On the Outcomes and Assessments Borg
There has been much in the blogosphere lately about Outcomes and Assessments and (mostly) how we should Just Say No. It's all Clio Bluestocking's fault. She started it. Then Historiann picked it up, and Sisyphus riffed on that, and then Dance offered an alternative. The shortest post I could make right now is to say, "Wait, people? you know that idea of Dance's that you all seem to like? that's a lot of what OA is when done correctly!"
Somehow, I think people might expect me to say a little bit more, given my lengthy comments elsewhere. So here are some reasons I think OA is not necessarily the Borg:
- As I just said, OA done well can be as simple as sitting down and thinking about what you are doing, what you want to be doing, articulating those things, assessing for the evidence of those things, documenting how your expectations fit what the students are doing, then going back and tweaking your teaching and/or your expectations the next time around, documenting that, and so on. It's about documenting process and goals. Having said that, there are people who want to use 'bad numbers' to beat us over the head. Those are the people we need to fight, not the idea. Self-reflection is not a bad thing, whether on a personal, departmental, or institutional level.
- Outcomes at the course level are good pedagogy. Too often we find ourselves building new preps in a hurry, and many new faculty who have not taught before, as well as some of their more senior colleagues, are wont to build the class based on coverage -- Look! a textbook that has the same number of chapters as the semester has weeks! we'll do a chapter a week, and then ... This is not a good way to plan a class, unless your idea of history is to teach a narrative via lectures, and then get the students to paraphrase your narrative on essay exams. I don't think that's what a good history class should be, even at the survey level. A university history class, IMO, should be teaching the discipline of history, as well as a (or several) narratives. So I'm all for thinking about what I want students to get out of my classes, and it's not a difficult step for me to translate that to course outcomes.
But that's not really what we're talking about -- this is more department- and program-level outcomes. Well, honestly, I can't find any reason that my department shouldn't have a common set of ideas about what somebody graduating with a degree in history should know, and know how to do, when they finish. Since my department has a capstone course, something that, by the way, seems to make a lot of accrediting agencies very happy, if it's done well, it only makes sense that we sit down together and decide how to make sure that the students are given the chance to learn the skills for the capstone no matter whose classes they take. It also makes sense that people teaching the same course should agree on how they are going to measure the students' performance, rather than having one History 101 prof giving weekly quizzes, two midterms, a paper, and a final, and another giving a research paper and a final and a power-point presentation for the same course. And generally speaking, the students should be learning the same material, although obviously different people will focus more on their strengths and interests. But if there is such a thing as canon, then it should be taught in each section of a course taught by several people. It's only fair to the students.
- Speaking of departments, one of the things that Historiann and others have said repeatedly is that we are all professionals, and we already examine our teaching, and do the kind of self-reflection that OA is supposed to encourage. In a perfect world, yes, that's true. In the one where I teach? Not so much. I've never taught at a place where there was not at least one truly dysfunctional department, and usually a couple of faculty colleagues who weren't professional, weren't at all self-reflective, and were the pedagogical equivalents of a night on bad tequila -- the students can't help but vomit, and they can't bear the thought of getting near the subject again for years. Now, these colleagues are not going to go away, and these departments are not going to get functional, but the process at least allows the faculty who do want to teach in a solid program, and do want to serve the students who want to learn to work together more efficiently, document when their unprofessional colleagues are not playing nicely with other children to the detriment of the program and to its students, and let the students know what is expected of them.
- Students. They are not customers. But they do pay money to be allowed to study with us. Is it a bad thing to work together to make it clear to the students why we do things the way we do? to give them clearly articulated expectations and then demonstrate that we grade according to the expectations we say we're going to grade by? Is there anything worse than the perception that a faculty member is unfair (well, other than the things that are really worse, obviously)? But seriously, is it a bad thing to have an outcome that says that students will learn to differentiate primary from secondary sources, and use them to create a well-supported narrative or analysis? And then to say, "this is what we mean by well-supported"? Let me tell you, I've been in meetings where my very professional colleagues cannot give examples of these things, or even the characteristics of them, instead relying on the, "I have a PhD and know it when I see it," argument.
This is the one that annoys me the most, I think. The idea that we are somehow above explaining what it is we do. There is an intrinsic beauty in history and its study, I think. And I don't really buy the idea that we should have to justify our disciplines to non-experts. But at the same time, we really don't live in a world where people think that way. And we are employees of universities and colleges. If they are public, well ... when does, "trust me, I'm the expert," work for us academics? Moreover, we have a glut on the market in the humanities these days. If you can't explain what it is you do, and how you grade to your own colleagues, then there are people who can do your job just as well who can and will.
- That last bit kind of brings me to my second-to-last point for right now. I'm a little freaked out by how authoritarian I sound. Because honestly, I'm all about good faculty governance, good contracts, and the tenure system (with regular post-tenure reviews). But I also see myself as an employee of my institution. There are things I am required to do as part of my job -- I have to provide receipts for reimbursement, I have to turn in grades on an A-F scale no later than the semester deadline, I teach history, and not English or Religion, I teach the students the university admits, whether or not I think they should be there, and I go to godawful meetings when I am supposed to. Sometimes I even teach a class at a time I'd rather not, because that's what the Dean has asked me to do. In exchange, I get to teach my subjects pretty much in the way I like, I get to teach courses I like, more or less -- as long as they serve the students and the university, I get support to travel and research (to some degree -- and lots of moral support!), and a paycheck.
Having said that, I can't imagine the sort of top-down approach to OA that a lot of people are complaining about. The places where I've encountered something even in that realm are places where either the administration didn't take assessment seriously and are therefore cacking themselves because they have to try to come up with masses of data all at once, or where there was never a clear explanation to the faculty of why they needed to drive the faculty part of OA -- or where faculty are just so disaffected that they refused, and are now facing something that is not at all what they expected. No matter the reason, Clio N's experiences sound pretty abysmal, and I can see why she doesn't want to do it.
- Last point ... institutional assessment. I'd like to think that it worked. I'd like to think that Student Services, Admissions, Computing, the Registrar, Campus Life, Facilities, etc., were really assessing themselves the way good faculty do. Even if they aren't? I think that OA can help to support some faculty concerns, because my guess is that this is one of the places where number crunching can give a fairly accurate idea of what's going on.
It's dinner time.