On Rice and Gallagher on Assessment Scholarship

I was looking at it this morning, and I realized that I haven’t posted any “Scholarship Reviews” since way back in March and in response to Marilyn Cooper’s essay in the February College Composition and Communication. Talk about falling off the wagon/giving up on a resolution!  Well, I have various excuses, including pesky distractions from teaching, conferences, and life.  But I wanted to get back to it with a couple brief and belated reviews of articles on assessment.

What I’m thinking about here is Jeff Rice’s “Networked Assessment” in Computers and Composition March 2011, and Chris Gallagher’s “Being There:  (Re)Making the Assessment Scene,” which was in CCC from February 2011.  As a preface here, let me come clean and admit that I have kind of a bad attitude about assessment.  I understand formal assessment procedures are important for both internal self-reflection and external justifications and/or approval, etc., etc., but I generally find this part of my job and this kind of scholarship kind of, well, boring.  And I especially don’t like performing assessment in response to some external threat call, but more on that in a bit.

Both Gallagher and Rice use the word “network” in their articles, but they use those terms in very different ways, as Jeff discussed on his blog way back when.  Gallagher is using the term network more or less as synonymous with “relationships,” and he also references Burke’s darmatism as a way of explaining the relationship between various stakeholders (I hate that word– I’m not saying that Gallagher is making heavy use of it, just saying I hate that word) in the assessment process.  He includes various charts, including one that (idealistically?) includes students at the center (467).  Rice is referencing “network” as Latour uses it, which (to be simplistic and brief about it) is about the trace and dialog between all sorts of constituents/stakeholders.   Think very detailed ethnographies, tracings that go beyond just a “thick notebook” to show all of the sorts complexities involved in the workings of the assessed (31-32).  Rice argues on his blog that Gallagher misapplies network theory; I think that it’s more that Gallagher simply does not have Latour and “network theory” in mind when he employs the word “network.”

For Gallagher, assessment (as he discusses it, especially in relationship to “neoliberalism”) is an external phenomenon:  that is, some administrator or accrediting body asks for evidence that you are doing something right.  The network he’s talking about navigating is between teachers, students, administrators (I assume both WPAs and what I refer to around EMU as “the suits”) and what he describes on his chart as a “policy/corporate/technical/elite.”  This can mean all sorts of groups, but more or less entities demanding accountability.  So while Gallagher is suggesting we understand these relationships as existing as a network that is more complex than a simple hierarchy, he is still assuming the motivation for assessment in the first place comes from outside and (more or less) higher up.

Rice’s focus is assessment as a self-motivated and guided process.  I think he makes an extremely compelling argument that most conventional notions of assessment are designed to generate answers that the assessors (and the assessed) want.  For example, NCATE asks EMU (and other universities that certify school teachers) to prove X, Y, Z and– guess what?!– it turns out that the answers EMU gives proves X, Y, and Z.   That isn’t a truth-seeking or discovery activity.  Instead, what Rice is proposing ala Latour is more a mapping/descriptive activity, assessment as a way of figuring out what is actually being done and describing that network.

Both of these articles have strengths and weaknesses.  I think Gallagher is describing an approach for negotiating assessments that can often be an “us” versus “them” landscape.  But I tend to agree more with Rice’s take and purposes for assessment, though one of the problems is he doesn’t really have a chance to follow through on his plan.  He ended up moving from his position as the WPA at the University of Missouri to a new gig at the University of Kentucky.   What he’s suggesting here seems like a good idea though.

Two last thoughts:  first, when I was originally reading these pieces back in March and April, they sure seemed a lot more important.  Long story short, we have had at EMU an institutional assessment process that is/was complete pointless bullshit, and just as I was going to have to start thinking about this earnestly as the program coordinator, the provost quit and/or was fired.  So as of right now, there is a collective “what’s the point” sentiment on campus.

Second, I’d like to see some kind of administrator– a department head, a dean, whatever– ask faculty to do a self-assessment where they describe three things they think they do well, three weaknesses, and three strategies for minimizing the weaknesses and maximizing the strengths.  And I’d like to see these be less than three pages.

The Happy Academic returns and answers the question “Should I get an undergraduate degree?”

