Now seems like as good a time as any to reflect on something that’s been on my mind for a while: assessment. While maybe not the most exciting topic, I think it’s a really important and prevalent one. To be clear I’m referring to program assessment here, not assessment of student writing. Until last year my only experience with and training in assessment was through working at community-based organizations, specifically programs for youth that incorporated education and work readiness as well as several other elements. While this experience had its ups and downs, last year I figured out pretty quickly that assessment means something very different in the university context. I, of course, saw assessment and the implementation of Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY as a great marriage. Faculty in different disciplines trying out different pedagogical tools? Lots of written products, i.e. data? Opportunities for different people to get together and talk about their teaching experiences, what works and what doesn’t? Great! I really did not expect the resentment and lack of cooperation I received when I began to talk to faculty about these issues.
Rather than focusing on all of the problems and tensions around these issues within some (not all) universities, I thought I might mention a few basic elements often emphasized by community-based organizations:
First, assessment should be truly collaborative or it can quickly become extremely divisive. Transparency seems really important here. Asking for all kinds of information about someone’s classroom, students, and teaching without being clear about how that information will be used can be a great way to alienate faculty members.
This leads to the second point, which is that assessment should serve as a means of improving the overall quality of education in a particular department or discipline or university rather than as a policing mechanism. While it’s important to be aware of areas that need improvement, highlighting best practices is equally, if not more, important.
Finally it seems important to start and finish with the people actually doing the work, in this case, faculty members teaching writing and using writing as a teaching tool. Being aware of the needs of these folks allows the assessment to be more than charts and graphs. This way the information gleaned from this assessment project can be put to practical use. This is also a good incentive for faculty members to cooperate and provide useful data. It can even make it possible to enlist their help more directly. While faculty and administration often have different priorities, they don’t have to conflict. I think both groups have some stake in assessment and, if designed and implemented properly, it can help both meet their goals.