Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Bait and Switch Under the Ivy

Consideration One:

May 2016 -This month is finals time at colleges and universities across the country. In the midst of grading, an instructor at a university posts a note to Facebook lamenting the receipt of the first of possibly several emails pleading “but if I don't pass this class, I'll lose my financial aid.’

A flurry of empathetic responses immediately appears from academics around the country.

One describes an incident in which the student said that if she didn't pass the class, she couldn't graduate, which meant she couldn't get a divorce from her “horrible husband.” Another instructor spoke of bracing for a meeting with a student coming in to plead for a mercy grade who had actually engaged in plagiarism during the term. Yet another had just concluded a meeting in which the student begged for a grade saying that if he didn’t pass the class, he’d lose his visa.

Rumbling around in the background of the discussion are the cases of students hacking into college computer systems to change grades already recorded.

Consideration Two:  

From May 5, 2016  Insider Higher Education:

“Looking for a Lifestyle - Most branding experts will say that a degree is an emotional purchase. During the college search, prospective students are told to walk the campus, to stay overnight with a current student, to really get a feel for the place. They are asked: What does your gut say? Does it feel like this place really fits?

Savvy marketing is a big part of that feeling. But too often, colleges’ branding experts look to other colleges for inspiration, and similar ideas take hold across institutions, said Darryl Cilli, founding partner at the branding agency 160over90. “When you’re a prospective college student, you’re looking for an education and you’re looking for a lifestyle,” he said. “You want something that is completely customized to you.”

A few years ago, 160over90 published a book on the clich├ęs that plague higher education marketing, called Three and a Tree. A college suffers from Three and a Tree (or TAAT) when its brochures feature pictures of “three students of varying ethnicities and gender, dressed head to toe in college-branded merchandise.” Then there are the worst cases, which suffer from TAATPTDPF: Three and a Tree plus Two Dudes Playing Frisbee.

Consideration Three: 

April 2015 -  At my Sister’s request, I accompany my Nephew on the prospective student tour of the university where I then worked:

The high school seniors follow the tour guide wearing the university brand polo shirt. The group stops periodically at various sites the guide deems important. “This is the largest Starbucks on any college campus in America…This is one of the three Subway restaurants on campus…This is the Student Union where you can get free printing and there are all kinds of electronic games in the restaurant here…Here is where you can buy your tee-shirts and rent DVDs, oh, and you can also buy your textbooks here….”

The potential customers listen carefully as the guide shows off the dormitory (“This one is called the Club Med dorm”) and reminds them several times of the tailgating parties before the games in the campus green space. Not once is class attendance mentioned and the only time study is mentioned is in a promise that if students will join SG sponsored study groups, they can raise their final grade an average of one letter grade.

The tour was concluded with the invitation to “Get ready for the best four years of your life.” As we walked back to the Union to meet my sister, I ask my Nephew what he thought of the campus: “Looks like some great parties at that dorm back there.”

The brand the university would use in a commercial during one of its televised football games that fall would assert that “UCF stands for the University of Comfort and Fun!”

Grandparents’ Genocide Month

The original comment and the responses from academics around the country suggest that manipulative behavior surrounding grades is fairly endemic to college undergraduates today. Indeed, my guess is that all of us who have taught in higher education in the past two decades know these sob stories and dishonest behaviors personally. This is hardly to say all undergrads today engage in these behaviors, but it has become reasonable to anticipate them every semester.

I used to remind my students two weeks ahead of finals that we were entering Grandparent Genocide Month. I told them that statistically speaking, if a grandparent is going to die, it will happen in the weeks before and during finals, a pattern observed by Mike Adams in a satirical “study reported in the Annals of Improbable Research. Adams found that “A student’s grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of year.” Even more incredibly, the same grandparents reappear to die every semester about the same time.

Clearly, Lazarus has got nothing on these octogenarians.

Of course, the chances of that actually happening are non-existent even as the chance that a loved one might actually die during finals remains a remote possibility. My point in bringing Grandparents’ Genocide Month to the attention of my students was always to remind them of two facts: 1. that their teacher’s understanding had limits and, 2. that their class performance – and thus their grades - remained their responsibility.

But aside from snarky pseudo-studies about grandparent death rates during finals and the raw appeals to guilt trips designed to ostensibly save a student’s entire career, I wonder if there aren’t some underlying substantive issues here that merit more than our usual cynicism.  

