Saturday, April 10, 2004

Assessment-Land; Vermeer's Milkmaid

It's Holy Saturday, and now, I think, I have a bit more distance from our faculty's Thursday discussion of assessment.  Then after that, I'd like to talk at some length about Vermeer's beautiful painting.
Where to start?  Perhaps with the truism that American education, because of demands from parents and businesses and government, is driven by the requirement that it assess its students and itself.  Fine (I guess).  I'm ambivalent because I certainly believe that schools need to demonstrate in some way that they are fulfilling their mission; but what is irksome is that the assessment models the accreditation agencies have adopted recently are essentially cribbed from Total Quality Management models and then allegedly tinkered with to fit the work that happens in a college or university.  The trouble is simply that actual learning is fiendishly difficult to quantify--and since all schools declare, in some form or fashion in their mission statements, that they seek to shape their students into productive citizens, how the heck does one measure THAT?It is tempting--and many faculty do this--to blame assesment models on the administration, but they have no choice: the accrediting agency tells the schools, "This is the model and the language we'll be using for assessment, and, assuming you want to retain your accreditation (duh!), this is what YOU'LL be using, too."So, then: On Thursday, the president (whom I have great respect for, talked about our new assessment model, something called AQIP (which stands for something but whose meaning escapes me--and in any event, as I'll note late, it doesn't much matter what it stands for).  Among other things, she mentioned that it was a model that had been borrowed from business but had been reworked so as to fit better with the work colleges do.  So far, so good.  But then we moved into our "break out sessions" (a term whose connotations spin in myriad not-necessarily-desirable directions), and Jim, one of my fellow English faculty, led us through how this model is supposed to work.  He began by saying that everyone who has any sort of investment in the success of the school is termed a "stakeholder."  Internal stakeholders are those people who receive a paycheck from the school; external stakeholders are everyone else: the community, businesses, government . . . and students???  "Oh, really?" I asked Jim.  "Students are external stakeholders?"  "Yes"  "Well: I certainly have learned something new today."  The minute Jim told us this, it was clear that, at least as far as student were concerned, the only modification of the business model was that, while we wouldn't be referring to students as "customers" (thank God), they weren't re-imagined as being anything other than customers.Here's the trouble with that analogy: its presumption is that an education is what's for sale, just like widgets.  The model breaks down, though, when one considers what an education actually is.  Buying a widget doesn't make one smarter; it doesn't fundamentally transform the purchaser.  An education is supposed to do that by design, though.  In other words, students may start out as external stakeholders, but while they not become internal stakeholders as defined in this model, they certainly don't remain external ones as defined by that model.That becomes even more obvious when we get to the assessment process itself: we in the faculty are supposed to assess the learning of our students--our "outcome," to use the model's language.  Yet in the process model we were given, which shows us what elements contribute to the Outcome, "students" are one of those elements.  Never mind that, as an open-admissions campus, we have no control over the quality of students we admit; how can external stakeholders also logically be considered intrinsic to the "product" the school produces--and, for that matter, as passive an element of the process as wood is when making widgets?The system is inconsistent on its own terms; how then will it produce accurate assessments?  What makes some of us even more cynical is the strong suspicion that, even as this model has been handed to us as the One True Assessment Model, in another 5 or so years we'll find ourselves in another in-service meeting being introduced to another One True Assessment Model."He loved Big Brother."
On to Vermeer now.For about about 3 days now, my friend Susan and I have been "talking" (actually, e-mailing back and forth) about two paintings by Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and The Milkmaid. I am entranced by The Milkmaid: the cool yet inviting light; the woman's intense gaze as she pours; the textures of the bread and ceramics and baskets.  But even more: how this painting radiates welcome and even nurturing.  The bread, the milk she pours, are for me.  It is the humblest of communions, and therein lies its beauty, despite the dinginess of the room we find ourselves in.  The center of the painting is the space within the rough circle described by the woman's arms and shoulders--to be precise, her left breast is the painting's center.  So, then: it is more than the sense that she serves me; it is as though the very bread and the milk she pours comes from her in some essential way--note how her apron is hiked up around her left hip, as if to suggest that the jug of milk had been under her apron.  To that end, it's a bit unnerving even as it entrances.  Vermeer is a poet, Susan says; I compared him to someone like Stevens, someone whose poems aren't rooted in time because they are about metaphysics and not about the material.  But the presentness of this painting is undeniable.  It is timeless.  It may lack the utterly ethereal quality of the paintings depicting women reading letters or Woman Holding a Balance or Girl with a Pearl Earring, but that coarse bread and thick milk provide sustenance a-plenty.

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