Sorting out how the Powers-that-Be yield their power by watching local wardens

We also need what might be called an “ethnography of the exercise of power” if we are to trace the detail of the exercise of this political power for whatever purposes, whether nefarious or the contrary

Those who follow this blog may remember that I had to contribute my two bits to a discussion about “promoting diversity” in our department, programs, teaching, etc. (February 25, 2014).  I may also heave mentioned a while back that I was charged to write an “Assessment of Learning Outcomes” report for the programs in anthropology.

Note the passive voice in “I had to…,” “I was charged.”  I started the diversity entry with a reference to the “Powers that Be” (PtBs).  Those, of course, are Latourian black boxes.  But that is not saying much, yet.  Actually, the particular acts that triggered my own activity where made by various individuals (deans, department chairs, etc.) who were very specifically told to tell me that I no choice but to perform the tasks whether as faculty member (for the diversity thing) or a program coordinator (for the assessment thing).  Still, none of these individuals originated the requirement that I do “it.”  As they all said, apologetically often, is that they were “passing on” the requirement from higher (? The right metaphor?) up.

This could be a call to “follow the network” of particular people told to ask other particular people to do the specific things (and they are very specific indeed).  I tried to do something like that once (2007).  It could also be a call to reveal the “bricolage” (to put it as blandly as possible) that “Those Who are Told” (TWaTs [?!]) must engage in to produce what the PtBs will accept as good enough for the current purposes.  Jill Koyama (2010) did some of this in relation to administrators, teachers, and parents, in the local worlds NCLB produced.

I would like to suggest that we also need something else if we are to trace the detail of the exercise of political power for whatever purposes, whether nefarious or the contrary.  This is partly an expansion of my critique of Foucault’s panopticon analogy.  The requirement to produce “Assessments of Learning Outcomes” is undoubtedly part of the attempt to discipline university teaching through examination.  And it includes a threat of punishment (loss of accreditation, and thus of students, and thus of economic survival for a university) through the reports by various wardens and wardens of wardens that something was (not) done (appropriately).

But none of these considerations tell us much about the relationship between inmates and wardens (TWaTs and their immediate PtBs).  So, a year ago, when I assumed the position of program coordinator, I received an e-mail that started with:

Now that we have settled into the new academic year, I would like to remind you that the data collection from the assessments of student learning outcomes begins this year. The Advisory Committee for the Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes (ASLO) chose the competency area of Inquiry, Research, and Scholarship as a focus for 2012-2013. This means that by the end of this year, each program will have collected and analyzed data on student learning outcomes related to Inquiry, Research, and Scholarship and used the results to assess its effectiveness and/or make improvements.

Who exactly is “ASLO” was not specified, but the steps that were to be taken, as well as the identity of the authoritative PtP-for-me-at-this-moment was clear.  I would not deal with ASLO but with her and I would have to satisfy her.  Given the enormous amount of text to be produced by each program at Teachers College (perhaps more than 100 pages for anthropology), I suspect that no one but her will have read everything.  Her PtBs will have to trust her.

Actually, this PtB is a very nice helpful person who has been very good at dealing with my various frustrations, as well as firmly telling me what would pass and what would not, what was under a program coordinator’s control (and, by implication, the faculty) and what was not.  For example, in the big charts that I was given to fill, one column cannot be changed.  These are “TC goals” negotiated and passed by the College, as TWaT by its relevant PtB.  Some of them are obvious (“Professional Practice: Demonstrate mastery of the content and methodology of their discipline or profession”); I, personally, find others problematic (“Diversity, Multiculturalism, Social Justice, and Advocacy: Appreciate diversity, understand nature and causes of injustice, and take actions to promote better world”).  But I cannot change any of this and, furthermore, I must fit what we do, or at least some of it, as evidence that we actually assess our students on whether they “take action to promote a better world.”  When I questioned the latter, the steel came out as I was told, sternly, “Don’t you try to get your students to make it a better world?”  “Of course” was my reply as I continued to search for what would count as evidence that we do. (This is where bricolage might come into play…)

So, our local PtB has been working with me editing an older text that partly worked as what it will have to be and partly did not work.  She will tell me whether a recent draft works.  I will edit further and, I am sure, something will get produced that will pass.  How exactly this will get done, and who will be involved in this passing, and how long this passing will pass, all that remains to in the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *