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Bank Holiday

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In a way, this week-end is just like every other week-end for me.  I don’t teach on Mondays or Tuesdays, so I always have a four day week end.  I write every single day of the week, so I always have no week-end at all.

Even so, it always feels sort of wrong to me when these Mondays come up on which there is no mail, no UPS delivery, and no access to an honest to God person at the bank.

So I’m feeling a little floaty.

But in the downtime I’ve also been reading a book.  It’s called Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, by Gaye Tuchman.   Cathy F recommended it to me.  And it purports to be the study of a public university  attempting to make it into the top tier of university rankings both inUS News and World Report and on other measures.

Let me start by saying that, if you decide to read this book, you’re going to find some things that are absolutely annoying.

The chief among these things is the constant, reflexive resort to social science jargon that sometimes has to be consciously unravelled to figure out what the writer is getting at.

It is not, however, overwhelming, and the book is readable if a bit–stiff might be the word for it.

The other is a tic created by the writer’s commitment to preserve the annonymity of Wannabe U.   Every once in a while this results in her presenting an incident with all the proper names left out, in a situation in which it would not be difficult for the common reader to know who those proper names belong to.

One of these reports concerned the bad publicity that resulted from the attacks of liberal students on a visiting conservative speaker.  Tuchman is careful to say–more than once–that these students had been “provoked” by something the speaker said, and that no word of that provocation had appeared in the news reports of the incident.

Of course, no direct report of that provocation appears in the book, either.  If it did, you could probably look it up on the Internet. 

The problem is that without a report of what the speaker said to provoke the students, and without a report on exactly what the students did, there is no way to judge whether the bad publicity was deserved or not. 

But what’s even worse is that I can almost guarantee that I know who the speaker was, and probably what she said, and probably the general range of things the students did in response–because Ann Coulter is making a career out of this kind of thing.

The entire twisted attempt at anonymity seemed almost precious.

But the big problem with this book is something else, and I’ll get to it.

First, let me give you the good news.

This thing does a beautiful job of describing the operation,  in one place, of what I sometimes call here “the bureaucratization of everything” or the “professionalization of everything.”

The huge administrative staffs.  The constant attempts to beat everything into conformity with a centralized idea.  The falling real skills and knowledge of students accompanied by lots of charts, graphs and procedures showing that the university is actually getting better “student outcomes.”

Unfortunately, Tuchman is so convinced–and was convinced before she started her study–that this is the result of the “corporatization” of the university that she can’t see what’s actually happening around her.

For one thing, it makes her unaware that the trends she is seeing in Wannabe U occur even in community colleges and liberal arts  colleges where faculty members don’t do research that opens up “revenue streams” from things like patents and corporate “public-private partnerships.

For another, she is constantly ascribing to “business” jargon and processes that did not originate with business, but were adopted by business in response to…other things. 

I’ll get to the other things in a minute.

But to give you an example:  “best practices” is not a concept that originated in corporations.  It originated in the social sciences and, more specifically, in the practical arm of the social sciences, like counseling and social work.

And this is, quite frankly, too bad.  She has the material here to do a very good overview study of the Bureaucratization of Everything, and instead she spends too much of her time tripping over her own research.

And she knows it, too.  Some people, she tells us, think that the real cause of all this bureaucratization lies in other things and not business.  Then she draws back and pretends she hasn’t set it.

Then she gets to Chapter 6, and there’s no way to get completely out from under the obvious.

Chapter 6 is entitled “Teaching, Learning and Rating,” and it’s where we find out that almost all the bureaucratization is the result of Wannabe U’s attempts to comply with a cascade of regulations and reporting requirements from federal (and sometimes state) agencies.

And no.  In case you’re wondering,  Republican administrations are not “deregulating” higher education any more than Democratic administrations are.

This chapter was an absolute gold  mine of information for me personally, because it explained the genesis and evolution of some things that had me beating my head against the wall while teaching in an institution that is not a research university and where nobody is even thinking about increasing their ratings in US News and World Report or forming partnerships of any kind with corporations.

Let’s take my particular bete noir–“student outcomes assessment.”

There are two things wrong with “student outcomes assessments” as they exist on college campuses at the present moment.

The first I’ll pass over–and that is that I don’t know how anybody could measure the “outcomes” I think are most important for a student.  How do I measure if my students have a  more finely honed moral sense and a deeper commitment to living morally and honorably in the world?  How do I measure their openness to new ideas, or their commitment to the (Western) culture that gave them birth?

The best I could do about these things is to measure whether the students know a particular set of facts, or if they could produce a coherent short essay. 

And that matters because, in a regime in which we demand measurement of everything, we tend to devalue or dismiss what cannot be measured. 

So the introduction of what Tuchman calls “an audit and accountability regime” will, in the long run, destroy the core purpose of the university.

But here’s the more immediate problem.

Too many of the bureaucratized systems for auditing faculty and student behavior, the giving of grants and the promotion of faculty, and all the rest of it–do not do what they are claiming to do.

In fact, they so consistently do not do what they are claiming to do, I am beginning to get the impression that not doing is the point. 

The government requires not that you do X, but that you be seen to be doing X. 

Therefore, instead of doing anything to solve whatever the problem is, you “put in place” “procedures” that talk a lot about how they’re redressing the problem, and give a good appearance of activity,  but don’t get anything done.

The reason for this is simple.  If you actually fix the problem but do it in a way that does not demonstrate your process to fix the problem, you’re in trouble, because you will be assumed to not have fixed the problem.

