I’m not a doctor, or am I?

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Many people look at higher education as a business. Staff and administrators with no close ties to the classroom can, and maybe even should, look at it that way.  The leadership at the college where I work believes strongly in the business model for education, and that’s a-okay with me.

In the end, I think when they say, “run this place like a business,” all they really mean  is”organize this place like a successful business with happy customers and employees.” Those tasked with strategic planning, raising funds, balancing budgets, managing payroll, processing complaints, and other important institutional purposes are right, to a great extent, if they see the college as a business and  the students as customers.

However, as a faculty member, especially one who is tasked with helping students become more competent readers and writers, I would be, excuse the Southernism, in deep do-do if I treated my students like customers. Here are some reasons why I don’t:

  • The customer isn’t always right. Besides being a dismally outdated expression, it has almost always been poor business practice to believe that the customer is always right. Furthermore, it would be a ludicrous attitude for an English teacher to have because one of the biggest aspects of my job is pointing out how my students are in error and helping them correct and avoid those mistakes in the future.
  • My classes are often a required part of every student’s curriculum, a requirement that an increasing number of my students resent having to take. However, more and more businesses and institutions are telling educators, as I wrote about in a recent blog post, that the reading and writing skills of many potential employees are inadequate. Employers are turning more and more to colleges and universities, especially two-year colleges, to help bridge these gaps. Therefore, although my immediate customer, the student, does not always see the need for advanced technical writing skills and comprehension of complex texts, the college’s stakeholders most certainly do, or should.
  • Customers hire people to do things for them; I require my students to do things for me. A business model approach would put the emphasis on me doing things for my students instead of my students working for me. Of course, I am tasked with disseminating the information clearly, but I can’t help a student who does not complete assignments in a timely manner. The few students who are hyper critical of me tend to be ones who have put the onus of their education on me, which deprives them of developing in the subject.
  • Generally, one should not discipline a customer, but I must discipline my students. I spend a portion of almost every class managing disruptive students. I must also confront students when they are falling behind, correct them when their attitudes are inappropriate, and challenge them when they speak untruths or violate classroom policies.  If I am to be effective in the classroom, my students must see me as the authority, not only in subject matter, but also in matters of classroom management.
  • The classroom can not be dictated by customer satisfaction. Not that I don’t want my students to be satisfied and happy. I want them to enjoy my class, and  most seem to enjoy my courses very much. However, students must still earn grades. Sometimes, if students do not earn the grades they desire or if I do not conduct the class in a way that pleases them, they will criticize or blame me for their average or poor performance in the class. The same sometimes happens if I insist on adherence to class rules or the college’s policies and procedures. These students may be unhappy customers now, but down the road, they may thank their lucky stars that I challenged them, maintained strict standards, and disciplined them when necessary. If I treated these dissatisfied students as customers, I fear I would be far too conciliatory, and they would be harmed as a result.
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For these reasons and more, I like to look at myself as a doctor rather than a business person. Doctors and college instructors are both in the “business,” not of making money, but of enriching other people’s lives in a myriad of ways. We can only succeed if the patient or student is dedicated to exerting the effort needed to improve. My general practitioner and I talk a great deal about the similarities in our professions and share some of the same frustrations about how the customer approach, while useful in some ways, if taken too far, can be hurtful to both medicine and higher education. Here are some ways I see myself as a doctor:

