Branding as a Strategy to Impede Student Success

2016-10-08Too often, branding and an obsession with conformity can impede student learning. For example, I recently received an e-mail asking me to advance our brand by not providing students with certain types of information that would be very useful for them. This was not, of course, how the e-mail was actually worded, but that was the essence of the request.

When I read the e-mail, I remembered a situation that happened so long ago that the administrator involved in the decision has not been employed on campus for many years. A colleague and I had revised a table that was then used in all on-line courses taught at the college. Everyone agreed that our design was an improvement on what was currently available. Even the administrator who would not permit us to incorporate the table into our course agreed that our improvements made it easier for students to understand the information provided. So what was the problem?

According to the administrator, tables in all courses needed to be identical. Therefore, we could not improve on what we had been provided by his office. Unlike my summary of the e-mail I recently received, this is precisely what the administrator told us.

This situation begs the question, “Why couldn’t all of the courses adopt the improved table?” The easy answer was that the bureaucratic process was too cumbersome and time consuming for improvements to be implemented. However, Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay on “Self Reliance” provides another likely explanation.

After writing that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Emerson explains that “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” Although Emerson condemns having nothing to do as equivalent to simply watching one’s shadow against the wall, mediocre administrators embrace the opportunity to do nothing; at least doing nothing of substance. It takes much less effort for them to impose a foolish consistency than to actually improve services to students. Furthermore, if a college culture is toxic, watching one’s shadow is a viable strategy to maintain job security.

Taking the position that branding is more important than providing useful information to students allows mediocre administrators to strut and fret while celebrating their lackluster accomplishments to other mediocre administrators. The administrator who refused to allow the improved table to be incorporated into our course was able to argue that he had created a brand that brought uniformity to on-line classes. The question of “But at what cost?” was simply ignored even though we raised it.

“But at what cost?” is a troublesome question for those who are content to watch their shadows. However, if we are truly interested in providing our students with a transformative education, it is a question that must be seriously considered when we take actions to advance our brand; especially when our decisions require universal conformity. Yes, the administrator had created uniformity, but his brand insured that on-line courses could not be easily improved in ways to benefit students taking them.

Although I am critical of administrative shortcomings that promote form over substance, I realize that this can also be a problem within my classroom where I diligently work to create a positive brand. As a professor interested in branding, I must routinely ask myself if classroom policies and procedures are for my benefit or for the benefit of students.

For example, it made sense to require that students only use a limited number of formats–.doc, .docx, and .rtf—when submitting manuscripts to me because I was unable to open other formats. However, when I discovered an on-line conversion tool that permitted me to easily convert documents into a format I could open, I changed my policy. Although accepting manuscripts in .pages and other formats is more work for me, the new policy eliminates one hurdle for many students and makes it easier for them to be successful in my courses.

After reading the e-mail about branding, I could see how modifications could easily be made that would satisfy the administrative desire to promote branding while still allowing faculty members to provide information to our students that we deem to be important. Unfortunately, we were told that we needed to follow their directions “exactly” (emphasis added by administrative fiat). Unlike with the policies in my classroom, reasonable modifications are not permitted.

I do understand why consistency can often be important and that there are pedagogically sound reasons for demanding it. My concern is when administrators and faculty members insist on requiring foolish consistencies that actually harm students. For example, I do tell students that there are two things that they must do my way. But, even as I explain what they must do, I know that I will not insist that they do things exactly my way; that reasonable modifications will be acceptable.

In an enlightened college or classroom, there is a place for consistency. However, we need not insist on a foolish consistency where form becomes more important than function; where faculty members are asked not to provide useful information to students or where students are asked to jump through unnecessary hoops simply because a policy advances our brand or enforces consistency for the sake of consistency.

    –Steven L. Berg, PhD


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