Monday, April 21, 2008

Bad analogy of the day

An editorial on college-campus parking problems compares faculty and students to waiters and customers at a restaurant. If waiters park right in front of a restaurant, customers will not want to park at a distance and patronize the establishment. The context is different, the editorial acknowledges, but the roles of faculty and students, the editorial contends, are "close to the same."

Faculty : students :: waiters : customers?

That's the kind of analogy that develops when one begins to think of higher education as a matter of customer service. Is it worth pointing out the ways in which this analogy fails? I think so.

A campus building is not a customer destination, and a campus is by definition a pedestrian environment. One doesn't drive to class as one might drive to a restaurant. One drives to campus, and then gets around on foot (and perhaps by shuttle-bus). That a student should expect a space in front of a classroom building — a building that during any hour of the day might hold a thousand students — is silly (handicapped parking aside).

And parking aside, faculty are hardly comparable to waiters in their work. If we profs were waiters, we'd have a pretty strange restaurant, serving our specialties to diners who in many cases have no idea what's on the menu, though they've already paid for their meals.

Related post
"Customer service" in higher education

comments: 2

thalkowski said...

This metaphor of "customer service" is a quite inappropriate one for higher education. It is part of a more general, and insidious, move to view all aspects of life through the lens of commercial enterprise.

A similar mistake is made when people try to talk about government as a business and citizens as customers. This misapplied metaphor leads to some terrible distortions of thought. The relationship of a citizen to a country is not equivalent to that of a customer to a business.

It is interesting - though sad- to see how this metaphor has become the dominant one of our time. When we give in to it, we shrink & distort our world.

C. W. Mills wrote a wonderful paper in 1940 in which he talks about this phenomenon ('Situated actions and vocabularies of motive').

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the tip, TRH. That paper, minus footnotes, is available online. (And with notes from JSTOR.)