Monthly Archives: January 2012

The London Merchant at the Storm Theatre/Blackfriars Repertory

I recently had the privilege of seeing George Lillo’s The London Merchant performed in New York at the Storm Theatre/Blackfriars Repertory.  The entire short run has sold out:  good news for the theatre but bad news for everyone else (unless you have tickets for next weekend).  The production demonstrated the extraordinary stageworthiness of this play.  I hope to put up a few posts on the different character portrayals to suggest how much depth this company discovered in a play routinely dismissed as either morally simplistic or ideologically overburdened. I will begin with Thorowgood, and the recognition of how much of the interpretation of this play depends on the way he is played.

In this production, Thorowgood is not a looming tower of strength, but a rather weak and ineffectual; he represents himself as knowing, but turns out to be somewhat baffled by the passions of the young .  Remember, he has no idea that his daughter loves his apprentice, even though she comes close to revealing this when she refuses the attentions of the men who court her.  In this production he walks with a cane; he is literally and perhaps metaphorically “lame.” An early scene gives him a crucial opportunity to save George.  George begs his master to hear his confession of the night of passion with Millwood, but Thorowgood refuses to listen.  We can’t really tell why.  Is Thorowgood uncomfortable hearing about George’s sexuality?  He seems like he is trying to be generous and forgiving, but there is an undertone in his refusal that suggests something else.  It need not be sinister; he might simply be oblivious. As George’s sins accumulate, we realize that had Thorowgood allowed George to confess at this early stage, then George might have discussed with him Millwood’s subsequent claim to distress. Thorowgood probably would have seen through her manipulation and thus prevented the entire tragedy which depends, after all, on George’s isolation.  Millwood is able to lead to George further and further astray because George becomes so ashamed of his own desires that he won’t share his predicament.  Unlike Thorowgood, Trueman begs to hear about his friend’s source of misery, but the damage has already been done. The only authority figure in the play has essentially rejected his plea for counsel.

This reading of The London Merchant is consistent with some other moral texts of the period.  Richardson, for example, makes clear in Clarissa that her tragedy could have been prevented by a more forgiving father.  Young people get in deep trouble in these texts when figures of authority abandon them, or simply prove weak.

Thorowgood’s weakness becomes further apparent in his confrontation with Millwood.  Disarmed of her pistol and thrown to the ground by Trueman, Millwood delivers her damning speech against men on her knees.  Yet, with these two men towering over her, she nevertheless astonishes and humiliates them.  When she refutes Thorowgood’s milquetoast speculation that she must have known only bad men by reporting how she has served the full gamut, he looks sheepish.  Maybe even guilty.  He admires her wit.  When reading the play, “wit” always came across to me as devious cleverness.  But in this production, it seems to mean “brilliance”; or more specifically, Hobbesian rigor.

By the time we get to Thorowgood’s  directive to “See there the bitter fruits of passion’s detested reign” as George lies in the dungeon,  we know what the merchant does not: that passion cannot entirely explain the horrific chain of events that lead George to this dismal scene.  George, like Millwood, has fallen victim to institutional as well as personal failures.

This is not to say that it was a “pro-Millwood” production.  That would be inaccurate.  The Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, according to the program, was “the first professional religious theatre ever tried in New York City.”  In spite of– or perhaps because of– connections to Catholic institutions, this production took a play that appears to be about moral certainly and revealed it to be, in fact, nothing of the kind.


the politics of accountability: between the right and a hard place

At some point, I’d like to take on some more 18th-centuryish topics, but I noticed this week that the issues Laura and I have been discussing about accountability have been turning up in the presidential race.  [Warning: very little eighteenth-century content in what follows]

I would say that these discussions are occurring because accountability is the language both parties adopt when they want to politicize higher ed for their own partisan ends.  However, their uses of this language are not symmetrical.  The Right uses accountability to advance its culture war strategy against its ideological enemies and against reality itself, while what’s his name, our current post-post-Partisan Democratic President, uses it as part of his usual triangulation strategy against the constituencies that helped vote him into office (cf. Rahm Emanuel on the GM rescue: “F@ck the UAW”).

It’s not a surprise when we see Rick Santorum saying

The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America. And it is indoctrination. If it was the other way around, the ACLU would be out there making sure that there wasn’t one penny of government dollars going to colleges and universities, right?”

And, of course, for Santorum, Obama’s calling for all children to receive college education is a form of “snobbery,” and a veiled attempt to destroy the religious beliefs of students.  Anti-intellectualism is just one of the ways that the right wing traditionally does its version of class politics, even as we see teachers (both K-12 and higher ed, along with other public workers) getting downsized, pauperized and demonized across the country. But to some extent, this kind of attack seems very familiar to us, even when we see massive amounts of Koch money bankrolling it.

