If Flaubert was able to write the first great modern novel from a minor newspaper article about a young provincial wife’s suicide, certainly I should be able to bang out a halfway decent post from some contemporary ephemera. So many flecks of useful information flit past us without remark. It was Philip K. Dick who said that signs of the divine often first appear in our world at the trash strata. This is a very writerly attitude. Proust, similarly, read every newspaper item, no matter how trivial, with avid interest and incorporated them into his work and J.G. Ballard wrote fiction that drew on medical reports and the most forgettable technical manuals.
For my uses, the novelist’s approach to ephemera won’t work. Novelists are generally concerned with discovering the truths about individuals found in overlooked details and then using these insights to illuminate human nature. I’m more interested in the truths of institutions as revealed through their language and fleeting communications. This seems more pressing right now, and let’s be clear – part of what we’re up against in our modern condition is the mutation of language by administrators, bureaucrats, and those in political power. George Orwell is naturally the go-to person on this subject because he wrote so clearly on the topic, especially in reference to totalitarian states and ideologies. But power seems more diffused now, less bluntly ideological, and more universal. We get worn down by the sheer volume of corporate newspeak that we experience at work or in the media before politicians even get the chance to lie to us.
The ‘Stop and Go Review’
Sometimes, the corporate language reveals more than it conceals about how these institutions think and what motivates them. I recently found a performance review sheet for “instructors” (the neologism that has replaced “Professor” in academia because Professor still implies tenure and a majority of the people teaching in universities are untenured adjuncts or grad students) at the university where I work as a cleaner. Key to the administrative mentality is the belief in the creation of a sort of auditing regime to ensure top-down control over everyone in the organization. Students are enlisted through these regular surveys, or in the case of political correctness willingly sign up for surveillance duty, but in the end real power is held by the university trustees. Everyone submits to it, more or less.
At the top, the document is called a “Stop and Go Review“, as opposed to a performance review or a customer satisfaction survey. The students are asked for “two specific things that you would like your instructor“ to stop doing and continue doing in order to “significantly improve the class“. The assumption, from the beginning of the exercise therefore, is that the course will be found to be flawed and deficient, significantly so, and it’s up to the student, the least-educated member of the community by definition, to hold the most educated members accountable. In fact, their subjective preferences are to be the criterion for judging how a course is conducted – not necessarily what would best educate someone on the topic. By a superficial reading, this would seem to be an obvious “inversion of authority”, once upon a time a conservative concern. But, again, the overall goal is administrative control over what happens in the lecture hall, and not student empowerment, something that is conveniently overlooked as well when the annual dust-ups over political correctness on campus get covered in the media.
To return to the conservative theme of inversion of authority, because someone has to, the student is asked to rank the instructor on a scale of 0-10 on three items. The first is bizarre and revealing: “The instructor’s ability to meet the course’s learning objectives is____.“ One might assume that the student is responsible for meeting a course’s “learning objectives,” but in the administrative viewpoint the onus is on the instructor to meet these objectives in the eyes of every student. Without any clear understanding of how to actually assess this success, however, it’s up to the student’s objective impressions to make the call. The message is clear though as to who is to be held accountable. In such a situation, grade inflation in academia becomes relatively understandable as a way of shaping the student impressions that will ensure that an adjunct, always in a precarious position, will remain employed.
For me, the most interesting line is the first: “The purpose of this questionnaire is to conduct a ‘check-in’ with students to ensure that the manner and style of delivery thus far is aligned with the overall learning objectives of the course.” I’m not sure how manner and style differ, nor how a student would know if either is aligned with the overall learning objectives of the course. Note that word though: delivery. The nuances of teaching and learning are completely removed and an education is something that is delivered to the student as a ready-made product through an instructor’s style. Given the underlying cynicism of this, it’s not clear why a course wouldn’t simply be best delivered by a skilled actor performing the material given in course books or a retired Professor’s course notes.
At this point, I think we can offer a brief summary of how a university administrator understands the somewhat elusive practices of educating and learning. The understanding seems to be that knowledge is something that is first charted out through course objectives, then delivered through an instructor’s manner of presentation, and finally assessed as a result of the instructor’s manner of delivery. More than anything, this recalls the way that “information” is presented by a tour guide, in which the overall experience is more valuable than any specific learning achieved on the part of the tourist. What somewhat mitigates the cynicism of this administrative understanding of, let’s be honest, the one thing a university should understand is that it’s relatively too confused to be wholly cynical. There’s a lingering feeling that the administrators in charge of assessing teaching aren’t entirely sure what it is or how it should function.
And, of course, we can expect most undergraduates to respond to such questionnaires with healthy and redemptive eye-rolling. It’s worth mentioning, in conclusion, that I found the questionnaire form in a corner of a building where someone had tossed it out without starting or completing it.