A favorite expression of mine over the past several years has been that “music is a service profession.” I first introduced this idea in seed form in a very early post on this blog, and it is part of the philosophy that lies beneath nearly all of my performing and teaching. Rejecting the idea of the musician as an aloof, elevated “artist” who cannot be bothered with the needs of desires of his audience, I have instead deliberately endeavored to construct a career centered upon the edification of my students and listeners. This doesn’t mean that I only choose performance repertoire for which audiences ask, much less allow students to drive curriculum and assignments. It does mean that I choose to perform music that is accessible and understandable, and explain to the audience in advance those pieces which are more difficult to absorb. I normally reject outright those works whose composers seemed to be pursuing the shock value of the “purposefully ugly.” Likewise with students, I do not always choose performance and study materials that they like or enjoy after a superficial first hearing or reading, but rather those pieces which will most develop their technical skills and cognitive understanding. My ability to do this depends upon a certain hierarchy in the teacher-student relationship.
Throughout my career in higher education a “customer service” mentality has pervaded the operations of many recruitment, student activities, athletic, and other offices. This approach treats students as their families as “paying customers” deserving of the type of deference given to customers and clients in a sales situation, including a willingness to acquiesce at times to the demands of young “consumers.” There is much to commend this way of doing things in certain areas of university life, especially given the large increases in tuition and fees over the past 40 years and an apparent focus upon selling a particular “college experience” that has accompanied these increases. When multiple thousands of dollars are at stake, a small amount catering to prospective students seems reasonable.
However, when this same mentality extends to the relationships between students and faculty there is a problem. Taken to a logical extreme, application of the the customer service approach to academic relationships results in the kind of entitlement that insists “I paid my tuition and came to class. Now give me my ‘A.’” The dysfunction here is obvious, with the college degree ultimately reduced to an empty credential that indicates only tuition paid and meetings (presumably) attended rather than any real competency. Faculty these days already fight a tendency toward grade inflation. Pursuing “customer service” in the classroom can make grades entirely meaningless.
Students and faculty must understand that the teacher-student relationship is necessarily hierarchical, and must be so in order for the academic endeavor to function correctly (and likewise the relationships between professors and their various administrative reports). The professor must be free to determine the desired ends of each course, to prescribe the materials and assignments that will best achieve those ends, and to apply the evaluation procedures that will most accurately reflect student progress and achievement. Good faculty members serve students by clearly delineating these objectives, materials, and measures in course syllabi, by honestly and fairly evaluating student work, and by providing assistance, advising, and recommendations as needed. Students have a right to expect that their teachers will remain current in their fields, prepare diligently for class meetings, answer questions thoroughly, and generally treat all students fairly.
Students may be “paying customers,” but they are paying for access to faculty expertise and university resources, not the mere possession of a credential after a certain period of time, much less guaranteed high grades regardless of effort or competency. Upon entering a university course the student agrees to submit to the requirements of a particular academic discipline and its associated hierarchy of professors, administrators, and even professional associations and accrediting bodies. The faculty must serve the students, but only within the context of academic and professional discipline. When this proper model of service is allowed to devolve into “customer service,” the erosion of academic credibility is sure to follow.