The Real History of Assessment

It’s been a long time since I’ve let myself be annoyed by something in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I take some pride in that because one of the Chronicle’s chief purposes is to keep us all informed where, when, and for what reason the sky is falling.

Yesterday, Prof. Joan Hawthorne, the Director of Assessment and Regional Accreditation at University of North Dakota wrote a short article in defense of assessment with reference with UND and, in particular, our history department. Prof. Hawthorne is far too humble in her abbreviated history of assessment at UND. 

The true story is that the first assessocrats came to the Norther Plains in the late-19th century. They were fresh from their time in England where they had improved the efficiency both of industrial mills as well as of various luddite groups in their effort to undermine industrialization across the country. In the “new world,” this small, but dedicated cadre committed their energies to demonstrating that “doing” is the goal of a university education and offered unique guidance in helping outmatched university administrators achieve this goal.

At UND, the first assessocrats where there in shadows when the university decide to hire a Ph.D. historian after almost a decade of history courses being taught by a theology professor. The first assessocrats huddled with the leaders of the the university – Webster Merrifield and Henry Montgomery – and guided them through major curriculum changes and faculty selection to ensure UND entered the 20th century with proper respect for learning outcomes. 

When Orin G. “Orangey” Libby, the first trained historian appeared on campus, the assessocrats met him at the train. Immediately on his arrival, they urged him to discard the small pine box that he brought with him from the University of Wisconsin. The pine box provided him with a bit more height in the classroom so he could “profess” more effectively. In its place, the assessocrats told Libby about a technique called the seminar that his advisor had learned at Johns Hopkins University on the far away East Coast. Some very early assessocrats in Germany had developed the seminar and then carried this method around the world by them. In the seminar, students did not just passively learn history, but actually engaged primary source documents to write history. Libby, grateful for their advisement, installed the seminar at UND and made it vital part of history education for a century. As the seminar developed at UND, the assessocracy encouraged Libby to offer students opportunities in professional development ranging from work compiling a new archive of material vital to the history of North Dakota and publishing short studies based on this material in a newly created history journal. He would never have done this had the assessocrats not told him to approach student learning in a thoughtful way.

Libby’s successors, of course, would have lost their way had not the assessocrats gently pushed them to adopt the newest teaching techniques. Needless to say, beloved professors like Elwyn Robinson and Robert Wilkins would not have spent the time to create an archive at UND for our students to gain experience with historical documents had not the assessocracy urged them to do more than merely profess their own knowledge to their classes. In fact, historians like Robinson and Wilkins were likely to have expected students to learn history through quiet reading or listening passively to colleagues present their research. Clearly, these methods are untenable and would have resulted in the end of any possible understanding of the past.

Instead, thanks to the assessocrats, historians at UND created classes focusing on the “craft” of history which emphasized the production of history over the rote memorization of names and dates. Faculty reinforced and expanded the skills learned in this class throughout the curriculum. The assessocrats insisted that this culminate in a capstone course which provided undergraduates with a chance to demonstrate their mastery of these skills. Without the guiding hand of the assessocracy, it is not an exaggeration to claim that history as a discipline would have ended with the last historian blandly intoning one final lecture (perhaps on the Battle of Hastings) to an empty classroom.

Prof. Hawthorne modestly overlooked the long tradition of assessocratic guidance and influence at the university level. Without directors of assessment, associate VPs of tabulation, and offices of assessment and evaluation, the modern university would be mired in an endless loop lectures, textbooks, and almost empty classrooms.

~

We should not be naive. Hawthorne’s oversimplified claims that before assessments professors “professed” stiff-legged behind the podium reading from a textbook, is not just an oversimplification. She has overwritten a long, disciplinary history of teaching and learning and replaced it with an administrative myth. In this myth,  assessment and the crusading administrators who implemented these techniques created a 21st century university that was responsive to student needs and prepared to lead the world in facing new challenges, new opportunities, and, perhaps most importantly, new opportunities for economic gain. This narrative is not only insulting (especially considering the long tradition of fields like history in pioneering “active learning”), but also an obvious ploy to undermine disciplinary practices in favor of centralized administrative control.

More frustratingly, her article attacked the most vulnerable fields at the modern university. She does not use as an example the professional disciplines which starting with law, medicine, and education developed their own accreditation bodies that stipulate assessment practices. These professions and disciplines have sufficient authority to push back against the growing power of the university administration. In contrast, the national and international professional organizations for the disciplines in the humanities have embraced a diversity of practices, methods, and goals, and do not have accreditation standards which can stand up against the university administration. As a result, it is easy to pick on these disciplines despite their role as pioneers in “learning by doing” practices that the assessocracy has only recently sought to generalized across the entire university. 

Recent objections to assessment from these fields is not resistance to learning-centered or student-centered teaching. Most university disciplines have long judged their success or failure in the classroom. In fact, goal of teaching in the modern university has always been to produce practitioners of the discipline. The success of teaching history is easily assessed by evaluating the quality of historical work produced by our students. As professional historians of some standing in our discipline, we are uniquely qualified to determine whether, in Hawthorne’s words, we are producing students who can “do” history. 

I’d contend that most objections to assessment come from the idea that the central administration discovered assessment techniques, according to Hawthorne’s article, sometime in the late-1990s and must now share them with hopelessly out of touch (and possibly lazy) faculty who had never considered “learning outcomes” as worth exploring. 

I recognize, of course, that the university of the late-20th and early-21st century is a very different, more diverse, and more complex place than it was a century or so earlier. The competition for faculty time and energy is higher, the range of disciplines, methods, and best practices is greater, and the student body more diverse. In fact, I’d accept the need for the dedicated administrators and staff who do their part to lift the burden of bureaucratic responsibility from faculty, navigate the Byzantine policies of federal and state oversight, ensure the physical (and digital) infrastructure functions optimally, and maintain the outward face of the university through marketing, design, and accessibility. 

At the same time, the rise of this administration in its glorious complexity has clearly contributed to a sense of alienation among both students and faculty, and I suspect that this, more than anything, has led to a loss of purpose, a growing skepticism toward administrative initiatives, and perhaps even a certain resigned complacency. Moreover, I’d suggest that the rise of the administrative assessocracy has only compounded this alienation. Hawthorne’s willingness to overwrite the long history of discipline-specific teaching practices is typical, and will not help encourage faculty accountability in the classroom. Hinting that without assessment faculty would revert to professing on a pine box or teaching from a textbook does not suggest that the assessocracy respects disciplinary practice or even understands the critique. It creates a barrier between the assessocracy, the administration, and faculty that will not be easily breached. Centralizing assessment will continue to generate faculty resistance and rhetorically weak efforts to dismiss it will lead to greater alienation.

On this blog, I have argued numerous times that students are capable of genuine resistance in the classroom. Failure to follow directions, read the syllabus, complete assignments to spec or on time, or be engaged in the classroom is not a student problem, but a teacher problem. As teachers we have to first respect these forms of resistance before we can address them. Resistance to assessment is not a faculty problem that can be solved by rewriting history or offering patronizing views of faculty motives. It’s a structural problem with the modern university, and it deserve to be taken far more seriously that Prof. Hawthorne did in yesterday’s Chronicle.

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