Satisfaction, y’all: what is it good for?

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon was strong with me this week. It’s end of term, end of the academic year, and we’re all caught up in the requesting (begging) of student feedback, along with its requisite trauma. An old friend of mine who is a nurse posted this article about patient satisfaction vs. patient health, and the sentiments strongly parallel what I hear from staff and out of my own mouth. My mom just wants it all to stop; with every purchase, site visit, and receipt, she gets a request for customer feedback, and let’s face it: unless you’re on one extreme of customer experience or another, you just can’t dredge the energy to care.

Student feedback is fertile ground for frustration. We’re told we’re not collecting enough feedback (the bean-counter kind): we can’t get enough responses to officially administered feedback for statistically significant and/or representative feedback. On the other hand, we collect so much feedback that at times it feels as though educators are no longer running the show: online, on Facebook, in class, in staff/student meetings, on email, in person, in hallways, during office hours, during special sessions, mid-semester, end of semester, end of term, end of degree. My most engaged students — the ones who voluntarily turn up on Open Days out of pure enthusiasm — tell me they frequently don’t offer feedback because they don’t have anything to complain about. So the actual satisfaction isn’t being collected, but the dissatisfaction is. Our response to this skewed feedback is to justify what we’re doing, or make changes to the program. But you can’t make everyone happy all the time, and the next group will find something new to be unhappy about, and so begins the cycle of diminishing returns, as is quite well-described in Powey & Hall’s 1998 study on the efficacy of student feedback. It’s disturbing that 16 years later, their portrait of the dubious value of student feedback is still remarkably accurate.

The emphasis placed on student feedback during and directly after their degrees begins to resemble the obsequious store clerk’s “the customer is always right” attitude. In fact, numerous studies note that the “customer who is ‘always right’ has the upper hand by default and an opportunity to push the boundaries of fair behavior” (Berry & Seiders 2008); this attitude leads to bullying. I’ve certainly experienced it in both business settings and higher education, and I’m sure many colleagues have as well. Providing such a wealth of feedback opportunities, coupled with the subsequent need to react to that feedback, transfers a great deal of (imagined?) power to the students; while I agree that it is important to hear the student voice, students in general simply do not have enough experience and knowledge to know how modules and degrees should be administered, taught, and assessed. What’s more, it isn’t fair to expect them to.

Good parents don’t let their children dictate bedtimes or diet. Good mentors know to push their students to “wax on, wax off”, even when their pupils rage against such “meaningless” activities. Good service providers know better than to follow the letter of a customer’s instructions, instead offering the guidance of their expertise and experience. Whether we see the lecturer-student relationship as paternal, as a mentorship, or as an exchange of services for currency, we nonetheless are doing our students a disservice if we cater to their every whim. At some point, we have to know when (and have the ability) to say “This is for your own good. Eat up.”

When I was in the throes of my adolescent omniscience, my mother threw some ice water on my hot head. She asked me “Do you want to base the rest of your life on decisions made by a teenager?” It was enough to make the rational part of me say “No, I don’t think I would.” Do we really want to base higher education on feedback offered by teenagers (21-year-olds, at best), rather than lecturers and researchers with decades of knowledge and experience? And given the dissatisfaction that arises out of the increasing perception of power we allow them to have via all this kow-towing, it’s harmful to everyone, long-term.

Because that’s what education is: a long-term investment. Short-term feedback offers us nothing. It’s a degree, not a hamburger. I had no idea on the day I graduated that the skills I’d learned from my ancient tech writing lecturer’s mimeographed handouts would land me high-paying job after high-paying job. I had no idea that my Arthurian Lit professor’s teaching methods would be reflected in my own lecture rooms 15 years later. The Chicano lit tutor I thought was so ridiculously pompous introduced me to Sandra Cisneros, whose writing still greatly influences my own. My feedback on my degrees now is a completely different creature from what it was at the time.

Parents know how important the long-term data are. It’s why their questions on Open Days are the scariest: What jobs do graduates of this program get? How many go into this industry? What sort of cross-disciplinary skills will they be learning that can be applied to lots of different careers? By and large, our answers are anecdotal, gathered from the Facebook statuses of the one or two students a year who ask to be our friends. Or we offer generalizations about how many opportunities the internet/globalization/economy is opening up in our sector. But we don’t actually know, because that data isn’t deemed important to the bottom line for next year. Next decade’s recruitment will be someone else’s problem, right?

Higher education isn’t an exchange of goods. It isn’t even a service, and certainly not a right. It’s a privilege. That’s what the cost is: payment for knowledge delivered by experienced mentors. The purpose of a university is the pursuit of knowledge. It’s not a vocational school or an apprenticeship; it is an active learning environment that seeks to deepen our understanding of the universe, to seek out the connections of the mind, to grasp for the foundations of humanity. The primary objective is research, original thought, contribution to a growing sphere of knowledge. Students shouldn’t come to take what they can get and run away again; they should come to be part of that pursuit of knowledge, to carry the baton to future generations.

I’m not an idiot, nor am I naïve. I know that not all universities, researchers, and students were/are so pure in their motivations. But the tenet has value (our science, our technology, our culture are largely built upon it), and it seems to have been lost to the structuring of higher education as a business. Money plays an enormous factor, and with fewer government grants and the economy in a spin it becomes a glaring point of contention between those who pay tuition and those who ask for it (with the lecturers caught in between). The more we see higher education as a business, the poorer it will become, as short-term gains (5% increase in recruitment every year!) trump long-term quality and reputation.

We will never get rid of the need for feedback; we still need to know when a lecturer, module, or program is going off track, or is best-practice that should be shared with colleagues. What we need, however, is smarter feedback, not more, feedback that actually tells us how our degrees fulfill their primary purpose: to create critical thinkers with the knowledge, communication skills, and confidence to succeed in their chosen career paths, above and beyond vocational skillsets. We’re universities, leaders and shapers of the next generation. Unless we want the next generation to spiral into Idiocracy, we need to act like it.

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