THIRTY YEARS AS A TEACHER: THINKING OF ASSESSMENT

In a couple of days I will be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of my career as a university teacher. I was hired as a youthful 25-year-old and time passes that fast. I believe it is an important anniversary, though I am not sure yet what sort of watershed this is. Until the 2008 crisis (I think), university teachers with 30 years’ experience were allowed to retire with a full pension, provided they were at least 55. This privilege is now long gone and since retirement for my baby-boomer cohort will most likely be at 70, this means that I am only two thirds into my career, which may extend up to 45 years. This is a daunting thought. If I think 15 years into the past, then I go back to 2006, the pre-crisis world that belongs to another era. This is when I realize that 15 more years –climate change willing– are still very many to go.

Having got rid of these melancholy thoughts, I must say that I do not wish to use this post to reminisce about the first 30 years in my career. This is not an uncommon figure for my demographic or older and I am sure that the recollections of other persons are juicier. I would like to consider instead the devaluation of experience and the overvaluation of innovation, though, as you will see, I will soon enter into other matters, the main one being assessment.

I am certainly an experienced teacher but students –who, as a friend said, get younger and younger as we teachers age though they are always the same age– are a constant reminder that teaching experience is only relatively valuable. A long experience means that each session –seminar, lecture– takes less to prepare but since our audience is different each year experience does little for the finetuning of mutual communication. Students are in some sense eternally the same, and in many others very different, as corresponds to members of different generations. My first students are now nearing 50, the ones I’ll start teaching tomorrow are about 19. When I started I was only 7 years older than my second-year students, I am now 36 years older, and the time might come when I am 50 years older than my ever young students. My case, which is absolutely very common, means then that the more experienced teachers of my age group are, the more disconnected we grow from our students. Teaching innovation is supposed to bridge that gap though no doubt the greatest innovation would be going back to hiring full-time 25-year-old to teach undergrads. Currently, the average age of Spanish university teachers is my age, 55.

The problem with the concept of innovation is that it does not really address the nature of education in depth. I think that I am entitled to say after 30 years that what is wrong with education is assessment. I don’t know how Aristotle or Socrates taught their students but, somehow, I don’t see them marking papers. Or worrying about whether a disciple was copying from another disciple’s exercise. Everyone understands that a romantic relationship in which one of the partners never loses from sight the possibility of cheating is unhealthy. In contrast, higher education assumes that students will and do cheat. This is supposed to be in the nature of students, those devious creatures!, but it is actually part of the nature of education as it is now. In romantic relationships monogamy tends to be a hurdle if one of the partners does not believe in it (I read in the paper that a surge in infidelity is expected, now that employees are going back to the offices after the worst of Covid-19 is over). Likewise, assessment is an open invitation to cheating because who can really agree to being assessed all the time?

Assessment is the opposite of education for the very simple reason that it is not a mechanism to check the advance of learning but to prevent students from cheating (= doing as they like). Let me give you an example. In my Cultural Studies course I want my students to read and study independently David Walton’s extremely informative Introduction to Cultural Studies: Learning through Practice. This is the only book they need to read, as we will be working with pop songs, and texts such as opinion articles, reviews and interviews. To make sure that students do read Walton’s book, I have valued this part of the course with a hefty 25% of the final grade. For me to assess that students have studied the book, they need to submit a 500-word essay based on the passage they prefer from the whole text. Well, I have already had a student ask me whether they need to read the whole book, in an attempt to open a negotiation about how much really they need to read. I am simply not interested in this kind of negotiation and I have, therefore, decided to avoid assessment and make students responsible for their self-assessment (using a rubric I will provide) for the whole subject.

This is not the first time I leave assessment in the students’ hands. In the past academic year I invited my MA students to self-assess, also on the basis of a rubric, and this worked very well in the sense that nobody cheated and gave themselves a higher grade than they deserved (in my view). The tension always affecting this aspect of teaching evaporated and we could focus on what really mattered, which was producing a book together. As I return again to project-oriented learning with this new BA class, it makes more and more sense for me to educate students into being responsible for their own work. If a student decides to resist my efforts to educate them, then they should be responsible for awarding themselves a fail, not I. I do not think a person is led onto the path of adulthood by teachers’ assuming the burden of assessing students who refuse to do their best. I want my students to blossom into responsible adults and this should begin by their understanding that trying to cheat on me or any other teacher either through actual academic offence or simply by not being sufficiently involved is immature and, well, childish. Not what undergrads should do.

