Why Do We Need a Faculty Assessment Committee?

Any time we create a committee we should stop and ask why.  The baseline for answering that question should be the world (or institution) without the committee.  How was it?  How would it be?

When I think about that in this case, here’s what I come up with.  With no practicing assessment committee (it was appointed but never met last year):

  1. Faculty have felt little opportunity for real input into assessment
  2. The process has in fact, over the years, been dominated by non-faculty and non-academics.
  3. Many faculty members are unimpressed with the process. Substantive missteps have been frequent.  Faculty members’ assessments of assessment span the range from feeling insulted by the unprofessional and intellectually demeaning tone with which assessment has frequently been conveyed to serious criticism of the validity of the methods used in assessment and real concern about how it is consistently ignored or dismissed.  And much in between.

[I suspect that from the “other side” it looks like this

  1. Faculty have been slow to adopt a culture and practice of assessment
  2. Our job is to get the institution to comply with WASC enough to get us re-certified]

So how to make the world different WITH an assessment committee?  If I were an administrator, I’d think that the committee could help me to bring the faculty along.   I could co-opt them as fellow champions of assessment as currently practiced and they’d be vanguards of the movement.

Uh, I don’t think so.  The problem with assessment is not lack of faculty buy-in.  Let’s repeat that: THE PROBLEM WITH ASSESSMENT IS NOT FACULTY BUY-IN.  The problem with assessment is (are):

  • its methods are methodologically dubious
  • its logic model (observation>analysis>change) is vague, rarely made explicit, and more wishful thinking than realistic
  • it dishonestly or naively hides its political values behind a veil of “objective measurement”
  • it is dominated by self-serving educational entrepreneurs who live off, not for, assessment
  • it is evangelized in the absence of hard thinking about institutional inputs and outputs, the very things it purports to be sensitive to
  • it enters the academy as a fait accompli, more based on conviction and belief than theory, analysis, and argument, and exempts itself from the critical examination and culture of evidence that it champions

So, what can an assessment committee do if even some of the above is in fact that case?  Mainly, I think, hold assessment accountable to normal standards of intellectual integrity and professionalism.  If we do that, I predict, there would be changes in how assessment is implemented, changes that would allow the process to capitalize on its virtues and avoid some of its vices.  And in reaction to THAT you would get more buy in.  The giant flaw in how it’s been handled so far is that assessment is blind to closing its own loop.  When faculty don’t fall in line, it’s not necessarily because they are resistant to change, unwilling to give up their comfortable sinecures, or too arrogant to think about students.  Sometimes its because they have looked at something, and, smart people that they are, found it wanting.

It may even be that the resistance to change and feedback, the comfortable sinecures, and the arrogance that deflects all criticism may lie in the assessment industry itself.  The rest is, as they say, projection.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com. I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

2 thoughts on “Why Do We Need a Faculty Assessment Committee?”

  1. Your blogs are examples of applied sociology (public interest sociology) well done. They clearly illustrate how assessment methods are methodologically impaired.
    I especially agree that “course instructors get feedback on an almost daily basis,” as you so ably explain. (Every Mills instructor should read that paragraph and take note.) That feedback works well to support our course learning goals. Importantly, that kind of feedback is not distorted to fit into a matrix (a rubric), and it is a mistake to try. We teach in a labyrinth of cultural complexity. You cannot translate a labyrinth meaningfully or usefully into a matrix.

    As is made clear in your blog, Dan, the problem is that we cannot escape the control WASC now exercises over our teaching program. When we agreed to three levels of teaching goals (College Mission, General Education, and Departmental) we did not anticipate that a few years down the line we would be required to teach those goals as specific to courses we teach. Since we cannot escape the demands of WASC I would suggest that we might attempt to “work within the system” (as many of us learned to do while serving in the armed services). It should be permissible under WASC rules to revise the three categories of teaching goals, clearly aware this time, that we will need to devise rubrics (matrices) that are as consistent with labyrinthine goals as possible. Let us go with “less is more” (Theodore Sizer, The Coalition of Essential Schools): not memorizing or accumulating facts BUT thinking things through, not filling in the rows, columns, and slots of a matrix, but learning how to struggle with complexities and contradictions.

    As required by WASC, in my course this semester on Visual Anthropology a page at the end of the syllabus (in small print) explicitly lists my course goals as a matrix: three rows, 25 (count them) columns, with 25 explicit learning goals. The matrix is a travesty. In my first class meetings I explained my goals as they relate to a labyrinth, and they are just two. (1) I want them to learn “to think like an anthropologist,” so that later in their professions they will be “anthropologically informed” in the practiced of whatever careers they pursue. The second goal (2) is “to think like a visual anthropologist.” Less is more! Perhaps we can work within the system and still be true to ourselves as clever wordsmiths.


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