One of the things the assessment gurus of corporate-style education don’t like is the idea of professors in complete control of the curriculum and pedagogy in their own classrooms. They want everyone “to be on the same page,” feeling that education has no value unless done in unison. This is the thinking behind most cries for “standards.” There are things, the assumption is, that everyone needs to know.
The trouble is, this is an elitist attitude leaving decisions to a cognoscenti with very little experience in those worlds whose needs they are defining. Certainly, few who create standards have recent classroom experience or true understanding of the lives today’s students live and will live. This attitude is also extremely regressive. One of the problems with the “great books” concept for learning is that it, of necessity, redefines the past, reifying certain attitudes and choices unnecessarily and limiting exploration to marked paths. This is great; that is not. It creates a certain passivity of thought and veneration for the ways of the past. Assessment runs into something of the same problem, for one cannot assess what is as yet unknown or untried.
In addition, and this is rather odd, assessment places an extremely high value on conformity. This is odd because we’re seeing it arise right now in a culture that, at the same time, is on the verge of deifying the concept of individualism–of doing it all on one’s own.
One of the dangers of too great an emphasis on assessment is diminution of academic freedom. One of the bedrocks of that concept is the idea that professors are experts, that they are in the best position to determine what should go on in their classrooms, as in their research and in their participation in greater societal debates. This doesn’t mean that they are always right or always do a good job–but our system of multiple classes in a variety of areas alleviates that to some degree–but it does mean that they have gone through a process of vetting by their peers and have been found worthy. Unfortunately, even this process has been undercut–part-time faculty, for example, are rarely hired by a committee and sometimes are given their jobs at the last minute after only a cursory glance at qualifications–creating a pervasive sense (at least) that no one is minding the store, that professors, many of them not vetted at all, are teaching whatever the hell they please. Academic freedom, then, to many minds, is necessarily trumped, today, by the need to assure that students are, in fact, getting the instruction they “need.”
There is little we can do, in the short run, to stop the move toward uniformity and assessment, a “solution” to a problem created by the very people now offering to “solve” it. We can’t resist effectively until we manage to turn our adjunct colleagues into vetted full-time ones–and that’s not going to happen easily or quickly. But we can offer alternatives. Many of them. And we should. After all, our students cannot wait.
Here’s one alternative: For the past few years, I’ve been intrigued by Fred Keller’s old article “Good-Bye, Teacher… “ with its expansion from classroom to a suite of differing physical configurations–including a lecture hall, individual workspaces, discussion rooms, faculty offices, and more. It could be used as the basis for one alternative to the dichotomy of reliance on experts or reliance on assessment. There are many others, many of which have been successful (at least in the short term), but this is one I would like to try.
Rather than relying on outside assessment or on individual professors in little kingdoms (which has always been something of a myth anyway), we could establish semester-long (or year-long) teams of professors, each from a different discipline, for the purposes of meeting general-education needs. Physical locations could be established that include a small lecture hall (a traditional classroom), adjacent study carrels, spaces for two to work together, a seminar room or two, and office space for the faculty. This would not necessitate following Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction, but that could be a part of it.
Each professor might give several lectures each week, meet with small groups of students, provide an online aspect to the course, and see students individually. The idea would be, also, that each professor stay connected to what others in the group are doing, perhaps even attending lectures and not only giving them. The courses, in fact, would be designed as parts on an expanded “learning community.”
Assessment, in keeping with the idea of moving away from vertical structures, would take place among the professors involved, each looking to the whole and all assessing each course (not in content, which would be determined by each department, but in methodology). General goals could be set as they are now, broad committees of the faculty providing direction and oversight–though I would love to see these removed from the direction of administration.
There would be a great number of problems in instituting such a system. First, the teachers would only be teaching one course each semester, though three or four “sections.” Some professors would not wish to do this, or to move away from a model based on, say, 24 students in a “class.” But not everyone would necessarily participate. The sticky question of Carnegie hours would also have to be addressed. And then, of course, is the problem that this would require massive space reconfiguration. But these an other problems can be resolved–if we are willing to be a little creative and not simply rail against a situation cramping learning into little more than sterile “outcomes.”
There are many models of instruction that can keep us out of the yoke of assessment, corporate style. This is but one. My point is that we should be doing more than complaining; we should be offering alternatives.