asked my department chair to pass it up the line above her, which she did.  It turns out that the administration didn’t like my essay, mainly one paragraph, the paragraph they quoted back to me when they asked for clarification as they considered my tenure case.  Here’s the paragraph:

“If all goes well this academic year, I will be able to enjoy the long-term benefits of tenure. I look forward to the day when I can turn down a committee appointment that will take up way too much of my time and does not interest me in the least; when I can speak freely in meetings without fear that I’ll be looking for a new job next year; and when I can go for a period of time without feeling the pressure to write something new, and I can actually dig into a long-term project and savor the research process.”

Anybody who knew me then or knows me now will understand that I didn’t mean that I would begin coasting from that point on.  In fact, there is nothing here that says that I will not teach students as well as I had before.  The focus is on the work I will do outside of the classroom, not inside it.

I was asked to respond to the administration’s concerns, which I can, looking back, at least partially understand.  We’ve all seen examples of people who have largely stopped working after tenure, and they were concerned that I would become another one of those professors.  I wrote a letter in response, and my focus was clearly on the students.  I was quite purposeful not to pledge allegiance to the university, but to the students, a focus I still try to maintain.  If I had a copy of the letter, I would quote parts, but, unfortunately, I don’t.

Part of the problem is that I’m anti-institutional by nature, as are many of us in this profession.  Unfortunately, unless we want to begin teaching as Socrates did–which doesn’t offer great pay or any benefits–we need institutional higher education.  However, we can and should work to truly make our colleges and universities student-centered.  That doesn’t mean giving them what they want, but what they need.  That means that we do so even when the administration has other ideas in mind.  I still know where my allegiance lies.

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