Scott & Brannon, “Democracy, Struggle, and the Praxis of Assessment”

Scott, Tony & Lil Brannon, “Democracy, Struggle, and the Praxis of Assessment” CCC 65.2 (Dec. 2013): 273-298.

Scott and Brannon—like Gallagher, Huot, and Broad—see program assessment “as a site of struggle for the democratization of education” (275). Because of this, assessments need to “account for how power, the harsh economics of staffing, and sometimes irreconcilable ways of thinking about writing education necessitate struggle and acknowledgement and representation of dissonance” (276). In other words, assessments should account for the multiplicity of values involved in a program, often values that are influenced by multiple factors including varying disciplinary experiences and role within an institution.

They use Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope as a guiding principle: “chronotope (or ­time-space) [is] a means of describing how cultural and material factors serve to frame utterances, creating the common terrains upon which at least a degree of mutual understanding can be achieved through words…chronotope is a way of identifying the narrative elements selected to form the foundations on which meaning can be cooperatively made in a given place and time” (276). As they write, assessments “help produce the chronotopes in which the work of first-year writing is performed and managed, naturalizing common assumptions and investing common practices with authority. Assessments codify particular value systems” (277). As such, they designed an assessment—mandated by the university (higher) administration—that would acknowledge the terms of labor for teachers in their program “which we felt were highly exploitive and constantly undermined any effort to maintain a writing program of consistently high quality for our students” (277). In other words, they wanted to draw attention to pedagogical consequences of underfunding both contingent faculty and the program that helps train them.

In their assessment, they found that different groups staked their stance in different ways. For example, the contingent, lecturer faculty “[exhibit] a desire to reach agreement among themselves. …They are more given to co-constructing collective stances than distinguishing and arguing their own stances” (284). As they authors write, such consensus does not allow for dialectical ways of constructing values: they don’t develop any sort of metadiscourse about writing.  In fact, as they write, contigent faculty “have little incentive for public disagreement, and they have little stake in broad institutional and disciplinary debates over what writing is or how it should be valued” (285).

In contrast, “the tenure-track faculty establishes their expertise with their peers through staking out different positions in writing education:…this group establishes expertise by applying what they learned together in a specific era of the program as the most important aspects of writing. Disagreements surface but then are largely unacknowledged as they seek a sense of certainty through talking toward consensus on a common standard” (284-5). And finally, rhet/comp faculty “discussed what they valued, they approach moments of dissensus as opportunities for clarifying positions and differences, rather than as problems that needed to be overcome” (285).  The authors, accordingly, advocate for ways to represent dissensus in an assessment, particularly one that also remains satisfactory to administrators and accrediting bodies.

Their assessment involved producing two different scoring guides, reflecting two major value systems manifest within their program: “their report delivered two sets of numbers, without favoring one stance over the other” thus making clear that “any standard, any set of values and criteria, is constructed, materially situated, and in contention. They wanted to show that students’ work sorts out differently, depending on which value system dominates” (290).

But they also wanted to show, through their reported assessment, that contingent faculty with minimum requirements rely upon skimp training or standards to be able to teach within the program; accordingly, if a scoring guide was built through the consensus of the contingent faculty, then it wouldn’t show these deficiencies in faculty development and support, but would show high rates of validity based on the constructed set of values. As the authors write, “through emphasizing outcomes measurement, such assessment can support the continuance of ‘business as usual’ in a writing program, providing evidence that all is well enough in the current structure and undermining arguments for more resources and a full-time, professionally vested teaching faculty” (291).

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