It seems clear to me that at some level these students are behaving in the manner we have taught them is appropriate. Though they were on their way to understanding themselves as well-trained consumers long before they arrived at our doorsteps, they did not come to us fully formed. The particular attitudes, values and behaviors they exhibit once here all arose in a context. I would argue that the entitled consumers we face are exactly what we have created them to be.

How so?

So what is being sold?

Today’s imitative and incredibly costly use of marketing by cash-starved institutions of higher education is, like all advertising, designed to create a false sense of need in those they see as potential customers. It seeks to manipulate raw human desires and provide the means to rationalize the desired responses.

Actual students rarely come to a university to serve or even to purchase a brand. They attend universities to become educated human beings, taking seriously the opportunity institutions of higher education actually provide them.  A university or college offering a quality educational experience will speak for itself. But in an age of cuts to education which must be made up for somehow by cash starved colleges and universities, the tidal wave of marketing to attract potential customers which has ensued would suggest that higher education is ultimately not what is being sold here.

So what is being sold?

The advertising of UCF as “the university of comfort and fun” is very telling as to how it is selling its “brand.” Add to that the official campus tours which never mention academics because they are too busy marketing consumer goods (the largest Starbucks on a public university campus in America) and partying (this is where the tailgating happens, the best four years of your life) to potential customers and the message is pretty clear: You are the consumer. This is all about you.

And UCF is hardly alone in this pitch.

The consummate values of consumerism in a 21st CE technological age are comfort, convenience and instant gratification. The wide spread use of online classes serves as a good example. They largely serve financial demands of administratively bloated, fiscally challenged universities which are thereby relieved of the obligations to provide clean, climate controlled classroom meeting space and can maintain huge online sections run by poorly paid adjuncts.

It’s a good deal for someone.

But these classes are inevitably sold to students in consumerist terms. Official sales pitches for online courses and programs always use minimalist language: “just… as little as… only...”  The omnipresent sales pitch is that “You can even take your classes from the comfort of your home in your pajamas if you want.”  In short, don’t worry, this won’t take you outside of your comfort zone.

The consumerist value of comfort can also be seen in the demands for intellectual climate control on many campuses today. These take the shape of the landmines of micro-aggressions, perceived slights by faculty often unrealized until they detonate in upheavals that sometimes result in discipline if not termination. While universities are supposedly places of learning, there are rarely second chances for those who wander into the unmarked minefields of the culture wars.

They also appear in the designation of campus free speech zones which by implication suggests that in the remaining campus spaces free speech is not permitted. Similarly, they appear in the avoidance of controversial speakers of all political stripes who might somehow tarnish the brand of the university, causing waves in the university’s comfort-driven consumer base as well as among alumni and potential donors.

At the heart of all such concerns is often the stated desire to maintain campuses as safe places for students, a noble goal which actually serves free expression. But safety is never the same thing as comfort, and their conflation often arises from a consumerist presumption that one should never be confronted with discomforting ideas with their potential cognitive dissonance that one does not wish to consider. When constant comfort is the expectation by which one has been recruited, is it not reasonable that customers would insist that the terms of that bargain be lived into by universities? 

Which flavor did you like best?

Students come to universities feeling entitled to demand that the consummate values of consumerism - comfort, convenience and instant gratification – be honored in their increasingly costly engagement of higher education. But those attitudes are decidedly reinforced in the university’s response to their customers once on campus in the form of end of term surveys. Instructor evaluations may have begun with the good intentions of providing needed feedback to teachers from their students but they have long since devolved into often unconscionable exercises in consumer satisfaction.

Surveys that inquire of consumers “What did you like best? What did you like least?” (actual questions) certainly have a place at chain restaurants or ice cream parlors featuring multiple flavors. Such feedback from paying customers can readily help providers of goods and services hone their products to meet the demands of consumers whose ongoing patronage is the business’ primary concern.

But students are not customers. They are not buying education. Indeed, they couldn’t if they wanted to. Contrary to the promises of the technotopians and the corporate interests they serve, learning cannot simply be “delivered,” either online or in person.

Students pay for an opportunity to engage a process that can possibly lead to their becoming educated depending upon how seriously they take it. If they do not engage that process, education simply does not happen. And they cannot do it alone. They must rely on the expertise of those they have paid to direct them in that process.

And here is where the rub comes. Students do not come to classes knowing what they need to learn nor do they arrive with expertise regarding how the learning process should occur. That is what their payment for the expertise of already educated and, in most cases, experienced teachers, provides them.

