Friday, May 26, 2006

It's Happening Even Here -- "Assessment" !

I live in a remote corner of the U.S., tucked away far away from even an Interstate highway. Time slows (except at Universities); life is peaceful (except within our troubled minds); tracts of undeveloped wilderness are woven plentifully between small farms and scattered villages.

But now the long shadow of the Assessment Monster at last touches our small private college. No longer sheltered, insulated, hidden and forgotten, we too are required to produce, yes, an Assessment Plan to prove to the world that we are in fact doing what we claim to be doing: educating our students.

Even though I'm still on sabbatical, I did sign up for a three-day workshop on this that I just completed yesterday. Since I am chair of my department, and since I have considerable anxiety about this process, I thought it might be helpful to get a preview of what I would be in for when I returned in the fall.

My doing this also reveals my great confidence in my university. I only signed up because I like the way my university approaches things, and I trusted that our dean would offer a good way of conceptualizing this, and I trusted that the other faculty who signed up for such an event would have thoughtful and helpful things to say about it all.

I was right.

While I remain suspicious of the assessment craze in general, because it can too easily become inappropriately controlling, the way our university is handling it has the potential to develop into something very helpful.

Education is situated in a place of creative tension within its given culture. On the one hand, it is expected to perpetuate that culture. On the other hand, it is uniquely positioned to take a critical role in relation to its culture -- even to become the conscience of the culture in which it is embedded.

The demand for assessment and accountability can all too easily become a way that those in power try to dampen education's critical role. What our leaders in politics and business most want from higher education today is for our educational institutions to "produce" good, obedient, and highly productive workers who don't question the status quo very much, if at all.

And what is most easily measurable in the educational process is skill development and factual knowledge. The goals of liberal arts education are much harder to assess. And so the temptation is strong to limit one's gaze to what is easiest to assess. But if that becomes the focus of attention, our teaching then changes to favor the cultivation of those kinds of knowledge, to the exclusion of the more subtle and complex kinds.

What we've been doing over the past three days, then, is to find a way to conceptualize this process that would help us to keep our real goals -- the more complex and subtle ones -- clearly in focus. And I think we have done a good job in this. I emerge from the workshops feeling much more confident that we won't have to sacrifice our soul in this process.

And a new thought began to crystallize for me just yesterday. This might actually be helpful! (Not just "not destructive" but actually helpful!)

When I first went on sabbatical, I was exhausted, and I began uneasily to wonder if a lot of the effort I was expending in my teaching was actually wasted or duplicated effort. I began to realize that I routinely over-prepare for my classes. I give brilliant lectures that my students cannot really understand. I write lots of thoughtful comments on student papers that students don't really read, or find overwhelming, or misinterpret, or simply don't really understand. We as teachers take a leap of faith. We sow lots of seed in hopes that some of it sprouts and takes root. Because we don't know what does and what does not have an impact (often we are surprised at what our students later say was most meaningful to them in our classes), we feel that we just have to keep doing things this way, in a kind of blind hope. We console ourselves by noting that at least we keep learning the material better and better by trying to teach it. And we justify ourselves by pointing out that this is the way to be true to the subject-matter of our teaching, itself. Whether the students can understand or not, we feel compelled to speak the full truth and complexity of all that we have come to know -- it is our obligation as educators.

Too many professors then vent their woes by criticizing their students: they don't work hard enough. They drink too much. They're the Generation of Entitlement. Etc.

But that's not fair. The real issues is simply that they are not developmentally ready to approach the material the way we do. Some of us have been working with this material for as long, or longer, than our current students have been alive!

So, what if we could gain a better sense of what are appropriate expectations for the kinds of learning our students are ready for? What if we put into our teaching exactly what our students are ready to learn, and no more? Our students might feel less overwhelmed and more satisfied and enriched (rather than beat up) by the educational process. And we might be able to find significantly more time and energy to devote to our own research and writing!

This is why I'm now excited about developing an assessment plan. The more clear we become about what effect we really are having, and the more we learn what each other is doing, the less we will be wasting and duplicating our efforts, and the more we will be able to channel more of our energy into our own research and writing.

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