This brings me to the soggy birthday cake of ravished hopes that Obama brought with him to the University of Michigan this week, where relatively unimpoverished, undespairing students were delighted to hear that help was on the way, in the form of more work-study hours (yay, xeroxing!), more student loans, and lots and lots of accountability measures to punish universities that teach poor and working-class students.  And I’m glad that there was no mention of for-profit institutions or declining state contributions to universities, because those would just make people angrier and more partisan than they already are.

As someone who shares Laura’s hope that discussions of higher education policy become more reflective, and more effectively engaged with reality, on both sides, I’m sympathetic to her suggestion that academics think more analytically about accountability.  We do need to recognize that accountability is not an isolated aspect of our work, but something that permeates our multiple roles as scholars, teachers, and (sometime) public intellectuals.  But I do believe that part of the anger we display every time this issue comes up comes from our sense of accountability’s duplicity and hidden agendas in the wider political context.

It’s not that different than this example of Matt Damon getting irritated at being asked leading questions by an interviewer who just loves the idea of job insecurity for other people:

So how to respond to the whole context of accountability?  And what kinds of accountability can we call upon to alert the public to the dismantling of public higher education?


The Ideological Work of Accountability

Dave has been posting a lot about accountability, a bigger issue in Texas higher education than just about anywhere else, although it now shapes working conditions for all of us.  When I was teaching a Winter Term mini-course on “Assessment for Learning,” accountability came up a lot.  Even the quickest search on outcomes assessment in The Chronicle or Inside Higher Education will take you to debates over accountability more than any other topic.  I don’t generally write or speak about accountability, and most of the time I try not to think about it.  During the Bush years, one of my colleagues decided to pretend that Martin Sheen was the president.  That’s how I feel about accountability.

But I also recognize that you can’t get anywhere in conversations about student learning without facing this demon.  So I have been thinking about it more than usual lately, and this is what I have concluded, at least for now.

If you are an academic, it is not possible, without the gravest hypocrisy, to be opposed to accountability.  The academic project is built on accountability and has accountability at its core.

If you are a scientist, you are accountable for accurately reporting your results.  You can’t just say you performed experiments that you did not perform; you can’t just make up data.  When you do, it’s a scandal—or at least it should be, if you are caught.  Andrew Wakefield’s falsification of data that allowed him to claim a link between immunization and autism has become one such infamous case.  While the vetting process for research sometimes fails, it nevertheless serves as a (albeit imperfect) system of accountability.

If I am writing an essay on Clarissa for publication in a refereed journal, I will be held accountable for showing my familiarity with all other arguments on Clarissa that resemble mine.  Of course, if I forget to cite Terry Castle, no child will, as a result, contract a disease.  Nevertheless, most of us accept this system of accountability to limit the proliferation of essays on Clarissa that say more or less the same thing.  This accountability system has its flaws, but so far a good alternative to peer review (whether blind, open, or crowdsourced) has yet to emerge.  Digital work has brought more attention lately to this particular accountability problem, but the impulse, as far as I can tell, has been to try to figure out how to implement some kind of peer review process for digital work as well. (See, for example, 18th Connect.)

The accountability in research, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.  We are accountable for office hours, turning in grades on time, generating credit hours, accommodating students with disabilities, affirmative action, withholding any curiosity about the personal lives of job candidates,  showing up for class, serving on committees, ordering books, grading without bias, submitting early warning grades for athletes, showing up for department meetings, holding classes that being at a given time that end at a given time, returning library books, using institutional equipment for institutional purposes.  We areevaluated every semester by the students we teach, every year by our departmental colleagues, and more or less constantly by presses, journals, and reviewers in the publication process. 

Institutions of higher education themselves are accountable for graduation rates, issuing credentials, vetting applicants, providing enough “seats” (as they say), counting the credit hours, ensuring a particular distribution of the credit hours, calculating GPAs, constructing a calendar, and reporting to their accrediting agencies.

But as Robert Barr and John Tagg pointed out more than twenty years ago, we have generally not been held accountable for student learning.  If we were, they propose, we could shed many other forms of accountability. And yet, this possibility (accountability for student learning) often comes across as outrageous, while many of those other forms do not.

Accountability, then, has a kind of ideological force.  The institutional context in which we operate renders most of our accountability invisible.  We don’t think about credit hours as a form of accountability; most of us don’t think much about them at all.  But as Barr and Tagg point out, the accumulation of credit hours tells you nothing about what student have learned. The language of “seats,” perhaps, reveals most clearly which end of the student occupies institutional attention.   The shock over accountability for student learning only suggests how far outside of the dominant ideology of accountability this function has remained.

