Sunday, January 30, 2011

January 30, 2011 [Academic Work Post 3]: Accounting

Since I started my job at Fitchburg State and so started having a two-hour-a-day commute, I’ve become a relatively devoted listener to one of the main local sports radio stations (among the other three or four radio stations between which I flip for most of that drive), and in particular (because of the timing) to the morning show on that station. When the two hosts talk sports I find them pretty interesting and engaging; when they talk politics or culture (which they do a good bit) I find them so infuriating and ignorant as to produce my own version of road rage. But in these five and a half years of listening, I’ve only gotten worked up enough to call in one time: they were reading a newspaper story on the salaries of UMass faculty members and complaining about overpaid professors who do nothing to earn their exorbitant wages. As I told them when I called in, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a dumber fifteen minutes of conversation, nor one based on such complete ignorance and misrepresentation of every detail and factor. Hell, at one point one of the hosts said, “And this guy’s just a plain Professor, he’s not even an Assistant or Associate Professor!” The stupid, it burns.
I bring this up not to complain about false perceptions of academic gigs (rampant as I have often found them to be), nor even to complain about us being underpaid (which, at least in the Mass. State College/University system, we definitely are), but rather to transition into one of the most annoying narratives in our contemporary culture: the argument that we as a society need to hold teachers (at every level) more “accountable.” It seems to me that if we’re going to pay teachers so little to do a job that we all agree is hugely important to our national future and success, we should at least offer them, in the main, support and help rather than judgment and critique. Moreover, the drive to hold teachers “accountable” has, at a public institution like Fitchburg State at least, mainly meant that a cohort of outside agencies and observers, many with virtually no specific or relevant knowledge of what happens in college classrooms, descend on our campuses periodically to demand that we produce assessment data that can prove both that we’re doing what we say we do and that we know where we could be doing it better and are working to improve in those areas. I agree that those are important goals; I just tend to think that the time we spend producing and preparing the data about them for the outside folks might be better spent actually working toward the goals, among the other things we layabout professors do with our time.
 And yet—yes, even with a topic like this one, I’ve got one of those patented AmericanStudies twists coming—I think that being part of assessment processes (both in my department and for our college’s Gen Ed curriculum) for many years has been hugely meaningful and productive for me. That’s true partly for reasons that have little to do with the specifics of the processes—getting a chance to work at length with colleagues, to find out their perspectives on core aspects of teaching and the college and our profession, to have a chance to articulate my own such perspectives more fully than I might otherwise be asked to do. But I have to admit that the processes themselves have had pretty unexpected and significant value—allowing me to spend a good bit of time examining student work, not through the lens of a grader nor with the attachment to a student or class, but rather from a more objective and analytical perspective; forcing me to examine and challenge and expand my ideas about what constitutes successful work (for an English major, for a Liberal Arts & Sciences student, and so on), and to consider when and how such work can be best drawn out and what it means when we’re failing to do so as well as we could. These are pretty important questions to ask ourselves, and I don’t know if I’d take the time to ask them of myself without these prompts to do so.
I’d still rather ask those questions and produce our answers and figure out what to do with them on our own terms, without feeling as if we’re doing so to prove to a bureaucrat somewhere that we are indeed “accountable.” But I guess I have to recognize the likelihood that without the outside pressures we might not get the chance to have these conversations—and if I take that into account, assessment feels like it can be a very valuable part of my career after all. Wouldn’t mind if they paid me a bit more to do it, though. More tomorrow, on a powerful ritual, a brutal day, and the book that mirrors them both.
PS. Not gonna make you read any assessment materials in links here. But any thoughts on these national narratives of accountability in education would be, as responses here always will be, much appreciated.

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