September 2011

Am I Just a Barrista? Yes, Professor, You Are.

From an associate professor:

I got this one a few days ago, the day I sent out the syllabus electronically:

Good Morning Dr. B.

This is very annoying, but I bought different editions of the books. Is there any way that you could give me the chapter numbers instead of page numbers?

This is relatively minor, but revealing, I think, of a mindset in which I am to take orders from a freshman, even prior to meeting this person face to face!!  Am I wrong to find this worrisome?
Gentle Reader:

There are many things you should find worrisome. If you let the behavior of college students be one of them, however, you are in for a life of worry verging on despair and an early ejection from your professorial chair, perhaps at your own volition, perhaps at the request of the customer-service officials we now cloak with traditional academic titles such as “dean,” “provost,” and “president.”

All the same, you may still be young and eager enough to care about something beyond your paycheck and your faculty parking permit, so I will venture to suggest some thoughts that may be of use as you contemplate the decline of your youthful hopes and the approaching victory of that Deity whose advent was so well described by dear Mr. Pope.

But first, let me point out that there is a tiny ray of hope to be found amid the gathering gloom. Your student has bought a book! If I read his missive correctly, he has bought more than one! Our ray of hope reveals the first sprig of a devotion to learning that you must at all costs protect as you chop back the weeds of ignorance! (I beg the reader’s forgiveness if I have strayed too far into the allegorical: a single botanical image can have me wandering about in the garden of eloquence for hours at a time.) While others have snapped up used copies in which the dimmest students of past semesters have marked the least important passages in blazing yellow, he may have even bought a new book or two. Other universities may rent out textbooks like Segways at a park or pack preloaded Kindles into the orientation goody bags as if they were credit card applications, but yours has somehow led a young person to go to a bookstore and buy something that cannot be worn to a football game or drunk with a bran muffin. Many would say that your work for the term is already done.

But the drink that did not come with the wholly hypothetical and thus calorie-free bran muffin—probably a venti half-caf soy latte with a mocha shot—brings us back to the larger subject. Let us face that subject squarely: you object to being treated like a barista by the paying customer. I urge you to look at this matter from the young person’s perspective. Had you produced a frappuccino with a shake of cinnamon when the customer wanted sprinkles, the case would be clear. You would have said how sorry you were and immediately whipped up a new beverage to order. If you had given your sunniest smile, the customer would have placed a couple quarters or a wrinkled dollar bill in the tip jar, and all would have be well. You have produced a syllabus with page numbers instead of chapter numbers. Is there some reason the student should not expect you to correct the problem with the same alacrity displayed by the barista?

You will object that you are not in a service industry, that your job is not, in fact, to make the customer’s life flow more smoothly. You will declare that you, in fact, work for truth, for academic standards, for the preservation of our culture, and that you therefore deserve all the deference accorded to physicians and to judges. Sadly, that is simply not true. Much of your work is judged only through student evaluations, so you are this kid’s servant, not, whatever degrees you may hold, the master of anything. You are in just the position of the barista: you must ’em smiling, bro, ’cause you work for tips. (Forgive my descent into the demotic.)

Now, you may pretend that the world is the one you were sold when your entered graduate school. You can demand a bit of deference, arguing that signs of disrespect for you show, in fact, a lack of respect for the whole enterprise in which you and your students are embarked. Like the barista who asks the hurried customer to say “please” and “thank-you,” you will find your tip jar empty—and management will inform you that you and they have just developed a very real need to talk. The subject will not be your research.

Or you could use this episode to teach some dreary lessons to your student. First, if you are discussing a text with others you need to be literally “on the same” page that they are; otherwise you cannot verify each other’s assertions as you join together to approximate truth. Second, all texts are not the same. Some are bowdlerized. Some are revised. Some are well-edited while others are just scanned by a machine programed to recognize Croatian. Some are even abridged. And you don’t want to be the one who calls the ship in
Billy Budd the Indomitable while everyone else has seen the name Bellipotent and wishes it were easier to pronounce. Finally, if you know you are going to get instructions, wait for them—or ask for those instructions, not a waiver, ahead of time.Teaching those lessons may be part of the job you thought you had, but doing that job will not improve the all-important measures of student satisfaction.

What, then, is to be done? After embittering decades, your correspondent has only a few suggestions. Wear a tie to class. Check your fly before entering the room. Ignore all questions you don’t feel like answering. And make sure you’re putting the maximum into your 403(b).

It is borne in upon me, however, that I may have missed the main point of your inquiry. If your student is actually signing messages “XXXXX,” speak to the dean immediately. Don’t let it escalate to the OOOOO level. Universities now have policies about the use of X’s and O’s in student-faculty correspondence, and whatever has transpired, your guilt will be assumed.

Writing from a tranquil glen down the road from the Groves of Academe,

I remain, Sir,
Etc., Etc.