Faculty Aren’t Customer Service Providers: My Responses to a Pre-Interview Survey

[Picture credit: Dilbert, July 27, 2009]

A couple weeks back, I received an invitation to do an interview for an adjunct online teaching position. The name and location of the institution are not important, nor would I list them even if they were. But the process, which so far has been as been as self-important as if were for an endowed professorship, has involved a lot of bureaucratic busy work, including listing five (!) references, and filling out the three-question survey below.

Bottom line, I don’t do customer service, I teach. But I understand if you’re confused, many people do confuse the two. This is going to be a rocky interview…

Here are the questions and my responses:

  1. What is the role of customer service in higher education? To what degree should faculty be responsible for providing customer service in their teaching?

In my opinion, faculty are not responsible for providing customer service to students; rather, faculty are responsible for assisting students in achieving learning objectives. Doing so often involves practices that are antithetical to customer service, and customer service is often antithetical to best practices in higher education. The two are often conflated because both involve assisting an individual in achieving a desired end. However, the process by which that end is achieved differs radically between higher education and customer service. Customer service privileges the consumer by adopting the position that the consumer is always (or very frequently) right, and that it is the customer’s desires and wishes that must be accommodated. Higher education, in contrast, privileges the method and discipline of intellectual inquiry, and requires that the student, in order to accomplish their goal of attaining proficiency in skills and the subject area, be at once a consumer and a producer of expertise, in a framework in which the student’s wishes are a referent, but not the ultimate criteria.


  1. When facing a situation where a student does not have the foundational skills to be successful in your course, what do you believe your responsibility to be as an instructor?

I have frequently had students in my classes whose foundational skills were absent, and, regardless of motivation, simply could not make much progress without additional guidance. In those circumstances, there are three possible approaches. The first is to shrug and say “I’m not responsible for what you should have learned in high school. This is college.” The second is to point students to resources available to develop those skills, such as Diana Hacker’s excellent website. The third is to identify each student’s strengths and weaknesses and tailor the course to each student’s particular needs. My own approach tends to be a combination of the second and third options. Once I or the student themselves has identified areas where skills need to be developed, I will often recommend external resources for them to work on those skills, while also paying attention to what makes for the best learning experience possible in the classroom. Since I am often teaching fifty or more students in a history course, not simply a writing and composition course that explicitly develops those skills, it is not possible to produce tailored student course plans to the degree that small classes and student numbers would allow. But students often, in my experience, develop confidence when the instructor signals a willingness to work with them and when they realize that the course is a framework for finding their own voices, rather than series of tests based exclusively on an attrition model of education.


  1. How is the role of higher education changing? What concerns do you have about the changing nature of higher education today?

The answer to these questions depends on where one lives. There seems to be a general trend in more than a few states to render humanities majors mere auxiliaries to those majors that produce a workforce suited to corporate business needs. While I don’t begrudge businesses their dominant position in society, a society is more than business and corporate interests. There is widespread agreement among those who study political economy that education in critical thinking beyond the skills-based outcomes of technical courses is critical for a functioning democracy, and this is a view to which I subscribe. Having extensive experience teaching core introductory courses to students who will go on to precisely these kinds of technical skills or service jobs, I believe in the function of humanities, particularly history, courses, to not only develop students’ basic communications and critical thinking skills, but also to serve as the groundwork for their entry into the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship. My impression is that there is less concern for maintaining this function of the humanities today. Yet the nature of higher education, I would submit, remains largely unchanged despite changes in delivery systems. My worry is less about students losing interest or not seeing the function of humanities courses: students, whatever their backgrounds, still respond to the challenge of engaging with their past, present, and future. Rather, the bigger concern in higher education today is administrative pressure to alter curriculum in such a way that the core functions of the humanities are no longer met.

One Reply to “Faculty Aren’t Customer Service Providers: My Responses to a Pre-Interview Survey”

  1. just had a chance to look at this. Noble sentiments on your part, but it appears that even corrections is becoming a ‘customer service provider’ with many, many new helping programs.

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