1984 Redux: Corporate Takeover of a University

By Scott Abbott – 

What is needed is the strategic withdrawal of forms of labor which will only be noticed by management: all of the machineries of self-surveillance that have no effect whatsoever on the delivery of education, but which managerialism could not exist without.

                                    Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

“Faculty Success” is the name for the system UVU uses for annual reporting. The name brings a knowing smile to readers of Orwell’s 1984 with its Ministries of Truth, Plenty, Peace, and Love. The Watermark™ website reveals that the goal of “Faculty Success” is to provide data for the administrators who will pay for the system. Note the sections below that make clear 1) whose institution they are talking about when they say “your institution” and 2) the underlying reliance on student feedback and on raw data for administrators who make decisions on merit, tenure, and promotions:

6 Ways to Use Faculty Evaluation Data at Your Institution

Institutions can gather student feedback on teacher performance and course effectiveness to make concrete improvements at the classroom, course, and department levels. Course and teacher evaluation data provides a valuable basis for institutional planning and progress.

Higher education institutions have found several actionable ways to turn raw faculty evaluation data into goals for measurable improvement. Information gathered from faculty evaluations can help administrators:

1. Inform Faculty Promotions and Reviews

One of the most significant benefits of teacher evaluation surveys is their ability to inform faculty development and decisions about academic promotions. Administrators consider student satisfaction scores when making decisions about merit, tenure, and promotions. Evaluation reports also help administrators evaluate faculty and teacher performance over the years. By pulling reports on teacher performance and comparing them with others, administrators and other institutional decision-makers can gain better insights into teaching quality.

Capture faculty information once—use it infinitely, the site boasts.

            And how are administrators to capture raw data? Through the required instrument of self-surveillance titled “Faculty Annual Review Report: 2022-23.”         

Like many documents at UVU, this one begins with a mistake, an absent preposition. No big deal—I’m prone to such mistakes myself. But since the document will be used to note my mistakes…:

But the next section, in what I see as a Freudian slip, asks me to classify my performance as a teacher in the third person. I am to say that I “exceeds” or “meets” expectations. An administrator would certify that “he meets” expectations. I can only classify my own performance.

Because it is a required section marked by an *, I will type thoughts about my teaching in the relevant box. During every class I teach, after every class I teach, at the end of the week and the end of the semester, I ask myself what I could have done better. I incorporate the answers in the next class, over the rest of the semester and in classes offered in subsequent semesters. I speak about teaching with colleagues, learn from colleagues, question colleagues, share doubts with colleagues, celebrate work that goes well with colleagues. Those conversations translate into better classes. Filling out this box for the annual evaluation does my students no good; it steals time from me I could use as I plan my next classes. I am required to produce a report managers will use to assess my work. For what purpose? To give them something to manage.

One might argue that comments in this section will add context to the SRIs—student responses to instruction—which rate my teaching in numbers and brief comments. Context is good; but as former UVU professor of philosophy Thi Nguyen points out in his recent work on value capture, neither quantitative nor qualitative evaluations can be adequately interpreted by administrators at some distance from the specific curriculum and the major, minor, and beginning students in a department’s classes:

 Qualitative evaluations require significant shared background knowledge to adequately interpret. When we transform information from a qualitative to a quantitative format, we strip off much of the nuance, texture, and context-sensitivity.

Administrators reading my annual evaluation along with the SRI scores made available by the “Faculty Success” system will have a sense they can make valid judgments about my teaching and that those judgments can facilitate better teaching. They cannot. They do no.

Having finished the comments section, I must mark one of the 5 circles, otherwise the system will not save and pass on my report.

I could mark the one that says I “exceeds” expectations. I’m a good teacher. I love teaching. But I’m left wondering just whose expectations “he” is being measured against. Are they the expectations of some supposedly impartial system that knows exactly what the expectations are and that can precisely calculate how “he” performs as a teacher? The expectation of SRI scores that rank me near the top of all UVU faculty with a 4.95 or perfect 5?

