Few metaphors have generated more objections than equating students to customers and education to a product. It faces challenges on multiple fronts. Tuition dollars do not buy grades or a degree. Education does not come with a money-back guarantee, and the customer is not always right. Among faculty, the continued commercializing of education meets strong opposition and no small amount of emotion.
In light of that response, dare I propose that we look at teaching as selling? Some recent research (Rippé et al., 2020) explored the metaphor, although most certainly not for the first time. The authors cite Dewey, who in 1910 asserted that teaching and selling were “corresponding processes” (p. 285). What will never work for faculty is the idea of hawking their content wares before passersby at some entertainment event. We aspire “to teach scholars, not shoppers,” observed an author quoted in the article (p. 284). The premises that ground this research are more nuanced than might be expected. The authors see a “considerable overlap” between teaching and selling “when viewed from a communication perspective.” “To be clear, we are not suggesting that professors become salespersons, but they are frontline service providers with an opportunity to affect student success, motivation, and involvement” (p. 285).
Using seminal work in marketing that identifies seven steps in the sales process, the authors relate six of them to teaching, starting with the “preapproach,” during which the “salesperson formulates a strategy on the best way to connect with the prospect” (p. 286). The authors equate this step with teachers working to understand student needs and interests. They describe each of the six steps and illustrate them with concrete examples in a clear and well-organized table that appears in the article (pp. 287–8). Then the authors explore the effects of using this teaching-selling approach in two studies, one qualitative and the other quantitative. Here’s how they summarize their findings: “Selling-to-teach substantially increases the effect of instructor likability/concern, student interest, and learning performance on perceived learning. Students responded positively to the instructor who, like a good salesperson, paid attention to their concerns, motivated learning with an interesting presentation, and showed follow-up” (p. 296).
Offering a fresh perspective, the authors suggest that instructors respond to the consumer attitudes students bring to education with sales techniques. And they propose ways of selling that do not compromise the integrity of what or how we teach. Rather, the approach highlights the merit, value, and usefulness of our content. Some of what we ask students to learn isn’t immediately relevant, but education is about preparation for what’s to come. The problem is that students don’t arrive in our courses with any sense that they need to know what we’re teaching. Marketing has been enormously successful at persuading us to buy all sorts of things we never thought we needed. I didn’t think I needed a heated steering wheel, but now that my new car has one, I’m convinced of its necessity. To make the point directly, perhaps we could learn some things about selling that would enable us to better connect students to our content.
There’s another metaphor faculty frequently stumble over: teaching as performance. Most academics don’t see themselves as performers and assiduously avoid any behavior that hints at entertainment. The frequently stated objections raise questions about how performance may compromise the high standards of the educational enterprise. But in that metaphor as well lurks a kernel of truth. We stand or sit before students who see us, on screen or in class, in a very personal and physical way presenting what we have prepared. It smacks of performance, and like actors we can make it convincing and memorable.
Metaphors make comparisons. None of them fit perfectly. Business metaphors tend to rub educators the wrong way, but that doesn’t preclude our learning from them. Students in many of our courses don’t buy our content; they’re there to get credit. But they need what our courses contain, and maybe if we occasionally imagined selling as part of the job, we’d get more students signing up for those fine educational products that can change their lives.
Rippé, C. B., Weisfeld-Spolter, S., & Yurova, Y. (2020). Selling-to-teach: A didactical look at the natural integration between teaching and selling. Journal of Marketing Education, 42(3), 284–303. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475320946828