Embracing the C-word in higher education

Comedian George Carlin made waves in the early ’70s with his “seven dirty words” monologue. He would probably chuckle at higher ed’s dirty words.

Back in the heyday of the hippie era, counterculture comedian George Carlin created a stir with his anti-establishment monologue about the seven dirty words that weren’t allowed on television. (Four decades later, as The Atlantic pointed out in 2012, society is still struggling with the role of government on restricting language.)

More recently, Brian Wm. Niles, founder of TargetX, has identified some dirty words that make many of us in higher education nervous. Niles spoke recently at ACT’s annual Enrollment Planners Conference and shared the “five dirty words” that admissions officers — and others in higher education — should embrace.

Topping that list, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s coverage, is the C-word.


“Many people who work at colleges dislike the word, preferring to call students ‘students’,” writes Eric Hoover of The Chronicle. “But as more Americans question the value of higher education, Mr. Niles said, institutions must think more like businesses, with customers to please, customer-service to enhance: ‘It gives you a sense that you have a responsibility to them.’ Colleges exist to serve students, he insisted, and not the reverse.”

Cussing and fussing about ‘customer’

Why do college and university personnel find it so difficult to think of students (and other groups, such as employers of our students) as customers? There’s something unsavory about instilling our academic world with the language of corporations.

The subject came up in a recent conversation with a faculty member, who expressed the thought that today’s students feel a greater sense of entitlement, and that thinking of them as customers adds to that sense. (The customer is always right, so we must give the customer what he or she wants, which is a passing grade, if not an A, at all times.)

The comments on the Chronicle post point out that there is a difference between college students and consumers of other goods and services. This response from John Nezlek, a psychology professor at William and Mary, probably summarizes the thoughts of many faculty:

Students’ needs, values, and opinions certainly need to be taken into account as institutes of higher education decide what to do; however, students attend institutes of higher education to be taught, to be led, they are not patrons in a restaurant. They are not to be served anything. They are clients in a collaborative relationship with the faculty. We work together.

At Missouri S&T, we have embraced the word customer, at least at the leadership level and among many staff members. Yet, some faculty I speak to still bristle at the term. Just as they bristle at words like “marketing.” Our university’s strategic plan even goes so far as to identity six “customer groups,” and on our strategic plan website, the introductory letter from Chancellor Cheryl B. Schrader (@SandTChancellor) uses the term when she talks about “providing a top return on investment to our key customers.” (Return on investment — or ROI — is another candidate for Niles’ list of bad words and phrases, and it, too, came up during the ACT meeting.)

Embrace the profane?

So, what will come of the term customer in higher education? Will it, like Carlin’s seven dirty words, still be the subject of angst 40 years from now? Will we still wince when we hear it used as a synonym for student?

I don’t think Niles is trying to be higher ed’s version of George Carlin. But perhaps if he makes fun of the dirty words you can’t say in academia enough, we’ll begin to laugh at ourselves a bit more, and at how much we worry about certain terms. As The Atlantic‘s Timothy Bella writes about Carlin’s shtick:

To George Carlin, the routine’s driving force and message weren’t in the ideas behind the seven words, but rather the words themselves. For the first time, someone was doing a convincing enough job of cajoling an audience into thinking that these words weren’t really so tasteless after all.

In the 42 years that have passed since Carlin’s famous rant, the media landscape has changed radically with the rise of cable TV, live-streaming and satellite radio, and the fragmentation of audiences into smaller and smaller niches. In step with those changes, the use of profanity on television has increased dramatically. All of those seven dirty words actually can be said on television, at the right time, on the right channel (usually cable) and in front of the right audience.

Perhaps, as the media landscape and the higher education landscape continues to morph over time, we will grow more accustomed to the coarse business language that is invading our academic lexicon, and customer will be as common in the language of higher education as Carlin’s dirty words are on Netflix programs.

But will the word be thought of as a profanity?

Maybe we should let the customers — I mean, the students — decide.

P.S. – For more on Brian Wm. Niles’ take on the use of the word customer in higher education, check this blog post from last summer.

Matters of style: Internet (or is it “internet”?) terms

Got into an interesting exchange on Twitter last night about how higher ed marketing people address writing style for Internet lingo.

I found it interesting that many people whom I consider to be “cutting-edge” when it comes to social media and online communication still lean heavily on the granddaddy of style guides, The Associated Press Stylebook. Even when it comes to writing about this online world we’re so immersed in. They still capitalize “Web,” hyphenate “e-mail” and consider “Web site” two words. I forgot to ask whether they still call blogs “web logs.” How quaint would that be?

I have nothing against the AP Stylebook. In journalism school, it was holy writ. And on our campus, we’ve used AP style as the foundation for our own university style. But let’s face it. The AP Stylebook editors are a conservative lot. They’re years behind the time. And they don’t have the humor of the old UPI Stylebook editors, who inserted this witty entry amidst all the stylistic rules:

burro, burrow A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a journalist, you are expected to know the difference.

When it comes to Internet terms, I think the AP rules are not only humorless, but unnecessarily staid. Irrelevantly staid, even.

