Higher Education

Strange Bedfellows

I have embarked on two, very different service obligations that are quite uncharacteristic of me. I spent this afternoon editing articles for our Union’s campus newsletter and soon I will be attending my first meeting of the College’s Assessment committee.

I am, admittedly, ambivalent about unions. Like most institutions, they are well-intentioned and good in theory. From a personal perspective, I would have had better pay and better benefits if I had stayed at my previous, non-union position, but that doesn’t really mean anything. I came to Cortland for better professional opportunities and that’s that. The union newsletter is a combination of informative articles about union activities and benefits and editorializing articles, usually about some campus or university subject. Though any academic or professional could submit articles to the newsletter, overall there is a definite liberal populism to the writing, the kind you would expect to find in a union newsletter. While my politics certainly are not to the right of those in the newsletter, I find myself generally unmoved by its rhetoric.

Not that that really matters. I’m just moving commas around anyway.

I suppose someone might confidently reply to this attitude that I should get involved. I’m editor of the newsletter after all. Who else would be in a better position to make a change? I could write a series of editorials performing some contrary position. The result could be some elaborate theater that would genuinely anger some people. We could have a debate! And in the end we wouldn’t every change anyone’s minds because there would never be any reason for minds to change, but we would be forced to accept our differences and move on much like we had before, except now we have a history of ill will between us.

Now the assessment committee is a different kind of theater: shadow puppet theater, I think. It is a well-kept secret, only published numerous times on this blog, that I am skeptical about assessment, particularly the large scale assessment of the college-cum-university type. I am not a fan of the discourse of rational efficiency that legitmates assessment tools or the rhetoric of excellence that produces its ideological message.

However, being skeptical is no reason not to serve on the committee, right? I am curious about how this business gets done. I recognize the institutional power of assessment and the potential advantage in understanding how to make it work to achieve specific purposes. To the point, I’ve never met an assessment tool that told me anything useful about the lived experience of students going to college. You get numbers that you can compare to other numbers and then use as a bludgeon or a scalpel on any variety of targets. 

In other words, assessment is a serviceable weapon once you detatch it from any notion of it representing reality. Instead, it is yet another wonderful example of Baudrillardian simulacra. And like all simulacra, it’s power to seduce can be impressive.

So color me cynical if you want for not being a believer. On the flip side I can be the target for criticism by those who interpret my interest in technology as a kind of technoboosterism. However, that’s not the case either. For good or bad, belief is not my thing.

Fortunately I appear to be reasonably good at moving commas into the right place. I’m actually somewhat surprised. Perhaps the assessment committee will require a copyeditor.


2 replies on “Strange Bedfellows”

I was just in a discussion this weekend about rhetoric vs cynicism. That is, I was raised in a family with a tendency towards unquestioning belief (faith? fervor? fanatacism?), and seem to be the odd-man-out because I have an orthogonal cynicism and complete distrust of anything that even *sounds* like rhetoric.
As soon as that tone of voice starts up (the same one the preachers and lawyers and politicians use – “everything I say is true, so you should trust me”), I tune out. It doesn’t even matter what the subject is, nor how valid or invalid. It’s not even so much apathy as it is an active aversion. Without even listening to the message, I start to question *why* the person is speaking to me in this way. I can’t help it, and I’m not sure what made me that way.
Maybe I’m a product of the 80s and 90s where we learned that pretty much everyone was untrustworthy?


I agree with you about your assessment of assessment initiatives Alex. You’re right–“accountability” doesn’t mean much of anything … what is it we are holding students accountable for learning? And what are the consequences if they don’t learn it? In other words, does anything change? I don’t think so………KES


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