Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Assessing Assessment

Neal, you're right on about those suggestions and questions. The “standards” came about as the product of a long set of negotiations with the faculty, but with a good deal of prodding from our WPAs. The lecturers would say at some point they resigned themselves to a rubric imposed from above, and the WPAs would say the lecturers had a voice in the process. At any rate, the rubric eventually was folded into portfolio assessment, as the most convenient occasion to capture and sample student writing at the close of 102. Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff have written pretty extensively about the history of assessment at Stony Brook in the days before the Writing Program became separate from English (that's a whole other story), and they didn't have a role in the current iteration of the program. Our portfolio system required students to produce a researched-argument (an essay in which academic research is used to support a thesis driven-argument), a textual analysis essay, and a "timed" iMoat essay that was thesis-driven. Instructors could follow any curriculum or method to get students to those portfolio materials, and they could have their students produce more writing. At some point, instructors were allowed to include an informal essay (but that element didn’t count toward the assessment), which could mean a personal narrative or in-class impromptu writing. Somehow--between all the talk about assessment and outcomes expectations and student/instructor pressure to pass portfolio review--the portfolio became very high stakes—granted, it was the linchpin for completion of the writing requirement, so many instructors focused much of the semester on teaching to the portfolio, rather than having the portfolio become a pedagogical means to a curricular end. On one level, the portfolio got equated with assessment and that got conflated with teaching. Of course, to anyone teaching in K-12 No Child Left Behind America, this situation isn't surprising.

As many might imagine, when the faculty learned about the numbers coming out of the assessment pilot, its later implementation, and subsequent communication to administration (locally and state-wide), there was a perfect storm as the fury over the politics of the data met the clash over job security and debate over professional trajectories. At Stony Brook, our faculty is mainly comprised of 23 full-time lecturers who teach 4/4 loads (with one-course offloads to mentor graduate student teaching assists). Besides low pay, their job security has been subject to ever-changing winds of funding for higher ed in New York State. For example, in year two of our assessment, half of them worked under the threat of losing their jobs as a way to close a budget gap in the college.

Beyond the financial crisis, the lecturers face uncertain prospects for the future: they work under three-year renewable contracts with no possibility for tenure. One option that has been floated is for folks to become "senior lecturers," but the positions are for people with terminal degrees in their teaching fields. Alas, most of our people are MFAs or MAs or PhDs in literature. As the senior positions are defined, someone would need a doctorate in rhet/comp or some related field, none of which we currently offer. Short of spending nights at CUNY or traveling to IUP to do its summer program, the lecturers are caught in a bind. We do offer a graduate certificate, but pushing folks to take those courses creates ethical dilemmas on a host of fronts. Some of our folks have been teaching writing, granted without official education and credentials in comp/rhet, for years. What does it mean to tell someone who has been teaching writing for 10 (even 20) years that they lack sufficient experience and training, particularly when they've been mentoring and working with novice teachers all along? On the flip side, why have an disciplinary identity if comp studies really doesn’t matter to teach writing? Of course, these are perennial issues.

When our seemingly innocent assessment project started to yield results, people can imagine the reaction. The lecturers felt betrayed and used. A major part of that feeling came from the realization that they had participated in the assessment project as scorers and scoring leaders; they had, in effect, become complicit in the production of information that was used to suggest that they were ineffective instructors. Ouch! And they're right. Still as Neal's response suggests, how do we measure efficacy? What variables are operative? Can we flatten down the value that composition adds to looking at the two moments in time in student writing early on in their career? Neal's variables are crucial--sense of belonging, retention, critical thinking--and those are being looked at too. Interestingly--they're even harder to tie to a one to two semester experience with writing.

The whole situation leaves me wondering, what then is the place of a writing program? Being someone with one foot in a writing center and another in a writing program, I feel much more confident about what our center contributes than what our program adds. Part of my uncertainty with the program doesn't rest with what it does or doesn't do, but with what the larger institution understanding of writing and the place of it (or lack thereof) across the curriculum. I often tell people about friends in the Women's Studies program who want to use writing in their classes, but feel dissuaded when they have 75 students per section and 3 sections to teach. Then I hear of a history professor with a class of 150 who actually does peer response in her lecture hall. Lacking a coherent and dynamic process for WAC or WID, I really wonder how a writing program can flourish? Beyond that, should the project of a writing program be to inoculate a student for future writing? Are writing programs purely service centers? And if a writing program is going to be a one-size-fits-all preparatory program for college-writing, how do we develop a workable curriculum and pedagogy, and who will teach it under what conditions? And those questions get me thinking: gosh, has the vocational and pragmatic imperative overtaken higher-ed? Has writing for the sake of writing, writing to explore, writing across modes/genres/occasions disappeared? I guess that's why I feel at home in the center where collaboration and dialog and critical dialogue dominate, and when we’re lucky, we can stave off the utilitarian.

The most chilling moment so far in the assessment experience came in a quote the WPA placed in a memo in a binder for the external review of the program. The dean of our college was quoted saying that in light of the assessment numbers that suggest that the writing program produces little value for the money the institution puts into it, he frequently has faculty from other departments ask why the program isn't dissolved and the money re-distributed around the college. Talk about demoralizing, huh? I wonder if other disciplines are subjected to that kind of scrutiny. Or better, is it because many would argue we're not a content-specialty that we are held as suspect?

Alright enough already. Tomorrow I'll talk about how we're taking up this assessment data in the writing center to guide and affirm what we're doing. Maybe before the week’s end I’ll figure out how this all ties back to being queer and queering the writing center.

Later! Harry

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