The idea that college is a waste of time and money is not exactly new.  I’m not sure if it was this 1975 essay by Caroline Bird or not, but I recall teaching something like it in a first year composition class when I first started teaching in college in 1988.  But it sure seems like there have been a rash of articles lately once again raising questions about college, about how college grads can’t get jobs (as reported here in the New York Times) or that majoring in something in the liberal arts is foolish because it doesn’t prepare people for jobs, as Kim Brooks writes in her Salon.com piece “Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree?”

As the short (7.5 week) spring semester come crashing to an end here (I finished the grading for one class yesterday and my other class today), these things are on my mind.  Way back when, in previous blog incarnations, I attempted to answer the questions “Should I get a PhD?” (probably not), “Should I get a Masters degree?” (there are good reasons for this), and “Should I get a graduate degree in creative writing?” (sure, just as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into).  So I might as well round things out and talk about the undergrad experience as well.

Let me start with some things that I think are obviously true, though I am not sure these truths are as obvious to everyone:

  • The bigger issue is that every able adult in this country ought to have the equivalent of a high school diploma and ought to be functionally literate. We’re not there yet.  It turns out that those 47% of Detroit adults are illiterate stuff that was reported back in April/May is probably wrong, but still, the high school graduation rates in Detroit and similar metropolitan/poor people areas are not good.  So to me, before we go around talking about the pros and cons of a college degree, let’s be clear that we have a ways to go to cover the high school problem first.  Further, a lot of the problem with too many students going to college instead of seeking some other trade stem from policies in secondary schools.
  • A college degree has replaced a high school degree as an entry into the middle-class/white collar world. A generation or two ago, you could take a high school degree and get a job as a bank clerk, insurance sales apprentice, office manager, etc., etc.  Now that entry point is a college degree.  Does that mean these sort of general and entry-level white collar office jobs require that level of education?  No, but that’s the way that it is, and this is one of the problems I have with the whole “college isn’t worth it” crowd.  It is all fine and good to say that a college degree shouldn’t be necessary for these kinds of jobs, but in the real world where real people are actually trying to apply for jobs, it is.  Which leads me to my next point:
  • Seeking work in a “trade” or in “manufacturing” isn’t much of an option nowadays. We don’t really make things in this country anymore– or rather, we don’t make enough things to provide decent paying manufacturing or trade jobs, certainly not enough money to motivate people to think about that kind of work as a first rather than a third or fourth option.  Should it be this way?  Of course not, but it is what it is.  And let’s be clear that manufacturing work isn’t necessarily “livin’ the dream.” I’ve had several students over the years in classes who worked in factories of one sort or another (mostly involving automobiles), and the consensus from all of those students was that the work sucked, which is why they were going to college in the first place.  And speaking of this, there’s another issue that Brooks and others who point to places like Europe and their strong support of technical and trade training:
  • In the U.S., we believe in a “everyone should have the chance to be whatever they want to be no matter what” system of higher education. Instead of a system where students are more or less “tracked” into future career possibilities in their early teens through testing and the like (thus pointing some students toward some kind of trade school and others toward college prep), we have a secondary school system that more or less pushes everyone towards college, and also a system of institutions that can extend that opportunity to just about anyone who is able to graduate from high school.  Have lots of money and/or fantastic grades and test scores?  We’ve got an elite university for you!  Somewhere between pretty good and kinda mediocre with some money to work with?  There’s a “public,” state-sanctioned university near you!  Barely graduated from high school, don’t have any money, and/or just not so sure about this “school thing?”  Community college and you’re set!  And if none of those things seem appealing, there just might be a proprietary school where you can spend lots and lots of  money on a potentially worthless degree.  Given the American myth ideal of “opportunity” for one and all, I can’t imagine this changing.  And while I like promoting opportunity as much as any other American, there are some problems with this I’ll get to later.
  • People with college degrees are better off than people without college degrees in all kinds of different ways. This gets lost in the whole “college is a waste of time and money” argument, but that just doesn’t match up with the on the ground and current economic realities.  This MSNBC Money article does a good job of summing this up:  for example, college grads make 60% more than high school grads, and the current unemployment rate for people with undergrad degrees is 5%.  And along these lines:
  • Every article I have seen arguing that college is somehow a waste of time and money has been written by someone who went to college. Which to me means that a lot of these writers are some combination of bitter, forgetful, snarky, and/or ironic.

