When I was in the Boy Scouts, there was a song that we sang at the start of meetings and around campfires: The Announcements Song. It’s a really long song, but to this day, I still remember how it starts:
Announcements, announcements, announcements.
A horrible way to die, a horrible way to die,
A horrible way to start the day,
A horrible way to die…
All you have to do is replace “announcements” with “assessment” and you will begin to learn how I feel about the outcome assessment movement (okay, I have evolved in my thinking on assessment, but only for practical reasons I explain below). I know I am not the only one who dislikes outcome assessments. But as much as I dislike writing them for general education and for the philosophy major, assessment reports are a modern reality on college campuses. If you haven’t read the APA statement on outcome assessments, you should. Thoughtful philosophers have done recent work on the topic (2008), and everyone in the discipline should understand what is being asked of colleges and universities relating to assessment. Sometimes assessment is crucial to accreditation (see my last post), and sometimes it is based on a misguided assumption of OA proponents that learning outcomes can only improve with change. Ultimately, we have to play along with our assessment overlords or we risk losing out on resources and standing in the academy even more than we currently have. This line from the APA statement on assessment is especially revealing:
“Currently, however, most philosophy courses and programs do not address or formulate student learning outcomes in ways that satisfy all of the expectations typical of the OA movement. Consider what are perhaps the main three expectations of OA.” The three expectations are: evaluating levels of (content and skill) mastery, identical measures for courses independent of the instructor, and the outcome should link to or “map” or track (not the truth, but) the program.
You might be thinking: I do assess my students. It’s called assigning grades. You are so living in the pre-80s assessment world. Grades are one measure of assessment, but as the former director of assessment at my university (an Associate Provost) told me in an assessment meeting: grades don’t show that a student learned anything in your class, outcome assessments do. Perplexed, I asked why? She replied that lots of faculty calculate 50% of a student’s grade by attendance and offer lots of extra credit to increase grades. When I replied that I don’t do either of those things, (those who are interested can read my paper in Teaching Philosophy, to see why I don’t), she asked: “So a student couldn’t get a satisfactory grade in your class if they did poorly on homework and exams?” “Exactly,” I replied.. She commented with something like: so there is a real connection between what students learn in your class and the grades they earn I guess. I thought that was the point of grading (assessment), but that isn’t the norm in many classes; hence the rise of the outcome assessment movement. Thanks, grade inflation.
A few lessons I’ve learned about assessment so far: (a) Assessment is NOT going away. Administrators and government agencies that make funding decisions want to see results in student learning. Measurable. Provable. Traceable. Results. (b) If philosophers have to do outcome assessments, we ought to do it well and use it to our advantage—something philosophers haven’t been too good at lately. (c) Reevaluating our stance on assessment could be good for everyone: faculty, administration, and students.
I am opening comments for people to share some of their outcome assessment experiences (both positive and negative) so that the rest of the profession can learn from them. Assessment is something we should work together on as a profession, but as the APA statement acknowledges, there are real concerns with assessment. It often turns into measuring what is easy, and even worse, there isn’t much rigorous research showing that outcome assessment is useful. Whether or not that’s true, if administrators think assessment is useful, then philosophers need to provide assessment data and craft assessment narratives that show it is useful for students to study philosophy. And let’s be honest, we have testing results from several standardized tests to support claims about the value of philosophy and we should use that data when we can.
The Rise of the Non-Academic Administrator
One reason to clearly articulate the benefits of philosophy through assessment is so philosophers can show it to administrators who aren’t academic and don’t know the value of philosophy. There are two kinds of non-academic administrators. No, not competent and incompetent, but those who work in academic affairs and those who do not. The number of administrators has increased significantly in areas like student services, admissions, development, and athletics over the years, and it is one of the main causes for increased costs in higher education. Administrators who do not work in academic affairs are competing for scarce, university resources with the academic side of the university. But, the academic side of the university has to do its job keeping the university focused on the academic mission while supporting other non-academic priorities of the modern university.
There is, however, a second kind of non-academic administrator: the one who works in academic affairs. This non-academic administrator is more of a concern for philosophy and other humanities disciplines. Many of these non-academic administrators, who have never held faculty positions, tend not to understand the full academic mission of a university, much less philosophy because they went through Ed.D. programs in educational leadership or something similar. More importantly, these non-academic administrators are making decisions about how universities are run, how scarce resources are being allocated, and the value of academic programs. As good as the APA Statement on the Major is, there are non-academic administrators who just do not understand the value of philosophy, both instrumentally and intrinsically, to the mission of a university. This means philosophers must do a better job of explaining the instrumental and intrinsic value of philosophy (through assessment?) at some point or philosophy is going to continue to lose ground to other more “career ready” majors.
Let me be clear, I am not opposed to running a college or university with some business principles, but I don’t think colleges and universities are businesses and as such they shouldn’t be run merely as businesses. Administrators who only look at credit hour production, number of majors graduated, and say, things like “students can take a history class rather than a philosophy class” really do their students, their institution, and society a disservice. Since academic affairs usually has the biggest budget, when budge cuts are called for, that’s where the cuts most often occur. So when these non-academic administrators need to cut, we have to make it clear that philosophy is not the place to balance the book.
Finally, I want to suggest to all my philosopher colleagues a book titled Provost, by Larry Nielsen. He was a long time faculty member before he was an administrator and eventual provost. I read his book last summer because I was to be the chair of our university provost search (it’s been delayed a year). Seeing how academic administrators conceive and articulate problems in the university will change your outlook on the running of a college or university. It is my sincerest hope that support for philosophy grows on college campuses nation wide. But we can’t expect it to happen ex nihilo. We have to do the hard work of showing our value and promoting philosophy’s virtues. I’ll write more on my ideas for this later this week.
Update: I've been asked to split this post into two. So, if you want to comments on assessment, stay here. If you want to comment on non-academic administrators, go here.