At a meeting of the"Assessment Officers" of over 100 LSU programs as well as most of the relevant deans, I blurted out, "Well, that's perfectly silly," after a dean announced that she would send back for substantial rewriting annual report that did not interpret the assessment "data sets" to entail problems that would be rectified in the "action plan."**[Please read notes ** and **** below to get some idea of just how much make-work this is.]
Then, when the hundred plus group of otherwise intelligent people looked at me, I didn't do a very good job articulating why this kind of thing was stupid during the cultural revolution in China and just as stupid today. I just said that if a unit is doing well there's no reason to find problems and that you can't expect units to get better to infinity.
This precipitated another long speech by the poor man in charge of LSU's compliance with SAAC's accreditation mandates involving assessment.*** This speech reiterated how there's always room for improvement and how this process should be helpful.**** I wanted to explain to him that he had John Calvin's doctrine on the depravity of man dreadfully wrong, but didn't say anything. Besides, everyone present needed guidance on the constantly changing computer interface that makes us enter data in all sorts of new ways and also at six months intervals recursively assess how well we are assessing.
This is what I should have said.
The mere fact that something is not perfect does not tell us anything with respect to our obligations with respect to it. First, wisdom counsels that nothing is perfectible. Second, acting on an a priori obligation to always change something so as to make it more perfect is a recipe for disaster. Since nothing is perfectible constant changing will at some point end up just making things worse.
This is not an abstract point, but at the center of the debacle of computer-human interface over the last twenty years. All of us can name glory days for our favorite websites (e.g. the Onion, Salon, Slate about six years ago) or programs we use (especially Microsoft Word either 97 or 2007 depending on your aesthetic sensibilities) where the interface was manifestly better than it is now. All of these companies have in-house design crews who have to be constantly at work "improving" the interface. In every single case, the invalid inference from imperfection to the need to change something led from very good interfaces to cumbersome and distracting interfaces.
Second, "assessment" in terms of yearly quantifiable data sets, reflections, recommendations, action plans, and status reports is a very poor way in general to reveal the kind of imperfections that can be improved. Everyone in this room can already use their practical wisdom to list ways their department could serve students better and none of these will not be revealed through the assessment process, but at the very best put into the "reflections" in an insincere manner. However, the fact that putting it in there will necessitate an infinite future of "action plans" and "status reports" with respect to it places very strong selective pressure not to put it in there, but to be even more insincere and put something in there that is easily measured and manipulated into more data sets.
Moreover, to the extent that people in this room do not know how their programs can be made better, non-quantifiable methods like asking open ended questions to the relevant parties is often a better way to figure out what is going on (cf. "ethnography" in Cultural Anthropology). The assessment procedure of data, data, data systematically works against such methods.
Finally, the problem of becoming more perfect (when one actually can do so) is almost never a problem determining what is going wrong, but rather figuring out how to fix what is wrong and actually doing it. Again, this involves a lot of practical wisdom.
Let me reiterate though, the base problem is that demanding constant change to make something more perfect will inevitably make that thing worse. We've seen this clearly with respect to human computer interface. The Dead Kennedys' classic album "Plastic Surgery Disasters" coined the term for (and thematized via song) the individual human tragedies that lay in the wake of constant change in pursuit of perfection. The wisdom traditions we teach in this great university counsel us over and over again about the tragedy of hubris. There is in fact no deeper wisdom than that pride goes before a destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. But what could be more proud than to think that one will always be able to change to make an institution more perfectable? To the extent that people really take this process seriously and not just as one more bit of administrative make-work, we ourselves will become plastic surgery disasters in the techincal sense of the Dead Kennedys.
A final reflection on causes: (1) As noted earlier, rent seeking by people in charge of providing information interfaces. The work of running an interface is quite different from the work of designing one. If the latter is your job and you are in house, this is extremely strong pressure to constantly change things that don't need to be changed. When companies like Microsoft have effective monopolies, this also leads into "planned obsolescence" type rent seeking, where the change is made to force people to purchase the newer product. Given this, we should probably be more critical of assurances that the constantly changing interface for our assessment reports is really an improvement.
(2) General progression towards two-tiered society which bends enough to have a new feudal aristocracy but does not break in favor of any effective democratic opposition. In Part II of this series (for Part I go HERE) I inquired into whether the proliferation of useless make-work has anything to do with the fact that since the 1970s huge economic growth and productivity gains have not led to either greater median wages or a lesser work week, something completely at odds with the previous hundred and fifty or so years of economic history. My hypothesis is that in order to forestall massive unemployment, most jobs have become increasingly useless. A better future would be one where we had more "leisure time" to develop ourselves as human beings by doing things like getting more university degrees and make art. But even if that doesn't seem to be on the cards, we should understand why it isn't.*****
*Please see PART I, in which I discourse generally about how the rhetoric of "excellence" works to increase administrative power in an undemocratic way that damages the institution. Please see PART II, where I investigate the rise of "TPS reports" type make-work in the academy and praise passive aggression as a response to it.
**For people not in the biz or elsewhere in government or industry suffering this kind of thing. We have to come up with quantifiable data sets that assess the state of the program. For each data set we have to come up with "reflections" which yield "recommendations" for change. These recommendations have to then be translated into an "action plan," each entry of which has its own confusing interface including boxes for: (1) Action Item title, (2) Action details, (3) Implementation plan, (4) Key Responsible Personnel, (5) Evaluation of Action, (6) Budget approval required (if so, describe), (7) Budget request amount: if not required ($0.00), (8) Choose a priority level of the action item by using the dropdown arrow: low, med, high. Note that all of this has to be redone once a year with new data sets, reflections, recommendations, and action plans. Note also that there is yet another interface called "Status Report" which forces assessment of the assessment, where faculty have to use all of the collected the data sets, reflections, recommendations, and action plans as inputs for another round of all this. The "status report" will be filled out twice a year and is supposed to always show evidence of how the assessment process has led to infinite progression towards the platonic form of a good department. To see how this works in practice, please google "five year plan."
***I say "poor man" just because the task is so difficult as to be unenviable. Nothing in this post is personal with respect to anybody. I'm more interested in the structural features that have brought our civilization to this point of inanity.
****I should note that "program assessment" is in various ways time-wastingly redundant with at least four other time and energy consuming assessment processes at LSU that overlap with it: annual faculty review, strategic planning, annual general education assessment, and the every five yearly external review. There are also constant various and sundry other reports (often involving compliance with the "flagship agenda") that chairs have to write that most faculty aren't aware of. This kind of nastiness has radically increased in the fourteen years I've been in this biz, and I increasingly wonder if staff and administrators realize that the point of it was supposed to be research and teaching, not writing reams of quantifiable education and management school nonsense about how to assess research and teaching and also to recursively assess the assessment (another bit of insulting time-wasting since any reasonable person can tell you that most of it is a massive waste of resources).
*****I shouldn't have to say this, but here goes. None of this has anything in particular to do with my home institution of Louisiana State University. I love my students and colleagues and consider having gotten a job here as one of the three greatest things in my life along with marrying Emily and having kids. In reference to all of the above nonsense, it's important to realize that the culture of "assessment" has been a long growing part of post-capitalist "management myth"****** societies. At least those of us in the United States and Europe (cf. "New Labor") are constantly having to sludge our way through the civilizational detritus that results from it. Unfortunately, given the amount of useless make-work, the sludge gets slower and slower.
******If you haven't read the book of the same name (HERE), you can't really understand just how relentlessly stupid is our current manner of social organization.]