Daily Archives: January 24, 2012

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.