In the last ten or eleven years I’ve had second-year BA student self-assess their grade for classroom participation (meaning actual involvement, not just attendance), which usually amounts to 10% of the final grade. This has worked well and in the last five years, more or less, I have hardly ever altered any of the grades. I must explain that rubrics are essential for self-assessment. A student may believe that they deserve, say, an 8/B+ but when faced with the description of the learning results actually deserving of an 8/B+ they will think twice. I’ve had students having to painfully acknowledge they deserve a 0 (is that an F?) and others proudly claiming they did wonderfully, but I have never had a student question this practice and tell me that my job consists of assessing them. Actually, the time I don’t waste in assessment is time they gain in other types of attention from me (for instance, last year I made myself available online one hour a week just for chatting about the books we were reading – I loved those sessions!). I do not know if I am going too far this year by having third/fourth year students self-assess all their exercises, maybe I am, but I just don’t want assessment to interfere with teaching.

I am well aware that what I am saying here cannot work with all degrees or subjects, and works best when the whole class is involved in a common project. My worry right now is not who will pass and who will fail but whether I will be able to convince my 27 students in Cultural Studies that our common aim is not filling in 6 credits but producing a book. None of my students can fail, for all need to be good enough writers to participate in our project, which means that I will use most of my time to correct and edit their work in at least two versions (I use rewriting all the time). This method, of course, has nothing to do with cramming in, say, Medicine or Law Studies and with the need to constantly test whether the future doctor or lawyer has advanced enough to be able to engage in increasingly specialized knowledge. I have a woefully poor knowledge of how other disciplines work, including the Linguistics area in my own Department, but I have this total certainty, based on my experience, that assessment is too important in higher education and needs to be either limited, or altered, or abandoned for ever.

Suppressing assessment possibly sounds wonderful to the laziest students (and teachers!) but I am not speaking of a free-for-all by which you end up earning a degree by doing nothing except registering. No, what I mean is the opposite: assessment has all this protagonism because we don’t trust our students to really want to learn, and need to push them around so that they learn enough stuff to at least pass assessment. Carrot and stick, stick and carrot. As I know, both as a former student who did well at exams and as a teacher who hates exams, assessment is not learning. I am still assessed regularly as a teacher and as a researcher, and I can say for good than the highest pleasure of learning usually come to me when I work on activities which escape assessment –including this blog. Perhaps for you, dear readers, the conclusion is that I have learned nothing in 30 years of teaching and that resisting education is part of education, which makes assessment necessary. The way society is structured, assessment operates at all levels to weed out slackers and incompetent employees, and to reward the most brilliant minds with money for their research or prizes, yet this only replicates what we face from day one in kindergarten. Isn’t it time we change tack?

I wonder what students think about this – or are they the first ones to defend assessment?

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

(NOT) TRAINING STUDENTS FOR JOBS: EMPLOYABILITY, TEAMWORK, DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES

I’ll begin today with a semantic quibble about the presence of the word ‘Bachelor’ in the name of the degree ‘Bachelor of Arts’ or BA.

Pop etymology indicates that the Medieval Latin word ‘baccalaureatus’ derives from Latin ‘baccalaureus’, a portmanteau of ‘bacca’ (berry) and ‘laurea’ (‘laurel’), because of the laurel crown awarded to graduates as if they were Roman victors. In Spanish this eventually gave ‘bachiller’, which refers to the man with a secondary education; ‘bachillera’ was used mockingly, since women were not educated to this level until the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. The word ‘bachillerato’, still used for the two-year course after E.S.O. and before university has, then, that peculiar origin. For higher education, Spanish preferred ‘licenciado’, that is to say, the person who has a license to teach to others what he has mastered (note my sexist choice of pronoun), usually in a five-year course. Now we have ‘graduado’ in imitation of English ‘graduate’. ‘Bachelor’ appears in English as an import from French meaning a young man in training, whether this is in arms or in academic knowledge, hence the eventual use of the word for the degree. Also for the man who remained single for life, as, I assume, that was the case for many minor knights and scholars too poor to marry (besides, bachelors eventually took orders, or already belonged to them). So, ladies, think how funny it is that you claim to have a Bachelor of Arts degree.

