Last month I wrote a post called, “When Students Request Excused Absences for Work-Related Issues.”  This was a follow-up to my “Open Letter to College Freshmen,” in which I made the point that college is students’ first professional position, and that the professor’s role is similar to that of an employer.  I made the point that if students want to advance in their careers they need to learn the “job” of "college student," which means showing up for work (class), learning what’s expected, taking initiative, etc.

I received a very intriguing anonymous response to this idea:

The one thing I don't understand about college teachers is if I'm PAYING for this class, doesn't that make me your customer, not you my boss? I'm paying your salary, therefore I'm your customer and frankly, your boss to a certain extent. You should be willing to work with me as long as I'm willing to work with you. If I bother to come up to you & ask for help, you should be willing to help your customer up to the point where you aren't legally allowed to or at which point the universities [sic] policies dictate you can't. Otherwise, I should take my money somewhere else....and your salary.

I love this comment because it highlights the complexity of professor-student relationships and the limitations of my boss-employee metaphor, or any simple metaphor.  When I teach courses about how to teach, about psychotherapy, or about ethics, we discuss the nature of teacher-student, or psychotherapist-client, or consultant-consultee, relationships.  I find it useful to have students consider a range of metaphors they can use for the professional relationships they are studying.  The quick exercise I’ve developed encourages students to move beyond simplistic notions.  For teaching, I ask students to complete the following:

  1. “The relationship between teacher and college student is just like the relationship between ______ and _______, because ______.”
  2. “But they’re not exactly the same, because ________.”

After they work individually I have students pair up, compare notes, and develop even better metaphor.s  We then discuss the similarities and differences among various relationships.  The discussion helps students (according to what they tell me afterwards) articulate more precisely the dimensions of the relationships we're studying.

I think my boss-employee metaphor works reasonably well to help freshmen understand some of the differences between high school and college.  But there are weaknesses:  For example, individual professors don’t have the ability to “fire” students from the University, and students have a much more active and collaborative role in their education than many employees have at their jobs. 

The customer-seller metaphor has much to recommend it. Students often have choice about where they spend their (or their parents’ or the bank’s) educational dollars. As my commentator pointed out, students have a right to expect professors to provide appropriate help.  However, we need to discuss more precisely what exactly students are “buying.”  Some possibilities are that they are buying:

  1. The opportunity to learn information and skills necessary to be a productive and fulfilled citizen.
  2. The right to expert assistance as they learn.
  3. Access to information from which they can choose what they want to know.
  4. An A.
  5. Fair assessment of their achievements in a college environment.
  6. Access to future employment.
  7. The opportunity to network with those who will be helpful in the future.
  8. The right to wear the school mascot on their t-shirts.
  9. The opportunity to collaborate with a variety of people who can help them identify, formulate, and achieve some of their academic, professional, and/or life goals.

The relationship will vary depending on what combinations of “products” are being bought, and whether they are being bought with money, with effort, and/or with performance.  It may help to think of students buying services rather than outcomes.  When we go to a physician, for example, we’re not buying health as much as we’re buying expert services that we can use in pursuit of our own health.


For twenty years, ever since I did a fellowship in Washington, DC, I’ve considered the "congressperson-constituent" metaphor.   As a professor I am “elected” by students to provide a range of services and to represent their interests.  I have an obligation to provide good services, otherwise students will “vote with their feet.”  I also have to weigh specific goals of students (such as a good grade) with broader societal concerns (such as the necessity for citizens of a democracy to be able to think well, and the rights of employers to expect that graduates can perform a variety of job tasks better than non-graduates, and that a 3.5 GPA reflects a different level of performance than a 2.5 GPA).  On the other hand, I don’t have the pleasure of campaigning, and I may have a greater obligation for my speeches (lectures) actually to mean something….

Exploring the complexities of professional relationships is one arena in which mixed metaphors are good; even my commentator started to combine the “customer” and “boss” models.  No one metaphor is perfect, but conversations about combinations are interesting and potentially useful.  I do believe that professor-student relationships—no matter what metaphors we choose—can be enhanced by holding these conversations together, perhaps on the first day of class.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology(American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2012 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

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