Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"The Customer" Is Always Wrong: Managing Community Expectations

I tend to get a bit twisted about semantics, so I write about it frequently. Word choice matters. A recent piece written by one of my favorite anthropologists illustrates another reason why:
"Words matter WORDS MATTER this 'customer' stuff isn't just benign semantics and labelling it comes from an insidious framing of education."
That is something that Donna Lanclos tweeted and then quoted in a longer piece about the problems with managing college and university student expectations. That blog post also included the following paragraph, which made me want to give Lanclos a standing ovation:
"Student expectations are informed by their pre-university experiences. And those are not uniform. We have students with a variety of levels of experience and preparedness for what university education requires. And we do not, as educators, have to buy the argument that the purpose of our work is to prepare students for 'jobs.' Our work, collectively, in higher and further education, is to provide students with experiences and support within those experiences to learn, to grow, to find and shape their voice, to be prepared to exercise citizenship, to live engaged lives, to shape their world in constructive ways."

I loathe the word "customer" for people who walk into a library, but even more so for students of a college where I work. It really does set up the wrong dynamic. I can't tell you the number of times that I have heard "I pay your salary" or variations thereupon directed at me or at a coworker by a student who isn't being allowed to do one disruptive thing or another. That student who got angry with me and told me how much they paid to attend that institution because I wouldn't let them leave their possessions strewn around a busy area was a particularly fun example of that. Because there is already so much money involved, calling a student "the customer" makes it feel even more like we are supposed to bend over backwards. How far is it from adding a rock-climbing wall to eliminating prerequisites for a price?

But back to my original point: I would argue that those skills Lanclos lists are precisely the kinds of skills employers both big and small need in their work force. I'm not pulling this out of the air, either. I've read so many studies that talk about how employers want people who can think on their feet, who can write, who can investigate, who can think critically... Dr. Lanclos writes that managing educator expectations is just as important as managing student expectations, but I'm wondering if we need to take a step further and manage the expectations of our communities. If so much of this is predicated on the assumption that we are educating students to be employable, can we use the expectations of those employers to shape the conversation? It seems that educators and companies are all saying the same thing, and there's got to be a way to leverage that so that our students and, more importantly, our upper-level administrator and boards of trustees get back to trusting the faculty and staffs of their institutions.

Or am I just dreaming here?


  1. When I started in my current organization, they emphasized that we were to refer to them as "patrons". That's fallen out of the official vocab guidelines, recently, and they're frequently called "customers", which annoys me greatly. I went to a training recently that suggested, for public libraries, calling them "members", which works quite well for me.

  2. This is also occasionally discussed in the Koha community, where there's also the factor of accommodating the preferences of several English-speaking countries (to say nothing of the non-English localizations). Two other words that get used sometimes in those discussions are "borrowers" and "users".