Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Leviathan: On Technocrats, Accountability and Creative Fabrication

The message was urgent. It said the General Education Program Assessment results absolutely had to be submitted by the end of the month. It was imperative that those of us who had not yet reported our program’s results do so immediately. Or so the message said.

So I spent the greater part of this morning trying to figure out what I still needed to do to submit the results of the Humanistic Traditions I and II courses for last academic year. I have reported these results for seven years now. It did not take me long to figure out why I had not already reported the results and why I find it increasingly onerous to be charged with this little technocratic nightmare.

The Ever Expanding Job Description

Seven years ago when this program began, I was a visiting instructor in the Philosophy Department. My primary job duties at that time were to teach four courses a semester wherever I was needed. Because I am able to teach in three of our disciplines – Humanities, Religious Studies and the Philosophy of Law course – I generally have at least three if not four preparations for courses which range widely in content and methodology. As an example, yesterday I left my Latin American Humanities course where we had been talking about Cortez and the conquest to scurry across the campus to meet my Philosophy of Law course where we were discussing Kohlberg’s stages of moral reason developmental model. While this wide a range of ideas and preparations can be exhausting (and confusing –like remembering which books and student papers you need to have with you enroute to classes which inevitably meet across the campus) it is also intellectually stimulating and prevents boredom. This was what I was hired to do nine years ago. And on the dwindling number of good days I still encounter, it’s still a job I love.

In the intervening years, my job duties have grown. I have become a regular on the Honors College faculty and among the Honors in the Majors thesis committee members, chairing five such theses projects myself. I have taken on the prelaw advising for the College of Arts and Humanities for which I have been given a course release once a year (though my advising duties are year round and the release is now in question). I sit on two different curricula committees and over the past two years have sat on two search committees for new faculty members and chaired yet another. None of these duties were part of my contract as a non-tenure track instructor. And most I have at least willingly gone along with under the rubric of being a team player.

Of all of these additional, non-paid duties, the one which I have come to dislike the most is the GEP Assessment program. At a basic level, it is little more than the muddled micromanagement at the university level under the banner of “accountability” that has reduced the once noble profession of public school teaching to a technocratic nightmare driven by standardized testing. It operates out of the unsupported (and I suspect unsupportable) assumption that without some kind of empirical data that students are learning, we must assume they aren’t. The burden thus is upon departments to demonstrate learning is occurring by creating instruments which produce data which allows technocrats and their corporate overlords in Tallahassee and the board rooms beyond to rest easy at night. Those same wonderful people who brought us No Child Left Behind in which about 1/3 of all America’s children were consistently left behind without a high school diploma now have come to a university near you.

In the beginning of the program, the goal was to create learning outcomes and measurements - educational technocratese for data producing instruments. The Philosophy Department did not then and has never had a standard set of ideas which supposedly marked a bottom line in terms of student learning. The content and pedagogy of courses were left to instructors with graduate degrees hired to decide for themselves what and how to teach under the rubric of intellectual freedom. Hence the emphasis in Class A might well be different from that in Class B and indeed such might be expectable from a course which undertakes to examine all of the history of the world through the lens of the arts, religion and philosophy. Without a standard curriculum and pedagogy, measurement of all courses by the same artificial standard tells us little of value.

Though I am poorly trained to be a technocrat and have little inclination to work as such, with the help of the department chair, I created the original assessments for our two humanities courses. We identified three sets of broad learning outcomes (e.g., “To demonstrate knowledge of the meanings of an artwork, performance, or text in diverse aesthetic, historical and cultural contexts”) which would then be tested for outcomes. We devised two measures for this process. The first was a pre- and post-test of 10 identified concepts which students were to take at the beginning and end of each semester. The idea was that students would correctly identify more of the concepts on the post-test than the pre-test. The tests were placed on a webcourses site so students could access them easily. The 10 concepts were derived by asking instructors to name three concepts they thought were essential in their courses, tallying the top ten concepts and then creating a multiple choice question to test each concept. The second measure was to create embedded questions from the concepts we had identified and from which instructors were requested to create questions testing the concept embedded in another written assignment (e.g., exam, essay).

