January 29, 2008

Paying Customers

A couple of weeks ago I attended a faculty meeting at the American study abroad program I will start teaching for in June. There were a total of 15 teachers there. The meeting began by everyone introducing himself and stating what she teaches. The mélange was interesting. There was a South African who teaches business ethics, a German who teaches literature, an American who teaches a human rights course, another American who teaches marketing, several native French teachers and one French woman who teaches a film course in English. She was the gem of the meeting.

The first item on the agenda was discussing student evaluations from the previous semester, which had ended in December. Many of the European teachers seemed reticent to have a look at what the students had to say about their course. In fact, the director of the program had to insist that each teacher come to his office to examine their own evaluations. She started in right about here. I glanced over at this one – the French darling – my age, no older, tomato red sweater, boring haircut, pretty enough face – in a French way – and she was literally puffing out her cheeks and her eyes were rolling away (she was enormously put out).

My eyebrows raised and I wondered why she would respond this way. Apparently, the idea of a teacher modifying her approach based on feedback from students (especially American ones) is unseemly. When we all learned what the feedback was, it became even more so. The American university students asserted (pretty unanimously) that French/European teachers grade too severely. Context: within the French educational system, student marks are rather severe. A 12 or 13 out of 20 is considered good work – anything above a 16 usually unheard of in any sort of subjective branch of learning (philosophy, literature, humanities). American students generally have a different perspective. If a student is able to achieve a set of pre-determined requirements outlined, she can earn an A. Period.

I continued to watch this French one throughout the meeting. She interrupted people to insert (continually speaking in French in an all-English meeting) that she would not lower her standards to accommodate students. American students, she maintained, are spoon-fed their material and their education and they remain spoon-fed until they die. The director kept addressing her in English, even though she kept insisting on her mother tongue (and despite the fact that she teaches in English). She was making her point indeed. She almost had a little temper fit upon hearing that teachers would be required to provide their students with on-line class readings through the program’s database. Rising out of her chair, eyes high in their sockets, her dissent came out in the form of leaving the meeting, getting a bowl of peanuts to be employed as her support team, plopping herself back down in her chair, and sucking on each peanut slowly and resentfully.

It ended up being an interesting cultural discussion though. The American students (and faculty) felt that the European teachers, regardless of their own marking standards should mold to an American model (where every student in the class can potentially get an A). This is an American institution and the students return to American universities after they are done here. These teachers were apparently giving only 2 students maximum in each class an A.

In the end it came down to a basic money argument: the director pointed out that the students are paying something like $15,000 to spend a semester here. If their GPA is submerged as a result, it is a deterrent for future students (who would be good paying customers, wink). The Europeans almost had a collective heart attack upon hearing this line of reasoning. After all, the idea of paying for higher education (or education at all) is outlandish and non-existent all over Europe. And deeming students ‘customers’ – well, that is really going too far.

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