The Problem with Assessment
I've been thinking a lot about assessment lately. This is partly because it is on my institution's radar screen in a big way, and partly because it seems to be one of the real stumbling blocks for faculty relations all over. That is, it seems to me that there are often faculty who are very much on board with the idea of having clearly articulated assessment programs and others who aren't. It doesn't seem to me to be a generational thing, although there is certainly something to that -- at SlACs like mine, older faculty are often used to doing things their own way, whereas younger and often junior faculty are a bit more open to working on such programs. You all probably know that I'm sort of an assessment fan. I don't want anybody in lock-step with me, and I don't want to be in lock-step with anyone else, but I see the value in all the people in a department or an institution having the same sort of standards.
This seems to me to be a particularly American thing in some ways, too. My colleagues in the UK are used to a system of double marking and outside evaluators. I think that's a good thing. I know people who see it as a threat. In fact, I think that, in general, the people who want to stay as far away from any coherent assessment program are those who are the most frightened of being found out. It's impostor syndrome, but in a way I've never thought of before. I worry all the time about being found out, about my colleagues finding out I'm not really one of them. This is entirely centered on my worth as a scholar. It never occurs to me to feel like a fraud in the classroom, but then it always occurs to me that there are better ways to teach something, and I talk to people about teaching all the time. there are plenty of ways my teaching is flawed, but I do also know that I'm not a bad teacher. Weirdly, it never really occurred to me that there might be people whose impostor syndrome worked in the reverse.
Assessment, good assessment, means looking carefully at oneself and the way that one teaches. When we talk about assessment and "quantifying the unquantifiable" as one of my colleagues puts it (which is total bullshit, as far as I'm concerned), it looks like we're tracking our students. To some extent we are, but more importantly, we are assessing ourselves. If our students aren't doing well, then we have to ask why. And why it might be that we aren't doing as good a job as we ought to be doing. We might have to change and re-think things. To me, this is a given. But I can see that, to others, this might also be an indicator that we were wrong, that we weren't doing our jobs well. What if our students aren't lazy or stupid? What if it's us??
I think the truth is that we do have some lazy students and some students who are kind of boneheaded. But we also just have students who are smart, but aren't ready, or unprepared. And we do need to learn to teach them, and perhaps to change the way we teach in order to serve them and yes, to teach them in ways they can learn. Because if we don't assess, and self-assess, then the problem *is* us.