Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Flash Gordon, Savior of the Universe

flashgordon4At some point in the 1980 film Flash Gordon, Dr. Hans Zarkov describes how he managed to thwart the erasure of his mind at the hands of Ming the Merciless. After being strapped into the hideous device, Zarkov explains, he began thinking of old baseball scores, the names of family pets, songs from old musicals — any random scrap of memory to which he might cling in desperation. It's a philosophically powerful moment, I think, in an otherwise vacant film.

I reflect upon the struggle of Hans Zarkov at the start of every academic year, when my faculty colleagues and I are treated to a several-days-long frontal lobe bludgeoning known as "Convocation." Plied each morning with trays of pastries and fruit, vats of coffee and an endless river of orange juice, we surrender ourselves like fatted calves, brainmooing ever so gently as we gather for meeting after soul-banishing meeting. This year we descended into the circle of hell known as "Assessment," a land whose lingua franca is a pidgin consisting of three parts corporate chatter to two parts astrology. As my department's "assessment coordinator," I have learned this language well enough to know its seductive lures. To put it oversimply, "the assessment movement" is an externally-driven process that asks universities to provide fresh, quantifiable data — which we call "metrics" — proving that the university's "stakeholders" (i.e., the legislature, the business community, the public in general) are earning proper returns on their investments. Faculty are asked to "drill down" into student performance, generating program-wide "goals" and specific, measurable "outcomes" that may, so the ideology goes, one day supplant traditional "surface" calculations like grades and graduation rates. Faculty are asked to "buy in" to the movement, so that the material reality of assessment — the fact that it is driven entirely by state legislatures and national accreditation agencies — might somehow be disguised as a sort of democratic groundswell guided and "nourished" by those who actually teach. Assessment gurus encourage faculty to initiate campus-wide "dialogues" devoted to the question of "how we know" that students are learning. (Thus, the implementation technocratic instruments is confused with genuine epistemological issues.) Simultaneously, "the culture of assessment" is supposed to envelop the lives our students, offering them meaningful ways to evaluate their own progress, to "honor the paths" they have chosen for their education.

Thus it has gone for much of the past three days. If I could not remember the sequence of World Series champions from 1903 onward, or the names of all the songs from the first two Iron Maiden albums -- nuggets of trivia that my wife constantly insists have replaced important information (like when to give our dog her antipsychotic medication) -- I would have succumbed to the very fate Hans Zarkov so successfully avoided.