19 August 2012

36. that is moses and the prophets


After three days they found him
sitting among the teachers,
listening to them
and asking them questions. 

The consumer model implies, for instance, that university "services"--among them, courses--should be shaped to satisfy student tastes, and that students can use or waste these services as they see fit. When students think of themselves as consumers, they study only when it is convenient (like shopping), expect satisfaction with little effort, want knowledge served up in "easily digestible, bite-sized chunks," and assume that academic success, including graduation, is guaranteed. After all, failure--or consumer dissatisfaction--is "ruled out upon payment of one's tuition.”

When taken to its logical conclusion, as many students do, the consumer model implies that students buy grades by paying for them through learning. Students who subscribe to this notion try to be consumers by paying--that is learning--as little as possible. A few carry it even further, and believe that whenever they learn something they have actually lost in the exchange.

Needless to say, instructors who try to teach students more than the students have bargained for are going to run into trouble. Andrei Toom, an adjunct math instructor from Russia, reports his dismal experiences trying to teach anti-intellectual undergraduates consumed by the consumer mindset. "As soon as I started to explain to them something which was a little bit beyond the standard course, they asked suspiciously: 'Will this be on the test?' If I said, 'no,' they did not listen any more and showed clearly that I was doing something inappropriate.” When asked by students why he gave math problems unlike those in the textbook, Toom responded: "Because I want you to know elementary mathematics." Immediately an imposing train of students "stood up and tramped out.” A colleague of Toom's was also criticized for asking his students to learn more than students in another section. Students viewed this not as better teaching but as an iniquity.

The only safe course, under these circumstances, is to fall short of the syllabus, "but never go beyond.” No instructor ever need fear students or administrators showing up at the office demanding harder courses, more demanding workloads, and stricter grading. The system makes this impossible.

So, the message to instructors is, "the less you teach the less trouble you will have from students and administrators.” Both groups are perfectly willing to accept trivial courses, inflated grades, and mediocre standards because these corruptions help guarantee what both constituencies want--satisfied customers.

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