Reclaiming Our Turf with Assessment (Really!)

This summer, I’ve spent a good amount of time grappling with the issues that are so significantly reshaping the landscape of higher education. I’ve used this space to share some of my preliminary thoughts in the wake of the governance, tenure, and funding debacle in Wisconsin; and one of the points I seized on there has continued to work its way around in my head, prompting both frustration and reflection. In criticizing what I see as the neoliberal assault on US higher education, I concluded that we in the academic community may be able to temporarily defend ourselves, but cannot ultimately prevail, if we accept the neoliberals’ terms of debate, and accede to their methods of measuring efficacy. The problem I ran into was in defining an alternative–how do we in academe push back against the narratives of crisis, disruption, inefficiency, and the imperative for “reform” that have come to characterize higher education in our public discourse?

And those narratives are proliferating, not just from outside academe, but within the higher education community as well. Recently, I’ve been re-reading William Bowen’s Higher Education in the Digital Age, a fascinating book, yet one with which I have a complicated relationship. Bowen offers a wide-ranging discussion of how digital innovation can assist colleges and universities in addressing what he calls the “cost disease”; that is, the conundrum present in “labor-intensive” industries like higher education, where “there is less opportunity than in other sectors to increase productivity by, for example, substituting capital for labor…As a result, labor costs must be expected to rise faster in…education than in the economy overall.” (p.8) In other words, it’s possible to cut the time needed to make a computer by automating the process and improving the technology. But it still takes the same amount of time to read Nietzsche, or perform a sonnet, or to run basic Chemistry lab experiments. And while that’s true, I think Bowen elides the fact that numerous institutions have sought to  do exactly what the “cost disease” paradigm says they can’t: reduce labor costs through capital substitution. Isn’t that what a MOOC is, for example? More students, less instructor labor per student, technology capital costs are offset by savings gained from abjuring physical overhead and multiple instructor salaries–are MOOCs immune to Bowen’s cost disease? Even more widespread is the decision made by countless administrators to use armies of adjunct instructors to teach larger and larger numbers of students per course (face-to-face, online, or both). Again, they are significantly cutting labor costs in a manner similar to other industries-and, it’s worth noting, with similar devastating effects on the labor force’s quality of life and work.

So there are attempts to ramp up “productivity” by cutting costs, and many of us have firsthand experience with them. But do they “cure” the cost disease? Do they, in fact, increase “productivity?” Therein lies the rub: it depends how we define “productivity.” One measure is FTEs, or asses in seats. More of those per instructor means more money above the basic cost level, which means growth. Or a new football practice field. Or something. Another measure is retention rates; the more students who persist (especially in the crucial first- to second-year transition), the better one’s institution is doing. Otherwise, they’d all flunk out, right? Yet another measure is time to degree, or degree completion rates in general. Are you graduating enough students within 4, 5, or 6 years? How many entering students complete their degree with your institution? Is it a good percentage? If some is good, more is better, right?

Here's your section of English Comp.--and they're all on our accelerated degree program, too!
Here’s your section of English Comp.–and they’re all on our accelerated degree program, too!

These are important statistics. But they do not, I would argue, measure “productivity” in any meaningful academic or intellectual sense. They are numbers of convenience–easy to point to, easy to understand, and easy to use as a cudgel when trying to score political points. PROFESSORS ARE LAZY! THEY ONLY TEACH TWO CLASSES A SEMESTER. THAT’S SIX HOURS, PEOPLE! Or, “School X only graduates 32% of its students in six years; it’s an awful place!” Yet, maybe School X has a large population of part-time, first generation students from underserved groups. Maybe if you extend the measurement to seven years, the rate almost doubles. THAT’S CRAZY TALK. YOU ANARCHISTS AND YOUR SEVEN YEARS JUST GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE. And so it goes. Those of us in the higher education community–faculty and staff alike–cannot adequately describe or defend the important work we do with such crappy tools. We need better. We have to do better.

So it comes back to the “productivity” conundrum. Bowen, for his part, recognizes that the concept is fraught with difficulty, and warns we need to be precise and faithful to our mission when we describe the outputs produced from the processes of higher education. But then he falls right into the trap of accepting neoliberal–efficiency-focused, cost-oriented, an insistence on the quantifiable–values when he outlines his proposals for increasing productivity in higher education. We increase productivity, he argues, “through determined efforts to reduce costs” and “by raising completion rates and lowering time-to-degree.” (p.8)

On the surface, these appear to be eminently reasonable ideas. But I think they surrender the battle before we even arrive at the field. Colleges and Universities have reduced costs to the point of asphyxiation; whether that has occurred willingly or unwillingly is immaterial, as the effects are uniformly devastating. Measuring productivity as a function of cost-cutting is an invitation to disaster–because if you win at that game, your lose at education. It’s the higher ed version of “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Cost-cutting hinders, it does not promote, student learning or success. So adjunctification is not the answer. Larger class sizes are not the answer. More butts in seats taught by fewer and lower-paid faculty are not the answer. MOOCs are not the answer (unless, apparently, you’re an autodidact from a privileged enough background to have the time, money, and wherewithal to just take a whole bunch of them and learn more than you would in a [eye roll] old, traditional college. SO LAME.) I would ask faculty in Wisconsin or Louisiana or North Carolina if their institutions are more productive as a result of cost-cutting measures.The same holds true for time-to-degree. This metric measures pace, not production. Are we measuring student learning or student speed? If it costs less, is it inherently better? Are my students better critical thinkers because they can finish a degree in three years?