  • Just like my doctor, I am an expert in specific disciplines, holding advanced degrees.  I have had five years undergraduate school with degrees in English and German, two years for a Bachelor of Science in English Education with graduate level classes in Chaucer, 17th Century English Literature, Modern British Literature, and American Poetry. My final degree took two years; I earned a Masters of Education and sat for comprehensive exams in 19th Century British Literature,  Rhetoric and Composition, Linguistics, and Curriculum Development, graduating summa cum laude. I was also awarded the Kim L. Brown Award for Excellence in Tutoring my first year and the Theodore L. Huguelet Award for Outstanding Graduate Assistant my second.
  • Just like my doctor, I must constantly seek professional development to stay current in my disciplines. I have attended numerous state and national conferences, including those conducted by the National Association of Teachers of English, The League of Innovation in Community Colleges, the Southeastern Theatre Conference, the North Carolina Community College System, and the North Carolina Writers’ Network, often times presenting, and always attending multiple sessions on issues ranging from developmental English to teaching advanced literature and creative writing courses to increasing student success and retention. I continue to read and study in my disciplines, as well as write. As I have written many times in my blog, I believe writing for publication is one of the best ways to become a better writing instructor. I practice what I preach, having published dozens of short stories in print and online publications, written two novels (working on my third) and having had four plays produced (soon to be five). Last year I launched the literary magazine Teach. Write.  35CCB4F0-960F-43DD-9348-E2C6A8D04B40(Submissions open until August 15–click to see submission guidelines) My third edition will come out on September 1.
  • Just like my doctor, I do my best work when I confer with students one on one. When students bring their papers to my office and we work on them together, they leave better writers. I can almost guarantee it. I have always preferred to teach writing one-on-one. When I can concentrate on one student and give her or him my full attention, I am at my best. I’m no slouch in the full classroom, but I’m best when there is just one student and little ‘ole me in the room.
  • Just like my doctor, I am an excellent diagnostician. I ask my students to write a diagnostic paper on the first day of class in my composition courses. After thirty years of teaching writing, it only takes a paragraph for me to have a good grasp of what a student’s primary writing issues are whether they be content, organization, sentence structure, word usage, grammar, mechanics, or a mixture of all of these, which is usually the case.
  • Just like my doctor, I must deliver bad news. It was very difficult for my doctor when I broke down after hearing a diagnosis of Type II Diabetes. Although my case isn’t particularly severe, my father, a double amputee, had died from complications of diabetes just two weeks before my diagnosis. Despite how difficult it was, my doctor had a moral obligation to inform me, calmly and compassionately, what was at stake and what my treatment options were. I have the same duty, not as severe maybe, but it can be difficult for some students to hear that I can not extend a due date, change a grade, or allow a re-write. I have had students dissolve into tears in my office over the stresses of managing school, work and family obligations. Trying to be as compassionate as I can while still maintaining my standards, I seek for a solution that will satisfy both of us–usually I do.
  • Just like my doctor, No matter how well-trained, experienced, compassionate, and effective I am, if the students do not accept my authority and follow my prescriptions for improvement, I am powerless to help them. I wish I could convince all my students that my methods, although they may be different than other instructors, really do work. Improvement, even over only sixteen weeks of instruction, can be astounding, under one condition–Students must dedicate themselves to applying what they’ve learned to the work as it is assigned. 
  • It is unfortunate that just like my doctor, although I am highly experienced and effective at what I do, many people, including those in the general society, sometimes do not recognize my expertise or don’t trust me to manage my own professional affairs. My doctor and I lament this sad fact more than any other. In her profession the insurance companies, hospital administrators, and patients, even though they are not the ones with the ability to deliver the required service, are increasingly the ones who make decisions that, in the past, were her purview–things like how much time to spend with a patient, which treatment options to offer, even something as basic as a diagnosis.
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So far, I’m happy to say, at my college anyway, although there have been moves toward standardized curriculum in some non-discipline specific classes, the English faculty still dictates what is in the English curriculum, and I, as an instructor, am given ample latitude, to conduct my classes as I see fit, as long as I uphold the college’s mission and the state’s expected goals and objectives.

I am sorry to say, however, the same can not be said for many of my colleagues. The overall move to standardize college-level instruction (mainly, it sometimes appears, to appease the data-collection gods) continues to alarm this 30-year teaching veteran. The short-sighted idea of making all classes look, sound, smell, feel and taste alike may be the kind of fast-food academic meal that pleases the palate of a freshman or sophomore, or fills the plates of the textbook industry, but what happens when students arrive at the four-year college or enter the work world and are suddenly asked to slowly eat a full, home-cooked, balanced meal, including green leafy vegetables and begin exercising their critical thinking, reading and writing skills to boot? I care about my students. I want them to eat right and exercise now!

Just like a doctor, I am tasked with helping sometimes unwilling patients/students look far into the future and see their lives ten, twenty, thirty years from now. I must convince them to take care of their academic health, building their strength with a diet of informative lessons and  strenuous writing exercises that will help them grow and develop, prepared for the rigors of the life ahead of them.

Okay, I’ve carried the metaphor about as far as I can, I know, so I will stop now. 

Wait.

One more thing. 

Reducing or eliminating faculty autonomy, also called academic freedom, in any area of curriculum, including planning, delivery, or assessment, will surely limit the diverse content, instructional styles, and varying assessment methods that effectively prepare college students for further education, training, and employment. 

Wait.

I can’t help myself.

