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I’ve been reading a lot about the debate surrounding whether students are customers or products. I see the merits of both sides of the argument. Let me explain.

In many ways students are customers; they can demand that we give, as instructors (as well as the university) provide them with certain things; they can ask for additional “features” during their college experience; they can provide feedback on the “services” we provide. However, I believe this view requires that students know what they want and actively seek it when they come to college. This is where the problem with this model lies. Most students don’t know what they need (much less what they want). Many don’t begin college knowing what major they wish to pursue much less what they need from a classroom experience. Many student also don’t know what they will need to get a job after college. I can’t tell you how many students I have contact me – sometimes years after they took a class I taught – to tell me how valuable the classroom experience was. I can assure you this was not the same attitude they had when they took my class:)

In many ways students are products; I give them certain lessons and assignments so that they will know the “correct” way to do things in the real world; I lecture them on morals, standards, norms and law so that they might go forth and perform ethically; I provide them with applicable cases and situations so that they can be the best PR or advertising professionals out there. This is where the problem with this model lies. This model depends upon the students absorbing everything I say, do, assign to classroom assignments as well as the real world. After all, they are my product, right? I have molded and shaped them into exactly what they need to be to succeed. I have created a little assembly line where they all roll off the conveyor belt the exact way I intend them to. WRONG! Just because I have “poured” some material into them during the course of a semester does not mean they will use it as I intended (if they choose to use it at all). And, let’s be honest, some of the things I have taught them I don’t want to “stick” in the final product. Things change quickly in strategic communication –  I don’t want them to be so set in what I taught them that when it becomes outdated they don’t adapt.

Notice that the difference in what I see here is “they” vs. “I.” In the customer model education depends upon what the students want and in the product model it depends upon what I want. In my opinion this is why neither model is accurate.

So I had to do some serious soul-searching this weekend. It took part mainly because I had no grading to do and the lack of red ink fumes let my brain revive a bit.

I thought back to some of the best instructors I had ever had. I thought back to Larry Godfrey (my high school English teacher), Steve Babbitt (my undergraduate mass communication professor), Hazel Dicken-Garcia (my Master’s professor for mass comm theory) and Glenn Leshner (my doctoral professor for advanced quantitative methods and my dissertation adviser). I’m fairly certain none of them had thought of me as a customer or a product. So what was I to them, and what should I be to my students?

I remember (none too fondly) getting papers back from Hazel Dicken-Garcia that were so covered with red ink that it looked like she had opened up an artery and bled all over them. Then, on the very last page (thank goodness I read that far and didn’t pitch it in the garbage out of disgust) there would be a note from Hazel saying “well done…I’m so proud of what you have done here.” I remember thinking to myself, “Really? Then why does my paper look like it just came from a bloody sword fight?” And when I saw Hazel in class the next day she would be beaming at me. She would tell me how much she enjoyed my work. She would offer me ways to better it. That’s when I realized Hazel was not an evil dream crusher or sadomasochist, she was simply trying to guide me to be the best graduate student I could be; produce the best work I possibly could; get the most out of her expertise and my learning experience. I soon learned not to fear the red ink, but to embrace it – to take every word Hazel wrote as a way to improve myself.

So, I started thinking to myself, maybe that’s all I am – a guide. Someone to get students from point A to point B and give them some direction, skill sets, information, nurturing and feedback along the way. I looked up the job description of a tour director and found this:

“Tour directors help make travelers’ dreams come true. They may act as guides, companions, travel agents, translators, naturalists and historians–sometimes all in a single trip (Elizabeth DeHoff).

Students are not the customers – they don’t always know what they want or need (and they, most certainly, are not always right). Students are not products – I cannot shape or mold them into what I want them to be. Students are on a journey toward internships, graduation, careers and I am trying to impart some information/skills/advice onto them along the way. I only get them for a few weeks — so I have to try to cram in as much as I can to prepare them for their “destinations.” Just like the tour director, I have to talk quickly, provide you with as much information about the area we are touring, answer your questions and sometimes steer you back onto the correct path.

Just please forgive me the red ink and know that I do it so you get all you deserve out of your education and so that your dreams may come true.