We lose with these standards, because they accept without complaint the current status quo. To wit, how can we expect public universities to spend less, when public funding has become a mere fraction of what it used to be in their budgets? Rather than focusing on “efficiencies,” shouldn’t we be pushing back at the political and economic climate that legitimizes the evisceration of this common public good in favor of warmed-over Ayn Rand tax-cut fetishism? Private institutions suffer, too, as government-supported financial aid (most notably Pell Grants) evaporates further every legislative cycle. Most private institutions serve a less-privileged demographic; for every Harvard, there are six or seven institutions like one I work in. Without the availability of federal aid, our students cannot afford to come (and my place is half the price of most private schools). To blame the current woes on colleges and universities overspending is the equivalent of someone stumbling drunkenly into a house, peeing all over the floor, and then telling the occupants they live in filth. DUDE [hic] YOUR HOUTHKEEPING SSSUCKS! Yet, we’ve accepted this logic in our discourse: Oh yes, cut costs. We must be responsible stewards. Efficiencies, efficiencies…That has to stop. We have to demonstrate to the larger public the real source of the problem: a wanton disdain towards education on the part of neoliberal elites, manifested in part by their gleeful attacks on higher ed budgets.

What we must do, then, is to renounce the ways in which we currently talk about “productivity.” It is incumbent upon those of us who want a better future for our institutions and our students to take back the discourse, to seize the metrics and measurements from the neoliberal crowd and offer our own instead. How do we do this? Part of the answer–a BIG part, I believe–is assessment.

OK, for those of you still reading: I know the term has become anathema. I often joke that we ought to make T-shirts that say “we put the ‘ass’ in ‘assessment’.” It’s a dirty word in most academic circles. But only, I believe, because it’s been hijacked and misused. Assessment is nothing more than answering the simple question: Did your students learn? and its equally simple corollaries: What did they learn, and how do you know they learned it? Yet in all too many places, assessment has become an institutional mandate, a top-down process that feels forced instead of authentic, ham-fisted rather than practical, and an unnecessary bureaucratic hoop instead of the natural fulfillment of a course or curricular experience. I’ve had the displeasure of filling out a bevy of standardized curricular maps that touched on all 57 of our core outcomes (yes, 57; I shit you not). I would rather listen to the audio version of Thomas Friedman’s complete works than do something like that again. The cab driver at the airport affirmed my theory as he talked enthusiastically about shopping at Amazon on his iPhone. TO DAVOS MY GOOD MAN I suspect there’s a similar revulsion within most academic circles. It’s a revulsion that stems from the fact we’ve mostly been doing it wrong.

But here’s the rub: If we don’t tell our stories, someone else will tell them for us. And I submit that this is precisely what has been happening. If I reject neoliberal metrics like labor costs and time to degree, then I better have something to offer in their place, or I have nothing to say in this crucially important conversation. That’s where genuine, effective assessment comes in. This type of assessment is faculty-owned and -driven (full and part time faculty both!), with our expert and experienced staff colleagues helping us frame outcomes as well as the ways to measure and report them. It is a truly collective, bottom-up enterprise. Learning outcomes for courses, majors, programs, and degrees are the product of faculty initiative within a system of shared governance and shared responsibility. How we measure those outcomes–what artifacts do we collect? How do our students demonstrate their evolving knowledge and mastery of these ideas?–is the product of our labors, not of top-down diktat. And reporting those outcomes–that’s the key. How do our students, their families, our colleagues, our administrators, our communities, and our political representatives know the good work we are doing with and for them if we don’t tell them ourselves? We can’t just bury assessment in a report that ends up on some associate dean’s desk and never goes anywhere. This is our collective curriculum vitae. Assessment–done well, done authentically, and done by us–is our story. And if we let the chance to tell our story slide–through lack of initiative, ignorance, or laziness–then we’ve lost an important opportunity. But if we reclaim the conversation by reclaiming–or revitalizing or rediscovering–assessment, then we have traction in this debate. Then we offer an alternative framework for discussion, a framework that lets us show our strengths, and talk about the important work we do without obscuring it behind a layer of superficial, narrowly-focused metrics.

It’s only by using the tools we have–like effective and genuine assessment–instead of the ones forced upon us in the current climate of neoliberal “reform” that we have a chance of turning the ship around. The status quo–and its attendant conceptual framework–is unacceptable. But unless we have the imagination and willingness to offer our own alternative, the status quo’s all we got. And that ain’t much.


 [image credit: Rolling Stones concert (not English Comp, sorry!) at]

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