An Open Letter to College Students: Your Professor Is NOT Your Employee

Last night I had a conversation with a friend and coworker who was complaining about one of his college professors because she wasn’t very approachable and seemed irritated when he came to see her during office hours. 

At first I was sympathetic to his plight, but then these words came out of his mouth: 

“My professor shouldn’t have a problem because frankly, she works for me. I’m paying her with my tuition.”

I nearly choked on my salad. 

As someone who has earned a graduate degree, taught college writing for several years, and spent more of her life immersed in academia than anywhere else, I have never once considered the student/teacher relationship to be that of boss/employee. 

The idea is not only ludicrous, it’s also offensive. And here are some reasons why:

1. Teaching is not an act of customer service. Yes, you can go online and rate your professors just as you would rate a restaurant on Yelp, and yes, both are receiving money from you. But purchasing food from a restaurant is different than paying for an education. Please don’t confuse the two. 

Paying a chef to prepare a meal for you is somewhat like paying a maid to clean your house, or a mechanic to fix your car. It’s buying a basic service and it requires little of you, the patron, other than handing over money once the job has been completed.

Teaching is quite different because it is not a service, just as learning isn’t really about buying a product. For example, as someone who has always been terrible at math, instead of bothering to learn the subject, I could just purchase a book with a bunch of answers to math tests and I could memorize that information and use it to fill in the blanks on an exam, but that would NOT mean I actually learned how to do math. Learning is a lot more complicated than that. 

To learn math, I would need an expert, a teacher, who could show me the intricacies of how numbers work, how to break down equations, how to think like a mathematician. Learning is an apprenticeship, you see. It’s an on-going relationship with a teacher built on trust and respect. Which brings me to the next point:

2 .Real learning requires humility. Not making demands, not feeling entitled, and certainly not lording over the instructor with some sort of power trip. Humility, openness-- these are the best postures for learning, as they allow the brain to be more receptive. They also mentally prepare you, the students, to complete tasks you would never otherwise do. Tasks and activities that are challenging and unfamiliar and leave you open to the vulnerabilities of failure. 

These are all key components for learning, which is why students everywhere should be grateful their professors don’t work for them. If they did, students would never learn a damn thing. The professors would be too busy pandering to them instead of challenging them. 

In defense of my friend and coworker who made that comment, I know he wasn’t looking for a professor who would pander to him. On the contrary, he wanted to work hard and get as much as he could out of his college experience. That was part of his whole frustration with this professor who he felt was impeding his learning, as opposed to nurturing it. 

If I were in his shoes, I too may have thought about all the money I was spending on my education and questioned if it was being put to good use.  

But what I wouldn’t have done is assumed I was the boss in that scenario. I would have maybe expressed my grievances to the department chair -- my professor’s real boss -- the one who hired him or her, who runs an entire staff, makes tough decisions every day, and juggles a whole host of professional responsibilities most college students know little about.

That’s what bosses do, and that’s the difference between a boss and a patron paying for a service, or the difference between a boss and a student/apprentice. In our consumer-driven society where even learning is a commodity, I know it’s tempting to confuse these roles. 

But for the sake of your own education, I advise that you don’t. Both you and your professors will be better off for it.