Our job is to judge

Academics without the freedom to exercise judgement are not true academics. Frank Furedi explains why scholars must resist the rise of proceduralism

March 17, 2011

A couple of years ago, I was listening to a presentation about a new and apparently sophisticated anti-plagiarism tool. Throughout the talk, the speaker boasted of her software's potential for detecting copied work and preserving "academic integrity".

I was a little despondent about the notion that, henceforth, the value of academic integrity would be secured through computer software. Nor did I feel reassured when, towards the end of the presentation, we were told that "academic judgement" was still necessary to determine whether plagiarism had taken place. To me, the notion that academic judgement had become an adjunct to plagiarism detection software was even more disturbing than the association of this product with the upholding of academic security.

Since then, I have become conscious of a growing tendency to marginalise the role and devalue the status of academic judgement. Increasingly, the term "academic judgement" is used defensively in response to a complaint about a particular decision. In official documents, the term refers to decisions that cannot and should not be challenged by students.

Numerous university appeals procedures contain the statement "Appeals are not permitted against the academic judgement of the examiners" or something similar. Because in its current usage academic judgement is invariably used to protect lecturers and their institutions from complaints, it can come across as a mere administrative convenience.

Yet academic judgement lies at the heart of university life. Academics are continually in the business of making judgement calls.

Of course all professionals require the freedom to judge. When confronted with complex and indeterminate problems, professionals need to be able to exercise discretion. Many of the problems faced by professionals are context-based and require more than formulaic responses.

For academics, the capacity to use discretion and intuition is particularly important. In higher education, the exercise of judgement is not confined to rare and unusual instances. Whether they like it or not, academics judge all the time and expect to be judged by others.

It is not for nothing that words such as "review", "moderate", "adjudicate", "assess", "referee" and "evaluate" have become an integral component of higher education discourse. Academics are continually expected to make judgements about the value of scientific findings, research proposals, articles submitted to journals and the performance of students. The language used to describe the material we read and the people we encounter - "scholarly", "original", "sophisticated", "significant" - communicates statements of judgement.

Academic judgement is integral to the pursuit of a scholarly or scientific vocation. Stanley Fish, Davidson-Kahn distinguished university professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, argued in a radio interview with Mars Hill Audio Journal in 2009 that academic judgement is "the application of academic training to materials within the purview of a discipline". From this perspective, academic judgement is intimately linked to the practice of a particular discipline. This point is also stressed by the former independent adjudicator for higher education, Ruth Deech (now Baroness Deech), who stated in a speech to the Bentham Association in 2007 that "it involves a judgement about a matter that can only be made by one with academic training and professional involvement".

Fish and Deech are right to underline the significance of disciplinary and professional training for the exercise of academic judgement. But it can be argued that it also demands more than disciplinary knowledge. The capacity to make judgement calls requires what Aristotle called phronesis, the kind of practical wisdom that we gain through experience and informal engagement with our colleagues and students.

Good teachers are not only experts in their subject, they also understand their students and can interpret their responses to classroom experience. Consequently, when they make a judgement call, it is informed by their reading of the circumstances of a specific individual or group of students. This is a response that is guided by disciplinary knowledge and a bit of practical wisdom.

Although disciplinary knowledge is distinct from phronesis, the two are mutually reinforcing. The development of practical wisdom helps orient an academic's intellectual pursuit, which in turn assists the cultivation of phronesis. When T.S. Eliot asked in The Rock (1934) "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge", he pointed to the potential tension between these two ways of understanding.

Fortunately, experience indicates that judging and intellectual flourishing can be mutually harmonious. Drawing on Kant's Critique of Judgment, Hannah Arendt writes in The Life of the Mind (1978) of an "enlarged way of thinking, which as judgement knows how to transcend its own individual limitations".

Aristotle took the view that there is a range of human actions whose objectives could not be achieved according to a prescribed formula. Whereas pottery-making could be pursued through technical knowledge (techne), healing the sick required practical wisdom (phronesis). For Aristotle, phronesis was the most significant intellectual virtue because by developing the capacity for moral judgement, other virtues of character could be exercised.

From this perspective, practical wisdom helps academics to make judgements about the relevance of data and the meaning of information. And most important of all, it is through practical wisdom that academics develop the capacity to make judgements that are morally right for the situation at hand.

Like all forms of judgement, academic judgement is acquired through experience and as with every endeavour, the more varied and the more extensive its practice, the better we get at it. Unfortunately these days, society provides little encouragement for the practice of judgement.

