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.

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5 responses to “The Ideological Work of Accountability

  1. There’s lots to discuss here, Laura, but I’ll offer two thoughts straightaway: first, that most of your examples of acceptable vs. unacceptable accountability fell on one side or the other of the teaching/research divide. We accept the notion of peer reviewed scholarship, and seek ways to evade most forms of peer reviewed teaching. (how many departments have colleagues visit each others’ classrooms periodically? how many departments even know what’s happening in their faculty’s classrooms post-tenure?) More importantly, because accountability inevitably involves our departments’ reporting relationships to upper administration, accreditation agencies, or state legislatures, it violates our illusions of disciplinary autonomy. Research, and the processes that evaluate research, help to reinforce that sense of autonomy. So accountability is one of the few forces in the contemporary university that violates the individualistic, entrepeneurial self-image of autonomous faculty members advancing themselves reputationally as scholars, and demands instead that they regard themselves as an undifferentiated block of workers filling X number of seats for X number of course hours.

    My second thought is that apart from accountability’s fundamental challenge to researching scholars’ sense of their own value and independence, any alternative in the form of assessment-for-improvement will demand more active forms of faculty engagement in the work of discussing teaching, gathering information, evaluating one anothers’ teaching, and collaborating on curricular initiatives. Many faculty would prefer the more mechanistic or hypocritical forms of accountability, because those can be done from a sense of compliance and minimal engagement. So the status quo, which I have noted earlier features a lot of unsatisfactory conceptualizations of intellectual work, gets reinforced by faculty from their desire to be left alone. Opting out of politics altogether is not an option when you are in the midst of a political argument, or the target of political attacks.

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    I think you’re right in general that accountability in research is easier to accept. But the mechanistic bean-counting aspects that you mention at the end of #1 seem pretty readily accepted (showing up at a certain time; tracking performance information on students; evaluating them). We seem to accept student satisfaction surveys as a form of accountability. So I think there is indeed more embrace of accountability for research, but there is some for teaching as well. The main hypothesis that I am trying to test here is that the rejection of assessment-for-learning on the basis of accountability represents a failure to see all the other forms of accountability that we accept without question. If that’s the case then we need to shift the terms of the debate from accountability vs non-accountability to sorting out what seems reasonable to be accountable for and what doesn’t. Does that make sense?
    I think also embedded in your comment is the another factor: not just what but to whom.

  3. One thing that the recent Profession debate over DH taught me was that a high-quality, department-wide, genuinely collective process of scholarly evaluation feels really difficult for departments once faculty begin working in areas that fall outside print assumptions of undivided authorship and print dissemination. So “accountability” codifies comfortably low expectations of engagement and quality when it comes to teaching, while often using mechanical, bean-counting quantitative measures to measure research “productivity.” Evaluation is outsourced to granting agencies, scholarly presses, foundations, etc. So evaluation and discussions of quality drop out of the picture altogether (for these thoughts, I’m indebted to Jon Wergin’s work).

    The question of “to whom?” in accountabilty, if I understand you correctly, is that we are obliged passively to provide information about our work to people who seem oblivious to our mission, or the complexity of academic institutions or culture. The questions asked, the ranking of values, even the assumptions of what constitutes “quality,” all these are discussed in ways that are foreign, or antithetical, to our training and predispositions. I think it’s difficult to expect faculty to accept a shift in terms until these conflicting assumptions are somehow acknowledged and the power asymmetries addressed one way or another. But I have no magic solution to this issue, either.

  4. Laura Rosenthal

    At the simplest level, I’m observing that “accountability” is deeply flawed but also can’t be avoided. I think it is necessary to our functioning. I also think we don’t give enough thought to figuring out which forms of accountability are productive. So the formula assessment=accountability needs to be complicated by a full context of multiple forms of accountability, not all of which are destructive.

  5. Sure, but I would point to the tensions I identified in my Teagle essay around the inextricable links between accountability and assessment, which can only be safely distinguished when we assume that the first does its information-gathering for the sake of external constituencies like state legislatures, the second for internal ones like the faculty or students. My argument in that essay was that the distinction between inside and outside sometimes gets fuzzy in the contemporary research university.

    I also think it’s pretty clear that our discomfort with accountability comes from the way it is used by outside constituencies to try to control us politically. There is an understandable resentment at our dependence upon the ever-dwindling support from state governments, who use this data to rationalize their reductions of support. It’s hard for me to imagine faculty ever being comfortable with the notion that someone with no training or even interest in her discipline would have the power to cut off funding for her research projects or her department.

    The other forms of accountability you discuss are essentially disciplinary and research-based, I think, and relate to the “vertical” organization of universities that orients faculty toward their home disciplines and departments (cf. Alpert, “Performance and Paralysis” 1985). These are the dimensions of faculty and departmental performance that help research universities win their reputational sweepstakes among their peers, but state legislatures and other lay constituencies are notoriously indifferent to such concerns.

    All of this is to say that even if different forms of accountability do exist, I think that the external accountability programs that universities conduct to demonstrate the efficiency and effectiveness of their programs will always be a problem with faculty. Why would they want to lose control of that information?