Last week, one of your classmates asked me to delay his final exam by a day. He just needed more time to study. “The customer is always right,” he pleaded, as if I were selling televisions. While I know that most of you wouldn’t go that far, the experience got me thinking about the nature of education, and I suspect that many of you agree that since you pay dearly for your education, we owe you the deference given a customer in any respectable business.
I completely reject that education is a service for hire, where the student, as the customer, gets to set the terms. Don’t get me wrong. You have every right to decide what to do with your life and you deserve universities and professors that meet your needs. No matter what you pay, your professors and staff should do their jobs well and contentiously. However, once you decide to pursue a particular field of study, the reality is that you are almost completely ignorant about what others in the field expect from you: the knowledge you need, the skills you must hone, and the attitudes that are important.
I’ll offer a personal analogy to explain further. I used to be a competitive athlete; I wasn’t great, but I was competitive enough to hire a coach. I was certainly the boss in one sense. If he didn’t give me a training plan or if he didn’t show up to lead the workouts, I would have stopped paying him and the arrangement would have been over. Yet, he was the boss in a more important regard. I hired him because I didn’t know what it took to excel at the sport. I had to listen to him. I had to do what he told me. If a workout hurt, I never said “aw, c’mon coach, ease up on the workout or I won’t pay you.” If he yelled at me to do more, I would do more, simple as that.
I’m your coach in exactly the same way. You have complete freedom to decide what major to pursue, but once you choose a major, you simply don’t know what it means to succeed in the major. If I require work of you, set limits, or otherwise seem to want to make your life disagreeable, it’s because it will make you better. I don’t prefer to make your life disagreeable, but just as empty praise and unrealistic expectations of success will not transform an athlete into an Olympian, the easy A will not make you competitive after graduation.
Even though I don’t see you as my customer, I do feel that I owe you a lot. I owe it to you no matter how much tuition you pay. I owe it to you because it’s what it means to be a good professor. My job is to bust my ass for you every day. My job is to listen to you to make sure that the curriculum is in line with your greater goals (but also my understanding of what you need to learn). My job is to hunt for the best approaches for you learn. My job to motivate you (although a minimum of motivation has to come from you). My job is to make you work hard, because hard work is the only way to get good. Lastly, my job is to be honest, praising you when you do well and telling you when you have failed.
With this in mind, I urge you to do some serious reflection. Why are you in the major? Does it match your life goals and ambitions. If it doesn’t, come talk to me so we can find something better for you to do (inside or outside of the university). If this is the right path for you, then let go. Trust that I have your best interest in mind and that I am dedicated to your success. I’m always open to hearing constructive criticism about my teaching and I’m always willing to explain why we need to do what we’re doing. I’m willing to be your advocate against mediocre faculty and staff (I know you face more of them than you should – I see them too). But I need you to do your part. Work hard, embrace challenge, and do all of what I ask you to do with the confidence that it will make you better.
Be my athlete. I’ll be your coach.