What Is Wrong with Just Being a Student?

This week, I begin teaching a summer seminar on Virginia Woolf, which has got me to think about my own relationship with my students. I am so happy with that perfect term of "student," and I am happiest in my own work when I think of myself first and foremost as a student, when it comes to my own reading and writing and art especially.

Yes, all too frequently, I am dismayed at what is happening with higher education. No, I don't mean the rather tired criticisms against multiculturalism, political correctness, and leftist indoctrination--the oh-so-80s kind of criticisms waged by Camille Paglia, Allan Bloom, William Bennett, David Horowitz, and Lynne Cheney. What has taken over, really, despite all this attention to culture wars, is the business model, first with TQM, then with "best practices" and accountability and assessment measurements. Indeed, the corporate model has won, with universities downsized, facilities open for branding and product placement, cost-effective adjunct and instructor outsourcing on the rise, and students shouldering the costs for cheaper and cheaper goods.

At my university, I work daily with these new "accountability" practices, and not all of them are heinous. To construct a rigorous strategic plan for an English program does make some sense, and can actually enable faculty to teach more critically, productively, and collaboratively. But so much of the process results in endless paperwork for faculty, keeping us rather busy and occupied, producing binder upon binder of annual reports, just to document our practice toward continual improvement. At its worst, it's a Kafkian joke.

To test my theory, go to your favorite dean's office, and see how much of the shelf space is devoted to binders and how much to books.

Okay, that bureaucratic nonsense I can deal with.

What makes me cringe, though, is the language (and here I hear Orwell weeping). The prevalent current term for "student" is "student/client," which has been in usage for at least ten years. For examples, here are links from a 1997 document from the Bozeman, Montana school system, from the current mission statement of the Gutavus Aldolphus College Writing Center, from the Eastern Kentucky University "Student Client Support" web site, from a 1998 management restructuring report for the University of West Florida. And on your own, you can google the terms "student client" and "university" and retrieve pages from the University of Michigan, University of Illinois, James Mason University, University of Virginia, etc.

The word client is only slightly less crass or passive than the term "consumer," which had its share of usage in the mid-80s and 90s. Client most obviously derives from a linguistic mix of social science and business school lingo, to describe a relationship in which a university is a service provider. Faculty are delivery systems of that service. Students are the clients, who not only receive the information or training, but are expected to use it for their own benefit.

Of course, prostitutes have their clients, as well. University presidents and provosts don't seem to draw out that very apt use of the metaphor.

But what is so awful about the term "student"? It doesn't inherently imply a passive, receptive state--after all, to study is an active, transitive verb. To study is to read, to write, to research, to experiment, to test, to theorize, to argue, to revise, to create, to listen, to discuss, to perform, to play. Besides, a client suggests a person who has a certain defect that requires repair (an individual who seeks counseling for a disorder, for instance) or who has a continued contractual obligation for only so long as he or she is paying for it (an individual who hires a lawyer or marketing firm, for instance). To be a client reduces the role of the student.

To be a student, and only a student, places the primary responsibility of learning on that individual, and that's why we in the business of selling education tend to prefer the soft metaphor "client." It demands less of that person. It's easy to sell. It's a closed-end, time-limited contract. It transforms education into a definable transaction. God forbid that we expect an amorphous, tranformative, unpredictable, and life-long commitment on the part of the student, or that we expect the student to study for no obvious and contractually-defined end (something which cannot be measured, assessed, annually reported, continually improved, best practiced, etc.). Imagine, studying for kicks.

Rather, many university administrators and Education Leadership Ph.D.s prefer the contractual relationship between service provider and client, which is so neat and tidy, dispensable. And perhaps, to be honest, that is a more accurate description of what is occurring in American higher education. The student is dead; long live the client.

Just not in Dr. Brock's class.


Anonymous said…
In the highly competitive higher education world, students are increasingly looking at themselves as "consumers" who are buying a product from an institution. Increasingly students talk about getting the most "bang for their buck", and are demanding to know what they will "get" from attending an institution. This is a very different mind-set than you would expect from what we would commonly understand as "student".
I'm not saying that this is a good thing for students to be doing, I'm just saying that I wouldn't blame higher education institutions for responding to that demand.
Anonymous said…
I am waiting for you to suggest that we make the leap and just start referring to students as "johns"...
Anonymous said…
I agree with your general sentiment. I think that the heart of this process lies in the social sciences, which promotes a form of empirical "social justice" that can be measured. Once any connection between student and teacher is killed for "safety" or to stop "professional abuse of powers", then the prof is distanced from the teacher and there can be no bridging the gap, lest you be fired for improper conduct. Then a student becomes a "client", or a detached unit of monetary expenditure. In the 1800s at Oxford University, a student would never be considered merely an economic unit with an empirical potential. Nonetheless, there is too much to touch on in such a short message. I agree, it is bad.
jim said…
Thanks for the responses, and yes, there is so much more to all of this, and so much of it has already been well covered. Evidently my commentary was picked up by "Higher Education Today," and so I welcome you new folks to my little corner of the web.

Read poetry.
Go Broncos!
App Crit said…
I saw the link to this post on IHE. Glad I did.

Yes, I agree wholly. My university is particularly plagued with this retail mentality. (I hesitate to use corporate, becasue some corporations are managed with a single-minded efficiency that would astound most university administrators.) It affects promotion & tenure, class assignments, 'merit pay', and of course the students, who now well know that the customer, at least here, is always right.

I enjoyed reading your blog.

Tom said…
The distinction between customer and client is that the duties one owes to a client are much higher. The implication of calling a student a client isn't that less is expected of the student so much as that more is expected of the teacher than if the student was merely, as was commonly stated when I was a student, "the customer."
Anonymous said…
"First thing let's do, let's kill all the (Education Leadership PhDs).

Having wrestled TQM-like reforms in business, the last damn thing I want is half-a**ed TQM in education.

I know of no university or HS that actually *practices* TQM, which, properly applied, is quite difficult but usually effective. Instead, we get the usual watered-down version that skips all the hard but useful stuff and accepts all the buzz words.

The day my students either become or demand to be treated as clients is the day of their rude awakening and my departure from Academia.