That was seven years ago. As much of a pain as it had been in the beginning, it seemed as if this new assessment process might be relatively painless. Little did we know then what lay ahead.

A Dinosaur Egg Hatches

Over the years, student participation in the pre-test + post-test process has averaged about 35% per semester. While instructors can urge students to take the assessments, it is ultimately up to students who have been taught that they are consumers operating out of the mantra of “What’s in it for me?” to actually do so. That the results are this high probably speaks more to the slightly coercive tactics of classes like my own which assign 5 points participation credit to simply taking the assessments than anything else. As for the embedded questions, over the 13 semesters I have reported results, exactly five instructors have ever reported results. To put this into perspective, we generally offer up to 15 sections of each class every semester.

Were this the only challenge of this process, I would probably just chalk it up to yet another hair-brained micromanagement plan imposed upon already overworked instructors under the rubric of “accountability.” It’s always amusing to hear the people who are most adamant about not trusting public servants who work in government while insisting upon giving absolutely free rein to the greed driven servants of profit in the private sector where transparency is unheard of. It’s also amusing to hear talk about educators needing to be accountable to a public whose conduct has been the paragon of social irresponsibility – defunding public education while imposing ever more burdens upon those actual public servants who continue to labor in the profession despite all of this.

A couple of years ago the then-director of the GEP Assessment program asserted that students were not taking the pre- and post-test because they had no “buy-in,” i.e., there was no incentive for them to take the tests without somehow benefitting their grades. This kind of thinking is expectable in an educational system that regularly confuses its purpose with that of just another provider of consumer goods and services. But the more serious problem with the Assessment program as I see it is that there has never been any buy in on the part of those expected to administer the process itself.

The reality is that no one has ever adequately explained why this process is necessary in the first place. While instructors have repeatedly been told that this is somehow beneficial for their teaching, no real demonstration of that benefit has ever been provided. Hence, to most instructors it appears as little more than one more annoying burden on an already poorly paid and overly demanding job. When pressed on this, administrators of the program often seek to reverse their required burden of proof and place it on the instructor: “Don’t you want to improve your teaching? Don’t you think you could improve?” Of course, without any demonstration that such teaching needs improvement and that this technocratic process can somehow provide valuable insights into the same, why would any reasonable instructor buy-in?

As GEP Assessments coordinator for the humanities courses, it has been my job to procure and report the results of the pre- and post-tests and the embedded questions each year. As a result I regularly find myself in the unpleasant position of being in the middle between technocrats demanding increasingly complicated results on the one hand and colleagues resisting the assessment process on the other. And if that were the only problem, it would probably be bearable. But over the last seven years, the process has taken on a life of its own. All of that came to a head this morning as I attempted to submit the urgently desired results.

The Leviathan Emerges

The original reporting process contained three measures and corresponding outcomes and six sets of drop down fill-in-the-blank boxes allowing for results to be recorded. This was a rather straight forward way of reporting the findings of the assessments. The 2011 version I encountered this morning has grown into a leviathan. The six drop down boxes has now expanded to 26 sets of multiple choice inquiries with boxes which must be checked, each box in turn requiring a drop down box for thenarrative explanation of the answer provided.

The tenor of the current reporting process is indicated at the beginning of the form: “We strongly recommend not copying directly from Microsoft Word or Excel to the rich text boxes as the text being copied may contain html and/or xml code which may hinder how the document is viewed. We suggest to first paste the text to notepad, then copy the text from notepad to the rich text box.” The notion that the technocrats operating the assessment process might actually provide a user friendly system – indeed, a particularly useable system at all - to its unpaid servants seems not to have occurred to them. From the very beginning, the burden is on the instructor.