Anyway, given all that, the answer to the question to me is pretty obvious:  yes, you should try to get a college degree.  There are, of course, many caveats to this.

Continue reading “The Happy Academic returns and answers the question “Should I get an undergraduate degree?””

Late spring gardening and out-of-doors around the house

June15-2The end of the spring term is tantalizingly close, just a few days away.  So very very close, almost done, almost done.  I should be grading right now, but I’m almost done, almost….  I’m not quite sure what it is about this term for me, but teaching has been even more this short (7.5 weeks) spring semester than usual.  But almost, almost…..

Anyway, while I should be grading right now (and I will be grading a batch of things for English 444 tomorrow no matter what because I have to get ready for the next waves for both 444 and English 121 on Monday and Tuesday), circumstances got in the way today, including some gardening and “running” with Will, and now we’re off to a function in about an hour.  So I thought I’d post some pictures and such about my garden and yard instead.

Here’s the flickr set.

It has been unusually cold and web this spring, so stuff has gotten in late and hasn’t really taken off yet, so there’s a lot of doubt about tomatoes and basil and the like.  At one point, I had planned on planting an even bigger squarefoot garden in this season up on the frontyard, which is the only spot that gets enough sun to really grow vegetables.  Even though my mother think that its tacky to grow produce in one’s front yard, it does happen around here quite a bit.  Still, it would have been a lot of effort and I’m glad I didn’t do it.  Maybe next year.

Oh, I’ve also included a few pictures of the robins next door.  This is in my neighbor’s tree, but it was probably closer to our house than to theirs, and the way that our windows look out by our fireplace made for fine nest viewing.  Here’s a link to the feeding action.  And that was just a few days ago– they’re all gone now.  Those kids do leave the nest before you even realize it.

On 8th Grade, now and then

Will in the crowdWill graduated from completed eighth grade yesterday, and Greenhills had a lovely little ceremony celebrating the occasion.  Here’s a link to a few more pictures.

Unlike his “graduation” from 5th grade from Estabrook a few years ago, Will isn’t leaving so much as he is moving to a different level and a different part of the building.  Greenhills is somewhere around 500 or students 6th through 12th grade, which I believe actually makes the entire school smaller than his elementary school.  He will have new teachers and classmates of course, but he has already had some teachers who are teaching both middle and high school, and all but a dozen of his classmates from this year will be around next.

I’m about 90% sure we’re making the right choice in sticking with Greenhills.  We decided to go the private school route beginning with sixth grade because we weren’t going to be able to sell our house to move out of the Ypsilanti public school district and we knew that Greenhills had a great reputation.  A few minor issues aside, the ‘hills has lived up to the expectations, and Annette and I decided back then that if we were going to do this, we were “all in,” so to speak.

Will has had a bunch of great teachers– Mr. Wilson was his favorite, and I’m glad he got a chance to be in his class because he’s off to Emerson next year, but honestly, they’ve all been what I can only describe as “shinny pennies,” just some of the best and brightest.  He’s got great classmates, and while Greenhills isn’t as “diverse” as the Ypsi schools and Will is certainly not one of the “rich” kids in the group, it isn’t all a bunch of white trust fund babies either.  The school’s reputation as extremely solid college prep is well-established.  It’s been great so far and I expect high school to just continue that greatness.

Then why 90%?  Well, there are alternatives that cost considerably less.  A couple of Will’s friends are leaving Greenhills to public or other alternative schools, and one friend is going to the Washtenaw International High School.  I’ll be curious to hear more about that because it could be great– it’s free, and it promises rigorous academic standards and it is trying to be a part of the International Baccalaureate tradition of schools– or it could be not so great because it is simply the unknown.  And after all, there are lots of public school alternatives that might have been a good fit for Will, including Ypsi High.  We’ll just not know, thus 10% of lingering doubt.

But I’ll take that amount of doubt. Not too many things in life I’m 100% on, frankly.

Anyway, Will’s graduation completion made me think back on my own middle school experience so long ago.  The head of school/principal, Peter Fayroian, gave a nice talk about the transition from eighth to ninth grade (aka high school) where he described eighth grade as the worst year he remembered as a student.  Which made me think back to my eighth grade and how little I could remember of it.  I was a pretty geeky and modestly picked upon child whose interests in science and math were in the process of being crushed by my inability to keep up with that work.  I remember I hated hated hated my English class.  I had a “mentor” of sorts in an art teacher named Ron Streed who let me borrow some camera equipment for making goofy little stop-animation super-8s (by the way, I did a search for him and learned he passed away this past March– rest in peace).