This prologue is just the opening salvo for what I want to discuss to day: what is the point of a BA in the Humanities, and specially in English Studies? Please, note that I mean the Spanish-style BA combining Language and Literature in a four-year course, not English in the Anglo-American sense of the study of the literary arts, though my argument also applies in many ways. My post today is specifically a very personal response to the assessment the degree I work for has gone through. We have passed it though not with flying colours because it seems we have shortcomings to solve in three areas, or, rather, types of skills: employability, teamwork and digital skills.

To understand what we’re going through now, I need to mention that universities are Medieval institutions that have survived the vagaries of time because they are very slowly to change. In recent years, meaning within the timespan of my own personal memory, this change has been accelerated with very questionable results. I am constantly narrating here how as researchers we are constantly on the verge of burnout but hardly given any psychological support, much less reward. I won’t go again through the tragedy of the chronically exploited younger staff. Rather, the focus is why we have degrees at all.

The old focus was that degrees exist to enhance the territory of knowledge, and, so, ‘Filología Inglesa’ first saw the light in 1952 in the Universidad de Salamanca because it was such a shame that English language and Literature were so woefully unknown in Spanish scholarly circles. The initial reason why ‘licenciaturas’ were established, then, was self-centred in the sense that the presence of the student body justified the tenure of the staff, so that they could generate knowledge mainly for scholarly use. The students attended university to benefit from, so to speak, the fallout of academic life and perhaps enter it themselves. Students who did not pursue an academic career (95%) were supposed to get an education, not necessarily professional training. The education was supposed to give them general credentials to find a job beyond the specific knowledge they had earned. A ‘licenciatura’ in ‘Filosofía y Letras’ meant that you were competent, intelligent and capable of further learning.

The current model–established in 2009 after an intermediate period in which ‘licenciaturas’ were reduced to four years rather than five and before MA degrees were established in Spain–is radically different. Now universities need to justify their very existence depending on what they contribute to society via results, usually connected with the employability of students. Let me give you an example. Suppose you have, as we do, a German language and Literature unit, which contributes to our BA degree and to others in the Facultat. As long as student demand of German reaches a minimum, this section survives. If, as happened in Universitat Rovira i Virgili years ago, the demand dwindles dramatically, then the section is closed, regardless of the research it contributes. There is usually a time of transition during which the State will wait for the tenured teachers to retire and will hire no more staff (or only associates that can be dismissed). But, yes, whole segments of knowledge can be lost in this way, and I’m not talking about obsolete science.

In this market-oriented new model, then, teaching matters more than research when deciding which Departments you keep alive and, what is more, even though universities are formally research centres, the cost of keeping certain units open is calculated on teaching-related statistics. Now, here’s the problem: we know that we’re giving our students an education but we do not know what it is for. Furthermore, if you think about it, BA degrees should not worry about employability because they exist as a bridge between secondary education and the advanced education provided by MA degrees and doctoral programmes. Technically, then, the burden of employability should fall on the MAs, which is not an exaggeration considering that old ‘licenciaturas’ were five-years long, thus the sum total of UK-styles BA and MA programmes (3+2 courses).

Employability is a very tricky question for a BA degree in English Studies: 75% of our students will end up being secondary-school teachers, whether they have a vocation or not, but 25% are open to other possibilities (jobs in management or in professions connected with publishing, translating, writing and so on). We cannot formally train our students to be teachers, for this task corresponds to the School of Education (though, paradoxically, they train mainly primary school teachers). So, we proceed on the basis that whatever our students learn will be later applied to their future profession through some intermediate stage, whether this is a formal MA or direct work experience.