On the contrary, it is non-judgementalism that is regarded as a positive virtue. The act of judgement is often associated with narrow-minded prejudice. Schoolchildren are continually taught to be non-judgemental, and frequently the idea of being open-minded is sharply counterposed to the act of judgement.

Although non-judgementalism is represented as an enlightened and liberal attitude towards the world, it is nothing of the sort. Obviously the unreflected judgements arrived at through stereotyping are merely manifestations of conformism and prejudice. But the valuation of non-judgementalism possesses no inherent positive ethical qualities.

The reluctance to judge may be a symptom of lack of interest or even moral cowardice. In current times it is often brought about by a reluctance to confront difficult and embarrassing questions. Not questioning others' beliefs and opinions closes the door to the elaboration of a mutually agreed public consensus.

In any case, as Arendt argued in her essay "Truth and Politics" (1967), judgement does not simply mean the dismissal of another person's belief: "The power of judgement rests on a potential agreement with others."

In the context of the pursuit of scholarship, it serves as a point of departure for dialogue.

In the 21st century, Western society is so uncomfortable with making value judgements that it has developed an entire vocabulary of euphemisms to avoid being unambiguous, clear and blunt in its statements. This trend is particularly visible in schooling and higher education, where a veritable Orwellian vocabulary has emerged to provide teachers with words that avoid the making of a clear statement of judgement.

New lecturers are informed that "good practice" demands that they be "supportive" and "positive" and guarded in the criticism they make of their students. While university teachers are not expected to hand out smiley stickers, they are encouraged not to be negative and to blunt the force of their criticism.

Since universities are subject to the influence of broad cultural trends, it is not surprising that academic judgement does not enjoy the authority it deserves. Higher education has internalised the wider cultural suspicion towards judgement and has given it an institutional affirmation. Although academic judgement is rarely explicitly challenged, there are powerful institutional pressures to confine it to the margins.

Why? Because academic judgement runs directly counter to the expansion of the formalisation of university life. The purpose of the so-called reform of higher education is to displace informal relationships, networks and practices with rules and regulations. The formalisation of academic practice encourages a disregard for context.

Indeed, the justification for the invention of procedures is to ensure that there is little room for context-informed judgement. When lecturers are asked to leave paper trails and follow procedures, they are in effect forced to act in accordance with a template rather than on the basis of their accumulated practical wisdom.

The values of institutionalised standardisation, calculability and measurable achievement mean there is little call for judgement. When the ways for achieving a learning outcome are carefully prescribed, what is required is after-the-event measurement and box-ticking, and not deliberation and judgement.

The triumph of procedure over academic judgement is illustrated by an often unnoticed but important change in terminology. These days, academics do not so much judge as evaluate. Although superficially "evaluation" can be seen as a synonym for "judgement", in a contemporary institutional context it may more accurately be its antonym.

The act of judgement invites an academic to apply intuitive knowing or practical wisdom to questions that are not always susceptible to generalisation or formalisation. It is a context-informed and often unique act of deliberation. In contrast, evaluation occurs in relation to a set of pre-existing standards. Guidelines provided to academics to evaluate students according to a benchmark may be helpful, but often their role is to spare academics the burden of making a judgement.

The ubiquitous evaluation form encourages academics to develop the skill of box-ticking, but it actually distracts them from developing their capacity to judge. It is the form and not the tacit understanding gained through experience that guides the response. This may render the act of evaluation formal and explicit, but our really significant intuitive feelings about a person or a situation cannot be communicated through template rhetoric.

Yes, university regulations insist that academic judgement regarding an exam result cannot be challenged. However, academic judgement, even in the sphere of assessment, is far from immune to external pressure. A close reading of such regulations indicates that although an academic judgement cannot be challenged, students can appeal if they can identify a "procedural error in the assessment process". Experience shows that complaints against procedure easily mutate into the questioning of the outcome of judgement.

Examination boards are all too aware of this threat and are sometimes forced to suspend their judgement to spare themselves costly procedural wrangles. Often even the mere hint of an impending appeal regarding procedure is sufficient to bring about the alteration or modification of an exam or degree grade.

It is worth noting that, increasingly, academics and their institutions are held legally accountable for their judgement. Academic judgement has become an issue that can be challenged in court, through questions raised about whether the procedures were followed and whether a decision was influenced by extraneous factors.

In a world where process is everything, the capacity to exercise academic judgement has become compromised. For decades, schoolteachers who have been forced to teach to the curriculum have complained about the loss of their freedom to exercise professional judgement. It is about time that academics recognised that they are confronted with a threat that is not dissimilar to the dispossession of the teaching profession of their right to judge.

Academics do not need to be threatened with the sack if they exercise judgement. The current climate of proceduralism stops lecturers from acting on the basis of deliberation and judgement.

