Thursday, December 11, 2008

man is the measure

Came across a post on Infinite Thought on, or rather quoting from and referring to Massimo de Angelis' and David Harvie's paper on [the road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began], immaterial labour and the measurement of academic productivity in the UK. OK, borrowing shamelessly, slothfully, here's, first, IT quoting from: ‘inefficient’ lecturer becomes one who is unable to meet or beat the norm, one who spends more than, say, two-and-a-half hours preparing their lectures, or someone who assigns ‘excessive’ value to the relational practices with students who do not match standard academic background and so need particular attention. An ‘efficient’ lecturer is one that uses the pittance of her research allowance and produces ‘measurable output’ without asking for more time off teaching. It goes without saying that unless such a lecturer is able to beat norms elsewhere, and recuperate time in this way, then they will be forced to extend their own working day and week. In this way, a quantitative definition of socially necessary labour time (SNLT) for the labour of a lecturer emerges as the result of ongoing process of norm definition.
["Cognitive Capitalism and the rat race: How capital measures ideas and affects in UK Higher Education" by Massimo de Angelis and David Harvie, 2006, available here]

[in fact I'm unable to refrain from quoting at greater length from MdA and DH]


To obtain a bachelor’s degree in a UK university one needs to achieve 360 ‘credit points’, i.e. 360 credit points = 1 degree. At least 120 of these credit points must be at ‘level 3’ (i.e. third year) and a further 120 must be at ‘level 2’ (i.e. second year). Degree courses (or ‘programmes’) are further broken down into ‘modules’ of between 10 and 40 credit points, depending upon the university. So, for example, in each of three years a student might study six 20-credit modules. The content of both a specific degree in a HEI and each module is framed by a set of ‘indicative learning outcomes’ (ILOs), [6] which take the form of statements ‘On completion of this degree/module, the student will …’ ILOs can be either ‘subject specific’ (e.g. ‘… have attained a knowledge of the ways in which social struggles drive capital’s development’) or ‘generic’ (e.g. ‘… be able to work cooperatively within a small rhizomatic network’). The set of ILOs for a particular module must be appropriate to that module’s ‘level’, while the learning outcomes for a degree must satisfy so-called ‘subject benchmark statements’. So ILOs for level-1 modules, for instance, tend to emphasise mere ‘knowledge’ of theories, whilst at level-3 students are expected to be able to ‘critically engage’.

Subject benchmark statements are produced by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), which specifies the types of skills and ‘competencies’ which an economics graduate (say) should have acquired The amount of work required to attain a certain number of credit points is standardised across any particular institution. For example, a 20 credit-point module will be taught via two weekly one-hour lectures plus a fortnightly seminar over the course of two semesters, and will be assessed by a two-hour exam and a 2,500-word assessed essay.

OK, so cut and paste is not a girl's best friend, had we but world enough and time I would reformat. And reading on in MdA and DH I am unable to refrain from quoting further, because this is the kind of thing that drove a very close, very brilliant friend out of Britain, because he was so good he could get a job in America

Surveillance and standardisation

An elaborate set of procedures exists in order to allow the monitoring of these and other norms. For instance (and note that these are examples only):

* For each module, the ‘module leader’ (ML, i.e., lecturer) must complete various paperwork, in particular a ‘module specification’ (at the module’s start) which lists the module’s ‘aims and objectives’, ILOs, ‘modes and methods of assessment’, amongst other information; and a ‘module review’ document (at the end of the module), in which the ML reports their own assessment of the module’s strengths and weaknesses and their suggested changes for the following year; a summary of student feedback; and average marks and their dispersion.

* Across a degree programme as a whole (say BA (Hons) Economics) this information is collated into two important documents with similar structures. First, a ‘programme specification’, which will include the module specs for all of a programme’s constituent modules, plus rationale for the degree as a whole, its overall ‘aims and objectives’ and learning outcomes, and an inventory of the resources (academic staff, library and other facilities, etc.) available to ‘deliver’ the programme, Second, annual programme reports, which collate module reviews and summarise overall performance of a cohort of students, in terms of ‘progression rates’, ‘withdrawal rates’, location and spread of marks, etc.

My friend had, in the first place, the bad manners to ask what precisely the difference was between an aim and an objective. If funding depends on identifying your aims and objectives, surely the people asking for this information should be able to explain what they mean by terms which, to the untutored eye, look much of a muchness. Answer came there none - all the OTHER academics had just started out, it seemed, with a list of things that would be A Good Thing, tossed a coin for each Good Thing and allocated it accordingly to Aims or, as it might be, Objectives. (This is where all that training in analysis comes in handy.)

My friend had, in the second place, an objection to specifying learning outcomes. My friend's position was that no scholar with any claim to intellectual integrity can lay hand on heart and state that he knows the TRUTH. The scholar is not in possession of a body of wisdom, some of which he can impart in an undergraduate course, mastery of which portion constitutes the desired outcome of the course. It's possible to present material in lectures; it's possible to give reading lists and hand-outs; it's possible to explain methods of assessing evidence, go through some basic requirements if an argument is not to be logically incoherent - but the fact is, the instructor, no matter how brilliant, cannot specify what the learning outcomes of the course should be, because it is not in his or her power to assert that measuring up to his or her understanding of what is the case is the best outcome for the course. He or she may be wrong. It may be that providing tools for analysis will offer students the means to show that 75% of the instructor's lectures were WRONG. But if this were to happen, this would not mean that the course was a bad course, or the lecturer incompetent; it would simply mean that the lecturer had enabled students to take part in the business of academic inquiry, whose ends no one is in a position to foresee.


languagehat said...

Good God, how appalling -- I had no idea. I thought the U.S. system was excessively formalized and full of meaningless requirements. Malcolm Gladwell in the latest New Yorker suggests that maybe we should get rid of all the requirements and just let everyone try to teach, and reward the ones who actually get kids to learn. Alas, I fear the meaningless requirements will continue to thrive.

ly said...

here here to languagehat.

this is one of the most depressing posts I've read from you in a while. Especially because I'm a student at one of the most standardized, bureaucratic universities in the US (my opinion, of course).

Tenured professors scare the shit out of me. There is usually nothing in their contracts that require them to grade students on the value of their work. A professor may give a grade based on the color of the students' hair!

If I spend 1/3 of my life in school? Surely there would be SOME measurements or standards or laws or SOMETHING to protect the students (me), but the students have little or no rights and little or no advocacy.

Ahem. Sorry, I had to rant.

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