Thursday, August 28, 2014

Values and Value, by Nicholas Schiller


I’m an idealist and my values drive a lot of my decision making. I want to share a little about my core library values and what happens when professional pressures start to compromise them.

It will probably help if I frame all of this in a story. A few years ago, I was at a local library instruction conference listening to a respected colleague present on a new program assessment effort she was leading. She encountered resistance from tenured colleagues who were slow to engage with assessment efforts that lacked clear incentives. I was newly tenured then and I had an epiphany: at some point I’d become one of these tenured barriers to new ideas. I’d stopped idealizing a “culture of assessment” and begun responding to it critically or even cynically.

I’m an information literacy librarian and a teacher because I value student learning. I’m emotionally engaged in my work; I imagine most instruction librarians are. When I’m doing my best work, I’m helping students unlock their curiosity and guiding them to master skills and methods for critical thinking. I’m making an important difference and this feels good. We should remember that our work has long-term social value. This is why I love what I do. On an individual level, my values are still rooted in reflective practice (from Char Booth’s Reflective Teaching, Effecting Learning: Instructional Literacy for Library Educators “Reflective practice: Instructor development strategies that observe and consider one’s own teaching effectiveness with the goal of improving the learner experience”), but on an organizational level I’d stopped believing in “the culture of assessment.”

This culture has been putting a lot of pressure on academic libraries being asked to demonstrate the value of libraries. Specifically, libraries are being pushed to provide systematic assessment of the impact of their programs. Demonstrating value involves assessment. Assessment involves setting program goals, listing leaning outcomes that demonstrate these goals, and then measuring how well we achieve these outcomes. Using this process we can know with greater certainty whether we are succeeding at what we set out to do and whether what we are doing is having a positive impact on library users. This is an unequivocally a good thing and a necessary part of reflective practice. It keeps us honest and helps steer our decisions with data. Assessment, however, is a loaded term with multiple meanings, some of which contradict each other. I want to be clear that I’m referring to “College Outcomes Assessment” which the ERIC Thesaurus describes as:
Formal or informal appraisal or judgment of two- or four-year college programs or students in relation to institutional or public expectations of achievement or development--often but not always measured against specific objectives.
College outcomes assessment is a necessary part of reflective practice, but it is not, by itself, sufficient to achieve reflective practice.  However, the definition above makes it easy to confuse outcomes assessment with reflective practice. This can be dangerous. Reflective practice is aligned with my core values, but merely “demonstrating value” is not. When it describes “College Outcomes Assessment,” the ERIC Thesaurus includes both assessment of programs and assessment of students. My assertion here is that assessment of student learning and the assessment of institutional effectiveness (program assessment) are significantly different efforts. Or, to paraphrase what a respected former colleague once told me: “There is the assessment you do to become a better teacher and there’s the assessment you do because the administration makes you.” My concern is that assessment of student learning appeals to the core values of instruction librarians and this appeal is being leveraged to entice us to engage in the kinds of assessment that don’t align with our core values. It can feel like a classic bait-and-switch con.

Good libraries assess because, when done correctly, assessment fosters student learning. However, when done incorrectly, assessment becomes a symbol for serious problems and issues in American higher education. Assessment can be a weapon used by administration to seize power from faculty. Assessment can be a Trojan horse for market values replacing the values of the public good and social justice. We love our work and we love student learning, but when this love and these values are co-opted to serve the neoliberal goals of demonstrating institutional effectiveness or to apply a market value to academic library services, it feels like betrayal. As an idealistic librarian, when I feel my values betrayed the quality of my work and my ability to help foster student learning diminishes.

So, how do we respond? To steal a simile, we should be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We should know that the motivating agendas behind faculty and administration approaches to assessment are deeply rooted but rarely communicated openly. Assessment is political and its language is encrypted. We have to assess both to be true to our values and to survive in the current higher education environment. What we can do is to make sure that the value that we are demonstrating lines up with our values. We can be engaged, creative, and tireless in measuring student learning, social justice, and critical thinking. We can be more passive or somewhat-less-than- engaged, creative, and tireless when asked to measure return on investment, to value easy-to-quantify goals more highly than opaque goals, or to trade in our core values for the values of the marketplace.

My challenge in coming to grips with the pressure to assess has been to find a middle ground. I’m looking for a space between the idealistic librarian who is lured by the siren’s song of “the culture of assessment” into becoming a tool for the neoliberal takeover of higher education and the cynical librarian who can’t see past the pain of his betrayed values to engage in critical and reflective practice. The serpent and dove approach is helping me to do this. It reminds me of why I love my job while also encouraging me to put my experience and understanding of how the institution works (even when these workings are opaque to outsiders) to work for my core idealism and values.

Nicholas Schiller is the systems & instruction librarian at Washington State University Vancouver. He blogs at Information. Games. He tweets about capybaras, geeky things, running, and libraries at @nnschiller.


  1. Nicholas -- Thanks for sharing your reflection and words about the intersection of library values, assessment, culture, and tenure.

    I must admit, I am more excited about libraries than I have been in a long time and that is because of assessment. I had been extremely cynical as an instruction librarian but found assessment to be a breath of fresh thinking about libraries. As a former assessment librarian, I am sympathetic to your observation of potential hidden agendas and neoliberalism within education. At the same time, having been behind the assessment curtain -- I can say that in many places I have encountered no agenda other than "doing" assessment -- meaning that nobody knew how to exactly define what values they wanted assessed. . In many cases, it was simply - we need to be doing assessment -- and then making it up as they go along. I think that is the mis-step in libraries is that libraries haven't done a stellar job of defining the END to which we are assessing so they cram other measures (retention, GPA) in as proxies. This is where reflection probably comes in -- we all get caught up in doing librarianship (instruction, reference, checking out books) and do little reflecting on why this is important to ourselves and others Yet people have written about assessing libraries for contributing to "goodness" and providing measures (I'll try to find that citation) but I have yet to see this taken up. From my perspective libraries are too wishy-washy about owning what a library is and why it is important and letting others decide often by default why libraries exist. Once we decide why libraries are important then we can develop measures to support our ascertains.

    All that said, my experience in library assessment has really inspired me as I believe libraries impart a huge impact and have a real potential to do good. With a shift in our thinking, with some help from assessment and reflection, libraries have the wherewithal to finally define (not redefine but define) our role in our communities.

  2. Thanks for these great thoughts Rick.

    As I look at this, I keep making a comparison between how we look at program assessment now and how we looked at social networks / web 2.0 8 years ago. I was a technological optimist at that time and all I could see about the technology was the possibility for things like DPLA, Europeana, and DBpedia. Critics could only envision Facebook's advertising-driven panopticon and Amazon's monopsony. We were both right and we were both wrong.

    Now, with assessment, I can see the possibilities, but the dangers seem much more prominent to me. I'm glad I have "assessment optimists" to work with who can point out the possibilities that I'm too pessimistic to see.