Oh, and I don’t recall a completion ceremony, either.  Nothing for grade school for that matter.

But that’s about it.  Maybe that’s because my eighth grade was actually the middle of my junior high that went grades seventh through ninth, or maybe because the interesting stuff didn’t happen until much later.  Someday I’ll have to ask Will what he remembers of all this.


I have meant to post here about a variety of different things– some articles on assessment I read a while ago as part of my “reading academic journal articles” series, some iPad things, some garden things, etc.– but I’ve been more busy at EMUTalk.org and I have been swamped by the blessing and the curse that is “spring term” here at EMU.  What everyone else in the world calls “spring,” we call winter (e.g., the term that runs from January until April/May). “Spring” is the first 7.5 week term that runs from the first week of May until late June– specifically, June 2o this year, and then there’s “summer,” which starts up a few days after spring ends and finishes another 7.5 weeks later in August.

The good thing about teaching in the spring is money:  basically, I get paid “extra” or “overtime” money for teaching in the spring and/or summer terms.  It’s a significant amount, too– 10% of a faculty member’s base salary for each class taught in load– and its money that I have come to count on to pay for some very specific bills and for other “extras” like paying off debt, trips, etc.

The bad?  I suppose the main thing is it’s work, which is the opposite of “not working.”

It’s intense for everyone because, as I say frequently and mantra-like to my students, it is not half as long as a regular semester so much as it is twice as fast.  Students in both of my classes (I’m teaching a f2f section of “freshman comp”— which is only sort of about “freshman” in the spring since a lot of the students are juniors and seniors– and an online section Writing for the WWW) were voicing concern about the workload, and someone in my comp class asked aloud and a little indignantly just how much time did I expect students to spend on the class.  So I did the math.  The class meets for about six hours a week, and I always tell my online students that they should expect to spend at least as much time online and engaged in the class as they would if it were meeting f2f.  While I have never believed the classic college advice of spending three hours studying/working on a class for every hour spent in class, I do think about two hours per hour of class is a reasonable guestimate for outside of class reading, writing, studying, etc.

Give or take then, I told my students to figure on about 20 hours a week per class in the shorter term.  Add another class into that mix plus a job plus some version of “a life” and it is no wonder why so many students struggle in the spring, and no wonder why I feel pretty spent myself.

It’s not all bad, of course.  Students in the spring/summer terms tend to have some interesting “life” stories, and I have several of those students in both classes.  For the most part, the ones who have stuck with it have been doing well.  And while it is not quite as good as “not working” at all, a) there aren’t quite as many other meetings and such during spring and summer (though there are plenty), b) I do have some time to do more spring/summer activities (I’ll be gardening yet this morning), and c) I do like money.

Incidentally, two teaching strategy-type things based on stuff that happened in the winter are beginning to pay off for this spring.  In the online class, I have instituted an “online attendance” policy which more or less requires a student to post at least twice a week at different times of the week to demonstrate “presence.”  Mind you, this minimal attendance earns the student a bad participation grade, but the idea is that if a student is not posting at all, they are absent.  And, as is the case with face to face classes, if a student misses too much class, they fail, regardless of any other grade in the course.  I think this has “worked” in the sense that it has given a few students reality checks on what it takes to do an online class successfully.

The other different approach thing is based on last term’s “Gradeinator” approach with google docs.  Instead of doing all that, I’ve taken a much more simple approach in my English 121 class this term.  For each of the major peer review sessions of the class, I’ve set up a single Google survey.  Students complete the peer reviews for each of the writers in their groups, and they fill out the simple survey (here’s an example of what I’ve done so far) for each writer they review– typically three or four times.  Besides being dramatically easier, the nice thing about this approach is it keeps all the data on one spreadsheet (though I still have to go through some rig-a-ma-roll to get the results to individual students) and it makes it very easy for me to keep track of who has (or hasn’t) done a good job being a reviewer.  So this is a keeper.

Anyway, 18 more days.