That tenor is reflected in the content of the form. A number of the boxes contain questions that appear to have no connection to the courses whose results are being reported but require answers nonetheless. One such question asked about the use of surveys in assessing our courses, such surveys aimed at graduating seniors and alumni as well as those designed to determine “student satisfaction” and “customer satisfaction.” The use of surveys to somehow indicate whether students are learning exposes the absurdity of this entire assessment process. True pedagogy has no customers nor is it assessed by any type of student satisfaction level which could be related in a consumer survey. What is amazing is that the Factory has actually tipped its hand here to reveal the depth of its own “buy-in” to the shallow consumerist concerns of its corporate overlords.

This was the point that I realized why my results had not yet been previously submitted. I suddenly remembered that when I sought to submit my results in May just before heading out to my Fulbright trip to Brasil, the website had refused to allow submission of results from the assessments without answering all the questions. That included those that had absolutely no relation to the courses being assessed. Not only were assessment coordinators required to check a box regarding which consumer surveys they had not given and were unlikely ever to administer, they were required to offer a narrative explanation of their choices. Last May I didn’t have time to track down the appropriate technocrat to either tell me how to get around the technology or provide an appropriate non-response. So I had not submitted the results. And I have to admit this morning when that submission had become so urgent, I simply punted.

Under the question about customer surveys, I noted that the Philosophy Department did not have customers, it taught students. For the question regarding student satisfaction, I simply remarked, “Dear G-d, folks, we’re not Burger King – yet!” No doubt this will provide some heartburn for those whose livelihoods depend upon cooperative minion instructors playing the game without question, that “buy-in” thing again. I hasten to add here that I do not wish them ill, personally. But creating increasingly burdensome forms which require answering inapplicable, unanswerable questions and then justifying them with narrative explanations merits a little heartburn if not a reality check for those who impose such burdens on others. While I doubt it will make any difference, if one of them stops for one nanosecond to perhaps question the sanity – much less the real utility – of any of this stupidity, it will have been worth the effort.

For the record, I’m not holding my breath.

Someone Else Will Get Saddled With It….

After I had finally gotten the site to accept the submission of my actual results along with all the bullshit I had to make up to get the report accepted, I wrote the coordinator who had admonished us to submit our reports in light of the urgency of the situation. I noted that I had finally gotten the reports to submit, adding that the process had become onerous and time consuming. I didn’t mention that the process had become impracticable and required creative fabrication to even submit the required forms. The response I got was to thank me and then to suggest that perhaps someone else in the department should take over “these tasks.”

There is no hint in this response of any kind of gratitude for having gotten the process off the ground to begin with and the seven years of unpaid effort which have followed. As with most technocrats, it’s a matter of “What have you done for me lately?” There is also no recognition of my repeated efforts to make clear to the assessment lords that until they make their case for the need for this process, they will get neither instructor nor student “buy-in.” Not surprisingly, it does not respond to my ongoing challenge of the presumptions of the need to prove learning through artificially contrived empirical data or the need for instructors to improve their class through such data. These are not things that technocrats - either the true believers in the “accountability” ideology or those absolutely desperate to hold managerial positions of questionable value - want to hear.

Of course, the reason I got saddled with this job in the first place is because I was low man in seniority in the department at the time and had no choice. When you’re seeking a full-time slot, you’re willing to do a lot of things you wouldn’t do if you had a real choice. My yearly offers to give up my crown as GEP Assessments Queen have drawn no takers. No one else wanted to do this bullshit then and my guess is that no one wants to take it over from me now. If I am relieved of this burden, my guess is that it will simply be the result of there finally being someone beneath me on the seniority pecking order.

I was circumspect in my response to the director’s suggestion that someone should replace me. “Thank you.” I said, adding, “I’ve been saying that for the last couple of years.” And perhaps someone will take it over for me. Of course, that will make this process no more particularly useful to any of us. It will also make it no less onerous and time consuming. It will simply mean that I will no longer have to be bothered with it.

Socrates wept.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando



If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tebowie: The Tone Deaf Would-Be Hero

Jimmy Fallon has outdone himself this time. I love Jimmy, particularly his ability to laugh at himself and others, giggling amidst his routines. But his recent video in which he combines David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Tim Tebow’s antics on and off the football field is priceless.

