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Change Magazine - September-October 2014
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September-October 2014

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Editorial: The Ivory Tower of Babel

After having been a champion of campus-specific strategies for the decade I was responsible for overseeing assessment in Virginia, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that we needed comparable information on student learning in order to address the stunningly unanswerable question a legislator asked me at the end of that time: “So, how're we doin'?” Meaning, I concluded, is all a matter of compared to what. Your 80 percent pass rate on a home-grown exam bears no relation to a similar pass rate on my home-grown exam.

I've been harping on this theme—tediously, I'm afraid—for a long time now, but it is raised again in this issue by Paul L. Gaston's article on the myriad terms we use to describe fields, programs, degrees, titles, and just about everything else in the academy. This verbal proliferation is due in part to the somewhat hubristic conviction that what we do is unique, a product of the celebrated diversity of American higher education. But I suspect it also emerges from the desire not to be compared to anyone else. As a provost once said to me, her university could always claim to have the best program in X if it was the only program in X.

The resultant absurdity was brought home to me when my son, who is a part-time adjunct professor at a college of art, told me he wanted to become a “full professor.” No, I told him, you don't mean that—you mean you want to become a … and then I couldn't think of what to call someone who would be a more-or-less permanent full-time faculty member with a contract but not on the tenure track at that particular college. He is the son of two (full) professors and I edit a magazine on higher education, and we didn't know what to call what he wanted to be. Such people are called “general faculty” at my university, but every campus has its own monikers for them.

Our terminological difficulties extend to data definitions, which proliferate like kudzu. We can't even decide what to call what we want to measure, never mind agree on the metrics themselves. The Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA), described by Christine M. Keller in this issue, has made a great leap forward in getting a number of campuses to agree to a set of categories and metrics by which to measure student progress and learning—ones that actually enable comparisons to be made. Now there's something that I wish would spread like kudzu!

Think about how much a standard vocabulary would facilitate conversations between people who are now virtually unable to communicate: business people and academics, for instance, who may not mean the same thing by “problem solving” but who might be able to agree on the essential features shared by their definitions. Perhaps even the communication breakdown between President Obama and leaders in the HBCU community described by Marybeth Gasman and Heather Collins would benefit from some terminological clarity.

Gaston calls for consistency and clarity in our language. I second him heartily, given how often my job turns out to be translating the cabalistic academic language of some submissions to this magazine into Standard English. In responding to the pressures on higher education to be more transparent, the developers of the VSA too recognized that if you want to see through a window, it has to be made of clear glass.

Gaston understands, though, that it is not just a standardization of terms we need to achieve but a “genuine national consensus on what degrees mean in terms of what graduates can be expected to know and to do.” There are some encouraging signs out there that such a consensus may be beginning to emerge. In addition to the Degree Qualifications Profile, the recent addition of the AAC&U's VALUE rubrics to the measures of student learning that participating campuses can use in the VSA's College Portrait acknowledges the various ways students can develop and demonstrate, say, quantitative literacy while signaling agreement on the “core characteristics considered to be critical for judging the quality of student work in [that] outcome area.”

And who knows? Common expectations about students' knowledge and abilities (what they should be and when they should attain them) could smooth out some of the rough spots in distance mentoring, as Analia Albuja and Steven A. Greenlaw describe them. And clarity about what we want to accomplish may make it easier to know where to invest our resources, as Jay Kenton suggests. I've always believed that the real mission statement of an institution is to be found in its budget. But numbers and words have to have straightforward, standardized definitions if that statement is to make what is now obscure transparent.       

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