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 I do not think the logic of “assessment” is tied narrowly to “student outcomes.” There are many levels including:

  • Dimensions of teaching—not just classroom dynamics and teaching evaluations, but also deciding on departmental curricula and balancing resources across departments, levels (undergraduate vs. graduate), and whole colleges (Arts and Sciences, Communication, Business, etc.) These are the places where assessment most affects the quality of life in colleges from day to day.
  • “Faculty productivity”—including teaching but also research, “service,” and a massive, typically unacknowledged, time block for assessment busywork. (Time spent on writing critiques like this, or on venting around a coffee maker, or losing sleep, counts as pure 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 is the place that determines the fate of teachers’ careers (getting a job, getting tenure, yearly evaluations.) Service may not count much in this calculus, but insofar as it does, what I said about the piano keys applies once again. Don’t get me started on examples of all this! More than once I’ve seen a year’s worth of my actual work counted about “the same,” and maybe respected less, than resume lines that only cost me half an afternoon’s effort.
  • Allocating resources within the university, with levels within levels. 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 packages for corporate CEOs and movie stars, and infrastructure like airports, roads, sewers, and monitoring the quality of our food and water. Don’t get me started with examples here either! You can probably think of your own like the cost to the public of a prisoner vs. a full-ride scholarship, or a drone vs. several endowed professorships. If we pay taxes toward sewers and reasonably non-poisoned water (insert exceptions here), is that less valuable than paying for a reasonably well-educated populace?

No doubt there is slippage among these levels. This is why I granted before—and insist now!—that not all efforts at evaluation are bad. In fact it is crucial to find cracks and contradictions among these levels, then strategize about leveraging the tensions to fight the trends. At every level of a university there are winning agendas going forward at substantial cost while losers are ruthlessly disciplined with the logic of austerity. Compare, in the current news cycle, HUD secretary Ben Carson ordering $196,000 of new office furniture while cutting $6.8 billion from programs that keep people from being homeless. We can pit level vs. level and priority vs. priority. Certainly conservatives know how to stir up trouble this way.  By the way, did you notice that professors like myself are in a “winner” category compared to graduate students? Congratulations, I noticed too—and also that there are mid-level HUD workers and upwardly mobile interns between Carson and the homeless. We could probably also find Syrian refugees worse off than some homeless US citizens—unless the Americans are mentally ill with no health care. Maybe you, too, are better off than someone, somewhere, and thus (according to Fox News) have no standing to complain or work for change? 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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Whatever we say about such complexities, the levels do intersect and create a pervasive net of behaviors and expectations that often reinforce each other. Three generalizations hold: that a logic and regime of assessment fails to get the above issues into a useful and 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 allies—part of solutions rather than problems—and who sincerely think this requires pushing ahead with quantitative justifications. However, I believe that the burden of proof is on them to explain how their tools and 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” for shorthand. 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 to use names like the public good and social justice.

Recently the Bulletin for the Study of Religion asked me, as a relatively senior scholar, to write down some wisdom that I might pass on to younger colleagues. My response included some comments that are “inside baseball” for disputes about methods and priorities in the field of religious studies, so readers should calibrate their interest in clicking further to their appetite for such debates. In any case these words that frame my discussion bear repeating:

I have become increasingly concerned about the shrinking size of academic spaces that matter and scholarly trends as I have experienced them. 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…and fostering a critical understanding of the histories through which such assumptions came to seem commonsensical, 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.

Sadly 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 guise of clarifying priorities, and suggest that a “neutral/scientific” approach geared to debunking can dovetail with neoliberal assessment regimes equally well as it can critique them. Also, safety alert for the non-initiated who think that sounds like common sense: agreeing with me is dangerously uncool in some circles, above and beyond being hard to quantify and so “non-productive.” These points deserve another post, so think of this like the sort of teaser at the end of a book chapter that is primarily a bridge into the next chapter.

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