published in Marketing Educator, vol. 15 (Spring 1996): p. 3
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Professor of Business
Auburn University, Alabama
HJR web page

A comedian said one part of his job must be totally unique when hecklers in the audience try to interfere with his show. He thinks stand-up comedy is the only job where some people pay him while concurrently trying to prevent him from working.

But on campus, many faculty find that, like a comedian, they are paid (in part) by the body: student counts often determine department funding; generation of student credit hours might influence who and how many faculty get the added pay for teaching in the summer. And, like comedians, part of our pay is entertainment value, though we call it "teaching performance" as measured by end-of-term teacher evaluation scores.

And while comedians may have hecklers in the audience, faculty must deal with students with ATTITUDES. Across the country, faculty report growing numbers of so-called students in their classes who pay tuition but do not wish to learn.

Some faculty pursued a doctorate because they had a driving interest in academic research. Others say they saw it as a way to spend time with a job description that including "reading and writing." Most want to be scholars and educators. But I doubt if anyone would say they saw an opportunity to do stand up comedy.

Yet conferences are filled with new tales of teacher frustration. Every class has good students who are interested, seemingly motivated, there to learn, and who appreciate being treated as if they had a brain. But too many classes have a segment of slackers who, as one friend put it, "turn in crap and don't even wince doing it." Even worse, even though they will come to class totally unprepared, and despite not paying attention to the class itself, some will want to take class time to ask questions that were answered while they were napping. They might show up 15 minutes late and walk to the front of class, wanting all activity to stop so you can give them the exam you just returned, or the article distributed while they were out.

Not to say most students are whiners, slackers, sulkers, or lacking all respect for faculty. But the ranks of these strangely anti-intellectual students are increasing every year.

Of course, students should not be meek little "respectful rabbits." And many faculty care not a whit, zero, zip, about teaching and cultivate this contempt. At the same time, students' honest challenging on an intellectual basis is why many of us wanted a doctorate. And, as teachers, we want the honest questions that help us clarify material and discern where the lecture was not as unambiguous as we might have believed.

But while a comedian can adroitly turn a heckler into a part of the act, faculty interrogate or insult the slacker at their peril. In these days of performance standards and review, teachers must deliver strong evaluation scores, and every negative student hurts that score.

How would Professor Kingsfield from the movie and television program "The Paper Chase" fare today? Not well, I fear.

He interrogated students, drilled them on the case to be discussed that day, and asked everyone to dig down deep and think about the law. Many of his students were intimidated by him, everyone was pushed to learn and anyone who came to class unprepared was in peril. Today, students often rebel if they are asked questions before someone tells them what they are supposed to know or how they are expected to answer.

Of course, the problem starts before they get to our classes. At all levels of modern education, teachers, not students, are blamed for poor grades. So classes become simple exam preparations, nothing more, with classes merely saying "this is important," as if the exams and their passage were an end unto themselves. What is forgotten is why the class or exams might exist in the first place.

For example, decades ago a program began for a national fitness test to be administered to school children every Fall. As explained to me decades ago, the goals were to: 1) track the fitness levels of our nation's youth, while 2) encouraging schools to run physical exercise programs that could instill in an enjoyment of physical activity. The tests were in the Fall after the usually high activity times of summer.

But unfortunately, over time, the goals are forgotten. It appears that many school administrators now see the tests as a personal measurement, a test of the school. So before testing how fast children run or how many sit-ups they complete, schools spend several weeks training the students to get their best scores. Then, when the tests are over, the physical education classes become less important to faculty and students alike.

So, too, with college education. Too many teachers read the book to the class, have students memorize terms for exams and allow students to falsely believe that all they need is marketing credit to open the door to a wonderful career.

In major measure, everyone should support public education since an educated electorate is an important part of a working democracy. Regardless of a student's major or the type of career path after graduation, college courses should want students to think. But there are a number of forces working against us.

Some faculty just wish to counsel the problem students from the major saying, "Maybe you just aren't suited for a marketing career." Others find the solution in setting up separate courses for non-majors with lower prerequisites, weaker standards and less qualified teachers. And some faculty give easy exams, slack off the class and pass the students on, so the non-learners are the next teacher's problem, not theirs.

Faculty can't eliminate the academic hecklers, but we can minimize their impact. Everyone needs be told the importance of education, and no one should fear pushing the students.

Of course, this also means that the department heads, deans and promotion/tenure committees must also be willing to toss out the simplistic numbers of teacher evaluation scores. In these litigious times, when students sue for higher grades, when they feel oversleeping for a 10 a.m. class is an excused absence and when they consider cheating a normal and necessary part of academic life, it is easy to forget that the goal of teaching is education.

And therein lies the problem. Accountability is the guide post of the day; we are asked to prove we are accomplishing something. As George Stigler noted, "Colleges should impart wisdom if they possibly can. I challenge anyone in the whole wide world, however, to prove that, on average, they haven't. The burden of proof is too heavy for anyone to lift." It is easy to understand why student evaluation numbers become so important, losing sight of all else, because they provide a concrete measurement of what is so ephemeral and hard to measure.

But even if the subject is marketing or anything else with a job title, the need is for students to learn and appreciate learning. And in the process of a real education, not everyone will leave the class with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Maybe my hopes are all a tad unreal. Popular teachers are often good comedians, or, at least, entertainers. Maybe the academic version of a comedian's hecklers are an unavoidable part of the terrain.

I just wish we would do more to focus on the students who want us to do the job. The good students might be the majority, but a few academic hecklers can destroy a class for everyone.