Teaching in the Corporate University: Assessment as a Labor Issue

By John Champagne

When, in response to a call for papers for the 2008 conference of the Modern Language Association, I began to formulate an argument concerning the relationship between assessment and the corporate university, I assumed that writing such an analysis would be (and I hope I will be forgiven this admittedly masculinist simile) like “shooting fish in a barrel.” My intention was in fact to concentrate on something less obvious: assessment as a labor issue, and the ways the drive toward assessment is both explicitly and implicitly an attack on academic freedom. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read the spring 2008 President’s Column of the MLA Newsletter, with its defense of assessment (Graff 2008).

Since Gerald Graff’s call for the faculty to embrace assessment initiatives, others have followed, one of the most recent examples being Stanley N. Katz’s “Beyond Crude Measurement and Consumerism” (2010). Rather than review the growing body of literature on assessment, in this essay, I analyze these two defenses of assessment as symptomatic of neoliberal accommodations to the corporate university. I suggest that such accommodations are “reactionary” in the precise sense that they implicitly reject one of the premises of a great deal of work in the humanities of the last forty years or so: that the goal of a liberal arts education is to teach students that “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home” (Adorno 1978, 39). That is, what a liberal arts education ideally provides that no amount of vocational training can is an interrogation of the history and historicity of knowledge itself, and a fostering of the lifelong attempt to interrogate, understand, and be unsettled by the limitations of one’s own thinking. It assumes that the object of education is not a set of contents or even a skill but rather a praxis that cannot be measured by any test.

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