Mary Cantrell

Mary Cantrell is a long-time fiction editor for Nimrod and an Associate Professor of English at Tulsa Community College, where she teaches creative writing and composition and co-chaired the college's most recent self study for continued HLC accreditation. She is an active member of the AWP Community College Caucus, and her work has appeared in Mudfish and Big Muddy.

AWP Panel Paper

Right now, as we speak, in the basement of another Hyatt hotel, a group of academics is gathering for vastly different discussions than the ones in which we writers are so enthusiastically engaged. In Chicago, at the Higher Learning Commission’s or HLC’s annual conference, college presidents are wondering what to do about budget cuts and shared governance, counselors and deans are thinking hard about student satisfaction, and a few faculty—too few—are trying to figure out how to assess student learning. Since 2005, I’ve attended the HLC conference every year, as faculty co-chair for our accreditation self-study and as a member of our assessment committee. When I realized the HLC conference was scheduled for the same dates as the AWP conference, I was, very briefly, disappointed, mostly because I love downtown Chicago, but also because, as much as I prefer being at this conference, the HLC needs faculty participation.

The HLC is part of the North Central Association, the largest (and purportedly the most lenient) of six regional accrediting bodies, and like the others, it uses a voluntary, peer review process to provide oversight for colleges and universities. Accreditation is essentially the only form of oversight or regulation imposed upon higher education. Although they differ in their language and specific requirements, all six accrediting bodies include assessment of student learning as part of the criteria for continued accreditation, and all six identify faculty as those primarily responsible for assessing student learning. My handout describes what each accrediting body asks for, but they’re all asking for the same thing: “Tell us what you want students to learn, show us the extent to which they’re learning, and describe what you do to improve learning.”

Of course, that’s not easy to do, and frankly, I’d rather not be burdened with more work that really won’t benefit my students or me. I disagree that assessment by itself will improve student learning. Excellent instruction (usually) happens when organized, intelligent professors work hard to engage with students; it (usually) doesn’t occur if you have a class taught by a lazy professor or attended by disinterested students. No assessment effort is going to change that. Nor do I believe the argument that we can convince administrators to make college-wide changes based on assessment results. In assessment jargon, this is called “closing the loop,” and is often presented as an incentive for assessing: provide enough data and you get what you want. In theory, data-driven decision-making is a good idea, but when college administrators are facing budget crises, answering to heavy-handed governing boards, or competing with other schools, immediate needs trump data. For instance, study after study demonstrates that smaller writing classes result in better learning, but when state funding is down twenty percent, classes are not going to get smaller.

So, I don’t think assessment meets those lofty goals. Contrary to what our panel description says, I don’t even believe that we must assess. Someone has to, but not us. Each time TCC has been accredited in the last thirty years, the HLC has said we need to improve assessment efforts. So, a committee comes up with a different plan, but always, many faculty do nothing to contribute to assessment efforts, and there are no repercussions. TCC professors aren’t even tenured! Perhaps untenured professors at some institutions have to assess, but I don’t think our jobs are in jeopardy if we don’t fill out some assessment paperwork. Nor do I think a college will be shut down because some poet didn’t develop learning outcomes for her program. Rarely are schools denied accreditation.

If it doesn’t benefit us, and if we can get away with not doing it, why do I waste my time? It’s because the real purpose of accreditation and assessment is to be accountable to the public, and as pedestrian and as off-putting as that sounds, I think we should be a little more forthcoming about what we’re doing and why, not only to prevent more draconian measures from being put into place but also because it’s the right thing to do. I want my government to operate with transparency. I want transparency in the banking industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the police department—you name it. So if parents and taxpayers want some reassurance they’re getting their money’s worth, fair enough.

I admit, I’m a tiny bit resentful that we have to prove our worth. When I was a student, I had many professors who provided me with meaningful, rich, learning experiences, and I worked hard to learn what I thought they wanted me to learn. I suspect they also worked hard to teach, and I bet they changed tactics when their students weren’t learning, but they didn’t need to document all of this; they just did it, and it worked, for the most part.

That’s not the world we live in today. More than forty percent of students now begin their college education at community colleges. Approximately 60% begin college needing remediation in math, reading, or writing. Helicopter parents want their children to earn the grades they paid for with the tuition check. We are competing with proprietary colleges. The cost of college tuition and fees is increasing at a greater rate than medical care. Right-wing political ideologues attack higher ed for indoctrinating students to leftist ideology (See the documentary IndoctrinateU). Employers criticize colleges because graduates don’t have the communication or critical thinking skills they need, and we’ve all encountered students who seem to have been passed on to the next level unprepared. The 2005 PBS documentary Declining by Degrees presents some convincing evidence that many students “sleepwalk” through college, graduating without ever being intellectually challenged, without being held accountable for learning, without any skills to take into the workforce.

All of these factors combined mean that we can no longer say to the public “Trust us. We know what we’re doing.” I’m not so naïve to think that creating grading rubrics and learning outcomes will solve all our problems or even make the disgruntled public happy, but I am convinced that being a little more explicit about what we do and why is better than blithely ignoring or smugly dismissing demands for assessment. We want this system to remain in place. It is the best way to meet the demands for accountability without sacrificing academic freedom, and if we don’t take up the call, we may have to live with an assessment system that distorts what we do. Administrators, whose jobs may, in fact, be in on the line, are going to take steps to satisfy external accrediting agencies whether we do or not.

Moreover, we don’t want colleges and universities to become even more susceptible to the forces of the marketplace. Accreditation, along with the rapidly disappearing tenure system, is one of the few means of preventing colleges from basing all decisions on money, from being even more concerned with “customer friendly” education, dedicating even more money to the football program. Accreditation, in theory at least, helps prevent diploma mills, low standards, and over-reliance on contingent faculty.

And is it really that much trouble to tell those interested a little bit about how we’re doing? We absolutely don’t want the kind of standardization that occurs at the K-12 level, but the current system is not No Child Left Behind; we decide the specific types of learning we want to attempt to measure, how to measure them and what to report. We need to collaborate with our colleagues—not always easy, I know—to identify a few ways we overlap in terms of what we expect from students, to provide our self-created evidence of learning and to show we pay attention to the results. Assessment results are likely to show that what we’re doing works, and we can continue doing it.

Most of us believe that what we do makes a long-term difference in the lives of individuals and in the world at large, which is why we don’t want to quantify what we do while we’re doing it. But don’t we, to quote the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, expect students “to gain, achieve, demonstrate, or know” some things by the time they complete a degree? Perhaps, if we view assessment as a means of making sure others understand just a small fraction of the difference we make, if we don’t leave it up to administrators trying to satisfy accrediting bodies, we can make this compliance and accountability activity, if not meaningful, at least not obnoxiously intrusive and stupid.

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