Lies, Damned Lies, and Course Evaluations

Lies, Damned Lies, and Course Evaluations

It was a rueful day, a remorseful day, when behaviorism began to dominate psychological discourse. The fashion of reductivism found in neopositivism gave it birth, the form of industrial production gave it growth, the politics of fascism gave it mastery. The interwar vehicles of perceiving human consciousness as driven by elemental biologies had its symbolic life in eugenics and its political desires in colonialism. It took over workplaces from factories to universities, and around 1989, in my experience, it spawned an instrument of social and pedagogic control in higher education called the student course evaluation.

In part a response to the transparent lack of accountability of the university to any wider social context, in part a bone thrown to students whose tuition costs were beginning to skyrocket, these ‘instruments’, so-called in an appeal to scientistic objectivism, these ‘metrics’, these ‘rubrics’, solicited student responses to a variety of experiences. Their main internal task was to document the feelings of the audience, the reviews of the emerging clientele – indeed, such instruments were part of the story of how students began to perceive of themselves as clients, consumers, buyers, rather than apprentices or even interested onlookers – but their latent function, the cleverness of their design and their very presence, was to pit faculty and students against one another in light of previous decades of university unrest which often saw these two groups allied forcefully against administration and government. They were a minor, obscure child of the abrupt turn toward a neo-conservative politics in the 1980s, brought on mostly by economic shifts that saw women in the workplace and public life on the brighter side, overall wage earning down and an inward seeking sensibility that attempted an escape from the public life of the polis on the darker. Sectarianism, the opportunistic politics of millennial ‘redemption’ and civil religion, the erosion of the middle class, an explosion in the arms race and its determined calculation of annihilation were the hallmarks of this period.

And calculation is the essence of reductive behaviorism. To generate a number, a ‘score’, by way of some dubious battery – dubious in the light of human science methodology and epistemology, dubious in the light of art, of the poetics of teaching, dubious in the shape of the transgressor of the love of learning, a red death irruptive to the masque of classroom drama –  was the mirror of this essence. Scores may be compared to one another, of course. A hierarchy of the good may be constructed. Ratiocination accepts this manipulation, but what do the scores represent? To what to do they refer? We are good or bad with reference to the scores. The battery of tests is said to mirror student concerns. What of the unasked questions? What are the sources of the concerns? Why are psychometric variables claimed to be the most important to students? Why do young persons demand control, organization, structure, information, predictability, skill, and timeless unthought from their mentors and their teachers? How have these forms of life taken their vaunted place in the consciousness of youth?

Certainly the world around us is unpredictable. Human life is by nature finite, uncertain, both inside of itself and in its projections, be these metaphysical – is there more to life than life itself? – and in its objects – entropy, decay, deliberate erasure, as in the concentration camps and asylum systems, as well as the leading but blunted edge of our political memories. No doubt, from the very first, humans have sought to control and manipulate the environments they found themselves inhabiting. Our skill in doing so is one of the greatest virtues of humanity, one of our ‘identity statements’, as it were. It defines us as unique, without respect to the great diversity of ways one can both subsist and exist as human in the world.

Of late, the sense that the world around us must be controlled has taken on a more desperate ardor. It has about it the aura of anxiety, even of neurosis. We feel we must know, and not merely hope or think. We must predict and not predicate, we would rather act than contemplate. When someone asks us, ‘How did I do?’ – the range covers everything from first dates to teaching a course to killing each other legally or illegally – we find it more comfortable to respond with ratios. The scores of the ‘kill ratio’ in times of war are of great import to training and tactics. The scores of student course evaluations influence career outcomes, wages, and personnel decisions. They excite the population of ‘teaching centers’, drive aspects of the ideologies of faculties of education, assuage students that their presence and voice ‘counts’ for something, and keep academics – notoriously unmanageable relative to other kinds of workers – looking over their shoulders. Most importantly, however, such ‘instruments’ push scholars to communicate the work of consciousness in a manner that befits bourgeois production and sentiment. Quantity with the gloss of quality, something that tastes good but arrives quickly, that has a similar effect as the dizzy-knee heroin of Disney heroines, and something that can be consumed with reference to social climbing – the accreditation of the middle classes originally aped their betters, starting around 1830 such new classes began to have the leisure time and wealth to become ‘cultured’ – such are the characteristics of transmissive models of education and the levels of their curricula in today’s university.

Shall we question the modes of production and consumption that give rise to the anxieties concerning certainty and predictability? Shall we question the sources of an anxiety that desires to control both itself and others? Shall we interrogate the battery of instrumental design that questions any attempts to lose itself in the compassion for human uncertainty, the facts of finitude, the breath exhaled by the dying?

In the gas chambers, the cyanide was pumped in through vents in the ceiling. Even so, the victims struggled upwards, for this was the only visible opening and ventilation. They died in a writhing naked pile of themselves, their children at the bottom. Their scores were poor. They had failed the test of a better humanity. They had not evolved, or socially climbed, high enough to avoid their ‘deserved’ fate. Thus they were in the way of ‘progress’. They represented the uncertainty, the undertones, the subterranean presence of what ratiocinated anxiety demands become absent. They were anthropological alterities, their afterlives to be avoided, their after-effects to be extinguished. Such a presence, containing its own non-presence unnerving and surreal seen in the light of the fascism of numeric nothingness, can only be overcome by an even more uncanny response that in fact makes evil what was before merely uncontrollable and unavoidable difference.

Before teaching to the demands of organization, structure, control, lightheaded language and heavy-set hierarchy; before testing your abilities as pedagogues through the use of instruments designed to celebrate specific and narrow sets of outcomes; before committing your own creativity and that of your students to a premature burial under the sediment of psychometrics and the sentiment of a greeting card, consider dispensing with quantifiable evaluations of all kinds. Ask your community of learners to write about their experiences and how they have shaped their perception of the world and of themselves. If such responses have a place in managing professors, we will be better able to understand why what we attempt to do in the classroom and elsewhere has some serious meaning.