The desire to defend and preserve the unique position of academic judgement is not motivated by an impulse to protect narrow professional privilege. Judging is a creative expression of disciplinary knowledge that can serve as a prelude to conversation and dialogue. The positive potential of an act of judgement depends on the degree to which it is based on experience, reflection and impartiality. As with so many things in life, the dictum "use it or lose it" applies with force.

Not proven: The case against academic immunity

The idea that academic judgement cannot be challenged puzzles non-academics, who expect to be corrected if they make mistakes.

One can understand the dismay felt by students when academics, who have taught them to question others' opinions and encouraged them not to take for granted the pronouncements of authorities, peremptorily inform them that the exam board's decision is final and that's that.

Most institutions' internal rules allow students to challenge irregularity in assessment and degree classification, but stipulate that academic decisions are final.

Few other mortals enjoy such immunity. By instinct, one harbours suspicions of people who claim to be able objectively and infallibly to discern the difference between work that merits a mark of 58 and one deserving of a 59.

A look at other occupations might offer insight into whether there is justification for this rare privilege. Three that spring to mind are football referees, the judges of the Supreme Court, and newspaper editors - a trio you do not often see together.

In most sports it is less important that the referee's decision be right than that some decision, whether right or wrong, be made and accepted so that the players can get on with the game. For a match at Wembley to be adjourned while the contestants traipse off to the High Court would anger and upset fans watching in the stadium and at home and play havoc with broadcasters' schedules.

Supreme Court judges' decisions are final for a different reason. Judges, magistrates, arbitrators and tribunals, however competent, do err occasionally, so most legal systems let unsuccessful parties appeal. But there must come a time when someone has to have the final word, otherwise there would never be an end to litigation.

If you enter a newspaper competition, it will usually be a condition of entry that the editor's decision is final. This helps prevent disgruntled losers from escalating their grievance out of all proportion to the prize value, and helps prevent editors from being distracted from their real work. Again, life must go on.

Those examples have three features in common: an adjudicating function; an overriding need to bring about a closure; and practical convenience.

Do those apply also to academic judgement? Assessment and degree classification involve adjudication; there is a need to complete the process; and it is convenient to make the decision final.

But degree assessment is not analogous to newspaper competitions: at the margins of pass/fail and between degree classifications, the consequences of a wrong academic judgement are far-reaching.

The Supreme Court analogy does not fit either, because that court is the terminus of a line of appeals, whereas in academic judgement there is no appeal at all.

The sport analogy is more complicated. When the only aim of a game was the players' enjoyment, giving the ref the final decision reflected comparative indifference to the consequences of a wrong call; but nowadays a decision could determine a club's chance of promotion or relegation, affect advertising price, or alter the value of a share in media rights.

In football, some decisions can result in a player being temporarily banned, so the rules make the ref's decision to send a player off final in the sense that that player must leave the pitch - but they also allow that player to appeal against both decision and sentence later. Why? Because the consequences of a ban or suspension are serious for the player and club.

Academic judgements can have financial consequences for the student that are comparable and, in some cases, more far-reaching. Progression may depend on passing an assessment. A certain class of degree may be necessary to enter into certain training courses, postgraduate programmes or research posts; it may influence first jobs and earnings. In such cases, it is difficult to see why a qualified right of appeal should not be accorded, as a matter of procedural justice, to a student genuinely aggrieved.

The right could be limited to borderline cases. Courts have procedures for weeding out process-abusing claims, and surely the academy could devise its own filters.

But beyond the administrative burden - which is unconvincing in the context of a lifetime's prospects - there are two practical problems. Most appeal mechanisms presuppose that those who decide the appeal have the knowledge to do the issue justice. Judges in appeal courts know the criteria the court below was supposed to apply; members of the Football Association's disciplinary committees know about soccer.

Comparable expertise is not easy to find in the case of academic judgement: double marking and the external examiner are the nearest most universities get to reducing the risk of unchecked error. That is why judges in court cases refuse to substitute their judgement for that of academics, and decline to adjudicate between competing theories or fashions. Moreover, students are assessed in relation to each other. An external adjudicator would not have the whole picture.

What the question boils down to, then, is not whether there is something special about academic judgement that warrants special immunity, but whether the scarcity of people who can reliably review academic assessment decisions outweighs the convenience of academic decisions being final.

Given the consequences that some academic judgement decisions can have, whether in terms of individuals' future earnings or their self-fulfilment, the answer is not as clear-cut as academics would like the rest of us to believe.

William Evans was secretary and solicitor to University of the West of England.

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