Outcomes Of Perpetual Surveyance (OOPS)

My Professional Activity Report and Self Evaluation (or PARSE) is over twenty pages long… not counting all of the required documentation. PARSE was instituted to save time and space–it’s all on computer and just needs ‘updating’ each year–but it seems to have become a repository of everything that can either be scanned or entered having any sort of relation to faculty activities. All of us on faculties everywhere are, for good reason, concerned about our advancement… to tenure (if we are lucky enough to be on that track), to re-appointment, to promotion. So, we dump everything we can into our files and then burn them all onto our particular institution’s version of PARSE DVDs at the end of each academic year.

Promotion committees get the pleasure of reading through all of this. It’s quite the experience. I’ve only been doing it for a couple of years (having made it to Associate Professor that recently), but I am already exhausted each year by the sheer volume on each candidate… and by the demands of the Peers Committee as it discusses each file. Teaching, scholarship, and service: we get caught up by the minutiae of each, constantly in danger of forgetting that there’s a person involved, too, someone whose contributions can’t be completely reduced to the 1s and 0s of a digital file.

In most colleges and universities today, the full-time faculty are overwhelmed by their own duties, teaching, conducting scholarship, and meeting the service demands of departments with fewer and fewer people who can take on administrative responsibilities (much of the teaching now taken over by adjuncts and temporary hires). So, not even members of peers committees take the time to actually read the work of candidates for promotion and re-appointment and tenure. Instead, they rely on markers like “peer reviewed” or “university press” or something else giving them confidence that the work will stand up to scrutiny at the next stop down the line. This makes it necessary for candidates to surround their work with as much secondary information as possible. Overwhelmed by the demands of their own students, committee members don’t have the time to really look into the teaching of their colleagues, so (here again) turn to secondary information, student evaluations and peer evaluations, each packed with check marks and scores. Buried under bureaucratic demands of departments where administration (as I have said) devolves on fewer and fewer heads, few faculty members are really aware of the extent of what anyone else is doing–outside of those serving on the same committees or concerned with the same functions. Once again, it’s the paper trail that begins to matter most: Letters of appreciation for service, it seems, count for more than service itself.

Add to all of that the growing mania for assessment and “outcomes,” an outgrowth of the insane No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies foisted on our public schools by corporate “reformers” (and their tame politicians) who find more truth in bean counting than in actual education, and you have a situation ripe for parody.

Steven Ward of  West Connecticut State University has picked this fruit. And he has done it with precision.

Give him a read. You won’t regret it.

5 thoughts on “Outcomes Of Perpetual Surveyance (OOPS)

  1. This post and Steven Ward’s piece for THE are both very incisive. For instance, Aaron’s comment that letters of appreciation for service might ultimately count more than the service itself exposes a reality that is as preposterous as it is inescapable.

    A less emphatic but equally significant point is that administrative bloat paradoxically has not meant that full-time faculty, whether tenure-line or contingent, have fewer administrative responsibilities. In fact, quite the opposite has occurred.

    Interviewed in the local newspaper, one of the new mid-level administrators at our university was impolitic enough to complain that one of her main challenges was in working around the faculty’s resistance to engagement and change. The faculty senate president asserted that it was a gross mischaracterization of faculty for which the administrator ought to be formally censured, and in the midst of the hullabaloo, he asked me, as the president of the AAUP chapter, to write a letter of complaint to the president and provost.

    I wrote a letter to them, but in it I objected not to her mischaracterization of the faculty but to her misunderstanding of her own role. Each new mid-level administrator needs to justify his or her existence, and that process inevitably requires faculty and/or staff to compile some sort of detailed report on something that they are doing or not doing, thinking or not thinking, or feeling or not feeling. Given the rate at which mid-level administrators are proliferating, faculty are spending ever more sizable portions of their available time compiling data that will be summarized and announced with great institutional fanfare and then almost always shoved immediately into a drawer.

    In case anyone had missed the point, which I had expressed with my usual subtlety, I said, in sum, that if engagement and change required us to compile any additional reports on our activities, attitudes, or levels of awareness, we were certainly resistant to engagement and change. And instead of complaining about our resistance, those articulating the complaints ought to have engaged with us sufficiently to grasp that they need to change the ways in which they are approaching their own jobs.

    • Martinkich, you’re my new hero.

      The other way in which new middle-managers assert their presence is by showing “initiative” that often results in bad policies and decisions. I serve on our Human Subjects [sic] Committee. Our new AVP of Sponsored Research flipped a switch last semester when, for the first time in 27 years, we didn’t have a quorum at a meeting and couldn’t vote on applications. That two of the committee members were at another meeting *he had scheduled and required them to attend* didn’t seem to phase him. So he erupted and demanded that we change our entire way of scheduling meetings such that “nothing else take precedence over the most important work of the university.” What we wound up with is exactly the same thing we were already doing, except more confusing.

      But by golly, he fixed it!

      • Isn’t it already?

        To be fair, I understand that he’s under some pressure to demonstrate that he’s having a(n) [positive] effect. And the fact that I have to account for those permutations is exactly the point.

      • Yes, we are the ones–we and the students–who have to live with the results, much more (as is always the case) than the administrators. But I am imagining flags with the phrase emblazoned on them, a crest, and an association letterhead. It could become the rallying cry of a movement.

        Maybe we could turn that to our advantage, having them charge away completely, disappearing from the field and leaving us the freedom to educate, to finally be able to say, “All that is very well… but let us cultivate our garden.”

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