The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency."...  ...Eugene McCarthy.

Commentary of the Day - October 27, 2010: Forms, Forms, and Yet More Forms.   Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

Just before the new semester began, all faculty and staff at my college were invited to participate in an exercise.  This (mercifully) optional chore involved filling in a triangle that, like Julius Caesar's Gaul, had been divided into three parts.  We were to start by listing, in the bottom section, one or more of our daily tasks; in the middle section, we were to explain how our task(s) fulfilled the "Broad Principles," "Operational Goals," and "Initiatives" of the new(est) Strategic Plan, and finally, as we approached the tip of the triangle, we were to explain how all of this related to the college's "Vision."  Since the strategic plan had grown out of countless meetings and countless forms and documents, this particular task seemed more circular than triangular -- less the stuff of transcendental vision on a mountaintop and more like just another redundant bit of work.

I decided not to participate, in part because I had just finished completing two faculty self-evaluation forms and in part because I was stumped as to what to choose as my primary daily task: (A) helping students improve their writing (B) helping students improve their reading and critical thinking skills (C) filling out forms (D) filling out the forms of (C) a second time.  A third reason is that I am on furlough.

This fall, I am on theoretical furlough.  Furlough, in this case, means that I have a two-course teaching load instead of the usual four-course load; it also means that I agreed to a 20% salary reduction.  No one forced me to do this; it was my choice.  I wanted the luxury of extra time not only for my own writing, but also to devote to preparation.  There is a vast difference between teaching two courses and my usual load of four or five.  One-half to three-quarters of my teaching assignment is writing intensive, so a furlough would allow me to approach not only this semester but the following one renewed and refreshed.  I forgot, however, that most basic lesson of fairy tales: be careful what you wish for.

My furlough is "theoretical" (with the exception of the pay cut -- that's real) because, as I've noted in other pieces, it's impossible to contain or circumscribe the work that we faculty members do.   My classes meet on Wednesday and Thursday, leaving me (again, theoretically) with Monday and Tuesday to devote to my writing.  General faculty meetings, however, are held on Tuesday (a furlough does not exempt anyone from committee work and other service).  Open houses are held on Sundays, thus pushing prep time from the weekend to Monday and Tuesday.  E-mail, of course, comes in 24/7; there are (always) messages that need immediate attention; and being away from campus just means extra e-mail.  Should there be a problem with the server, e-mail messages must, of course, be sent a second time.

My furlough has come to seem doubly ironic in a semester when I have had to do everything twice, beginning with those two self-evaluations.  Shortly after completing the first one, I received an e-mail reminding all faculty members that there was a new form (this came as a surprise to many of us).  Shortly after completing the new form, which recast the old form's set of eight questions into a series of thirty questions, I received yet another e-mail on the subject, announcing that either form would be accepted, because there were some problems with the new form, flaws which I was very much aware of and which included errors in the scores on the student course evaluations.  Those student evaluation forms are now being reevaluated and redone.

And despite the fact that I had dutifully handed in -- in August -- a facilities request form for an event that will take place in early October, I was informed just a week ago that there was no such request on file and that I would have to submit a new one.  I have now resubmitted that form, along with a duplicate form for the reception.  I have also attempted -- twice -- to contact the PR department about the event.  The only response I've received, however, is that someone will be contacting me to guide me through the proper "project request forms."  If we wait much longer, I will have to cancel the event, the room, and the refreshments for the reception -- all of which will require separate forms.

But such exercises seem positively minor compared to the paperwork involved in course assessment.  It is no exaggeration to say that we have been assessing courses and programs nonstop for the last decade at my college.  We have also, in that time, created at least six different two-year course rotations for the English Program.  The net numbing effect is equivalent to the way I used to feel after a rainy afternoon in a vacation cottage devoted to endless games of Chutes and Ladders with three young children.  I cannot say that I have learned very much from filling out all those redundant forms, which have cost me time that would have been far better spent preparing and grading.

This is not to say that I don’t believe in or practice assessment.  I do it all the time -- before, during, and after every class.  There's a note on my syllabus that says, "Workshops have to be flexible.  If we need to make changes, we'll revise the syllabus accordingly."  Every test, paper, in-class discussion, and comment in conferences is part of the assessment -- of student progress, of my progress.  So are those student evaluations (when scored accurately) -- although students won't really be in a position to evaluate the "usefulness" of many of their courses for about ten years or so.

This is, of course, the age of assessment.  I am hopeful, however, that (A) this is only another academic phase (just as, for example, "critical thinking," which appeared in every mission statement a few short years ago, turned out to be only a phase) (B) someone, somewhere, with more power than I have, will call a halt to the relentless churning of forms (C) someone, somewhere will seriously assess our current assessment mania (D) all of these things will come to pass.

2010, Carolyn Foster Segal.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA

The Irascible Professor comments: The problem that Carolyn is experiencing at Cedar Crest College is not unique to her institution.  In the past two decades as many tenured and tenure-track faculty positions have been replaced by part-time and adjunct faculty members there has been a corresponding increase in the "administrata" in higher education.  Many of the tasks that once were performed by tenured faculty members now are done by petty administrators, many of whom are overpaid and underworked.  To justify their existence these petty administrators generate all sorts of forms and surveys that are distributed to those lower down on the institutional ladder (department chairs, professors, and instructors, mainly) to be filled out and returned.  Many, but certainly not all of these forms, relate to assessment in one way or another.  Unfortunately, there is no sign that the assessment craze is abating, and in the IP's opinion it is unlikely to abate so long as these petty academic administrators have to justify their existence.


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2010 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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