So over the past several years, we’ve veered away from the AP rules for our own in-house style when it comes to Internet terms. We’ve looked to other sources for guidance — namely, Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age, by Constance Hale and Jessie Scanlon. As a result, we changed our style way back in the early 200s 2000s to lowercase “web,” combine (and lowercase) “website” and dehyphenate “email.” I don’t think it’s that radical. As we observe in our in-house style guide:

Missouri S&T uses a combination of Wired and Associated Press styles when writing about the Internet. Because most of our audiences are Internet-savvy, we feel more comfortable embracing the less formal style of Wired as opposed to the conservative approach of the Associated Press Stylebook.

One argument against violating the sacred rules of AP may come from the media relations folks, who will claim (as I once did) that we’re writing for journalists, and journalists follow AP style. Pish posh. We’re not writing for journalists anymore. We’re writing directly to our various audiences, and more and more of them are getting their information from onlline sources.

Back in 2004, Wired decided to lowercase the “i” in “internet, a move that I just can’t bring myself to embrace. Yet.

Still, I admire Wired’s chutzpah. The Wired editors’ argument for lowercasing the i-word makes sense. “The simple answer is because there is no earthly reason to capitalize any of these words [internet, net, web]. Actually, there never was.”

They went on to poke fun at those of us who clink to our style guides like well-worn security blankets:

True believers are fond of capitalizing words, whether they be marketers or political junkies or, in this case, techies. If It’s Capitalized, It Must Be Important. In German, where all nouns are capitalized, it makes sense. It makes no sense in English. So until we become Die Wired Nachrichten, we’ll just follow customary English-language usage.

Interestingly, Wired has yet to incorporate downstyle in its headlines. (The headline to the post referenced above was, “It’s Just the ‘internet’ Now.” Note all those capitalized words. What’s up with that — other than the first letter of every word except the one that most of us would uppercase?)

Anyway, with all of Steve Jobs’ new lowercase “i” words now so prevalent — iPods, iPhones — maybe now is the time to boldly embrace the newfangled lowercase internet.

Or maybe it should be iNternet? I bet Steve Jobs would love that.

Saturday Six: It’s like Friday Five, but with 20 percent more bullet points and a day later

Contextless links from the RSS reader:

  1. It’s not its (h/t: largehearted boy).
  2. Holy Weblog! It’s back! In the days when I blogged semi-religiously, Holy Weblog! was a favorite. Then it took I hiatus, and I soon followed. Glad to see M.J. Garcia back on the scene.
  3. Nexodus, a spooky font for Halloween. Via HOW magazine blog.
  4. Media elites discover the Twitterverse. AdPulp reports that Business Week’s editor-in-chief is now on Twitter (@JOHNABYRNE). (Someone should have shown him how to use the Caps Lock key.)
  5. WeAre.Us: (almost) like Ning, but with a heart. A social network that is a social support network.
  6. Confidence is leaving the fiat money system. OK, my libertarian soul is showing, but this article about the U.S. and European monetary systems really appeals to me. But given the global financial upheaval, maybe it’s time to take another look at a commodity-based monetary system. You know: gold, silver, precious metals? Oil, maybe? Something. Anything besides the funny money being created these days.

Yet another scalable, cutting-edge blog post from the industry standard for the next generation, delivered with full functionality

Any PR pro who eschews news release clutter will appreciate The Gobbledygook Manifesto, by David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR.

Scott … says it best in introducing his manifesto: “Oh jeez, not another flexible, scalable, groundbreaking, industry-standard, cutting-edge product from a market-leading, well positioned company! Ugh. I think I’m gonna puke!” In every company description, on websites, in press releases, in corporate pamphlets, the same adjectives get used over and over until they are meaningless. Scott analyzed thousands of these offerings and presents a collection of the most over-used and under-meaningful phrases…and strategies for making the most of these communication opportunities.

“The results,” Scott writes, “were staggering. The news release wires collectively distributed just over 388,000 news releases in the nine-month period [of his study], and just over 74,000 of them mentioned at least one of the Gobbledygook phrases. The winner was ‘next generation,’ with 9,895 uses.

There were over 5,000 uses of each of the following words and phrases: “flexible,” “robust,” “world class,” “scalable,” and “easy to use.” Other notably overused phrases with between 2,000 and 5,000 uses included “cutting edge,” “mission critical,” “market leading,” “industry standard,” “turnkey,” and “groundbreaking.” Oh and don’t forget “interoperable,” “best of breed,” and “user friendly,” each with over 1,000 uses in news releases.


Something is horribly wrong here.

“Your marketing and PR is meant to be the beginning of a relationship with buyers (and journalists),” Scott writes. “Here’s the rule: when you write, start with your buyers, not with your product.”

Good advice. Sometimes even the best of us get so caught up in our petty bureaucracies and clearance loops that we forget our audience. Some of us even forget that we are — or should be — commmunicators first, marketers second. Shame on us. Kudos to Scott for reminding us to keep our buyers in mind.

Via the ChangeThis Newsletter.