If you don’t fix the problem but present all your processes, mission statements, vision states and formalized “outcomes,” you’re golden.  The feds will send you more money, and they won’t fine you millions of dollars for being “not in compliance” with federal regulations.

It works the same way on the state level.

So.  Student outcomes assessments.

First, it’s important to know that the whole fad for SOA originated not with business, or corporations.  It originated in Margaret Spelling’s Department of Education, which insisted on a version of No Child Left Behind for colleges and universities. 

Suddenly, every college and university was required–on pain of losing federal money, both direct and  indirect through student loans and Pell Grants–to produce a list of “outcomes” students were expected to take away from each course.

I don’t know how many of you have ever seen one of these lists, but  they range between not bad to highly jargon-ridden, and “rationalized” to the point of absurdity. 

Here’s a good one, from a course at a place I don’t teach anymore:

Measurable Outcomes:

In order to complete the course with a grade of “C” or better you must:

1) compose a minimum of 6,000 words (24 pages) of typed, revised, and edited prose.

2) produce drafts evidencing a variety of prewriting techniques

3) develop a main idea expressed in a thesis statement

4) support a main idea with specific details

5) use a variety of rhetorical patterns

6) organize ideas with attention to transitions

7) support thesis with logical thinking and sources

8) improve drafts with substantial editing and revision

9) incorporate appropriate diction, sentence variety, grammar and mechanics

10) select, synthesize, and accurately document sources

11) show evidence of library and electronic research techniques

I’m putting up a good one because there is nothing unreasonable about that set of requirements, and there is no reason we couldn’t actually measure them.

And I picked a composition course, because what we expect students to learn from such a course is, in fact, measurable. 

So what am I complaining about?

I’m complaining about the fact that even when we have a course whose content and purpose are actually measurable, we don’t measure it.

Instead, we introduce all kinds of faux-accountability procedures whose primary purpose is to show accrediting and state/federal auditing agencies that We Are Doing What They Ask. 

This does not require actually doing it.

So, for composition, we often have “exit exams” meant to assess whether students have met measurable outcomes, but the exams are designed in a way–holistic grading, for instance–that they cannot determine any such thing. 

And it doesn’t matter.

None of the bureaucracies involved–and that includes the ones within the universities themselves–care if students are actually  learning anything.

They only care that all the procedures have been followed so that the evidence of that can be presented if there’s ever any trouble.

And this sort of thing holds for all sorts of other “outcomes” demanded by agencies–the federal government demands that colleges and universities receiving federal money “do something” both about “diversity” and about the abysmal retention rates of affirmative action admits.

The universities respond by setting up offices of affirmative action and offices of “student success,” which do lots of publicly active things–a course in the first  year experience! tutoring services! outreach and recruitment in schools with large numbers of “underrepresented minorities”–that don’t do much of anything except show the agencies that the university is “in compliance.”

And, as always, bureaucracies beget bureaucracies and bureaucracies get bigger.

At one point, the administration of Wannabe U was forced to hire thirty people–thirty people–to make sure it was “in compliance’ with federal reporting regulations about federal research grants.

What gets  most frustrating to me at the end of the day is that there really are ways to measure some of the outcomes we want to measure.

But actally getting anybody to do that would require one of two things:

1) colleges and universities giving up all that federal money


2) an end to privileging schools, colleges and universities by assuming that they’re doing what the say they’re doing, and putting in place outside assessment institutions that allowed everybody and anybody to test, whether they’d been “to school” or not.

In the event of 2, you’d be certified as a “college graduate” if you passed the tests, whether an actual university allowed you to walk in May or not.


I’m tangling up here.

I always get to the end of these things thinking I’m making no sense.

Written by janeh

October 8th, 2012 at 11:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Bank Holiday'

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  1. “How do I measure if my students have a more finely honed moral sense and a deeper commitment to living morally and honorably in the world? How do I measure their openness to new ideas, or their commitment to the (Western) culture that gave them birth?”

    Uh, Jane? Those are the most important things, and no personal offense, but I’ve seen the modern university system and its products. I’ve studied the older university when they actually cared about morality. At best, they produced gentlemen. Sometimes.

    How about a division of labor? Suppose the university works on English, foreign languages, philosophy, history, mathematics and the physical sciences and lets me worry about the morality and honor of my offspring? Wouldn’t you prefer that for your own family?

    As an added bonus, the university will be able to demonstrate that the student knows German and Chemistry, and can write a coherent essay. Showing that the student is honest and honorable would be tricky even if they were. As it stands, I would not trust a Harvard or Yale graduate with the contents of a child’s piggy bank.

    Now, if they’d like to go back to insisting that students behave like ladies and gentlemen during term, that might be a start.

    All of which said, I really like Option 2. It won’t measure the most important things, but it will keep the university reasonably honest.


    8 Oct 12 at 7:26 pm

  2. I replied too soon and too harshly. I’m afraid the notion of the modern secular university teaching morality chills my blood as a parent and as a citizen.

    All is not lost, though–and possibly not as impossible to verify as was implied. Absent an official morality, how does one teach openness, honesty, morality and love of one’s native culture? Surely through the teaching of history, philosophy and literature? And can we not determine whether these were taught? Mind you, I don’t just mean verifying bottoms in seats: we can certainly determine whether these things were learned.

    Now, as to whether that learning will produce the deeper and more important effects–well, one thing at a time. surely.


    8 Oct 12 at 9:55 pm

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