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Something There is About Assessment

posted: 10.10.13 by Barclay Barrios

It’s strange being a WPA (in more ways than I can count).  I become most aware of that strangeness when meeting other administrators of various species: chairs, program directors, associate deans.  Sometimes it just hits me: many of these people don’t want to be doing what they’re doing. I guess that should be obvious; after all most people in academia are there because they wanted to be academics.  Composition/Rhetoric must be one of the few disciplines that has a whole subfield focused reflexively on its own condition within the institution.  And that’s why I love being a WPA—because I find institutions endlessly fascinating and because I know that I am always already within one so the better I come to understand how they work the better I am able to survive and thrive.  It’s so embedded in me that I just don’t get why everyone else isn’t fighting for my job (and really most would prefer to do anything but my job).

Composition/Rhetoric is probably also one of the few disciplines with a subfield wholly focused on assessment.  That’s not my specialty at all but in my new role with the dean’s office I am overseeing assessment for the entire college.  And I am encountering similar moments of utter bafflement, moments that remind me that my discipline takes for granted what many others do not.

There is throughout my institution an enormous resistance to the very idea of assessment (which is often muttered with a distinct distaste, as though the word itself were obscene).  It’s seen as a chore or irrelevant.  Colleagues comment that they already assess whenever they give a grade.  Others aren’t quite sure what’s expected by the institution (which is sometimes the very condition of the institution).  What’s clear is that I am currently Chief Cat Herder, charged with making sure a very unpleasant task gets done properly and on time by people who believe there are much more important things to do (and indeed they may be right).

For myself, the idea of assessment just makes sense: who wouldn’t want to do better, teach better, help students better?  But as I’ve noted assessment isn’t my field—writing program administration is.  And my investment in assessment is filtered entirely through that lens.

Do I think assessment in and of itself is important?  The answer is irrelevant.  What drives me in this position is not assessment but institutional dynamics.  I know that assessment passes through a complex bureaucratic language translation matrix and pops out the other side and into legislatures as “accountability.”  Assessment doesn’t scare me but accountability definitely does.  Accountability threatens tenure, which threatens my job, which means I care very much about assessment.  If you don’t believe me, ask any one in secondary education.  They’ve been through it all already.  And now it’s headed our way.

If I preach assessment while in this position it’s because I know that outside the walls of academia there is a rising chorus demanding accountability.  I want good assessment because when that tsunami hits us I want us to be prepared.  I want to be able to coopt the conversation by saying “Accountability?  Yes of course.  Look at our excellent record of careful assessment.  What more could you ask?  We’re totally on top of this.”

I’m a rhetorician.  I’m a Machiavellian institutional manipulator.  I’m a writing program administrator.  And I intend on making sure all those skills are honed in the guise of assessment if and when our walls are breached.

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