Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?

assessmentClio Bluestocking is cranky, again.  Why?  She has to “get dressed, drive up to the self-proclaimed ‘main campus’ (they aren’t, they just like to think they are) and sit in on one of those hideous Outcomes Assessment meetings run by the OA Borg, a group of True Believers who get paid a lot of money NOT to teach.”  Yeah, that’s a loser of a proposition twice-over:  1) a meeting, run by 2) “Outcomes Assessment” fraudsters. 

Oh, Historiann!  You’re just an old crank too, you might be thinking.  (You might be right.)  For those of you who remain blissfully ignorant of “Outcomes Assessment,” allow me to explain:  academic departments are asked to invent new tests and measures by which to measure their students’ progress, outside of all of those papers and exams we’re assigning to them in our classes to prove that our students are learning something.  That’s right, friends!  It’s redundant work for everyone, except for the “Outcomes Assessment” administrators who are paid to make $hitwork up for faculty and students who would prefer to be left alone to get on with the business of studying physical anthropology, or engineering, or zoology, or Romantic literature, or something else that has actual interest and value to people other than “Outcomes Assessment” administrators.

Why do I call “Outcomes Assessment” a fraud?  Let Clio B. tell the tale:

Meanwhile, at our college, in our department, we all settled on a truce. Do what they ask, generate the data and hand it over with as little disruption to our own teaching as possible. After all, the OA Borg kept telling us, “You are the professionals. You know your subject. We trust you to come up with the most effective assessment instrument. We will accept what you come up with.” If we didn’t comply, then, “THEY will come in and create one for you.”

Someone actually told that to me yesterday. I wanted to tell her, “c’mon! You are far too old to believe that, if we are good little professors, and do exactly what is expected of us, then THEY are going to leave us alone.” I did tell her, “THEY are going to take it over if THEY want to no matter what we do.” She has become assimilated. She honestly believes that she can limit the impact of the system by becoming part of it. Our pity for her prevents us from holding her in contempt.

THEY are actually already taking it over. All of that “we trust you” and “you are the professionals” and “we will accept what you come up with” is just smoke. You see, we came up with ours, and they kept sending it back to us. At first, it was just tweaking the language. “Students will understand the causes of the American Revolution,” had to be “Students will demonstrate an understanding of the causes of the American Revolution.” That sort of thing. Then, their revisions became more detailed. “How does this question show that students are demonstrating the causes of the American Revolution?” they wanted to know.

Ultimately, what they wanted from us was an essay-based exam. Ultimately, we refuse to give it to them.

But, as we know from long experience with stray cats, ex-boyfriends, and telemarketers:  if you feed it, it will just keep coming back!  If you engage with them, they’ll never let you go! 

The OA Borg becomes more and more intrusive with more and more forms and more and more rejection of our own “assessment tools.” They say, “we let you create your own tool because we trust that you know what you are doing.” Then, when we do, they send it back saying “this isn’t good enough.” The process repeats until they are satisfied, which means that they do have requirements for these “instruments,” (please! They are “tests”!) but to keep up the mendacity of “you create the instrument yourselves,” they have to coerce us into figuring out what it is and giving it to them. To keep up the lie that “we aren’t asking for a standardized or common exam” they have to get us to decide that a standardized and common exam is the best option.

Clearly, they do have to coerce our department because we don’t buy it and we have no respect for their process. They want us to give them honest-to-god exams that demonstrate education. We believe that we already do, they just aren’t the same exams approaching the questions of the course in the exact same way. They don’t accept that method because, if their numbers are going to mean anything, they need sameness. To achieve that sameness, they want us to give the same exam.

We rebel against that because we see that as standardized testing with common exams. We see that as not only an infringement on our freedom in the classroom but also the source of our students being untrained and even frightened to think on their own after 12 years of similar standardized testing. We teach in the humanities. Education in the humanities cannot be quantified in the same way as, say, business productivity. Yet, the way that the Borg describes their ideal education, you and I and the professors at Harvard or even the Sorbonne should all be giving the same exam with the same exact rubric so that that THEY can prove that education is happening. In fact, I often wonder if they expect the students to turn in the same exact answers.

