Friday, January 14, 2005


Brief notices

At Easily Distracted, Timothy Burke has one of his usually insightful and inspiring essays about academia. He argues that academics need to think more carefully about whether the indices we use to measure productive scholarship (articles published, conference talks given) have any actual connection to the primary aspirations of our institutions. Here's an excerpt:
So my simple suggestion is this: stop. Administrations and faculties need to stop caring how much someone writes or publishes or says, or even how important what they’ve published is according to some measurable or quantifiable metric. Not only because trying to measure productivity in terms of scholarship destroys scholarship, but because it detracts from the truly important kind of productivity in an academic institution.

What really matters is this: how different are your students when they graduate from what they would have been had they not attended your institution, and how clearly can you attribute that difference to the things that you actively do in your classrooms and your institution as a whole? What, in short, did you teach them that they would not have otherwise known? How did you change them as people in a way that has some positive connection to their later lives?
The universities who have been trying out the National Survey of Student Engagement at least seem to have the right idea about what to measure. (See Michael Arnzen's post about NSSE, which links to the 2004 report. NSSE was also profiled last November in the Atlantic Monthly.) The idea behind the survey is to determine how well universities actually teach their students (novel idea, I know), but the jury is still out on how effective such a survey can be. It relies heavily on students' surveys, in which they are asked to correlate how they think and what they know directly to their classroom experience, but as Burke points out, it can be difficult even for someone who loved college to separate how much of their learning was connected directly to their classes, and how much was connected to auto-didactic efforts and individual charismatic professors. All interesting reads.

Also: I wonder whether my jumping up and down and cheering while reading Burke's essay has something to do with the fact that I'm a graduate student still, and hence on the lowest rung of the academic ladder. Yep, I think it probably does. The Will to Produce (which roughly parallels the Will to Power in academia) is therefore bound to look more daunting to me than it is to someone who has already produced enough to secure the right not to produce as much (i.e., tenure).

That may the problem inherent in getting a sea-change to happen in the way we evaluate scholarly and institutional performance. Those whose performance has already been demonstrated have no reason to invest in seeing things differently (schools rated well by U.S. News don't need NSSE), while those whose performance has not been demonstrated in the conventional way are bound to be looked at skeptically (perhaps we want to change things because we cannot pass the bar). Still, I don't lose hope as long as there are thoughtful scholars like Burke and Arnzen above me on the ladder.

On another note, Rob at Detrimental Postulation links to a new online venture by the University of California Press. The Press has digitized 1400 of its books and made them searchable, although only 400 are made available full-text to the public (I know, only 400!). A couple of public texts that look especially interesting to me are Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism, which I've already been meaning to look at, and The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Enjoy!

Collective Improvisation:

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