Dressed as Bowie, complete with Mohawk, platform boots and face paint, Fallon combines Tebow’s Bronco’s jersey and sings the following:

"Tim Tebow to Jesus Christ...commencing fourth-down hut, hut, hike.
Snap the football and may G-d’s love be with me….
This is Jesus Christ to Tim Tebow...
please leave me alone...
don't you know my day of rest is Sunday...
and I'm sick of watching all these Broncos games.
I hear you play New England next week.
Dude, you’re on your own…."

It's clever and amusing. And, in Fallon’s inimitable manner, he manages to tread gingerly on a subject that has roused passionate commentary both for and against the young man some are calling “G-d’s quarterback.” My guess is that even Timmy boy probably found it entertaining.

Civil Liberties v. Consideration for Others

I find myself puzzled at why I find this whole thing so troubling. As a civil libertarian, I strongly support Tebow’s right to speak freely and to believe as he sees fit. But what troubles me about his behavior is what I see as an increasing tendency in a media-driven culture to think in the superficial and simplistic terms lacking context or complexity, a pattern that underlies most fundamentalisms today.

The question is not whether Tebow can presume that G-d has provided him the sports arena for proselytizing as he has suggested. Clearly he does presume that. Rather, the question is why he would.

The other question is why he would presume a right to ignore and thus abuse the context of this behavior so completely. There are many in his audiences who do not wish to have simplistic religious ideation imposed upon them as the cost for watching a professional sporting event. While Tebow has the right to believe and express himself as he sees fit, the question is why he does not recognize and honor the responsibilities to others which his behaviors ignore and trample in the process. As with most adolescent libertarians, a focus on individual rights, freedoms and liberties almost inevitably ends up in the trampling of the rights of others and the demeaning of the public sphere.

Tone Deafness to Context

I should quickly add here that I do not share the view that some are asserting that Tebow should somehow be prohibited from his network proselytizing. We’re not talking about a breach of protocol such as Robert Novak’s revelation in The Washington Post of Valerie Plame’s undercover status as a CIA agent, a move designed to besmirch her husband Joe Wilson’s reputation and protect George Bush’s deceit which prompted our invasion of Iraq. Novak’s column cost a number of lives of Plame’s contacts around the world and would result in the indictment of Bush aide Scooter Libby.

Tebow’s conduct, on the other hand, is more analogous to the frat boy who shows up at the wedding rehearsal party intoxicated and includes in his toast comments bawdy stories about bride-to-be laced with profanities. In other contexts (such as the locker room) the off-color sexual jokes and the crude language might be appropriate but not in a setting where such behavior is unexpected and undesired by the bulk of the attendees. It’s not behavior that merits intervention or punishment, it’s simply inappropriate given the context and a failure of consideration for others.

I also find the critique of many who see Tebow as somehow insincere or hypocritical as pretty shallow. I have no doubt that Tebow believes what he says. Indeed, I sense that it is precisely those beliefs from which his work in charity arises.

What is perhaps most frustrating for this Franciscan in watching this debacle is that Tebow’s actions off the field make a far more convincing case for his religious beliefs than anything he might say at a press conference or any pious theodrama performed in an endzone. Here Timmy might learn an important lesson from another young man of privilege who after conversion spent a lifetime serving the less fortunate of his day. St. Francis of Assisi might well sit down this young quarterback and teach him an important lesson: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words – and theatrics – only when necessary.”

Gratitude for Unearned Privilege, Not Divine Favor

What is ironic in the many paeans to Tebow flooding the internet and airwaves is that the overriding commentary seeks to construct an image of this young man as somehow humble. For the most part, Tim is respectful of his teammates (though clearly not his audience) and like most evangelicals who confuse conventional middle class morality with religion probably wouldn’t utter profanities like “Shit!” even if he had a mouthful. He’s a good boy, as we say here in the South.

