Adler-Kassner and Harrington, “Responsibility and Composition’s Future”

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Harrington Susanmarie. “Responsibility and Compostion’s Future in the Twenty-first centry: Reframing ‘Accountability’” CCC 62.1 Sept. 2010 (28 pages)

Adler-Kassner and Harrington challenge what they see as a dominating framework in how education and assessment is configured. Namely, they challenge the accountability framework that seeks to “gather information to target the problem(s) and create solution(s) to remedy the situation” (74). As they write, such a structure has shaped individuals and groups perceptions of what is and is not plausible: they are connected to the stories we tell about education and, as such, legitimizes the framework by attaching it to meta-narratives of literacy crises that impacts economic forces. They argue, here, that the accountability frame is inappropriate in discussions about teaching and learning and offer, instead, a responsibility framework that takes into account theories of composition and dialogue.

Often in the narratives associated with accountability systems, fundamental questions are left unanswered: “who is accountable to whom, for what purposes, for whose benefit, by which means, and with what consequences?” (77). To answer these questions, the authors note that we can look to the assessments that support and facilitate the accountability system: “it is through assessment that institutions (and, sometimes, instructors and programs) are expected to convey a number of features of their work” (77). Traditionally, accountability has been defined as a means of keeping power in check: “the term tends to be associated with ‘answerability’—‘being accountable to somebody implies the obligation to respond to nasty questions and, vice versa, that holding somebody accountable implies the opportunity to ask uncomfortable questions” (Schedler 13 qtd in AK&H 84). Such a conception leads to the formula: “A is accountable to B when A is obligated to inform B about A’s…actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct” (Schedler 17 qtd in AK&H 84). It has traditionally been the case that A refers to the state and B to the people, but in the context of education, it has evolved to intersect with incorporate practices from business and industry “such as the idea of total quality management” (82). As such, A refers to educators and B refers to employers. In this way, the teacher’s judgments are devalued over standardized accountability that transcends the teacher contexts that teachers are typically plugged into. “The message here: secondary and postsecondary educators alike should be accountable to those who understand what is required for success in the twenty-first-century economy. Teachers, these documents say, don’t possess this knowledge. Instead, it is located among employers and experts—government officials, educational administrators” (85).

Instead, Adler-Kassner and Harrington offer the framework of responsibility that better aligns with what Composition Studies wants. The responsibility framework is conceived along three ideas:

  1. Identifying and working from principle and best practice: such work is rooted in the documents that our field have created to demonstrate some shared and sanctioned practices of assessment.
  2. Building alliances with others: “a process that involves active listening and dialogue” (87), both with writing professionals (instructors, program directors, department chairs) and broaden constituencies (other faculty, staff, administrators, students, and community members). We should be engaging others “in the full process of assessment, thinking with them (rather than handing to them) about what ‘good writing’ means and looks like” (88).
  3. Engaging in (and assessing) shared actions based on common interests: changes and decisions are made based on dialogue with several constituents and distribute cognitive network.

Put simply, the authors are theorizing the frameworks of assessment that are more valid: what is the quality of the decisions we are making about students that the assessments make possible? What do we need to know about our students, courses, and programs in order to make valid decisions? And who needs to be involved to make those valid decisions?


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