An Honest Question

When assessment is framed around justifying return on investment, we have a conflict of interest. 

October 16, 2014

This stream of consciousness was provoked by a job ad that a Twitter friend linked to seeking a librarian whose role would be assessment and marketing. At first I thought perhaps they want to hire someone who lead assessment of student learning and also do some promotional work for the library - help publicize new electronic resources, populate an interesting Twitter feed or Tumblr, take charge of those television screens that seem to be sprouting all over campuses and need to be fed advertisements for events and such. Librarians often have multiple responsibilities.

But no. The library is seeking a librarian who is "interested in using the results of library assessment to promote the value of the library to the university as part of our our strategic communications program." The audience is the higher administrators who probably don't use the library but hold the purse strings. 

Last August I wrote about the two kinds of research that seem to be confused in our discipline, market research and scholarly research. Library culture is closely aligned with tech culture and we are often more exposed to market research methods and assumptions than we are to scholarly research methods and assumptions. I argued that we should take the scholar's way: ask questions and pursue them ethically for the purpose of understanding, not collect data to sell a product or support a marketing message.  

We find ourselves, like all of higher education, gored on the horns of a dilemma, When we do assessment, are we honestly trying to find out what is going on with our students so that we can figure out what practices improve or inhibit learning? Or are we simply trying to demonstrate a good return on investment? We're forced into the position of doing both, and that's a problem, because it's a conflict of interest. Rather than ask questions or pose hypotheses with an open mind, we are told to gather data to show our value. Is student learning valuable? Sure. But that doesn't address the problem. 

In spite of its being widely believed that assessment is an absolute (if often unfunded) mandate and we have no choice but to do it, I have never really discovered what decision-makers do with this information other then file it or raise a ruckus if it's not produced on time. My approach has been to give it a slightly subversive twist and take the demand for assessment as an invitation to be curious, but since I believe in the ethical underpinnings of information use, that curiosity should be satisfied using standard research ethics (being open to evidence that disproves my hypothesis, informed consent, etc.). If it is driven by defensiveness or shaped to arrive at the virtually foregone conclusion that our library is valuable and shouldn't be closed, it's an invitation to dishonest research. 

Years ago, when I got involved in designing a faculty-owned faculty development program, we were very careful to keep a strict separation between teacher evaluation and support for faculty who were interested in improving their teaching. If participants thought they were being judged, they would be less inclined to take risks or admit that they see room for improvement. Likewise, news organizations used to have a fairly strict wall between newsgathering and the business end of the operation. The leaked Innovation Report from The New York Times suggests that wall, which helped maintain journalistic independence, is growing more permeable for economic reasons. It seems to me there needs to be a line drawn between honestly assessing how well various campus units fulfill their missions and making a case for their very existence to upper administration. When assessment becomes market research - or evidence that we shouldn't be shut down - I think we're losing the opportunity to ask honest questions.



Back to Top