Assessment Part II: Drones Vs. Teachers, Prisons Vs. Students, and Universities Vs. Another Tax Subsidized Hockey Stadium

I hope I was clear in my last post, and in any case it bears repeating, that the logic of “assessment” is not tied narrowly to “student outcomes.” There are many levels:

  • Teaching—not just classroom dynamics and teaching evaluations, but also determining curricula. This includes balancing resources across departments. levels (undergraduate vs. graduate), and colleges (Arts and Sciences, Communication, Business, etc.) This is place where assessment most affects the day to day experience and quality of life.
  • “Faculty productivity”—including teaching but also research, “service,” and a massive unacknowledged time block for assessment busywork. (Time spent on writing critiques like this one, or venting around a coffee maker, or losing sleep, counts as subtraction from productivity.) Everything I said earlier about assessments that can measure piano key repetitions but not music applies equally to quantifying research.  But the stakes are higher since this what determines the fate of careers (getting a job, tenure, yearly evaluations.) Service does not weigh very much in the calculus, but insofar as it does what I said about the piano keys applies once again. Don’t get me started on examples! More than once I’ve seen a year of actual work counted about “the same,” and respected less, than service resume lines that only cost me an afternoon’s effort.
  • Allocating resources within many levels of the university.  One is the fate of programs over time. (Which will be starved to death, or pampered, or radically reshaped with carrots, sticks, retirements, and new hires?) Another is research vs. teaching vs. visiting speakers vs. arts vs. sports—including huge financial and ideological stakes in ranking research vs. research and speaker vs. speaker. Then there are core labor relations: trustees vs. administrators vs. regular faculty vs. lecturers vs. graduate instructors vs. other staff.
  • Allocating resources between universities and other parts of society: the military, prisons, sports, compensation for CEOs and movie stars, and infrastructure like airports, roads, sewers, and monitoring the quality of food. Don’t get me started with examples here either! You can think of your own like the cost of a prisoner vs. a full-ride scholarship, or a drone vs. several endowed professorships. If we pay taxes for sewers and reasonably non-poisoned water (insert exceptions here), is that less valuable than investing in a reasonably well-educated populace?

No doubt there is slippage among these levels. This is why I granted earlier—and insist now!—that not all evaluation is bad. In fact it is critical to find cracks and contradictions among the above levels, then strategize about leveraging the tensions to fight damaging trends. Throughout the university there are winning agendas moving forward at high cost, at the same time that losing agendas are ruthlessly disciplined using a logic of austerity. Compare, in the current news cycle, HUD secretary Ben Carson ordering $196,000 of office furniture while cutting $6.8 billion from programs for homeless people. We can pit level vs. level and priority vs. priority. Conservatives know how to stir up this sort of trouble.

By the way, did you notice that professors like myself are in a “winner” category compared to graduate students? Congratulations, I noticed that too—also that there are mid-level HUD workers and young interns who fall between Carson and the homeless. And we could likely find some Syrian refugees who are worse off than homeless US citizens—unless the latter are mentally ill with no health care. Maybe you, too, are better off than someone, somewhere, and thus (according to Fox News) you have no standing to complain? But I prefer to imagine that your distinctive package of grievances and resources gives you empathy and motivates you to work for change.


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The levels I have noted intersect and create a net of behaviors and expectations that relate to each other in complicated ways. But three generalizations tend to hold: that the current regime of assessment fails to get the issues into an intelligent focus, that it distracts from getting them into focus, and that this is lived as a de facto form of harassment and disrespect for many people who are trying to get them into focus.

True, I know people enmeshed in a world of assessment who sincerely want to be part of solutions rather than problems, and who think this realistically requires pushing ahead with quantitative justifications. However, the burden of proof is on them to explain how their methods are constructive and intelligible to…well, to those last-mentioned people trying to frame the discussion in terms of wider values. Let’s just say “to us.” Insofar as “you” want to keep assessment in play, it’s time for you to justify yourself to “us,” in terms of “our metric”–for which we prefer names like “public good” and “social justice.”

Recently the Bulletin for the Study of Religion asked me, as a senior scholar, to write down some wisdom that I might pass to younger colleagues. My words to frame my response bear repeating:

I have become increasingly concerned about the shrinking size of academic spaces that matter and scholarly trends… I perceive more and more deans, and increasing proportions of public discourse, reducing the purpose of education to (for students) making more money than one could otherwise make and (for teachers) rising through a career. Full stop. If a course of study toward being a prison guard is the most successful—as measured in starting salaries for graduates, book contracts for scholars, external grants for departments, and “consumer satisfaction surveys” (formerly known as student feedback)—then so be it. The market has spoken. Prison Guard Studies should get the faculty lines of retiring religion scholars, and prisons should get even more of the tax revenues that now support prisons and education.

Pushing back against such ideologies…is a significant public good that education still can provide. If we consider it a valid social priority to build pleasing sports stadiums and efficient sewers—although it is often exceedingly unclear whether stadiums benefit taxpayers, and surely someone is making a lucrative career out of privatizing sewers and restricting them to neighborhoods “worthy” of them—then educating a populace for critical thought about history and culture has at least an equal claim to value.

I am old enough to remember when this train of thought had more traction for many stakeholders—students, trustees, voters, employers beyond academia, and faculty colleagues—than it does today…. [Perhaps] readers will agree with me about some of the misplaced priorities: commercialized college sports, the fetishization of business and STEM degrees, or the idea that the US can afford to take on mind-boggling levels of debt to fund criminal wars of choice while being a world historical champion of imprisoning its youth, yet cannot afford to subsidize its youth’s education.

If you want to read more, click here. But trigger warning for Religious Studies scholars: I appeal to “values” in the sense of clarifying priorities in the field, and I suggest that a “neutral/scientific” approach geared to debunking religious claims dovetails with neoliberal assessment regimes just as often as it critiques them.

Also, safety alert for the non-initiated who thinks this sounds like common sense: agreeing with me is quite uncool in some circles–above and beyond being hard to quantify and by extension “non-productive.” This deserves another post, so think of this like the sort of teaser that ends a book chapter with a bridge into the next one.

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