At Your (Customer) Service

A few weeks into teaching my first online class I had a disturbing realization. I’d begun to feel like I was working at a big box hardware store. Here’s how my thinking went: The tiling experts or carpenters who apply at Lowe’s are attracted to the job partly because they believe their expertise will be put to use. Sure,  some of it will be a grind — it’s retail after all — but part of the appeal, surely, is the prospect of putting one’s talents and hard-earned skills to use. Imagine the disappointment when it turns out that the workday’s human exchanges consist overwhelmingly of responding to generic customer service questions like: “Where’s the restroom?”

Similarly, once my online class got underway, I had the sickening, humbling realization that every single direct student question I had fielded had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual ideas, concepts, and arguments that made up the heart and soul of my painstakingly crafted course. There were questions about grades and dates, about how to navigate the learning platform — in my case, D2L — but nary a peep about race, gender or science in a course called “Race, Gender, and Science.” I was, evidently, a customer service employee, tasked with ensuring that my patrons had a smooth, pleasant journey through the semester, an imperative intensified by the university’s pressure on faculty to maintain enrollment at almost any cost.

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Of course my content expertise had been leveraged in the initial development of the lectures, introductions, exams and projects that make up my online class. And of course I drew on my years of experience with ideas and information about race, gender and science when I participated in the discussion boards and evaluated student work. But, by and large, and most certainly in my e-mail exchanges with students, my task was one of keeping the train moving along the tracks — removing rocks, lubing the wheels — with little attention to the actual cargo it contained.

While it may be that I’m doing this wrong — I could insert more of my expertise into casual exchanges with students, for example, whether they want it or not — I think the issue may be endemic to online education as it’s now conceived. When we teach in a physical classroom, we are usually not expected to clean the room, provide the chairs, or repair broken windows. When we do find ourselves burdened with such things, we feel put out; we are being asked to do what is not properly our job and does not draw upon our training and credentials.

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But in the virtual classroom, the line between our intellectual expertise and our technical abilities — Can you manage the learning platform? Can you help students successfully navigate the often Byzantine trails between various assignments, feedback, etc. — becomes utterly blurry. Sure, our universities have online learning help centers for both us and our students, but we all understand that our journey is, at bottom, a ruggedly individualist one. Both we and are students are expected, for the most part, to manage by ourselves. Our technical and practical skills are more tied up with our pedagogical success than ever before.

It is true, of course, that face-to-face professors are also expected to succeed at a number of rote, bureaucratic tasks, for example, entering grades. It’s also true that the customer service imperative has increasingly come to define many classroom instructors’ professional lives. But never is this more evident than when those emails start arriving from online students who are only interested in your ability to point out the quickest path to the restroom.

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