by Clyde Ebenreck, Philosophy
As the college has embarked on an energy intensive assessment process, I
would like to share some of my reflections on where we have been, and where it
sounds as if we are going.
During my second year at the college, under the one year-reign of President
James Harvey, TQM (Total Quality Management) was the buzzword. Workshops,
retreats, and seminars were held on how this managerial wisdom would transform
the college. I was eager to hear about the magic that could be done, since
I was already convinced that teaching/learning did involve some sort of wizardry
that could perhaps be transmitted to others.
This management by objectives scheme seemed to be appropriate for the
classroom since both the teacher and the student had certain objectives they
were seeking to achieve in the compressed timeframe of a semester. But, as
is too often the case, what may have worked in the marketplace did not work in
the classroom to any greater effect than any other model.
Teaching/learning did indeed involve magic, but TQM was not the wizardís wand.
Some years later, just four or five years ago now, a process of spelling out
course objectives and various artifacts and rubrics in order to discover if the
objectives were being achieved was implemented and then abandoned. My
suggestion is that again the magic amulet did not work, but there is still magic
in teaching/learning. I am giving in to the temptation to do a kind of
relativity neologism and start talking about teachinglearning as one entity, to
- The studentís eyes which suddenly come to life as an insight or vision
hits their awareness.
- The student who returns years later and says, "I never forgot what
happened in your class."
- The student who, in essence, tells the teacher to just get out of the way.
Yes, there is magic. But when we start disbelieving in the magic (Do I
hear a clapping of hands in the distance?), it fades quicker than Tinker Bell.
I fear that the present assessment process will destroy teachinglearning
rather than enhance it. Assessment effectively denies the magic of each
teachinglearning encounter, just as the ribbit is not found when dissecting the
Alfie Kohn has an article in the November 8 issue of the Chronicle of
Higher Education (B7-9), in
which he argues rather effectively that there is actually no demonstrable grade
inflation at the college and university level this year, this decade or this
century. Instead, he concludes that, "the real threat to excellence
isnít grade inflation at all; itís grades."
I have the sense that the real threat to future excellence here at our
college is not unassessed classes, but assessment itself. My reasons for
this hunch include:
- A perception on the part of some of us, that the reason for assessment is
that the administration (either here or at the state level) no longer trusts
faculty members to be doing their job. It does make some degree of
sense for even tenured professors to have their classes periodically
evaluated by a peer or a department head who would know both the content and
the methodology of the teachinglearning in that faculty memberís
courses. But it does not make as much sense for those same courses to
be evaluated by those who know neither the field nor the methods of that
I know that we have been told that it is not an evaluation of the faculty
member but of the course itself, but just as teachinglearning is one
concept, so too is the coursefaculty. No two teachers teach the same,
and if the faculty member has any degree of academic freedom, that person
will have crafted a unique course syllabus. Master syllabi can offer
suggestions, but no one should teach the master syllabus.
- There is another perception that I believe is widely shared: the time
taken up by the process is time taken away from teachinglearning.
Every teacher - even the worst of us - assesses what the students are
learning every moment in the classroom and in the evaluating of tests and
papers and presentations and experiments and task performances. Adding
on another layer or two (which must consume time) is not likely to add to
what the teacher and department chair already know. If they know there
is a problem, then their professionalism should be trusted to deal with it.
- A perception that may be more specific to my discipline of philosophy: the
results of the learningteaching (I know you were getting irritated with the
other phrasing) are life results, not class results. Plato urged that
only those who were 40 or more study philosophy - I am willing to have
people of any age study philosophy, but realize that the lessons learned may
not be manifest until those students are 50. To actually assess what
has been gained by the students, one needs to look at them in a year, or
ten, or thirty. Thus, an assessment process which seeks to use a
currently measurable outcome during the semester in which the student is
being exposed to philosophy is bound to miss the point of the discipline.
- A perception picked up at various regional meetings of community college
philosophers in the state: assessment is mandated, but it is foolish.
So, do only what is needed to avoid a hassle. Some of them show off their
departmental assessment plan, and simultaneously wink out the message that
they are proud of having crafted a smoke screen to keep the administration-
politicians away from their courses. Assessment as an act of
self-protection would add nothing to the desired excellence of the college.
- A mandated assessment without demonstrable need for the assessment is as
bad as demanding that everyone of a certain age go through a painful medical
exam even if there is no symptom showing a need for the exam. Up to
this point I feel that we have been told about the mandate, but not about
- And finally, an intellectually vibrant student body and faculty are not
made more vibrant by doing busy work. If assessment can be shown to
increase the vibrancy of both student and faculty, then it has some
value. But until that is demonstrated, the process feels like busy
work. And feeling that one is required to do busy work reduces any
enthusiasm for doing it.
Last May, in another Chronicle of Higher Education article ("Choosing Justice Over
Excellence" Stanley Katz, May 17, 2002: B7 Ė 9), John Stuart Mill was
quoted as saying: the "proper business of an university [is] not to tell us
from authority what we ought to believe, and make us accept the belief as a
duty, but to give us information and training, and help us form our own belief
in a manner worthy of intelligent beings, who seek for truth at all hazards, and
demand to know all the difficulties, in order that they may be better qualified
to find, or recognize, the most satisfactory mode of resolving them."
That is the vision I believe this college should have. Assessment
conflicts with that vision in as much as the assessment process seems to be
authoritarian towards both faculty and students. It also appears to aim at
removing the hazards of learningteaching by the procrustean bed of