This is hardly to suggest that students do not have valuable feedback to offer teachers about how that process has occurred and should occur in the future. In fact, they do. But to procure valuable feedback, students must be asked questions they actually have the expertise to answer (e.g., How much of the reading did you actually complete and what was your experience of it? How frequently did you attend class and what was your experience of those you attended? Explain). More importantly, they should not be asked questions which suggest they have the ability, much less the right, to somehow direct the content of the course or the methods by which it is taught.

Students are not only not consumers, they are also not instructors.

Students’ educational needs and consumerist concerns are rarely the same thing. When those two disparate drives are deliberately confused, as they are in most end of term surveys, two things occur. First, the surveys provide feedback that is largely useless in pedagogical terms and potentially injurious to instructors when such statistically dubious feedback (response rates rarely approach 60% participation) is used by administrators who know better for purposes of hiring, firing and promotions. But second and far more importantly, they reinforce the tendencies of students to see their experience at the university in consumerist terms. 

It is simply not reasonable to expect that a student who has been recruited to their university on consumerist terms and reinforced in consumerist behaviors once on campus will not come to think of themselves in consumerist terms. They are, after all, simply relying upon the promises made to them in the recruitment process and emulating the behaviors modeled for them once on campus.

Bait and Switch?

So what happens when well-trained consumers - reasonably expecting that they are entitled to comfort, convenience and instant gratification at institutions which advertise themselves as universities of comfort and fun - encounter the actual demands of higher education? What happens when they encounter educators who demand that they actually perform academically in their classes or face the possibility of being assigned grades which reflect their failures to do so?

Might it be that universities are engaging in a form of bait and switch here? Can they in good faith recruit customers and reinforce consumerist values through their institutional practice and then turn around and say to them “But you are students here with adult responsibilities that you must live into?”

Might the objection of the consumer who has arrived expecting comfort, convenience and instant gratification - which clearly cannot be realized by being required to invest time and energy in studying for comprehensive exams or writing major papers – be on target here? Would we not find the objection of a purchaser of a costly BMW whose repayment will stretch indefinitely into to the future - sold on promises of ready-made long afternoon drives with the convertible top down but who instead receives a box of parts and instructions on how to assemble it - to be well founded?

It would be easy to dismiss such objections by resorting to common arguments that students fresh out of high school are adults – they aren’t, they’re late adolescents learning how to be adults – and that they know coming in that they will have to actually work once here. Clearly they should.

But, if that is so, why do universities spend millions of dollars in advertising which rarely if ever mention that work or the adult expectations that will be made of those who are the targets of their marketing? If we really believe that the targets of our recruitment efforts can see through our efforts to entice and retain them, that what we will expect from them is very different from what we are promising them, have we not just wasted millions of already scarce dollars?

Of course, student resorts to guilt-tripping, plagiarism and cheating are all issues of maturity if not character. Such behaviors speak volumes about the individuals who engage in them even as most of their peers may not. But all behaviors occur in contexts. And to the degree that a student has devolved into a well-trained consumer, willing to do whatever it takes to procure the biggest bang for their buck, s/he reflects the context we have created for them and the values they now emulate.


In the interest of truth in advertising, I feel the need to add the following. Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that my times in undergraduate education at the University of Florida were marked as much by industrial strength partying as by regular class attendance and intense studying. Nothing in any of the comments I have made above should suggest that I do not think college should be an enjoyable experience. While universities may not be sources of constant comfort, there is absolutely no reason the college experience cannot be fun.

But selling a college education as a four year party, “the best four years of your life,” is profoundly misguided. Indeed, discovering how to balance study with fun is an essential part of the learning process as any freshman facing the weekly French quiz at 8 AM Friday after nickel beer night at the Rathskellar the night before knows only too well. The key word here is balance.

Consumerist recruiting which focuses on comfort, convenience and instant gratification by definition undermines an academic process which demands engagement, seriousness and, yes, sobriety in all senses of that word, at appropriate times. If we do not want our children to take their educational opportunities lightly and seek to compensate for their failings therein by deception and intellectual shortcuts, we need to stop sending them these at best mixed messages. Otherwise, we, like the consumers we have created, will simply end up getting what we, too, have paid for.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Harry, Higher education needs to change to allow the growth of the individual to their greatest potential. Agape, Mike