This is a sick, cynical exercise.  Universities have been around for oh, going on 700 years or so.  We educate people, and at this point in history, we’re the institution that decides who gets to be middle-class in this country.  That’s a lot of power, a lot of power that politicians and “business leaders” want to get their mitts on and try to exert some control.  The way they do this is through “instruments” that they claim will quantify the “value” of what we do. 

Clio B. sounds the alarm ringing in the night:  “This is, at our college at least, essentially a very obvious creep toward No Child Left Behind at the college level because that worked so well at K-12.”  And what has been the dividend of No Child Left Behind, my fellow college and university professors?  According to Tenured Radical,

Higher education needs to start paying more attention to what is going on at the secondary level and vigorously fight unnecessary mandates, particularly the testing mandate associated with No Child Left Behind. Right now we in higher ed pretend this has nothing to do with us, but we are wrong. . . . [T]esting is homogenizing education, and that homogeneity is creeping upward: more and more students expect content in a class, as opposed to debate about ideas. Fewer students feel confident that they can write an academic essay without a structured “prompt,” although curiously, at my school, they write blogs, songs, plays, and film scripts with ease and creativity. What else can explain this gap between their unoriginal, often openly craven, papers and the vigor of their creative labors than the fact that they have learned to suppress critical thought in their academic work in order to score well on tests?

I have seen this too, in the past few years:  perfectly bright students are utterly paralyzed at the prospect of taking a bunch of primary sources, reading them through, and making an evidence-based argument in a 5-8 page essay.  This didn’t use to be the case at my uni.  When I came here in 2001, I was impressed that 1) all of my students at Baa Ram U. had the skills they need to succeed in college, and 2) many, if not all, were eager to be exposed to new ideas and to learn through reading and writing, and through experimentation and debate.  Many of my students are still like this, but I too have seen a kind of caution and even fear in my students at the prospect of having to complete an assignment that requires creativity or initiative.  Is anyone else seeing this, too?  What’s the NCLB generation like at your uni?

I’ll let Clio B. have the last word–well, almost the last word:

We [in Clio B.’s department] see a huge difference between feeding numbers to the Borg and education. We test education with our own assignments and exams, which are based on writing and through which we can see if students are improving their thought processes. We feed numbers to the Borg with this “instrument” thing and evaluate our students based on our own thing.

What’s that mantra people use when talking about cleaning up wasteful spending and redundancies in government?  Waste, fraud, and abuse?  How much is it really worth to give these people the illusion that they’re doing something useful?  (Let’s have faculty assess the “Outcomes Assessment” people–we could grade them on the value they bring to our unis!)  Hey, I’m a compassionate liberal–I don’t want anyone thrown out on the street in this economy.  Let’s give “Assessment Outcomes” people the opportunity to teach 3 or 4 classes a semester at our unis.  That’s probably the best way they can contribute to the education of our students–if in fact they care about that at all.

67 thoughts on “Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?

  1. Clio B., send me a link to that story you alluded to earlier that may soon appear in a major Metro newspaper. I’m crossing my fingers that your uni is in for major humiliation–it may relieve you from dealing with some of those toads for a while. (Here’s hoping. Even if it only sets some wheels in motion for the administration of karmic justice, that will be good enough.)

    Once again: waste, fraud, and abuse. No one likes those–and how many stories do we read in the newspaper in which an indidivual faculty member is accused of having hir hand in the till or of shirking her work responsibilities, versus the newspaper stories about this or that major boondoggle or expensive NCAA violation or covered-up rape scandal? Seems to me all of this stuff flows from administrators, not from the faculty. So who’s really not doing hir job well? Srsly?


  2. Historiann–I couldn’t quite read my way through all the comments here: too depressing. But one wonders: if the tenure process works, one can theoretically expect tenured teachers to be effective teachers. Does the move towards assessment echo the move towards the de-tenuring of faculty teaching? That is, are universities actually saying: “Since fewer and fewer faculty are going through the tenure process, we need to keep a better eye on what kind of education they/we are delivering!” If so, of course, that would only support the claim that what might be just as effective is to funnel money into tenure-tracking more faculty.

