assessment

It used to be the most boring word: assessment. In the beginning of my master’s program, I thought there could be nothing more mind-numbing. That was before. Before I became involved with assessment, and before I understood its power. In the first chapter of her book, Assessment Clear and Simple, Barbara Walvoord underscores this point when she declares that “the end of assessment is action” (4). Assessment, done correctly and by educators and stakeholders who are passionate about student learning and creative in their practices can bring about positive changes at the curricular, program and even institutional levels. In his article, “English Program Assessment and the Institutional Context,” John Ulrich describes two functions (or perhaps, motivations?) behind assessment: the first is that it is a very smart thing for any English department or writing program to engage in, purely for defense purposes. In an increasingly hostile academic environment, a strong assessment system can buffer against administrator ire. It can also perhaps be used as evidence to support an argument for, say, funding. The other function of assessment is to help teachers teach better. “What we want, after all,” Ulrich declares, “is to read and discuss our students’ written work in the context of program expectations, not analyze abstract sets of scores that allegedly ‘measure’ our program’s effectiveness” (4). The contrast here, is I think, between my original assumption of what assessment was (boring! abstract! lacking context!) and what I’ve come to realize it can be (extremely strategic! useful! helpful for teaching!).
Now, I’ve been involved in program assessment at two different universities, and both focused on Composition Program assessment. For this reason, it was fascinating to read through Wilder and Wolfe’s study, “Sharing the Tacit Rhetorical Knowledge of the Literary Scholar.” Thinking through what assessment means in a Literature context, I realize there are some key differences between comp. and lit. contexts. Yet, there are perhaps more similarities. Walvoord’s straightforward strategies for assessment can be applied to either corner of the English department writ. large. Just one more reason to acknowledge the importance of building in assessment across programs.

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