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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2006

The Holy Grail of Relevance

By Raymond Lee & Céleste Brotheridge

In today's customer & consumer-oriented society, where do students-as-customers end and students-as-learners begin?
While the classroom teacher as reluctant hero has been well portrayed in movies such as Good-bye Mr. Chips, To Sir with Love and Stand and Deliver, the university professor has also been represented as the misunderstood eccentric-genius in movies such as The Nutty Professor and The Paper Chase.

Despite these sharply contrasting archetypal images, teachers and professors face a common set of challenges and opportunities that reflect the angst and aspirations of today’s customer and consumer-oriented society.

The loudest clarion call we have heard in the course of our careers is the push to bring “Relevance” with a capital R into the classroom. Students, employers and university boards have repeatedly questioned whether our course offerings — and even our fields of study — meet the criterion of relevance, by which, it is commonly assumed, students will develop tangible skills that readily translate into gainful employment.

Less apparent is whether relevance means contemplating what it takes to achieve a civil, just and progressive society, and taking the steps needed to make it so. Yet such reflections and actions are every bit as relevant as acquiring transferable skill sets.

In the quest for the Holy Grail of Relevance, we academics struggle mightily to create balance in our teaching. On the one hand, our course offerings should be interesting, but not to the point of mindless entertainment. And on the other hand, they should be sufficiently rigorous to meet the standards of disciplined learning.

Just when we think we have struck the right balance, the new mandate from educational administrators is that front-line instructors should make the process of learning more “customer-friendly.” And as this metaphor of the student-as-customer increasingly takes hold in universities, newly-minted instructors are being encouraged to establish “good working relationships” with students. This seems to imply students are somehow equal partners in the delivery of higher education.

This shift in deciding who can and should determine course curriculum and pedagogy goes beyond the question of balancing relevance and rigor. It calls into question the very role of educators in the classroom. Are we lecturers, instructors, teachers, facilitators, or, indeed, “servers who aim to please”? The various labels are more than semantic nuances. Most fundamentally, they suggest differences in how much say educators and students each have in the crafting and delivery of knowledge. The push towards equal partnership evidenced in the view that teaching is a form of customer service sets a perilous precedent for higher education.

Students are increasingly finding voice in both the establishment of curricula and governance throughout universities in Canada. While involvement in their educational institution helps students develop a broader view of the educational process, their treatment as consumers can have the paradoxical effect of dampening their desire to learn. Indeed, allowing students to rule the roost unchecked recalls the horrific scenes depicted in the movie Blackboard Jungle.
Where do students-as-customers end and students-as-learners begin? They seem to have little qualms about asking their teachers and professors to “go easy” (less rigor) and skipping on assignments they feel are not of much practical use (more relevance).

Instead of professors-as-educators, the role seems to be professors-as-servers. Professors are asked to provide more options in course assignments — much like restaurant servers going over the various menu choices for their diners. The aim of professors is to provide structured, helpful and congenial service for their “customers” as well. The courses of study, like courses of fine dining, should be pleasing to the palate and offer good value for one’s money.

The professor-as-server approach is not inherently antithetical to learning if students are indeed motivated to learn for curiosity’s sake. But, unfortunately, such an approach, in our experience, is unsatisfactory for all parties in the long run. The students may want entertainment value in the classroom, just as diners want consumptive value for the food they order. But in the end, how much “food for thought” learning has taken hold? For learning to yield intellectual nourishment, students should cogitate and contemplate the course materials. Relevance in the broadest sense comes when the bridge linking the classroom to the outside world has been constructed by the students for themselves. Professors may offer observations on possible linkages, but, in the end, profound learning develops from what students bring to the classroom and what insights they gain from it, as Blackboard Jungle so poignantly showed.

Comparison shopping has become habit-forming in a consumer-driven society and is especially evident when choosing educational institutions. High schools and universities, teachers and professors alike, are compared ad nauseam on various indices that supposedly reflect “bang for the buck.”

Students compete to get into highly-ranked schools and enroll in “cool” courses (according to survey findings reported in various publications and statistics compiled from course evaluations). Numbers rule, but at what cost? Teachers and professors, whose career prospects are often tied to what students opine of them, have adapted by catering to what they believe students seek (i.e., entertainment value and real-world relevancy).

Instructors feel the squeeze that much more when administrators implore them to establish “good working relationships” with students-as-consumers. Like restaurant servers who work for tips (although few instructors would admit to this), many who patrol the halls of higher education are tempted to work to the consumer satisfaction surveys or “happy sheets,” so that they are afforded the opportunity to maintain the fiction of imparting knowledge for its own sake. After all, it’s the path of least resistance. Ultimately, however, this learning climate is self-defeating.

We need to make a clarion call for a new culture of learning as an alternative to the status quo. Like the headstrong protagonist, Richard Dadier, in Blackboard Jungle, teachers, professors and administrators must find the courage to reach out to their students in novel and offbeat ways so that learning is no longer a chore but a journey of discovery embarked on with the energy of youthful enthusiasm.

Giving in to “the system” was, and remains today, a dead-end solution for educators and students alike. Empowering students to learn and to want to learn for curiosity’s sake is as much a noble quest today as it was in 1955 when Blackboard Jungle raised the public conscience of what education and learning meant in the deepest sense.

Professors-as-servers should aspire to become professors-as-provocateurs. We should provoke students to ask and seek answers to the tough questions and to think critically. More broadly, we should provoke them to discover the things that give meaning to their lives and to have the courage to pursue their bliss, as the late mythologist Joseph Campbell compelled his students to do.

If we, as educators, aim to provoke, rather than to merely please our constituents, the state of higher education will be that much better for it.

Raymond Lee is a professor in the department of business administration of the I.H. Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba. Céleste Brotheridge is a professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at Université du Québec à Montréal. They recently published a study on the degree purchasing orientation of Canadian university students in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily CAUT. Les opinions exprimées sont celles des auteurs et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la position officielle de l’ACPPU. CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime. L’ACPPU invite les lecteurs à soumettre des articles de 800 à 1 500 mots qui portent sur des questions d’actualité liées directement à l’enseignement postsecondaire. Les articles ne doivent traiter ni de dossiers de griefs particuliers ni de questions d’intérêt strictement local. Ils ne doivent pas comporter des allégations non fondées ni des propos diffamants, calomniateurs ou offensants envers des personnes ou des groupes. L’ACPPU se réserve le droit de choisir les articles qui seront publiés. Les commentaires doivent être envoyés à Liza Duhaime.