    One effect of the de-tenuring of faculty, of course, is that the “average” full time teacher at most schools now teaches more sections than in the past. Administrators who promote OA may be implicitly acknowledging that they need/want to oversee teaching because they’ve been making hiring choices that are financially good, but bad for educating students–because increasing the number of sections and students that the average faculty member teaches is bound to lessen the quality of instruction.


  3. Historiann pointed out yesterday, I think, how universities have been around for 700 years or so, most of them before there were accreditation agencies, and one could imagine them being around 700 more after those shops have been dismantled and their “story” relegated to the larger one of American bureaucratic excess and overreach. We’re trained to abhor reifying extant relations of power in the pasts that we study, and we should at a minimum be more skeptical of them on the playing fields we compete on. Assessment is mostly a new weapon system in the ongoing game of struggling over relations of power in the academy. Figuring out how to “make it work for us” is, I think, an exercise in surrender. And it isn’t just accreditation agencies. It’s NCATE and the whole alphabet soup of professional (b)orgs that would love to put faculties in blue smocks with “How Can I Help You?” embroidery on the back. One of the best books I ever read in graduate school, wholly out of my field now, was Robert Wiebe’s _The Search for Order_. By the interpretive terms of which, modern liberal arts disciplines and faculties are what he called the “Old Middle Class.” Affable, open-minded, individualistic, reasonable to a fault, always looking to compromise, and gettin’ our lunch money stolen every day on the fields of academic battle by the lightweight “diss-a-plines” that field better armies of lobbyists and strategists at the seats of state power. College is the new high school.


  4. Tom — bing bing bing bing bing! So exactly right on.

    ADM, actually I think your line about “lazy colleagues” is the real red herring here. This whole issue makes me use everything I learned from feminism — it’s not a few shrill malcontents who are afraid of the Unobjectionable Goodness that is OA. OA is a leading indicator of a huge structural shift in how universities operate that is *bad*, not good.

    Diverting debate toward carictures of individuals (but what about the lazy prof who’s been reading the same boring lecture notes in a monotone since 1988?) distracts from the fact that there is a ginormous (sorry for the technical language, but you know, I think it is warranted) problem of structural power in operation here. We need more tenured and tenure-track profs in the saddle making the key decisions about education, not fewer with less and less decision-making power. OA (which is damnably different than, “hey, let’s work together with our colleague/peers to make sure teaching and learning is all it can be at our institution”) actively moves in the opposite direction.


  5. I dunno about any of this from a prof’s perspective. But, from a student’s perspective, I’d much rather have my prof paying attention to me as a student rather than as a product to shape up and get out the door with the proper stuff stuffed into my head. It seems to me that these metrics or functions or assessments or whatever they’re called have the potential to fundamentally change the nature of the prof/student relationship for the worse, thus making college education less useful for students. That’s what it all feels like to me.

    Disclaimer: I graduated from a VERY small liberal arts college nearly 20 years ago. So my knowledge of academia is very limited in all sorts of ways. But I do get that this issue is tied into other issues such as larger class size, declining tenure positions, etc. etc.


  6. Which is to say, I thought college wasn’t so much about what you know when you leave as it’s supposed to be about the process of learning it, expressing it, and defending it. How does any assessment tool, other than grades and exams over the course of semesters and years, really measure that? Isn’t that why you get grades in college? Otherwise, why not just stamp everybody’s forehead with “OA Approved” upon graduation and leave it at that?


  7. I think doing outcomes assessment in a reasonable way (which is what my experience has been) can be useful. What I worry about is that we have to do it each year. And my guess is that the payoff will diminish. We’ll learn a lot initially, make changes, and then it will just be tinkering around the edges. And then it will be a massive time sink. . .


  8. I just wanted to say how much I appreciate this entire discussion, especially ADM’s continued engagement and Historiann’s stepping in when the conversation seemed to start seeming a bit acrimonious.

