When I got this job, one of the excitable, obsessive boys at Lawyers Guns and Money, Erik Loomis, announced that I was now a neoliberal administrator bent on destroying the professoriate. Now, this has much less to do with my actual job and more to do with the team over there’s ongoing, weird fixation on me – Loomis got tenure the other day and immediately rushed to his blog to talk about me, which is sadder and weirder than I can imagine. (Bear in mind that this is a man who once mocked the quality of my education despite the fact that I got my MA at the university that employs him.) But still, having been here going on eight months now, perhaps it’s time to take stock of his accusations.
I’ve been at my current job since the end of September. I can tell you that, despite some bumps and snags, things have gone pretty well and I’m happy with the position and the job I’m doing. I can also tell you, happily, that the predictions of Erik Loomis have not come true. Not that there was ever much chance of that.
When I went to interview with Brooklyn College, I had already been on the academic job market for almost two years. Though my CV was a perfect match for the job, I was hesitant. My position is administrative, and I am on record as believing (and still believe) that there’s too much administrative hiring in the academy. (Of course, I wanted a tenure track job more than anything, but I couldn’t get one in two years of trying.) Plus, assessment is a touchy subject, an endeavor that if undertaken clumsily and without faculty oversight can indeed erode faculty control. So when I went on my campus interview I reiterated a point to the hiring committee that I had made in my Skype interview: that I would accept the position only under the condition that the job would be mutually understood to be a faculty support position. I said this to the hiring committee; I said it to the Associate Provost who would go on to be my boss. They assured me this was what they were looking for, and they have held up their end of the bargain.
Faculty control just about every step of the assessment process here. Faculty write the mission statements for their departments. Faculty devise the student learning outcomes. Faculty decide on the assessment tools they want to use. Faculty decide how best to analyze the data. Faculty ultimately decide what the data means and what changes to make because of it. Assessment involves shared governance between faculty and administrators, but the particulars of how given departments are assessed are firmly in the control of faculty, and should be.
What do I do? I take on a lot of the grunt work that faculty don’t want to. When faculty are crafting student learning outcomes, I give them advice about what I think will make learning easily measurable, when asked. When faculty choose particular tools like tests, portfolios, or surveys, I talk to them about what some of the options are and what I think is most pragmatically feasible, when asked. I research what other institutions do and lay out what are commonly thought of as best practices for a given field. I do a lot of the busywork for actual data collection and analysis – I wrangle spreadsheets, I organize shared folders on servers, I assign numbers to anonymized student work, I let department chairs know when documents have been turned in. Sometimes, I’m the one that does the stats work, again only if asked. I don’t insist on doing any of this, and there are departments here that choose to handle all of that themselves. They just send me reports when they have them, and that’s fine. Other departments have asked me to do a lot of the heavy lifting, out of concern for the workload of faculty who are already stretched far too thin by teaching and research requirements. I’m happy to help when they do. The point is that in every way that matters, it is faculty who ultimately control the assessment process. And while I work underneath the Provost’s office, I report to an Academic Assessment Council where faculty have a substantial ability to dictate policy.
Maybe the most important point is that, regardless of your take on my character or my commitment to faculty independence, I’m just not important enough here to do the kind of destructive work Loomis claimed. I don’t have that kind of power. Brooklyn College, I’m happy to say, has an unusually powerful faculty. Curricular decisions, to a rare degree, are made by the professors. It helps that it’s a public school in a state where public sector workers are powerful. We also have an activist faculty union – a union that I’m a member of. Despite Loomis’s contention that I would work against the union, I have in fact been active in the PSC from the start; I’ve attended every meeting of my own chapter since I arrived, and I’m starting to get involved in the Brooklyn College chapter too. I hope to get organize during our upcoming contract fight. In any event, trust me: no one will soon be made to bow down before my great power here, and I would never attempt to do so because of my academic beliefs, my investment in labor solidarity, and my conscience.
Put it this way: I’m sure there are many faculty members here who don’t know I exist. All-conquering administrators should be far less anonymous.
There were other complaints. Loomis says I’ll be a provost someday. But, of course, I wouldn’t ever take such a job. I know because I’m me. I have no interest in that. I could stay in this position permanently and, thanks to the benefits and a collectively bargained contract, feel pretty good about that. Or I may in the future look for other positions within CUNY, as appropriate. Who can say? But I will never be looking at executive jobs because I am not interested in doing so. Commenters insisted that I’d be overpaid, but I am in fact at the exact same salary bumps as CUNY faculty of equivalent experience. That was a selling point for me: it helps to know that I share compensation levels with professors. I just can’t get tenure. So if you’re saying I’m overpaid, you’re saying that CUNY professors are overpaid which, well, that’s a remarkable idea given our endless contract battles and the precarious state of our funding.
Ultimately my job is like a lot of jobs: it’s not perfect, it can be frustrating, but I can see real ways that I’m helping the larger community. Faculty that I’ve worked with have been universally cordial, and I’ve enjoyed helping them develop assessment plans for their departments. Besides: this work is going to be done. The question is whether it’s done well and whether it’s done in a way that is minimally invasive to faculty. The fact is that assessment is inevitable, particularly in large public systems. The accreditation agencies mandate (and have always mandated) regular assessment. And for reasons I won’t get into, in recent years Brooklyn College has been under immense pressure to improve our assessment efforts for accreditors. You can lament the impact of accreditation agencies but they are a fact of life. Another fact of life is that a lot of faculty simply don’t want to do the kind of work that I do. I can’t blame them! They’re already brutally overworked. That’s why my job exists, so that I can use my expertise and experience in assessment of student learning to take on some of the inevitable burden that is coming down from the college, from CUNY, from the state, from our accreditation agency, and from the feds. Is that worth the cost of my salary? I can’t possibly be the one to judge. Paying my rent depends on my believing that it is worth it. Members of this community will just have to judge for themselves.
It happens that I also think there is a profound social justice component to assessment writ large – that an American higher education system that leaves millions of students with loan debt but no degree needs to take a hard look at its learning systems to come together, as a community, and figure out how to fix things, not in a way antagonistic to faculty but with faculty as the inevitable and essential leaders of such a project. But that’s a bigger issue and one for another day.
None of this, of course, will matter to Loomis. I could have gotten a job that perfectly matched with his politics – say, Assistant Professor of Centrist Democrat Studies at Rahm Emanuel University – and he would have been mad. But it matters to me. I got a good job at a great college in a wonderful city, and I’m slowly becoming part of a community of teachers and researchers that I respect and admire. I’m thrilled to have it. It’s not perfect but I’m making the most of it. And I’m so grateful to be here.