This makes little sense to me. I decide that the expectations I should be asking about are my own. When I evaluate my teaching in terms of my own high and hopeful expectation, I find that I never meet those expectations. There is always something I wish I could do better. I want to be a better teacher. “Sometimes meets [my] expectations” feels right to me. And I don’t mind the “must improve their performance in order to meet the expectations of their job.” That fits my sense as a teaching professional nicely.

If I were pre-tenure or pre-promotion I would likely bow to the system rather than opposing it, would try to fathom just what expectations administrators impose as they work to manage professors they see as employees. The pressure to conform to problematic requirements is eased by tenure…exactly why tenure is critically important for a healthy university.

·      Teaching Self-Evaluation

What is needed is the strategic withdrawal of forms of labor which will only be noticed by management: all of the machineries of self-surveillance that have no effect whatsoever on the delivery of education, but which managerialism could not exist without. 

    Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

I thoroughly enjoyed teaching fall and spring semesters.

In the fall, opposed to the fact that the system allows administrators/managers access to intimate details of my courses, and concerned that students and professors are encouraged by the Canvas “Learning Management System” to focus on allotting or acquiring points rather than on exploring the issues of the courses, I did not use Canvas. We are in this class, I explained, to learn. A learning management system controls how we learn. Let’s see what our possibilities without the limitations of the Canvas system. The results were mixed, given students’ nearly universal reliance on the system. In the spring, I returned to the system with an eye to how I could tweak Canvas to meet my own ambitions for the courses. The results were mixed, but I plan to continue with Canvas in Fall Semester, 2023. Having said this, reports that some are thinking of imposing a requirement that all professors use Canvas in class have me concerned. That would be a clear violation of my academic freedom as a teaching professional.

I am nearing completion of a book on the metaphor of standing. In the spring semester I had the good fortune to team-teach a course with philosopher Shannon Mussett. Her recently published book Entropic Philosophy is a perfect counterpoint to my work, and mine to hers. We called the interdisciplinary course “Standing and Falling” and introduced our students to ways the two metaphors shape our identities and either empower or limit social, political, and creative choices. The effect on my scholarship was/is immense. I left every class discussion with new ways to approach my work. The class felt like a gift to me.

I’m commenting on the class’s contributions to my scholarship here to emphasize what we lose when we distinguish between scholarship and teaching. When people in charge emphasize, as they so often do, that we are a teaching university, they implicitly disregard the contributions ongoing research and creative work bring to the classroom.

Because of a colleague on sabbatical, and with several students returning to revisit a thesis or project never finished, I took on 22 Capstone 2 students Spring Semester, 7 or 8 in each of 2 sections, plus the returning students and a couple of students finishing incompletes. My work was made easier because of colleague Kim Abunuwara’s truly excellent work with the students in Capstone 1…they came to me much better prepared than is usually the case. An ideal number of students in Capstone 2 is somewhere between 5 and 7, allowing for intensive individual interaction between professor and student. Nonetheless, the overload was satisfying as I watched so many students produce excellent theses and projects. It also left me concerned about one student who simply disappeared near the end of the term after doing remarkable work and about two others who received grades of Incomplete.

Teaching our introductory course for Integrated Studies (IS 2000) for the first time in several years, I decided to do a project-based class on the theme of Utah Lake. The final product can be seen here: https://utahlake2023.weebly.com

While I’m proud of the work the students did, work that varied somewhat in quality given the ability and effort of individual students, I have ideas for improving the class, including introducing more required content to lend substance to the individual contributions.

Finally, having just spent the morning writing this report, I resent the lost time…time spent that will have no effect on the quality of my work with students.

Classification of performance: … I “sometimes meets expectations” [grammar problem with the form]

·      Scholarship/Creative Works Self-Evaluation

What is needed is the strategic withdrawal of forms of labor which will only be noticed by management: all of the machineries of self-surveillance that have no effect whatsoever on the delivery of education, but which managerialism could not exist without.

               Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

On sabbatical the previous year, I finished drafts of ten of the twelve chapters of the book I’ll call On Standing: Variations on the Standing Metaphor. The methodological approaches, the texts and images, and the supporting ideas I brought to the class team-taught with philosopher Shannon Mussett lent vibrancy to the class discussions that is absent in classes focused on pouring required content through a funnel into students’ heads (this image courtesy of a sculpture above a school door in  Germany…seen in 1969). Two professors, and 21 students were involved in discussions that would not have taken place unless the professors were engaged in the related scholarship. The experience for me and my work on the metaphor of standing was profound. And students responded as if it was profound for them as well. 

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” George Bernard Shaw … much better, as witnessed in our class: Those who can, do, and they can be the best teachers.

There was a moment in class, after I had surveyed the uses of the standing metaphor in texts we had discussed up to that point, when a student asked if I could explain that more clearly. What am I going to do now? I thought. With that question, the student helped me understand that I must explore the metaphor with more rigor, more clarity. I can do better.

For an informal Festschrift for a former colleague in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages at BYU, Gary Browning, I wrote and delivered a new chapter for my book On Standing: “This Mere Physicality”: Standing, Falling, and Resurrection in Bosch, Grünewald, Holbein, and Dostoevsky. Copy available, should “Faculty Success” monitors wish to read it.

As noted above, scholarly/creative work and teaching are intricately interwoven, and service can be as well. My presentation at the spring symposium on Shared Governance at UVU, a work of scholarship in the service of our university, is available here: http://uvu-aaup.blogspot.com/2023/03/symposium-presentation-by-former-uvu.html

My classification for performance related to scholarly/creative work:

I “sometimes meets expectations” [the grammar problem is a product of a form posing as personal while being essentially institutional]

Having just spent time writing this report, I resent the lost time…time spent that will have no effect on the quality of my scholarly and creative work, work that is critically important for my teaching.

Service Self-Evaluation

What is needed is the strategic withdrawal of forms of labor which will only be noticed by management: all of the machineries of self-surveillance that have no effect whatsoever on the delivery of education, but which managerialism could not exist without.

                  Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

As an officer of the David R. Keller Chapter of the AAUP/AFT at UVU, I spent much of the year following up on a May Day Chapter meeting during which we thought we might sponsor a symposium on shared governance at UVU. Members of the chapter spend time every year supporting colleagues who have been denied tenure and promotion because of low SRI scores and cherry-picked negative comments. Let’s get together and talk about this and related problems, we proposed.

I, with support from Lydia Kerr, our Chapter president, wrote to the president of the national AAUP, Irene Mulvey, and asked if she would offer a keynote speech for the symposium. 

When she agreed, we invited President Tuminez and Provost Vaught to speak. They both agreed. We issued a call for papers and finally developed the program that can be seen here:

http://uvu-aaup.blogspot.com/p/symposium-on-shared-governance.html [click on the image for an expanded view]

To see and hear the recorded sessions, click on this link: https://www.uvu.edu/ethics/events/2022-23/2023_shared_governance.html

Key to the various aspects of the symposium were agreements by the UVU Faculty Senate, UVU’s PACE organization, and The Center for the Study of Ethics to co-sponsor. The Departments of Integrated Studies and Philosophy/Humanities provided funds for lunch and expertise for a poster. The AAUP and AFT paid for President Mulvey’s flight and accommodations.

A few weeks after the symposium, Provost Vaught asked me how I felt after the symposium. I woke up the next morning depressed, I told him. I don’t think we accomplished what we had hoped for. There were speeches given, some of them so long they didn’t allow time for discussion. It is one thing to air complaints and worries and disagreements, it’s quite another to think through problems together.We didn’t do that as well as I had hoped.

My classification of performance related to service, knowing we could have had better outcomes:

I “sometimes meets expectations” [grammar confusion in the form]

Having just spent the evening writing this report, I resent the lost time…time spent that will have no effect on the quality of the university I serve as a professor and that, in fact, supports the movement toward an increasingly corporate entity.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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