    One thing that ADM has mentioned but has not really gotten that much attention is when faculty are reluctant to talk to their colleagues about their teaching, their goals, student performance, etc. I trust that faculty are working on their own professional development as teachers, but if we don’t talk and really study what’s going on across the sections of a course, then I’m afraid we’re just not going to know. I’ve taught at some places where there was a huge range and variety in core classes taught by a number of different faculty paired with a real reluctance to share one’s teaching. (In one place, there were many efforts to create a teaching culture, but they seemed ineffective for whole groups of the department; some teachers seemed to react with hostility.) While I would always say there are many legitimate ways of achieving a course’s Aims and Scope or learning objectives, I think it’s also important that faculty do have a sense of the range of teaching and especially expectations and outcomes of a given course, especially a core or gen ed course.

    I realize that OA makes teachers want nothing more than to cover our butts, not delve into their own and others’ teaching. I’m not saying that top-down sponsors anything conducive to education. Yet at the same time there are places where teaching is not discussed or shared in a systematic way for curricular improvement, for example. What do we do when assessment really is necessary, not by the muckity mucks, but by us? And how do we do that? And if we’re doing it anyway, how can we use those processes to show the muckity mucks that we’re already doing it and to get off our backs?


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  10. Thanks for your comment, Earnest English, and welcome. You anticipate what I would say exactly: “I’m not saying that top-down sponsors anything conducive to education. Yet at the same time there are places where teaching is not discussed or shared in a systematic way for curricular improvement.”

    Well–if you want to talk about teaching, TALK ABOUT TEACHING! I’ve never been in an environment where it was actively discouraged, and in fact, I’ve usually been in departments and had supportive friendships in which we talk about it constantly–not just bitching, but question-asking and problem-solving. We don’t need the OA fraudsters to do this. Ceding ground to them on this just “proves” their fraudulent point, which is that “we” don’t know what the hell we’re doing and we have to be led by educrats to talk about the activity most of us are engaged in for at least half of our professional time.

    I really like Tom’s comment from yesterday morning, in which he said:

    [O]ne wonders: if the tenure process works, one can theoretically expect tenured teachers to be effective teachers. Does the move towards assessment echo the move towards the de-tenuring of faculty teaching? That is, are universities actually saying: “Since fewer and fewer faculty are going through the tenure process, we need to keep a better eye on what kind of education they/we are delivering!” If so, of course, that would only support the claim that what might be just as effective is to funnel money into tenure-tracking more faculty.

    Yeppers. (See also my comments on this post above about the de-skilling of teaching that OA pushes.) In my department, probational regular faculty AND all adjunct faculty are observed in the classroom annually and receive a letter in their file reviewing their teaching. We talk about these letters in Executive Committee and in T & P meetings. This is how it’s done, folks. We do this work already.


  11. Taken me a while to come back and read all the comments, but I just wanted to pull out this bit from ADM’s comment above, and it happens to respond to Historiann’s recent comment:

    I used to go and talk to one of my colleagues about an assignment, and whether ze thought it appropriate for the course I was teaching (my own, or one that ze and I alternated, it made no difference), and the colleague acted as though I were asking permission and/or didn’t know what I was doing. No. I know what I’m doing, but I wanted to get a feel for our students and the department, so I could gauge my assignments appropriately.

    YES. I got exactly the same reaction when I came in as a new prof, assigned to teach 1 of 6 sections of our fundamental yearlong core course which all of us teach, and asked for more information. I have great conversations about how quizzes work, about how various assignments played out—but generally with people outside my dept, or outside my school. Rarely with my dept colleagues, all of whom are great and friendly people, caring teachers, whom I have no problem with. In a lovely, functional dept, our culture does not work that way. And since I can’t even do it one-on-one, god knows trying to make it happen on the dept level has been my forlorn hope for the last four years.


  12. My apologies for not reading all of the comments. I just wanted to add that the “Outcomes Assessment” disease is not limited to humanities. It’s equally damaging in biology, and, I’d be willing to bet, all the sciences.

    Critical thinking is essential to discovery in all knowledge, and what this crap does is kill it.


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