Thursday, July 02, 2015

Assessing Assessment: Against Managerial Constraint

a guest post by Robert McRuer

[My department chair and good friend Robert McRuer posted the following as a Facebook update, and I shared it, and his post inspired people enough that I thought: why not take Robert to the Venetian Room, ply him with Manhattans, and ask if I can place his post on ITM? I did, and here it is -- JJC]

The grumpiness emanating from my office is a result of the dreaded annual Assessment of Student Learning for the department. It may be the part of my job I dislike most, even if I do take the opportunity each year to put something snarky in my introduction. Here's the current draft of said introduction for 2015:
'The Department of English again begins this year’s Assessment of Student Learning with the recognition that words such as “assessment,” “measurement,” “rubrics,” and “learning outcomes,” while ubiquitous in contemporary higher education, are not merely neutral and descriptive. Put differently, they do not simply name straightforward and preexisting entities or processes; they actively participate, instead, in the materialization and consolidation of a particular sort of institutional context. This managed and managerial institutional context, understood by many contemporary commentators as “neoliberal,” is in many ways inimical to the development of the kind of lifelong learning habits faculty in the humanities often value: a voracious hunger for reading, a wide-ranging curiosity about the diverse and complex world around us, an unbounded desire to generate knowledge and beauty in a range of forms and languages, a deep reflectiveness about the strangeness of our own moment and its differences from other moments in history. We believe that our students develop these habits (indeed, they often tell us as much years later); we also want to affirm, however, that these habits cannot be easily measured or charted on a graph. In our required Introduction to Critical Theory course, our students learn that theorizing entails questioning how arrangements of language and power constrain and produce possibilities for human agency, thought, relationship, community, and praxis. The language of assessment in contemporary higher education obviously produces populations that are easier to monitor; it simultaneously often constrains the imaginative capacities we hope to unleash in our students. 
This year, assessment in the Department of English focused on blah blah blah...'

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