Nevertheless, Barr and Tagg’s argument carries even more weight today.  How important are office hours, for example, when students can email with a question or to make an appointment?  I am far from the first to notice that new technologies offer the potential to change the way learning happens.  Unfortunately, though, too many of these debates focus on the wrong issues, such as whether we are “for” technology or “against” it, when we should be thinking instead is how best to use what we have to support learning.  Cathy Davidson has recently received a lot of attention, both positive and negative, for arguing that research on the brain suggests the advantages of integrating technology into learning.  Many have entered into this debate, which I won’t get into here.  I will only note, though, that a focus on cognitive science alone interestingly avoids the accountability issue by settling in advance what improves learning rather than focusing on empirical strategies that try to figure out whether or not what you’re doing is actually working.  Thus we can argue back and forth about whether student work improves more with blog posts or papers (I use both, so, as Woody Allen remarked about bisexuality, I double my chances).  But we could, alternatively, carry on this debate in the context of research (large-scale assessments), or of home-grown micro-assessments that aim to figure out which strategy works best in particular cases and for particular instructors.

So in conclusion, accountability is not the problem.  The problem is that we haven’t given enough though to which forms of accountability we would embrace (not fabricating results, accommodating students with disabilities), which are empty exercises in accountability for its own sake, which would inadvertently undermine research and learning, which are seemingly intended to undermine research and learning (hello Texas), which have been rendered vestigial by new technologies, and which should be getting more of our attention.

a parable about change in higher education: michael quinn patton shares a story with us

I recall one human service program in particular where we were asked to evaluate the staff development component of the program.  In accordance with Peter’s Principle, the person in charge of staff development had risen to her own level of incompetence: she was tenured, she had territoriality on that component of the program, she could not be fired and there was no place to which to promote her; she seemed likely to be impervious to change.  No one wanted to know what staff, clients, or administrators thought about her–that was data they did not want and could not use.  We focused instead on concrete, changeable program activities (e.g., frequency and length of training sessions, content of sessions, participant input, style of training, use of outside resources, and so on).  (Evaluation-Focused Evaluation, 1978, p. 85)

[NB: the link is to the 2008, 4th edition of the book rather, than the one I quote from here. Sorry for any inconvenience this causes]

This story is prefaced by an important observation about the distinction in purpose between personnel and program evaluations: “Personnel evaluations involve gathering information about the performance of individuals. Program evaluations focus on structural and treatment characteristics of programs.  At times there is a narrow line between the two because personnel performance can, of course, affect program effectiveness.”

Most of the accountability schemes I’ve seen focus almost entirely on the personnel dimension (if only we could fire lazy professors! or eliminate tenure! etc. etc.), without acknowledging just how few options chairs and administrators have it comes to dealing with this kind of behavior.

Yet I would argue that what outside constituencies should really worry about are the program- and institutional level evaluations. Do these groups ever ask for, or see such information? After all, long after the staffer named in Patton’s anecdote retired, I can imagine a series of hiring and managerial decisions that would perpetuate her incompetence even after she was gone.  So personnel decisions have their own kind of consequence and timeline, but what do we do about a chain of ineptitude that seems to stretch all the way into the future?

So how does change take place in higher ed organizations?


Gaming Table at the Folger

Here is story in today’s Washington Post on the Folger production of Centlivre’s play (The Basset Table), in which I am quoted praising her feminism.  There are also links to the production in progress.

michael quinn patton unknowingly addresses the assessment debates in higher education, and tells us why accountability data is (almost) never used:

I’m having enormous fun with this classic argument about the hows and whys of program evaluation, which has lots of implications for higher education’s experience of “accountability”:

[Patton, Utilization-focused Evaluation, p. 88]

I’m impressed by the fact that Patton in 1978 is chiding fellow-evaluators for ignoring political and personal factors that help determine the shape, direction, and use of their studies. He argues that because evaluators would rather imagine themselves as “scientific researchers” rather than participants in a political process, they engage in a process that wastes the time of all involved, and ensures that no one uses the information gathered.  Even if the present generation of evaluators has escaped this kind of scientism,  however, it seems that many pundits, administrators, and especially politicians persist in this naive view of the role of “data” in “decision-making.”


Centlivre at the Folger

Eighteenth-century theater fans can also follow the production blog for Susanna Centlivre’s The Gaming Table (originally, The Basset Table).  If you scroll down, you can find instructions on how to play basset.