You Will Be Assessed and Found Mediocre

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

February 15, 2017

Question (from "Maynard"): I’m in a creative-arts field. I’d taught part-time in the past but, wanting to share what I know with young people, I took a full-time job as director of a university arts program. It came with a reduced teaching load, so I figured I could keep up my own creative career. I was wrong. The paperwork is killing me. Every day there’s a new kind of "assessment" that has to be done. Forms have to be filled out for tenure-line faculty, for adjuncts, for staff members. There are teacher-evaluation forms, equipment scores, assessments of classroom climate, ratings of ... who can remember?

It is all intensely boring and exhausting, and I can’t find time or energy for any creative work. What is this craze for assessment? And why am I stuck in it?

Answer: Everybody grades somebody sometime, or wants to, but Ms. Mentor sympathizes. Judging shouldn’t devour your soul.

She’d like a world where faculty can ask, "How’m I doing?" and find out, painlessly. Teaching evaluations would give positive feedback, as in the generous leading question she once encountered at a liberal-arts college: "How did the teacher show enthusiasm for the subject?" The question had a feel-good spirit that’s, well, missing from assessment land.

Ms. Mentor praises genuine self-study, in which departments decide what they want to achieve: What do our students know? What else do they need to know? How can we help? Those are genuine questions most often used in fields with national exams and licensing requirements. Teachers of future engineers, nurses, and food scientists need to be sure their charges will not mangle or poison the general public.

But most assessment in higher education is not about safety or pleasure. Its power-hungry spirit is more like: "What have you, lowly instructors, failed to do perfectly? Here are the complicated, badly designed surveys you must conduct. Next, record your failures in our precise but impenetrable format, with charts and graphs, so that your mediocrity is fully documented." You will also be compared with your peers. You will all be found below average.

Maybe this all started with grading, introduced at Yale in 1785. Maybe it goes back much further, to Socrates’s day, when teachers were thought to corrupt the youth of Athens. Or Roman times, when there was a term for teacher hatred: odium magistrorum.

Many grownups do hold grudges against teachers, who are supposed to be chief civilizers. Surely kids today wouldn’t be disrespectful oafs if their teachers had whipped them into shape. That was the vicious spirit behind No Child Left Behind, the boondoggle that’s resulted in a generation of young people who were forced to take tests instead of, say, learning to write.

"Maynard," as an artist, has certainly been judged and sometimes found wanting. Publishers, gallery owners, concert promoters can all turn down artistic work. Even Ms. Mentor has had articles rejected. The world does not always recognize genius.

But assessment, as ordered by higher- education boards, has a different spirit. It’s "accountability." That means blame.

Typically, a governing board, a cabal of legislators, or a group of senior administrators decides that they need more information about "what’s going on in the classroom." They devise "instruments" to measure whatever can be numbered. Grades can be aggregated, factored, normed. Time spent on classroom activities can be monitored. Student evaluations can be parsed and excerpted to measure "student satisfaction" and punish nonconformists.

Ms. Mentor imagines each leader’s desk with a gaping hole, a maw that must be fed. It is labeled "ASSESSMENT." It throbs and whistles.

What should Maynard do when he finds himself glued to the computer late at night, crunching numbers instead of writing sonatas or sonnets? Should he call in sick? Say his grandmother died, and the dog ate his data? Or connive?

Ms. Mentor once met "Iver the Conniver," a reckless department head who claimed (at a late night cash bar) that he’d found the best way to do assessment. "I just fill in the same numbers every year. No one ever really reads the reports. They just get filed away, like the crates in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s getting us to do the assessments — that’s what makes our overlords salivate."

Ms. Mentor found herself imagining a wicked academic novel, "Murder Most Foul at the Assessment Theme Park." Visitors would be issued pencils, pens, and forms and could revel in assessing everything: dioramas, corn dogs, apostrophes. Park workers would be graded on a 10-point scale for each of 23 dimensions, including eloquence, height, charm, and manual dexterity with tickets. Grade whiners could have a competition to get into medical school, while heckled by class clowns. Health-conscious visitors could bring their urine samples to the drug tent for review. A daily favorite would be the swimsuit contest to be "Chancellor for a Day."

As for murder: The park’s theme song — "Who Put the Ass in Assessment?" — could drive anyone off the charts. Or a panel of psychologists could assess why a park treadmill suddenly fell on the governor who was going to gut education. Their conclusion: "There are no accidents. He’s been assessed and taken to a Higher Grader."

Ms. Mentor’s wits fail her — and Maynard is still fretting about those assessment forms roiling through his computer, all demanding his immediate attention.

She offers one consolation: Assessment is job creation. Bureaucracies must grow to keep themselves alive, and "administrative bloat" is sometimes spoken of as a virtue, a make-work project for the academically underemployed.

Departments that ignore assessment systems risk losing funding or credibility. However, Maynard can decide to be only adequate in his responses ("No need to be perfect. Just done by Tuesday.") He can delegate small parts of the process to a working group, offering them flattery and crumbs ("I know you’re the perfect person for this important task — and it will look good on your annual report"). He can create a small committee to nag the working group ("The subcommittee won’t meet more than twice, but it’ll beef up ‘service’ on your annual report"). If the assessment process requires teaching observations, Maynard can create a committee of observers. He can make all tasks smaller and reward everyone who pitches in. He can "incentivize." Everyone who shows up gets an A.

In essence, Maynard is making his own small bureaucracy — but he doesn’t have to be a true believer. He can look for shortcuts. He can study Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa, and Amanda Cook’s 2016 book, Improving Quality in Higher Education: Learning Outcomes and Assessments for the 21st Century. It is part of a small yet simmering revolt against the top-down model in which ignorant outsiders try to tell you what, and how, to teach.

Maynard should also reach out to other department heads. No one really likes assessments — and everyone likes to mentor someone who asks for advice. What can be more flattering? Take them to lunch. Give each other A pluses.

Question (from "Mel the Engineer"): Nowadays I am glad that I can read well, and that I have access to the best that’s been thought and written. The books I’m reading now — history and philosophy — goad and inspire me to teach more about the real world, to make my students truly knowledgeable, educated, and eager to improve all our lives. Am I a hopeless idealist?

Answer: No.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor urges her flock to be watchful about cliches in our barbarous times. "At the appropriate time" and "It remains to be seen" and "The matter needs further study" are all delaying tactics. Nag and push people to explain themselves. You’ll be educating them.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, identifying details are concealed, and anonymity is guaranteed. If you wish to create mountains of paperwork, please make sure you also have a shredder.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail ( via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press).

c Emily Toth