The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC), which accredits colleges and universities in the southern states, seems to agree with me. Standard 6.4 (page 53) says:

The institution publishes and implements appropriate policies and procedures for preserving and protecting academic freedom.
(Academic freedom)

Rationale and Notes
The essential role of institutions of higher education is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom respects the dignity and rights of others while fostering intellectual freedom of faculty to teach, research, and publish. Responsible academic freedom enriches the contributions of higher education to society.

If college-level education is to deserve the adjective “higher,” then it must offer students more than the homogenized curriculum of their elementary, middle school, and high school years. After all, as the great British poet William Cowper wrote in the poem “The Task,” (1785) “Variety is the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.”

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Rocking the Boat

Frontispiece from Prophets of Dissent–A Collection of Essays Published in 1918 (Wikimedia)

In a 2003 LA Times article, entitled “The Power of Dissent,” Harvard law professor Cass R. Sunstein, makes a reasonable argument about how a dangerous culture of conformity within NASA helped aid and abet the Columbia shuttle disaster that took the lives of the shuttle’s seven-member crew. At the conclusion of the article, Sunstein summarizes the stunning conclusions of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that well over a decade later should give today’s administrative-heavy educational institutions with a top-down leadership mentality pause:

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board emphasized the need for NASA to develop a distinctive kind of culture, one that discourages deference to leaders, sees dissent as an obligation, promotes independent analysis and insists on a wide range of voices. The broadest lesson is simple. Well-functioning organizations discourage conformity and encourage dissent — partly to protect the rights of dissenters but mostly to promote interests of their own.

Discourage deference to leaders? See dissent as an obligation? Insist on a wide range of voices? Isn’t that against THE CODE? Yes, sisters and brothers, it is, and God bless it.

The suppression of dissent, no matter from what political, social or religious perspective, is dangerous for higher education, leading to meaningless bureaucracy, rote learning, demoralized faculty, and unmotivated students, who care, or are encouraged to care, more about their minimum wage  after-school jobs than they do about their educations. It also breeds the unreal expectation of what a piece of paper, without symbolizing true learning, can give them in life.

Conformity is anathema to college education. Standardizing for the sake of the nebulous “giving the students the same exposure to the same material” is not the point. If college is supposed to be preparing students for real world experiences, how does requiring all faculty to teach the same curriculum prepare students? Will all of their bosses be the same, having the same expectations, assessing their performance in the same way, promoting for the same reasons? And if our students become the bosses, heaven help us if they seek to suppress opposing viewpoints or disallow any honest debate.

At a community college, even if its mission is only to train the local workforce (of course it is much more ), then that community college fails if it does not offer students a rich and diverse curriculum, introducing them to multiple educational methodologies, personalities, disciplines, attitudes and expectations, teaching them one of the most important and desirable of all skills in the workplace–adaptability, the ability to conform, yes, but to a reasonable degree, while dissenting when necessary, when it could be hurtful, if not fatal, to just shut up and do the job.

Therefore, I will continue to dissent, against those things that violate my academic freedom–the freedom to be the kind of teacher I was called to be. No, I will not dissent for dissent’s sake, but yield to reasonable requests and accept constructive criticism. But I will fight against any pettiness that threatens to derail almost thirty years of quality teaching–even if I am a bit strange, excitable, stubborn, even insubordinate and obnoxious. I may be those things in some people’s eyes, even in my own sometimes, but mainly I choose to see myself as unique, passionate, steadfast, questioning, and if some people find my demeanor obnoxious, I can live with that, and sleep at night.

anne-hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson–Puritan Dissenter

As Sheryl Crow sings,

I was born in the South
Sometimes I have a big mouth
When I see something that I don’t like
I gotta say it.

 

 

Dissent is not the dirty word some seem to think it is. Don’t rock the boat, they say. Why not? Because it might turn over? So what if it does? We might learn to swim.

 

Blog Post Not Quite Ready, but I Can’t Wait

My newest blog post, about the importance of dissent in the community college, is not quite ready to publish, but in the meantime, I found this quite interesting article on the dangers of classroom observation. It seems obvious to me that college instructors and university professors cannot be evaluated in the same way that K-12 instructors are evaluated. At the very least, faculty members should have some say in how they are evaluated, shouldn’t they?

Anyway, here is a link to the article from “Inside Higher Ed.”

“Observations of Professors: Tread Lightly” by Jonathan M. Golding and Phillipp J. Kraemer