Customer Service

Regrettably, I spent thirteen years of my life working at Kmart. I sold shotguns and fishing rods and licenses to use both; I drilled bowling balls and hoisted 110-pound barbell sets into shopping carts; yes, I even announced Blue Light Specials. I knew from the beginning that my job was customer service. I knew who the customers were, and, within reason, I chanted the customer-is-always-right mantra.

But then I began to work for the government, deciding whether people were qualified to receive disability benefits. Not until I had been at that job for about five years, however, did customer service become a watchword at our agency. I reacted with scorn when the administrators purported to judge our performance based on this concept that is clear in the marketplace but fuzzy indeed in a world where nothing is sold nor bought. I even compounded my rebellion by taping the definition of the word customer to my filing cabinet. 

And then I answered my life’s vocation and became a teacher. In awe of those teachers who touched my life, I had dreamed only of being the Mrs. Williamson or Mr. Hosmer, the Dr. Mering or Dr. Thornton to a long line of worshipful thralls who wrote down all my words and wanted to be just like me. An article assigned in my freshman composition class stuck in my brain. The author was a professor during the sit-ins at the height of the Vietnam War; despite his sympathy with the students’ cause, he refused to join them in disrupting classes because his primary cause was “the longing to impart,” his definition of “the soul of the teacher.” I recognized that longing. I had that soul. So when I began to teach, I was convinced that I had left far behind customers and customer service and anything to do with the grubby world of buying and selling.

However, the marketplace metaphors soon entered the field of education as well. Last spring, I was coerced by a new supervisor to include improved customer service as one of my professional goals for the upcoming academic year. I bristled. At first, I refused. When she insisted, I enclosed the phrase in quotation marks to clarify my dim view of the entire concept. I finally surrendered and removed the quotation marks. After all, the longing to impart was more important to me than a couple of sloppily misappropriated words.

Or was it?

I continue to chafe at the idea that an institution of higher learning has customers. A college is not a marketplace. Despite the proliferation of for-profit diploma mills with boilerplate syllabi and canned online instruction, we whose vocation is teaching have nothing to sell. And using the language of the marketplace to describe what we do demeans our calling and turns us into sheepskin mongers.

Certainly, money changes hands in education–sadly, more each year. I receive a respectable salary for teaching my 18 or 21 hours per semester, and the students (or, more likely, the government in the form of grants and loans) pay for the opportunity to attend my classes. Notably, only the bursar handles the money.

In the classroom, however, the transactions end and the magic begins. What we exchange there is ideas. Yes, we often teach skills. Students may learn how to calculate square roots and speak French and write five-paragraph essays. They might even learn how to think critically and to argue persuasively. Of course, even those skills go beyond buying and selling. But the more important interactions in the classroom far transcend the value of the dollar. Our most valuable ware, the moment of eureka, has no price.

For example, I teach a class called Research and Writing in the Disciplines; it is part of the current trend of “writing across the curriculum” as the second semester of freshman composition. In one lecture, I might mention Kepler and the music of the spheres, Newton and alchemy, Milgram and obedience. One day last semester, I discussed medical, psychological, and literary articles about ovarian cancer; then I displayed the smiley/frowny-face pain scale and asked if pain is real; finally, I showed Ferdinand Hodler’s paintings of Valentine Godé-Darel as she slowly succumbed to cancer ( Even the most jaded of students left the class silently, some in tears.

I gave everything I had that day to convince my students that every scholarly pursuit is both objective and subjective; to show them that fact and truth are not necessarily the same; and to move them to make connections among their myriad experiences in the classroom that day—and, more broadly, their experiences in the world. I gave that lesson. And some accepted the gift.

The sacred rôles of teacher and student cannot and must not be sullied by the language nor the practices of filthy lucre.

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