But, like most evangelicals, he is also entirely lacking in insight when it comes to his religion. After his miraculous comeback performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers, tossing a pass for an 80 yard touchdown in overtime to stay alive in the NFL playoffs, Tebow reacted as follows:

Teow after congratulating his Roman receiver knelt on one knee and thanked God. His recollections convey the essential Tebow. "When I saw him scoring," recalled the victorious quarterback, "first of all, I just thought, 'Thank you, Lord.' (from R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., “Thank you, God, for Tim Tebow,” American Spectator)

In all honesty, Tebow has much to be thankful for. If he’s being honest with himself, he will thank G-d for winning the genetic lottery that provided him with the superior musculature, speed and endurance that have helped him become a professional athlete. A single allele on his DNA chain configured differently and he could have been born with Downs Syndrome or a spina bifida. He is also the beneficiary of unearned privilege as a white, straight male born into a wealthy family in a culture which provides unearned privilege for all of those attributes.

There is also nothing inappropriate about thanking G-d for a performance which evidences the best and fullest use of all the skills one has been given the potential to develop. Being the best football player that a man with Tebow’s potential has been given is admirable. Indeed, anything less would squander those gifts, a failure of both gratitude and self-actualization.

Where Tebow goes off the rails – and loses all pretenses of humility - is when his words and behaviors suggest that somehow the divine intervenes in that performance to permit him and his team victory over another team. There’s a great deal of difference between praying that G-d will help you to do your very best given the gifts you have been privileged to receive and worked hard to develop and suggesting that somehow G-d was involved in the outcome of a sporting event.

The Gods were not smiling Sunday

Tebow’s behavior suggests a very limited vision of the deity. It is little different from the tribal gods of any honor-shame culture in which one’s validity and value are presumed from victory and the favor of the gods as instrumental to that victory. The clear implication is that the god is on the side of the winner, an idea which dates to ancient cultures which long precede the evangelical Protestantism that Mr. Tebow practices.

Moreover, when Tebow, like most evangelicals, speaks of Jesus Christ as his “personal lord and savior” to whom credit for an athletic performance must be given, the implication of such a statement is that the deity has somehow chosen this particular individual to favor. Somehow, seeing Tim Tebow in the same light as the saints of the church or the Hebrew prophets just doesn’t ring true. And as the second playoff game against New England suggests, this is a fickle deity. Indeed, using the honor/shame tribal deity interpretation, either the gods loved Tom Brady and his Patriots more than Tebow and his Broncos or the latter must have done something major to offend the gods. Thank G-d Colorado has outlawed human sacrifice.

I watched the Tebow fall from grace in snatches between watching the very moving The King’s Speech on Showtime and the smarmy Collision with Earth on SyFy. It made for a rather surreal post-modern experience made possible by remote controls and the multiple channels of the cable television age. I’m glad to have had some alternatives to the drubbing in Gillette Stadium. While I wasn’t particularly invested in the game, I have to admit that by half-time, I was feeling positively sorry for Tebow. I like this kid and I continue to think he’s generally a nice young man if a bit hard headed. And that night, nice guys not only finished last, they were positively embarrassed.

The pre-game show featured Tebow engaging some disabled young adults, hugging them, smiling and laughing. This is a Tebow who is eminently admirable. How much of that is NFL and television channel puffery and how much is real is unclear. But given Tebow’s work with charities away from the field, I tend to think it’s perhaps more indicative of his character than his religious rantings. Which is why his periodic lapses into a glazed over automaton status to proselytize inappropriately are so troubling.

Like most evangelicals, Tebow is tone deaf to the counterproductive potential of his endeavors. Where a handful of religious conservatives and social conservative bloggers will no doubt find Tebow’s religious antics on and off the field to be acceptable if not admirable, to the wider public the lack of consideration for others is immediately evident. Never underestimate the conservative devotion to self-interest and corresponding oblivion to duties to others.

A Tribal Deity in a Commercial Venue

But what is the implication of a religion which demands its followers seek to impose their religion in any venue regardless of the context? What kind of G-d would invert the Great Commandment such that the consideration of the feelings of one’s neighbor implicit in loving them as oneself would be entirely negated in an obsessive drive to convert them to one’s religious ideational system? What demons of doubt drive such obsessions?