As a Literature teacher, then, I train my students in skills that are 100% of direct scholarly application, should they decide to pursue an academic career, but that are supposed to be also of general applicability in any professional occupation requiring intellectual abilities (reading and interpreting texts, seeking sources, giving presentations, writing reports, and so on). I use a mixture of the traditional and the new model. I cannot, however, organize my teaching around the idea that I’m training students for professions they don’t even know they will have. As for teacher-training, well, I wasn’t trained myself: I made a good note of what my teachers did and then copied what I think worked best. Other than presenting myself as a model to follow or not, I don’t know how to train future teachers, thinking besides that they might teach secondary school, which I have never taught, and against a mid-21st century background with God knows what kind of classroom technology (and students!).

Teamwork is an obsession with current regulators of educational rules that in practice all students hate. This is why they don’t like participating in class discussion, which is our basic, most uniformly used type of teamwork. I keep on telling my students that classroom work is collaboration and that I’m not there to lecture (only sometimes) but to guide them in collective discussion–if only for the sake of practising English. They do know that a class is a team which must work together but this is resisted every day in class. If I ask my students to work in pairs or in small groups of up to four and then walk around and talk to each little group that works well (though our classroom space is hardly designed for that). Ask them, however, to work in teams on a project and you have that typical situation: out of, say, five students, two do nothing, two do a little and one does everything, which ends up benefitting the lazy ones. Perhaps that is realistic training for actual job-related situations but students tend to see teamwork as frustrating (at least in this little corner of the university where I work). This is why I have tried other kinds of teamwork: producing collective volumes as e-books (available from the digital repository). The problem, I’m told, is that this is not visible in the official syllabus. Well, it is not because I’m still experimenting (this year, for instance, I’m thinking of applying project-oriented teaching to second year teaching, rather than third and fourth).

Digital skills–here I feel like screaming…!!! Teachers born in the 1960s and before should be learning digital skills from the digital natives in their classroom and not the other way round. We have self-trained at each point since the internet first reached Spain (in 1996) to use e-mail, online catalogues and databases, blogs, websites and the social networks. I don’t understand, then, why we should be made responsible for the digital training of our students–persons who often sit in class compulsively checking their cellphones rather than listening to us. Just let me explain that I do want to have my students collaborate in a booktube channel and produce basic documentaries to accompany papers or dissertations. However, when I asked my university for help to learn the required skills, they basically told me that they lack the budget and the facilities. I asked next the student delegation to find me a student with advanced audiovisual know-how who could train me and other students, supposing that we must have some vloggers in our classrooms. So far, no luck. I contacted then a professional company but they asked for 1000 euros which with our ridiculous yearly budgets is an impossible quantity (we get now one fourth of the money I could use back in 2005-8 as Head of Department and that was already very little).

I am, in short, plain angry to be constantly judged, as a teacher and as a researcher, by standards that can never be met because they are fundamentally elusive. Also the other way round: I have the suspicion that the standards chosen are elusive so that we can never be up to task. It’s this constant feeling that you’re working hard to run a 100-metre race and when you get to the starting line than you’re told that actually you must also compete in other events for which you didn’t know you had to train. If you manage you get some inkling, by the next time you’re assessed rules have, anyway, changed again.

The market, in short, wants to invest as little as possible in educating citizens, preferring instead to train workers that must have skills universally employable so that they can be moved around from one badly-paid job to the next. The market wants, in addition, to have us, university teachers, assume the burden of passing on skills for which we have not been trained, while at the same time it undermines the respectability of the academic skills we do possess. I often feel that the message I’m being sent is that, as a Literature teacher, I am a useless luxury and, as such, society would be better off without me. And I’m not speaking here of myself personally but of all Literature teachers in the world.

I must, then, justify how what I teach trains the university’s clients (are they still students?) for employability, team work and the use of digital technologies. Well, I have a double answer to that: a) obviously and b) not at all, depending on whether you are willing to value what we, Literature teachers do, or not. We can always improve our teaching in relation to our own subject needs but we cannot turn critical scholarly work on William Shakespeare into skills generally needed for current jobs. It is the employers’ responsibility to train employees, not ours, for we’re educators–and that’s a different set of skills. Don’t make us, then, shoulder a burden which belongs to the market, not to the university.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/