Accountability Regimes and Academic Life

Great article by Gaye Tuchman in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, “The Future of Wannabe U,” in which she continues her analysis of the accountability regime that drives the academic life:

Annually, other job and tenure candidates list how many articles and books they have published, how many talks they have delivered (including how many to which they were invited, and by whom), how many students they have advised and taught. Now and again, senior professors, writing letters to evaluate a candidate’s suitability to get or keep a job, provide their own lists. Sometimes they, too, are so intent on constructing them that they forget to discuss a candidate’s intellectual contributions. Last year, when presenting a distinguished-research award, a top Wannabe administrator noted that the recipient had published well more than 100 articles. He never said why those articles mattered.

This passage caught my eye:

Here’s how a Wan U. vice provost explained the importance of scores on Student Evaluation of Teaching Instruments: When making decisions about tenure, he related, “we might be looking at two people with similar research records, but one is said to be a good teacher and the other, not. And all we have are numbers about teaching. And we don’t know what the difference is between a [summary measure of] 7.3 and a 7.7 or an 8.2 and an 8.5.” The problem is that such numbers have no meaning. They cannot indicate the quality of a student’s education. Nor can the many metrics that commonly appear in academic (strategic) plans, like student credit hours per full-time-equivalent faculty member, or the percentage of classes with more than 50 students. Those productivity measures (for they are indeed productivity measures) might as well apply to the assembly-line workers who fabricate the proverbial widget, for one cannot tell what the metrics have to do with the supposed purpose of institutions of higher education—to create and transmit knowledge. That includes leading students to the possibility of a fuller life and an appreciation of the world around them and expanding their horizons.

Even metrics intended to indicate what students may have learned seem to have more to do with controlling faculty members than with gauging education. Take student-outcomes assessments, meant to be evaluations of whether courses have achieved their goals. They search for fault where earlier researchers would not have dreamed to look. When parents in the 1950s asked why Johnny couldn’t read, teachers may have responded that it was Johnny’s fault; they had prepared detailed lesson plans. Today student-outcomes assessment does not even try to discover whether Johnny attended class; instead it produces metrics about outcomes without considering Johnny’s input.

Like I said here last year when I read her highly–if not compulsively– readable Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University; it’s like she’s been following me around at work…

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