Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1-2015

Abstract

Message from President: In one of his Proverbs of Hell, the late-Enlightenment poet William Blake shows the devil recommending that we “Bring out number weight and measure in a year of dearth.” Blake’s advice, uttered by the Provost of Perdition, throws a bituminous light on our contemporary preoccupation with assessment. Academic people everywhere not only labor under, but amicably collaborate in the production of statistics, measurements, evaluations, “metrics,” and a menagerie of purportedly informative numbers. We have arithmetical estimates of everything—except assessment itself. The absence of evidence for the efficacy of assessment is, if not overwhelming, at least imposing. Faculty members unwittingly and probably generously collude with national but nevertheless commercial magazines in elevating faculty-student ratios and class-size averages to preeminent measures of the quality of institutions and educations. Large universities, however, were at their most productive, both with regard to the degree conferral tally and with regard to the competence of their graduates, when, after the second world war, class size was at its largest and faculty-student ratio at its lowest. Intimidated faculty join with ambitious mid-level administrators in promoting student evaluation of teachers, yet, to date, no one has explained how student evaluations, which inevitability correlate with the grades students receive and with the difficulty level of the class, yield improvements in the transfer of knowledge. Indeed, the students who receive the most benefit—those in general education courses, who proceed from nullity to preliminary mastery of a discipline—routinely impose the lowest evaluations on teachers and thereby discourage, even punish, pedagogical productivity. The most extreme current example of metric mania is surely Louisiana’s LAGRAD act, which confers an assortment of privileges on institutions that increase retention and graduation rates. Statewide, institutions of every stripe—two year; four-year; regional; research; land-grant; urban; HBCU—are sanctioned for fulfilling their mission and are measured by incorrect indices. Urban institutions such as the University of New Orleans, for example, receive no credit for improving the skill sets of their largely “non-traditional” clientele owing to the occasional and slow pace of adult education; regional schools such as LSU in Shreveport fall short owing to both producing and accepting transfer students, students whose trajectories fall outside the official government definitions of the four-to-six year continuous enrollment. Of the many ways in which the superstitious attachment to numbers has adversely effected the academy, among the most devastating is the cult of student recruitment and retention. In addition to encouraging the expenditure of vast sums on the procurement of students who may or may not be ready for a four-year run at a baccalaureate degree, the drive to maintain a specific number of students and to deliver a specific number of diplomas has transferred the emphasis in academe not so much from quality as from content to quantity: from cultivation of the curious and flexible mentality that characterizes an educated person to the delivery of a specified volume of quasi-educational episodes. That drift, in turn, empowers a range of modern perversities, from online education to workforce development, that all revolve around the idea of quantity and its twin, uniformity. Think that quantity may have something to say for it? Think of the long-term economic and cultural value of that 1970s example of pure added value and mass distribution, the Pet Rock!

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