What You Really Really Want

Unlike the Spice Girls, I do not often ask my audience what they want, what they really really want. I think of myself as my students’ personal trainer, except I help them develop minds — rather than buns — of steel. I have many colleagues in Hawai’i and abroad who worry that education is becoming ‘commodified’ and that people increasingly think of paying for an education as being similar to buying a new Camaro. While they worry about students demanding ‘customer satisfaction’ the largest issue in education I’ve run across today is an emphasis on credentialing rather than educating. Students that I encounter at universities across the US are less worried about achieving a state of satisfaction than earning an A, and approach classes more worried about the cultivation of their transcript than their sensibilities. Obviously, trying to get a great grade in a course is not exactly orthogonal to learning anything, but the shift in emphasis does sometimes make my job harder.

This is why I like the image of the personal trainer — it helps people understand what they are getting for their money: an opportunity to undergo a personal transformation which they may or may not take advantage of. It also helps underline another aspect of the teacher-student relationship which I believe quite strongly in despite the prevailing egalitarianism of our times: students do not know what they want or need out of an education — that is why they need us to guide them through it. Like Dante or Luke Skywalker, they need old guys in robes to guide them and unleash their potential.

That’s why I was struck by 37 Signals’s “recent blog entry”:http://37signals.com/svn/archives2/people_dont_know_how_to_ask_for_what_they_really_want.php. As designers of websites and other things, they note that

Nobody knows what they really want before they get it. Not consumers, not conference goers, not programmers, and certainly not clients. Delivering greatness requires you to let go of the safety in mediocrity where you just do as you’re told.

For people working in the private sector, this is quite an insight. But my general feeling is: duh. I am reminded of the shift that has occurred in restaurant menus over the past couple of decades. Today menus are elaborate paeons to the food diners are about to consume. But traditionally the menus at America’s great restaurants had menus that read ‘five courses of fish in different sauces.’ They didn’t elaborate, because the chef was clearly more capable of deciding what you ought to eat then you were. The client, after all, waits on the souffle — not the other way around.

The wonderful thing about 37 Signals’s entry is that it helps to remind educators fearful of creeping consumerism that people who Get It — and 37 Signals is an outstanding company that does Get It — come to understand what they do as similar to education. This is, of course, the exact opposite of the trend that educators fear. Contrary to Hannah Arendt’s disparaging remarks about academics’ fear of anything not inherently mediocre (which are, unfortunately, not entirely off the mark), this is a case where people who excel at what they do have come to an understanding that is in line with, not opposed to, the ideals of the academy.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

7 thoughts on “What You Really Really Want

  1. Nice post, Rex.

    In my seminars on advertising and marketing in Japan, I begin by telling my students that not once in my over two decades of working in the advertising business have I seen anyone make big bucks by repeating what others have done. I then explain that doing a competent job of gathering and presenting information will get them at most a “B” in my class. To get an “A” they will have to impress me. That will mean doing markedly better than members of this class and others who have taken it before him and will—necessarily—involve taking the risk of trying to do something original.

    For a lot of students that’s a scary proposition and many never do get over the shock of discovering that I mean what I say when I say that doing what the teacher says to do will never be enough. What encourages me is the number who do get the message, work their butts off, and produce really interesting work.

  2. From the other side of the pond, I understand your concerns in highlighting what it is that students really want.

    In my experience in the UK higher education market, the students are not concerned either for satisfaction or their grades. They do not want to know what they need to do to get the highest mark. They would rather settle for mediocre and not put in the blood, sweat and tears that they need to get a first class honours. What they want, is a piece of paper that says they have a degree, all so that they can get a job.

    Given this shift in expectations of the students, academic staff are experiencing a transformation in the system, which they are trying to overcome, with greater and lesser degrees of success.

    For further discussion of the impact that this is having on the academic life cycle of social anthropologists in the UK, a new blog has been set up recently which will be addressing these changes – http://learningandteachinginhe.blogspot.com

  3. I generally agree with this post, and the attitudes of the commenters so far. However, a word of caution: there’s a lot to be said for getting a job. And sometimes, a student’s interest in getting a job is not manifested in terms of a desire for an A based on mediocre work. Sometimes the student’s anxiety on those grounds stems from a concern that what they are learning is the academic version of their field, not the trade version. Perhaps this is less of an issue in anthropology, where there’s less of a standard business version of the field, but as a law student, its certainly a worry I have at times.

    Sometimes I feel concerned that, while I can wax eloquent on various legal theories and political philosophy, I am going to have to learn how to actually, you know, pursue and try a case, *after* I obtain employment. Which of course I will, law school has adopted that way of doing things intentionally. But its worth at least considering. Is the reason your students seem to have no desire to excel because they are interested only in credentialing, or because they want to excel in an aspect of your subject which you are not teaching them?

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  5. So far, none of my students have come out of my classes concerned that I’ve spent too much time discussing the gender symbolism of initiation instead of getting down to the more marketable skill of learning how best to incise initiate’s backs. Perhaps a lab section?

    More seriously, in my experience students who are uninterested in learning typically feel this way because they’ve been failed by bad teachers who have managed to convince them academia is boring, fatuous, etc. So I typically try to 1) make studying interesting and 2) explain to them how reasoning, argumentation and yes, proper punctuation are in fact business skills that they will need in their careers. So I always emphasize that although the content may not be relevant for their career, the skills you use in class ARE, that THAT is why they should try to learn them.

  6. I also think it is important for us to be honest, as teachers, that what is best for the student’s own learning process is not necessarily what will get them the best grade. I tell my students that if they want to really learn something they need to take risks, to overreach, and that doing so may, in fact, result in a lower grade. For instance, when choosing a paper topic there is always a safe bet and a more risky one. Not everyone will be able to pull off the more risky option – they may in fact fall flat on their faces – but they will learn much more by trying. Now I try to take their risk taking into account when grading – but such students are usually B+ students, not A students.

    For example, a student may try to apply a concept learned in another class when it doesn’t really apply to the topic at hand. The one who stuck to the paper topic as assigned will end up with the better grade, but the other student will probably learn more from having tried and failed to move beyond what we had talked about in class.

    (Of course, there is always the possibility that they are just being lazy and they didn’t actually read the assigned reading, so they figure they can save time by using something they did read – even then, I think laziness can be a great source of creativity – but still, no “A.”)

  7. I wrote something recently about creeping philosophical naturalism:
    the illusion that one is not -can be other than- a participant. Standard economic theory and polling as policy are both akin to this, or come from the same root. To study people as if you were not one of them, and then to address them: How?
    When has any good novel or work of art ever been written entirely to cater to an audience? There’s always a conflict, hidden or overt. The ‘client’ is always the enemy. but sometimes of course the enemy is right and deserves to win.
    A teacher has authority and should act accordingly; but some haven’t earned it. Each case is individual and yet part of a larger group. Some students say fuck you for lousy reasons, and some are absolutely right. The point if one wants to systematize anything is to systematize conflicts not results.

    I’m tired of attempts to turn the necessary ambiguities of life and communication into clear cut divisions. Such logic leads to a sort of observational passivity that I find grotesque. Giving the people what they want without making them fight for it is copping out.

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