On Campus

Professors don't work for you

They aren't service-providers and can't be approached on that level

Students have a number of rights, entitlements, and reasonable expectations when it comes to their post-secondary education. I always become immensely frustrated, however, when students try to view themselves as customers. It’s the surest way to screw up any good argument for change or improvement. Is there something wrong with the quality of your education? It’s very possible that there may be. Make your point well and the powers that be may listen. But try to play the “customer is always right” card and you’re dead before you even begin.

The consumer mentality among students contributes to numerous problems. Students may start to believe, for example, that they are paying for outcomes and that the university should take responsibility for ensuring their success. No such luck. The university will take responsibility for giving students the resources and opportunity to succeed but that’s all. In this sense you’re as much a customer as you are when you pay for your driving test down at the local office. You’re entitled to a fair test and reasonable service to get through the paperwork but then if you fail it’s on you.

This is a huge topic. There are whole books on the problems associated with consumer mentality among students. But one of the immediate manifestations of this attitude is when students look at their professors and imagine they work for them. It’s simply wrong. You can’t purchase an education in biochemistry the same way you buy a latte and you can’t respond to the person who is trying to teach you about Shakespeare in the same way you respond to the guy handing you a hamburger. When you do that it not only insults the professor but devalues the very experience that you are, unquestionably, paying a lot of money for.

Anyone who has ever trained in a martial art appreciates that respect is a key part of the training. Anyone who has ever participated in a sport knows that coaches must be deferred to. Anyone who actively practices their faith understands that religious leaders must be allowed due regard. This isn’t mindless kowtowing for its own sake. We know that learning works best when respect is preserved. True, it’s a two-way street and professors may not always uphold their end of the bargain, but we could say the same for any of our other examples and yet we still see the importance of the relationship.

Whenever students lose sight of this, and imagine they can reduce their professors to the level of service-providers, it only points to the more fundamental issue. Those students imagine they are not, in fact, learning anything as significant as a martial art requiring some discipline or a sport requiring some rigor or a faith requiring some dignity. They imagine that biology or psychology or literature or philosophy is somehow different – perhaps only a collection of facts and ideas to be memorized and reproduced at need. They see the whole thing as merely a series of hoops to jump through on the way to a degree. And this goes back to the terribly damaging consumer mentality that is so much larger than this one topic.

Some professors may take things personally. I won’t pretend they are all beyond reproach. But university is a shared environment. Even if professors do, in some sense, work for students they work for all students simultaneously. And that implies that they must protect the integrity of the learning environment. Maybe that seems a little self-righteous at times but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

No professor worth his or her salt will ever acknowledge that professors serve students in the same way that baristas serve customers. No professor will ever respond positively to a line of reasoning that begins with “I’m paying for this so…” They may or may not be personally offended but even the ones with their egos in check will see the problems inherent in this attitude. They are, for the most part, committed to quality education. But quality education demands that professors not be reduced to the level of service-providers. The ones that really care most about education, in every sense, may even take the trouble to explain why.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.