PVC 'posturing' assessed

October 23, 2008

Your series on "a passion for teaching" has been instructive, perhaps never more so than this week, with the piece on assessment by Leeds Metropolitan University provost and pro vice-chancellor (PVC) Sally Brown ("A respect for marks", 16 October).

She tells us that if we want assessment to be "fit for purpose" (a thoughtful, original phrase), then "we need to interrogate its design" (very tough) and ensure that each assignment "earns its keep" (very businesslike).

That, apparently, requires that we pose "five questions" of every assignment. Behind this PVC-posturing nonsense-speak is the tacit implication that assessments that haven't gone through their five-question validation are worthless.

And so, a jargon driven by the cross-breeding of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) with the Higher Education Academy and the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education-speak does its magic again: it delegitimises the authority of all that went before the terrible beauty of year zero, when the monstrous beast that is the QAA slouched towards birth.

The authority for teaching (rather low on Brown's agenda, coming in only third place after assessment, she tells us) rests not in the authority of well-qualified and experienced academic staff or students; rather, it lies now only with her and the truisms that parade as her pearls of wisdom.

This reduces teaching and learning to a crude mechanical process. It insults students - and teachers - with the clear implication that we can all be manipulated into the proper or appropriate behaviours by jargon-spouting bureaucratic pro vice-chancellors who lead us out of our blindness.

Orwell, of course, foresaw all this when he had Winston Smith internalise the values of his interrogator O'Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four to such an extent that he genuinely comes to love Big Brother.

Am I alone in thinking too many of those who should be supporting actual teaching and learning in our universities have done the same in their blind enthusiasms and embrace of the tough business of insulting their colleagues and students, backed in this by the vacuity that is the QAA, our very own O'Brien?

Thomas Docherty, Professor of English and of comparative literature University of Warwick.

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