It's all pants

As with husbands, so with students. Lower the bar, as benchmarks do, and mediocre results are guaranteed, says Tara Brabazon

June 12, 2008

Teaching is both an art and a craft. Through all the talk of facilitation, flexibility, student-centred learning, empowerment, skill development and generic competencies, we have lost focus on what creates a transformative educational encounter. Evocative, passionate and life-changing education is not sourced from software licences, PowerPoint slides or asynchronous discussion forums.

In contemporary teaching and learning, there is a deep and troubling confusion between the administration of education and education itself. Exam boards, moderation and validation events are not assessing the quality of teaching and learning but rather ensuring that processes are in place to remove bias and favouritism from the system. The cost of this often arbitrary judgment of fairness - a paradox in itself - is a discrediting of the integrity and professionalism of academics to act with rigour and transparency. While we encourage "independent thinking" in students, we demand moderation - in the many meanings of that word - from teachers.

In such a context, where processes have replaced standards and generic competencies have overwritten scholarship, teachers now anchor themselves to - or hang themselves from - subject benchmarks. As I wander around the corridors and staffrooms of British academic life, I hear questions leaking from conversations over coffee. Has this course been benchmarked? Can you prove this degree moves through stages of benchmarked progression? Do we need to have a benchmarking event? Should we partner with another university and enact collaborative benchmarking?

Clearly, there are academics with an evangelical commitment to the wonder of benchmarking. Certainly it does have an addictive quality. It is like Sudoku for curriculum. In the "skills in intellectual analysis" included in the Communication, Media, Film and Cultural Studies document, the following benchmarks are listed:

  • engage critically with major thinkers
  • understand forms of communication, media and culture
  • examine such forms critically
  • analyse closely, interpret and show the exercise of critical judgment.

These "skills" continue through point after point for seven pages. If the word "critical" were removed, then most of the sentences would collapse. Its overuse not only blunts its meaning but reduces complex, debatable and ambivalent abilities into a chiaroscuro palette of "skills". The question is: why is the focus on benchmarks and not on brilliance?

Perhaps the answer to my inquiry is that it is easier to focus on administration than on scholarship. It is easier to tick a box confirming engagement with "major thinkers" than justify (critically?) the rationale for the selection of "major thinkers". Fetishising benchmarking and skills is easier than discussing curricula and excellence.

I often wonder what would happen if other areas of our lives were benchmarked. For example, what if I assembled a checklist of benchmarks to find a husband?

What I would really like in a husband is a 6ft-tall man in stable employment and able to get through the day without calling his mother. If he has some awareness of personal hygiene involving showering and a regular shave, then that is a bonus.

There is a reason for this emphasis. I bumped into my first boyfriend in a science-fiction club straight after I left a convent high school (a warning there for the lay-dees). He was 6ft tall but unable to tear himself away from daytime soap operas - which he watched with his mother - to hold down a job. He also wore the same pair of burgundy tracksuit pants for weeks on end, which he would match tastefully with cowboy boots. He had long hair and a full beard. Sometimes he put it in a ponytail. His hair, not the beard. But this was the late 1980s and the era of Miami Vice and ZZ Top. Anything was possible with beards. When he finally shaved it off - the beard, not his hair - his face looked worse than when it was hidden behind the bristly Brazilian rainforest.

I learnt a lesson. He had covered his face for a reason. Yes, this man had nose-dived from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. From this experience, I started to lift my minimum standards in masculinity. I realised that it is important for a man to own at least a couple of pairs of tracksuit pants.

In noting my standard of excellence in husbands, we commence the benchmarking exercise. Obviously, 6ft in height is too much to hope for in a man. That is a standard of excellence. The benchmark must be lower, probably low enough for a small man to get over it. As to stable employment, with the credit crunch and a post-Fordist knowledge economy, again - that expectation is too high. If he is able to earn his own beer money and pay for his Sky+ package, then that will do. That is a successful benchmark in the Tony Parsons school of masculinity.

As to mothers, well, equity must be involved here. I am harbouring an unethical and immoral discrimination against older women who have sons of marriageable age. In such an era of family dysfunction and breakdown, it is important to nurture and support all maternal relationships, even if it involves a grown man not washing his own clothes for a quarter of a century.

Then to the sticky issue of personal hygiene. It is a moment of environmental catastrophe. It is important to be green, not clean. Daily showers are too much to ask. With the water shortage in the South-East of England and a drought across much of Australia, it is important that we all smell a bit more so that we can save the planet.

So instead of my standards of excellence in a husband, after the benchmarking exercise, there have been some changes. Remember where we started.

What I would really like in a husband is a 6ft-tall man in stable employment and able to get through the day without calling his mother. If he has some awareness of personal hygiene involving showering and a regular shave, then that is a bonus.

Post-benchmarking, my standards have been transformed through negotiations over minimum levels of compliance.

My subject benchmark of masculinity is a man who can pay his own drinks bill and Sky package and maintains a working relationship with his mother, generally involving her working and him sitting on the couch. If he has some awareness of the environmental movement, then he will shower rarely but he will learn to relish the piquant scent of a man.

What we learn is that after benchmarking, the standard for husbands has moved down from my maintaining some quality control to the bloke actually determining my rules for what I need in a man.

That is what happens when such a system is applied to our students. We move away from respecting the professionalism and integrity of scholars in maintaining standards of excellence and towards a "student-centred" minimum level of compliance involving such detailed, advanced and specific skills as "engaging", "analysing" and "understanding". We pretend to lift the level of complexity by deploying the adjective of "critical" at every opportunity.

The point is this. We should not - at a university - be constructing a checklist of skills and competencies. Such "standards"' drag down the independence, ephemerality and brilliance of the best curriculum. The best of learning - the best of life - cannot be ticked off a checklist.

Thankfully, I did not benchmark a husband. If I did, then I would be poorer, living in his mother's house and managing a hairy, smelly bloke who rarely leaves the lounge suite. By maintaining my standard of excellence, I did better than that. There may be a lesson there.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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