“It ain’t what I say, it’s the way that I say it.
That’s all, brother, that’s all.”
Let us say there is a well-meaning administrator – in particular, a college president – who wants to be sure that students at her institution are benefiting as much as possible from their undergraduate educations. Clearly, this is a central concern for any college president, since that is presumably a major reason for taking the job.
The president assumes that this is a goal shared by the faculty, since it is at the heart of their own vocation. Moreover, she has heard them speak of how their various disciplines teach not only specific subject matter, but important intellectual skills and habits of mind as well. The president also assumes that, since her faculty colleagues are themselves scholars and scientists, they will have an interest in discovering whether or not their teaching is having the desired effects. And is it not the case that true professionals wish to become better and better at their chosen work?
So, the president makes a carefully prepared presentation at a faculty meeting about “competencies” and “assessment.”
What result can be expected?
The outcome may be a positive one if the faculty community in question is already comfortable with these terms and their meanings; they may be willing, perhaps even eager, to consider how best to go about such a project or to improve an initiative already undertaken.
If, on the other hand, the faculty members have not been enculturated into the world of professional higher ed jargon, which is not the same as disciplinary jargon – or, if, for that matter, they have taken issue with some of it for well-considered reasons that require serious discussion – they will be sufficiently put off by the lingo not to bother attending to the message.
To be sure, there may be other reasons for opposition. Reports have surfaced from the higher education community about faculty members who are resistant to change and wish to go on doing things in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Nonetheless, it is worth attending to the Mae West principle: it is not just the content of the message that is important, but also how that content is being communicated.
Which bring us to “competency” and “assessment.”
“Assessment” has actually been faring better among faculty members in recent years insofar as it avoids what we might call nudnik positivism (i.e., forgetting Einstein’s famous observation that “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts”) and as long as it is clear that the main goal is to make teachers better at their work, as opposed to fulfilling some misconceived external rankings system obligation. The term has thus been developing a more familiar, relatively congenial specific content, perhaps making it less necessary to use more elegant and traditional alternatives like “evaluation.” Though one should never assume.
What about the neologism “competency,” which some of us (this writer included) have avoided up to this very day? There is, to be sure, a persuasive grammatical justification for preferring “competency” to good old “competence”; this has to do with the distinction between mass nouns and count nouns. “Competence” -- like “water”, “butter”, or “common sense” -- is a mass noun, something you can have more or less of (or, in fact, none at all). “Competency,” on the other hand, operates as a count noun and is thus applicable to items you can have a specific number of – say, two, five, or 16, depending on how many you wish to list. Moreover, “competency” may be preferred over such traditional count nouns as “skill” (which may sound too narrowly technical) or “capacity” (often used of qualities that are innate).
And yet, there are reasons to distrust this term. Some have to do with the meanings it has been acquiring among change enthusiasts who seem to believe that the benefits of higher education can be achieved without significant interaction with actual, human, salaried teachers.
But, even leaving these issues aside and returning to the well-meaning among us who seek to incorporate the benefits of online resources into the essential student/teacher relationship: the very use of the term “competency” may shut down the channel because of what it seems to say about the speaker. Many inhabitants of the world of higher education – especially faculty members – are put off by professional higher ed jargon. If they find such jargon rebarbative (now, that’s a word to conjure with), they may view those who utter it as Aliens from Planet Administration.
Which brings us to a distinction made by sociolinguists and philosophers of language (who prefer greater precision in their analyses than Ms. West found sufficient) -- namely, the distinction between “illocutionary force” and “perlocutionary effect.” “Illocutionary force” refers to what a speaker intends in a communication. So, for example, when someone asks “Do you know what time it is?”, the speaker intends this as a request to be told the time. Should the addressee answer “Yes” and leave it there, that would be a failure of communication. Or, to put it another way, the perlocutionary effect (that is, the effect upon the addressee) will not have been the one hoped for.
So, returning to in the faculty meeting at issue here, the speaker president may strongly believe in the illocutionary force of terms like “competency” and “assessment,” while the perlocutionary effect on the faculty addressees may be roughly equivalent to “yadda yadda yadda.” In brief, if we want the illocutionary force to be with us, we must be ever mindful of the perlocutionary effect.
Given the increasing acceptance of the term “assessment," can we expect the same for “competency”? The very distinguished Derek Bok uses it – more often in Higher Education in America than in an earlier work, Our Underachieving Colleges. Faculty members in a number of institutions are using it – especially in reports submitted to foundations. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has recently been testing the usefulness of the term in identifying the desiderata of a high-quality liberal education.
As it happens, though, AAC&U’s president, Carol Geary Schneider, told me recently that she and others are finding the term “competency” too modest for the true goals of a mind- and horizon-expanding education. The AAC&U is planning to move to the term “proficiency.” an improvement in both substance and style that also serves better to engage the high standards of faculty members. Needless to say, Mae West would have her own reasons for preferring it.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation. She is also president emerita and professor of anthropology emerita of Barnard College.
