Gallagher, “Being There”

Gallagher, Chris W. “Being There: (Re)Making the Assessment Scene” CCC 62.3 Feb 2011. (26 pages)

Gallagher frames the persistent tensions among “stakeholders” in assessment within the concept of an assessment scene: circumscribed around economic values of neoliberalism and organized around the god-term of accountability.

He begins by noting that—in lieu of consensus—assessment researchers can claim agreement with some basic principles: “namely, that writing assessment should be site-based, locally controlled, context-sensitive, rhetorically based, accessible, and theoretically consistent” (450-1). However, “despite the wealth of compelling research on and descriptions of local assessments, standardized testing continues to make inroads in higher education, and upper administrators, policy-makers, and the general public continue to imagine faculty and students as targets of assessment rather than generators of it” (451-2). Gallagher considers the political and economic environment that allows for such a dissonance to occur. Namely, he offers a Burkean analysis using the notion of scene as a framework.

Gallagher describes Burke’s notion of scene in three senses:

  1. “It refers to the physical environs surrounding discourse but also the realm of ideas, including ‘historical epochs, cultural movements, and social institutions.’”
  2. “Scenes are often constituted, and thereby controlled, through the use of god-terms: ‘we posit a world, in the sense that we can treat the world in terms of it, seeing all as emanations, near and far, of its light” (453). In other words, a guiding principle that works as a hub where other ideas branch out from it in spokes. In this sense, it is mean to explain everything; as such, god-terms “explain too little by explaining too much” (453)
  3. All scenes are defined by circumferences: that is by placing ‘the object of one’s definition in contexts of varying scope’” (453)

First, Gallagher notes how a neoliberalism—which “combines classical liberalism’s commitment to freedom, faith in the free market, and governmental noninterference (except to protect the market and promote militarization)” (453)—has drawn a circumference around assessment demarcated around economic concerns such as efficiency, self-regulation within the system, ranking and mainting competition. Neoliberalism takes as its god-term accountability, described by Gallagher as transactional: “consists of institutions furnishing evidence that they are good investments to those who foot the bill” (455). In this way, the circumference of the scene (defined by neoliberal ideology) defines all problems as economic; thus, the solution must also be economy(etr)ic (456). Thus, “institutions provide ‘accounts,’ and ‘consumers’ spend their education dollars in ways that maximize self-interest” (456). Assessment, then, “furnish data for direct inter-institutional comparisons, and they believe only externally designed standardized tests will provide such data” (456).

Given this political framework to understand motive behind assessment designs and formats, Gallagher challenges the “stakeholder theory” of intervention, that which claims that “all interest groups [from policy makers to teachers to students] are equal—equal stakes, equal say—and it assumes a ‘marketplace of ideas’ in which reasoned arguments among sovereign subjects will carry the day” (459). However, such a theory of intervention does not acknowledge the ways in which the measurement community has defined the structures of participation which often does not value assessment researchers: “if our perspectives and positions are not valued or even recognized, then these challenges are unlikely to transform the scene. If they are heard at all, they likely will be received as the predictable complaints and excuses of recalcitrant ‘stakeholders’” (461). In the bureaucratic-institutional model of authority—defined by large-scale assessment institutions—“those closest to and most involved in the central activity of the system—teaching and learning—are accorded the least primacy and authority” (463).

However, Gallagher acknowledges that these models “fail to account for the fact that those who interact at the scene of instruction do exert agency. In other words, for all the effort neoliberal reformers put into conducting end runs around faculty and students, being there matters” (463). Assessment policies are not executed at the administrative level; they are executed by local actors. Given this context, Gallagher notes that teachers, in the end, do have strength in their relations and connections.

He offers up the logic of the network as a means of finding agency within this system. Teachers find themselves at a pivotal location within the system’s assessment network. As Gallagher notes, proximity and involvement are key, and can be charted in three aspects:

  1. Betweenness: “the extent to which an actor lies between other actors in the network. It is an index of the control an actor has over what flows through the system”
  2. Closeness: “the extent to which an actor is near other actors in the network. It is an index of the accessibility an actor has to what flows through the system”
  3. Degree: “the number of ties, or linkages, an act has to other actors in the network. It is an index of direct access that an actor has to other actors in the network” (466).

Gallagher indexes teachers highly among these factors.

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