Friday, August 14, 2009

Shop Class, Soulcraft, the College Classroom, and Assessment

Dean Dad has an interesting post over at his blog, Confessions of a Community College Dean. He's been reading Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft, which those of you who read my blog regularly know that I've been reading too (and in fact, our school's book club just discussed it this week). Dean Dad comes at the book from an interesting angle, talking about teaching in higher ed and where it fits into Crawford's paradigm. He also talks about assessment issues, or as he calls it "evidence-based policy in higher ed."

For those of you who are blessed enough to never have heard of assessment, let me just report from the front lines. Those of us who teach in higher ed are under pressure to prove that we're actually doing what we say we're doing in the classroom. I suspect that if George Bush had had another four years (shudder), we'd have seen No Child Left Behind for the college classroom.

Many of us in higher ed want to prove that we're successful so that the Feds don't feel any pressure to impose standards upon us. Why would the Feds feel any pressure? Because of the massive amounts of student loan money and other Federal dollars that flow through the nation's colleges and universities. And of course, because so many employers have been hiring college graduates, only to be horrified to find out that they can't write, can't think critically, can't do basic math, that kind of thing.

As Assistant Chair of my department, I'm responsible for helping create an assessment initiative. Luckily my Chair has the vision and the knowledge, and he can lead the assessment push. We've faced some push-back from faculty, but we're facing some challenges with accreditation, so most of our faculty are fairly cooperative, even though we all understand that when we went to grad school, we never realized our lives would come to this.

I've come to favor a pre-test, given on the first day of class, and then a post-test (the exact same test) given near the end of class. Many faculty resist at first. They say, "But they don't know anything on the first day!" Exactly. It would have interesting implications if all your students knew all the material from day one.

Many faculty worry about the morale of the students, but I remind them that these assessment tools don't have to be part of the grade. We'll be interested to see if students take the assessment tools seriously if there's no grade attached.

Of course, turning learning into data that can be quantified and scrutinized is a bit soul deadening. My Chair reminds us that our larger purpose is to improve student learning, but sometimes, it feels like we're in the business of generating statistics, not the business of improving students' brains and abilities. And Statistics is the class that convinced me not to pursue my love of Sociology beyond the B.A. (I was a double major, Sociology and English).

One of the commenters on Dean Dad's post reminds us that you can have the most fabulous teaching in the world, but many of our students are underprepared. Grossly underprepared. I think that many faculty are distrustful of "evidence-based policy" for fear that they'll be held accountable for the lack of success of these students. We all know that there's only so much we can do during the term, especially as we're competing against all the other things which snag students' attention.

Our book club all expressed frustration with Crawford's lack of solutions. We agreed that he did a great job of analyzing the problems with our modern work lives, but how many of us can just give it all up and open our own motorcycle shops? I've already blogged about the gender issues that Crawford doesn't address (go here and here), but most of us, male or female, aren't fortunate enough to have hobbies and passions that can be translated into money generators. And many of us have gone into fields that can be outsourced to developing nations. I fear that higher ed is on that path too. As more and more of us move our teaching online (and our assessment online), what's to keep us employed? But that's a blog post for another day. Or for a past day (go here to read a past blog post on the topic).

1 comment:

Karen J. Weyant said...

A great post -- I think you are right on about the fear of many faculty members, at all levels of higher education. Some colleges even base salary raises and promotion on assessment practices and success. (We don't at JCC, thank goodness) I am actually not against assessment -- in many ways, it has helped me to become a better teacher!