June 10th, 2008

Empty Apologies


I had a terrible time getting to and from The Teaching Professor Conference this year. It was as if all of Delta Airlines conspired against me. I will spare you most of the details, but I ended up with a return ticket that had a 5 p.m. departure from Orlando connecting with a 2:15 p.m. departure from Atlanta (no, I don’t have the a.m. and p.m. mixed up). Apologies were offered for this “computer-generated” error (what kind of software program are they using?). Apologies were not forthcoming for cancelling direct service (permanently) between Atlanta and State College and not being able to get me home to State College on Sunday. I had an airport 125 miles from home.

Now I’m in the midst of a mess with the fridge at our summer home. It didn’t work when we opened the house and so we called Sears. It didn’t work for a month last summer, but that’s a whole different story. We arrived at the house on May 21 to be there for a scheduled appointment the following day. Sears called at around 3 p.m. to say they wouldn’t be coming and had rescheduled us for June 3. Life without a fridge is a huge inconvenience. And Sears apologized for that, but they wouldn’t change the repair date.

These kinds of experiences create a real sense of powerlessness. Twice when I asked to speak to a supervisor at Delta I was put on hold, waited 10 minutes and was then disconnected. When Michael made the same request of Sears, he was transferred and spoke with five different people, none of whom were supervisors. What can be done to make big corporate entities like these accountable? Yes, I can fly other airlines, but given my location and destinations, that would inconvenience me a whole lot more than Delta. Most certainly, I will never buy another fridge from Sears and will conscientiously repeat my tale of woe. I wish I believed that would make Sears treat others better.

I don’t complain about poor service as much as I used to because I’ve become convinced that my objections don’t make one bit of difference. The people you speak to offer apologies, but they don’t care and won’t do anything. Of course, not fussing only makes it easier for companies to step on other people. I see clearly how this works and why I’m part of the problem, but I feel powerless.

I wonder if this is how an education system that controls all the processes and establishes and applies all the rules makes students feel. I wonder if students don’t object because it feels pointless. I once advocated for a student who been given wrong advice on course requirements. He had documentation, but our efforts to make the institution accountable were frustrating and futile. I do think students are treated better by our institutions than they used to be, but I still worry about how daunting our big educational bureaucracies look to students, especially those new to higher education.

—Maryellen Weimer