Radical Teacher has just published a very interesting auto-ethnographic piece by Jaime Madden, called “Instructor or Customer Service Representative?: Reflections on Teaching in a For-Profit College.” I wanted to pick out some important moments from it.
To begin with, unsurprisingly, the college in question, Virginia College, mainly seems to specialize in selling expensive promises of careers that may not materialize:
The promise of employment is often not realized, and on top of that, tuition is particularly high. (15)
One has to situate these colleges in some sort of post-industrial, even post-retail, social geography. There’s something fascinating about for-profit colleges displacing working class stores:
Virginia College was familiar to my colleague, a resident of Georgia… “Oh yes! They recently opened a campus in my town,” she exclaimed in recognition. “They moved in to occupy the space that K-Mart vacated.” Hearing this detail, I knew she had it right. (15)
Madden took up an explicitly intersectional stance towards teaching, which I found admirable:
Analyzing the racial, class, and gendered coordinates of for-profit higher education is critical. Despite being the instructor, I was almost always the youngest person in my Virginia College classroom. Nonetheless I had the highest level of education and my authority was reinforced by my whiteness and class identity. I recognized the predatory nature of the college, and I tried to align my goals with my students’. I worked to “teach outside my race” and subvert prescribed syllabi whenever possible in order to sharpen critical thinking skills. (16)
Still, this class asymmetry did not necessarily preclude certain kinds of shared projects. Madden paraphrases Helena Worthen and Joe Berry to the effect that “most instructors in for-profit settings are working class and have ‘much in common’ with their students” (16). I’d be curious to hear more about this point. Certainly I’m sympathetic to the claim that in general, to be a long-term adjunct is to be solidly a member of the U.S. working class, but class analysis in America is always complex.
Meanwhile, as Madden observes this highly secured, guarded space and its corporate pedagogy, she comes across a marvelous scene of sociability in the parking lot:
The parking lot, I would learn, is a place where students enjoy socializing after classes. They quickly shed the uniforms they are required to wear when in the building—scrubs for students studying the medical fields and business attire for all others—and the outdoor space becomes lively. The officer presides over this social space as well, alert to unwelcome presences: one scholar studying for-profit colleges reports that an officer even threatened her with arrest when she tried to interview students in the parking lot. (16)
It doesn’t sound like the students are completely enamored of their uniforms. In this, they are similar to the working-class South African cleaning staff that I recently wrote about.
Meanwhile, the college unabashedly frames instructors as customer service workers (and is fairly indifferent to their academic specialization and training):
I found that the college intends relationships characterized by customer service to define the exchange that occurs between instructors and students. Students are constructed as buying a degree that will lead to advancement in a vocation, whereas instructors provide the degree on behalf of the college, and are coached to do so according to the tenets of excellence in customer service. For instance, the literature I received during New Instructor Orientation told new hires to say to students “Thank you, and come back.” (18)
The students are also asked to imbibe a lot of weird “professionalism” ideology. Students not only wear uniforms, they are expected to highlight their textbooks as a professional strategy, and of course they should be successful in job placement. Teachers are supposed to designate Best Students in each class.
At times, these ideologies get more fully fleshed out. Madden spends a while examining how a required textbook, Thought Patterns for a Successful Career, offers lessons in how to be a responsibilized apolitical, basically neoliberal subject. The textbook’s units include “What’s Holding Me Back,” “Leaning in the Right Direction,” “My Future is Up to Me,” and “If It’s to Be, It’s Up to Me.”
As Madden sums up the ideology of social control that this implies:
All one needs to do, it seems, is think in a particular way and market-based reward will flow freely without regard to structural and systematic determinants. (21)
This sort of condescending pedagogy — which inhibits critical analysis of a kind that could lead to questioning the social system — is unfortunately all too familiar from other American working-class institutions, such as certain social services agencies. Madden meditates on this fundamentally “abusive” strategy:
Students who are vulnerable are made to feel that their future success in the market is dependent on the institution. That institution has set itself up as the remedy to the past struggles the student has endured because of supposedly personal rather than structural failings; students are blamed for their own suffering.
This is indeed America, circa 2018.
Madden’s paper is far from an exhaustive study of for-profit colleges (see also Constance Iloh’s work). But I admired its critical edge, its eye for detail, and above all, its author’s laudable efforts to be a radical humanist teacher at an institution that does not want her humanism.
Madden concludes, a bit provocatively, that instead of simply rejecting for-profit colleges, we ought to think about what we can do to serve the students who are already there. The larger question is: who constitutes the political subject of U.S. higher education, and who gets to represent this subject?