Finally, what kind of religion would find commercial sporting venues appropriate for proselytizing? The selling of a faith in a G-d who supposedly stands outside of time - much less his own creation - in venues which emphasize instant gratification consumerism (it’s all about me) and competition (he who dies with the most toys wins) does not speak of gods who are eternal and omnipotent. Rather it speaks to constructions of the divine whose credibility and compelling natures turn on the vicissitudes of the market and the sporting arena. That’s perhaps a very American way of constructing G-d but it hardly speaks to a G-d worth trusting, much less worshipping.

At some level, I also see this as a matter of maturity. Tebow is young. He has much growing up to do both athletically as well as personally. In time, perhaps he will learn important lessons about the freedoms of expression and religion and the contextual concerns for time, place and manner not to mention consideration of others. It is my prayer that he does. I have supported him for a long time and I continue to do so now despite my reservations about his religious behaviors. As always, I continue to wish Tim Tebow well. Go Gator!

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Survey Says…..

My copies of the Student Perceptions of Instruction from my fall classes arrived in my box last week. As usual, they offered little of value in terms of useful feedback even as they could have. But I have come to expect little more from the Factory and the corporate overlords it now unabashedly serves.

Take Our Survey – Win $1000!

The initial page of the survey provides a key to the comments which follow. The first two questions are particularly insightful:

1) The thing(s) I liked the MOST about this course;
2) The thing(s) I liked the LEAST about this course.

Of course, all of us are familiar with these questions. They are the questions we find on customer service surveys left on our tables with the checks at the end of dinner in a number of chain restaurants. We also encounter them at the customer service surveys we discover when we actually go to the online sites provided on our check out receipts from Home Depot or J.C. Penney, ostensibly to win $1000 or some such nonsense. Such questions may actually provide valuable feedback to the producers of restaurant meals, potted plants or bathroom curtains. But their utility in offering useful feedback to college instructors is largely missing.

The fact that a given consumer, formerly known as a student, liked or disliked a given course or a given aspect of the course’s pedagogy really tells the instructor nothing about the appropriateness of that pedagogy. Indeed, some of the most educationally useful pedagogies include aspects that students routinely hate – e.g., mandatory class attendance, critical reflection assignments, research papers. Conversely, commonly used pedagogies that the current crop of products of Pavlovian high stakes testing have come to expect such as multiple choice quizzes (with lots of time to go look up answers if given online) as well as cattle call auditorium classes where one’s absence can go unnoticed are fairly consistently shown to be popular but have little - perhaps even negative - pedagogical value.

In short, what a consumer likes or dislikes about a given class provides a college instructor charged with creating and executing pedagogies designed to help students become educated human beings little to work with. Indeed, they don’t even offer much to those technocrats who mistakenly see their role as stamping out obedient worker drones who emerge from vocational training factories with a bare minimum of skills and the work credential which is replacing the college degree.

“I want to be left alone…”

In years past, student evaluations (the predecessor to what is now accurately described as mere perceptions of instruction by students) were administered in class. The instructor read the directions, designated a student to distribute, collect and return the evaluations to the departmental or college office and then left the room. The evaluations took place in the context of the real live human being who taught the course. And they generally were completed by virtually the entire class present in the classroom the final day of classes.

I have for years preceded the instructor evaluation with a student self-evaluation in which students assessed their own performances in attendance, preparation, engagement, consideration and honesty before assessing mine. We used a form I created which allowed them to score their performance in each of those categories on the scale provided. It provided space to explain any given aspect of their performance and at the end, the student totaled the scores from each category, compared the sum to the grade scale for the whole exercise and then was asked to explain whether that grade accurately reflected their engagement of the class. Students took the exercise seriously because it advised the instructor on how to award the last 25 points of engagement credit.

The initial point of this exercise was to encourage students to reflect on their own performance in the course and hold themselves accountable. That the exercise immediately preceded the instructor evaluation also reinforced the notion that, like the medieval notion of the universitas, education occurs in the context of the whole body – all of the parties – participating. Without the context of the students’ performance, evaluation of an instructor’s performance is ultimately meaningless (which is the primary reason that assessing schools and teachers by student test results alone is profoundly misguided). It is a system that has worked for many years prior to its replacement by the current consumerist model.