Submitted by D.G. Myers on January 14, 2014 - 3:00am
Earlier this month I stepped into a classroom to begin the last semester of a 24-year teaching career.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not retiring. I am not “burned out.” The truth is rather more banal. Ohio State University will not be renewing my three-year contract when it expires in the spring.
The problem is tenure: with another three-year contract, I become eligible for tenure. In an era of tight budgets, there is neither money nor place for a 61-year-old white male professor who has never really fit in nor tried very hard to. (Leave aside my heterodox conservative politics and hard-to-credit publication record.)
My feelings are like glue that will not set. The pieces fall apart in my hands.
This essay is not a contribution to the "I Quit Academe" genre. (A more accurate title in my case would be "Academe Quits Me.")
Although I have become uncomfortably aware that I am out of step with the purposeful march of the 21st-century university, gladly would I have learned and gladly continued to teach for as long as my students would have had me.
The decision, though, was not my students’ to make. And I’m not at all sure that a majority would have voted to keep me around, even if they had been polled. My salary may not be large (a rounding error above the median income for white families in the U.S.), but the university can offer part-time work to three desperate adjuncts for what it pays me. (In case you're wondering, I had tenure at Texas A&M, where I was for 21 years, but relinquished it to come to Ohio State.)
A lifetime of learning has never been cost-effective, and in today’s university -- at least on the side of campus where the humanities are badly housed — no other criterion is thinkable.
My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to 7 percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up 45 percent of the faculty.
The imbalance cannot last. Doctoral programs go on awarding doctorates to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university — a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report — pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line, a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach 13 courses a year.)
If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, 9 of every 10 Ph.D. programs in English should be closed down — immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties.
Consider some of the undergraduate courses being offered in English this semester at the University of Minnesota:
Poems About Cities
Studies in Narrative: The End of the World in Literature & History
Studies in Film: Seductions: Film/Gender/Desire
The Original Walking Dead in Victorian England
Contemporary Literatures and Cultures: North American Imperialisms and Colonialisms
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: Family as Origin and Invention
Women Writing: Nags, Hags, and Vixens
The Image on the Page
Bodies, Selves, Texts
Consumer Culture and Globalization
The Western: Looking Awry
Dreams and Middle English Dream Visions
To be fair, there are also four sections of Shakespeare being offered there this semester, although these are outnumbered by five sections of Literature of Public Life (whatever that is). Maybe I’m missing something, but this course list does not make me salivate to enroll at Minnesota the way that Addison Schacht salivates to enroll in classics at the University of Chicago in Sam Munson’s 2010 novel The November Criminals:
I could study the major texts of Latin literature, to say nothing of higher-level philological pursuits, all the time. Do you know how much that excites me? Not having to do classes whose subjects are hugely, impossibly vague — like World History, like English [like Literature of Public Life]. You know, to anchor them? So they don’t dissolve because of their meaningless? I’ve looked through the sample [U of C] catalog. Holy fuck! Satire and the Silver Age. The Roman Novel. Love and Death: Eros and Transformation in Ovid. The Founding of Epic Meter. I salivated when I saw these names, because they indicate this whole world of knowledge from which I am excluded, and which I can win my way into, with luck and endurance.
That’s it exactly. The Minnesota course list does not indicate a whole world of knowledge. It indicates a miscellany of short-lived faculty enthusiasms.
More than two decades ago Alvin Kernan complained that English study “fail[s] to meet the academic requirement that true knowledge define the object it studies and systematize its analytic method to at least some modest degree,” but by then the failure itself was already two decades old. About the only thing English professors have agreed upon since the early ’70s is that they agree on nothing, and besides, agreement is beside the question. Teaching the disagreement: that’s about as close as anyone has come to restoring a sense of order to English.
In 1952, at the height of his fame, F. R. Leavis entitled a collection of essays The Common Pursuit. It was his name for the academic study of literature. No one takes the idea seriously anymore, nor does anyone ask the obvious follow-up. If English literature is not a common pursuit -- not a “great tradition,” to use Leavis’s other famous title -- then what is it doing in the curriculum? What is the rationale for studying it?
My own career (so-called) suggests the answer. Namely: where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable. Any claim to expertise is arbitrary and subject to dismissal. After 24 years of patiently acquiring literary knowledge -- plus the five years spent in graduate school at Northwestern, “exult[ing] over triumphs so minor,” as Larry McMurtry says in Moving On, “they would have been unnoticeable in any other context” -- I have been informed that my knowledge is no longer needed.
As Cardinal Newman warned, knowledge really is an end in itself. I fill no gap in the department, because there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear. Like everyone else in English, I am an extra, and the offloading of an extra is never reported or experienced as a loss.
I feel the loss, keenly, of my self-image. For 24 years I have been an English professor. Come the spring, what will I be?
My colleagues will barely notice that I am gone, but what they have yet to grasp is that the rest of the university will barely notice when they too are gone, or at least severely reduced in numbers — within the decade, I’d say.