In an earlier post, I mentioned my confusion when I was asked by Ed Gordon to consult for a “Commission on the Future of Assessment” he is convening. The first meeting of this commission is to happen in June and I am now expected to write a few pages based on a mini-conference held last Monday (April 11, 2011) at Teachers College. A longer paper is to be written later.
The mini-conference brought together Robbie McClintock, Ray McDermott, Kathryn Anderson-Levitt and half-a-dozen recent doctorates (Gus Andrews, Alex Posecznick) and students. A grand intellectual time was had by all, and I will be writing about various highlights of the conversation in future blogs entries.
For today, I want to muse about one theme to which we kept coming back: who is our audience? Are we addressing each other, sympathetic anthropologists, students (“the choir”)? Are we addressing Ed Gordon who convened us? The Educational Testing Service that is funding the commission and is, of course, a most powerful designer of tests and other means to assess large populations? The universities and other institutions that buy the tests or their results, and that may also shape mass assessment, whether directly (through, for example, their admissions practices), or indirectly (through research and other activities that justify or interpret assessment)? The “policy makers,” an altogether opaque “group” (?) who propose programs to deal with what the test results appear to reveal? The politicians who may or may not accept what policy makers propose? The tested people, or their parents or guardians, who organize their life around future test taking, of past test results?
Those who know my recent work as it has been influenced by students like Jill Koyama or Gus Andrews will recognize in this paragraph a very sketchy sketch of a “network” in what may be Latour’s sense. In this network each node (which is itself a complicated network) is constrained by what happens elsewhere and constraints what can happen there. Together, they may constitute what Ray McDermott and I talk about when we write about “the School America builds” (1998).
Ah! The pleasures of analysis!
This leaves us with the practical problem: Given our position in the network (some backwater of the research university), who will even notice that we have spoken? Where should we stand so that we will have a better chance not only to be heard, but also listened to?
This, of course is a general and classical problem for anthropologists. Different anthropologists, from Boas to Margaret Mead, to Geertz (to mention only some who are now part of the history of the field), have given very different answers and entered very different publics–or withdrawn from them. As faculty in schools of education, all of us have had to accept, mostly willingly I would say, the position of spokesperson about anthropology or philosophy to an audience of students, and some faculty colleagues, whose main concerns are with action in the world beyond the analytic or interpretive action most typical of academic researchers. It is said that some of our colleagues in academic anthropology argue that anthropology should not be “applied” and that, I guess by implication, anthropologists should not address the public.
Many anthropologists disagree with this. The American Anthropological Association regularly passes resolutions on the hot political topic of the day. But we are talking here about doing much more than that. We are talking about entering ongoing conversations about assessment with professionals and political actors of all types and, potentially, or inevitably, run the risk of being co-opted back into what we criticize. We are talking about changing discourses and, we hope, practices not mainly in classrooms and local schools, but rather at the level of the governmental institutions that control what is to be known legitimately about individual schools, teachers and, of course, students. We are talking about entering the political fray and finding a way to be listened to.
We certainly did not find out how to do this. But we need to keep addressing the issue.