Ironically, while the new survey was designed to provide results in a quick and easy fashion for bureaucrats with OCD tendencies when it comes to empirical data, students have largely resisted these surveys. Of the 71 students in my four courses this semester, only 40 actually had completed the Student Perception of Instruction survey when the results were printed out and sent to instructors last week. That’s a mere 56% of all the students, a far cry from the near 100% participation on instructor evaluations of the past. This raises a validity issue regarding the results from the very start. Instructors are charged with teaching all of their students, not just those who might actually answer a survey.

A more serious concern arises from the shift from in-person administration of these surveys to the current online administration. The removal of the actual human being from the process lends itself to an expectable and widely demonstrated dehumanizing effect. Study after study has observed that the tenor of commentary about other people tends in the direction of negativity online. Anyone who’s lived through a flame war online knows this tendency only too well. It’s a lot easier to take pot shots at people who aren’t present from the safe anonymity of cyberspace than when they’re standing in front of you.

To make matters worse, the Factory, recognizing the obvious problem in student participation on these surveys, has resorted to coercive tactics to insure students finally take the surveys. Of course, the students are only demonstrating expectable consumerist behaviors - Why bother? What’s in it for me? But while only 56% of my students had completed their surveys by the time the report was generated, the majority of the remaining 44% will ultimately comply if they wish to register for classes, the Factory having blocked their accounts until then. One can only imagine the tenor of comments compelled by such means.

Texas Hold ‘Em – Please!

It would be tempting to simply ignore the current consumerism that passes for instructor evaluations as just one more irritation imposed upon those struggling to survive in what was once a noble profession. Sadly, these Student Perceptions of Instruction offer little useful feedback for instructors primarily due to the underlying premises of the enterprise. It is simply one more aspect of the mindlessness that surrounds the educational enterprise in America today.

But it’s particularly disappointing when an effective, thoughtful evaluation which provided a contextual background for student responses might well provide instructors with valuable information about how to structure and teach their classes. The metalesson of such a feedback process could reinforce the notion of mutual responsibilities to the educational process. The current model merely reinforces the notion that students are consumers with little to no responsibility to anyone else, even to their own educational processes.

But wait! There’s more!

The Factory and its corporate overlords in Tallahassee are beginning to make noises that the mindless corporatism of Texas may be coming to a state near you. Under the system currently being implemented in Texas and praised by a number of Florida legislators and the governor, consumerist surveys such as the SPI could become major factors in everything from hiring to raises to promotions to firings. Combined with proposals to end tenure, evaluate instructors based upon how many students complete their courses and how many are employed after graduation, consumer surveys could become a major component in the careers of public servants in educational institutions.

Of course, there is little concern for actual education in this approach. Granted, that assumes that its proponents actually care about an educated public, ostensibly the purpose for public schools. As noted above, the primary concern for the vassals of the corporate world who run our state government today and the technocrats who implement those imperatives is an obedient, minimally trained work force largely headed toward service industry jobs. It is a sad day for a state with enormous potential I once loved in a once mighty nation I once believed in which today is clearly descending into decline.

Reed and Wright

I am the fourth generation of educators in my family. My great grandparents were named Reed and Wright. They were both teachers. I have devoted 32 years of my life to the goal of insuring the educated public necessary for a democratic society. The current practices of higher education do not serve that goal, they serve the greed-driven imperatives of business. There’s not much place for true educators in the emerging system. And while the people of Florida don’t know it yet, the current trajectory of technocrats implementing corporate directives which are profoundly shaping our educational system is going to produce a very different Florida within as little as one decade. I shudder to think of that possibility.

This is a pathologically myopic path we are pursuing. While it is possible to change course before our society completely derails, it is looking less and less likely such will happen. As Yeats observed, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” Increasingly it is my sad realization tht one of the few consolations my life still holds is that I will not live long enough to see the full repercussions of this abandonment of the goal of insuring an educated public in America.

Socrates wept.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.