Students as Commodities

We received a number of pieces of good news at a meeting this past week, one of which was about enrollment for the fall.  At a time when schools like ours (very tuition-driven) are struggling to recruit students, our numbers continue to increase at a small, sustainable level.  The downside of that increase is that the numbers of faculty members haven’t kept up, so some of our classes can get rather large.

We’ve made jokes about this issue over the past few weeks, talking about job security and how the lack of classroom spaces large enough to hold those classes is a good problem to have.  Beyond the pedagogical challenges we would normally think of, there’s another, greater problem that comes from the high numbers of students, especially as many of them are first-year students.

Let me tell a story from around a decade ago.  I was teaching a literature survey class that many students take during their sophomore year.  At the time, it was focused exclusively on non-majors, though we now require our English majors to take it, as well.  Earlier in the semester, I was joking with the students about what goes through my mind when students come to drop my class.  They’re often trying to be nice when they do so, and they start explaining why they need to drop the class, insisting that the problem is neither me nor the class.

I told them that I usually cut students off, as I there’s no need for them to apologize to me, in any way.  I said (and say) that I know students have lives we know nothing about and that I’m sure they have a very good reason for dropping it.  I never encourage them to stay in a course, as they have to live with the workload, if they do.  I then said, off-handedly, explaining my thought process:  “It’s one less paper for me to grade.”

Within the next week or so, a student from that class came by to see me, and she needed to drop the class.  As I was signing the paper and handing it back to her, I was saying what I normally say about how I understand they have life issues I don’t know about.  She just chuckled and said, “Yeah, it’s one less paper for you to grade, right?”  My guess is that she meant this comment as a joke, as she didn’t sound like she was attacking me, but she still clearly was showing me how that comment sounded.

When we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we often think of students in this way.  Though we hate for students not to turn in assignments, we often feel relieved when our two composition classes totaling 55 students only has 45 students who turned in their essays for us to grade.  We know 10 of those students will fail the class (or a few will turn them in late), and we might even feel guilty about our relief, but we still feel it.

At our church, we’ve been reading a book by Walter Brueggemann called Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the CULTURE OF NOW.  One of the ideas he raises is that our society, with its focus on productivity, has the tendency to turn people into commodities.  Our teaching and grading loads (at least at colleges and universities like mine) often lead us to do the same to students; professors at research universities can do the same, allowing their research to drive their thought process.  We can stop seeing students as individuals and only see them as papers or exams to grade or even interruptions to whatever it is we’re working on in our office.

What’s ironic about this approach is that we professors are often the most vocal critics of administrators who make the university more corporate.  They talk about market share and overheard and retention as if they were the CEO of a company, not the leaders of an institution of higher education.  We professors, though, unthinking commodify students, turning them into a product we put out instead of seeing them as real people with honest struggles and successes.  We view them as papers to grade.

It’s difficult to see past that workload, especially in November and April.  In order to fully teach them, though, we need to see our students as more than exams and papers.  We need to try to remember what it was like when we were eighteen and nineteen years old, away from home for the first time, in wonder and awe at this thing called college, but as scared of our success as of our failures.  I’ve never made that comment again, and I hope I never get to the point where I do so again.

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