Student Consumerism and Teacher Evaluations Revisited with Lendol Calder

Somewhere on the Internet there was/is a link to my previous post on teacher evaluations and consumerism. That link has sent traffic here at “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” through the roof. Unfortunately, my site meter is unable to pick up the link. It says that it is “unknown.” Whatever the source, my remarks on Diane Auer Jones’s “Brainstorm” post on teacher evaluations has proven to be quite popular. I have not had so many weekend visits to this blog since the day I asked: Does Sarah Palin speak in tongues?

One of the commentators on my “Student Consumerism and Teacher Evaluations” post was Lendol Calder. In case you don’t know him (you should!), Lendol teaches history at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He is a scholar of American consumerism and the author of Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit (Princeton, 2001). Lendol is also an expert on the teaching of history. While working as a fellow at the Carnegie Foundation, Lendol developed the concept of “Uncoverage,” which he describes as a “signature pedagogy for the history survey.”

I cannot think of a better person to comment on the subject of teacher evaluations and student consumerism. In case you have not read the comments section of my previous post on this subject, here are Lendol’s remarks:

John, I don’t entirely disagree with your post on student evaluations. But I think there is a case to be made that treating students as “consumers,” if that is what we want to call it, can be for everyone’s good.

I’m thinking of John Adams’ caution that if men are not angels then it does no good to design a political system that only works for angels. You have to take people as they are. With that caution in mind, we profs have to take students as they are. It does no one any good to wish very hard that students were more like us, “learners” right out of the box.

It is unfair to students, I think, to label them as “consumers” as if all of them only want to be entertained. Some of them want to learn, maybe even most of them. But if American culture has socialized them to attend best to content that comes via entertainment, then those are the cards that have been dealt to us. I say we deal with it instead of complaining that we don’t teach other students at another time in another place.

Now I will make an unfair generalization: the complaint about student consumerism is too often the product of the wounded ego of profs. “It’s not about you,” they emote, “it’s really about me!” In other words, the complaint about student consumerism is itself a kind of reverse-consumerism, where the prof is the consumer who isn’t getting what she wants. And what does she want? Students to respectfully bow to her will. As a historian of consumerism, I say we’re all consumers here, so let’s stop pointing the finger at students.

There’s nothing wrong, and a lot that is right, a lot that is incarnational even, about coming down from our pedestals on Mt Olympus and learning to see the world the way 18 year old novices see it. This is not treating them as consumers so much as it taking them seriously, and taking teaching seriously.

Nothing I say here should be construed to mean that profs should merely entertain, or that in walking alongside learners we don’t need to take them somewhere. But I’m all for a little more “consumerism” in teaching and learning if it means a few less boring professors, “boring” because they can’t be bothered to see the world the way the student Other does.

I could not agree more. While I often get irritated by the consumer impulses of my students, and I support Jones’s criticism of professors who merely entertain in order to land good evaluations, I think Lendol’s “incarnational” approach is absolutely essential to good pedagogy. Are students consumers? Yes. And I do not think it is “unfair” to label them as such. At the same time, student consumerism is no excuse for not trying to meet students “where they are.” In fact, it seems like we MUST do this in order for education to take place in this day and age. After reading Lendol’s comment, I signed up for a class at Messiah College on how to use “Sakai”–our on-line teaching resource. (Similar to “Blackboard”).

I know Lendol has been thinking deeply about these issues and he eventually hopes to write something more formal on the subject. He has some things to say about the “reverse consumerism” of college professors that might be hard for some of us to hear. Stay tuned.

Some of his thoughts on this kind of teaching will appear in a great essay entitled “For Teachers to Live, Professors Must Die: A Sermon on the Mount” in John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller, ed., Confessing History: Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (Notre Dame University Press, forthcoming).

(Thanks to Lendol for letter me use his comment in this post).