By Kevin Pry
We’ve all had our frustrations with collegiate assessment processes—how to assess, what to assess, when to collect data, what kind of data to collect, how to interpret data collected, and how the hell to find the time to do all these tasks, and in a manner that can lead to practical results. Consultants and other experts tell us assessment is necessary to improve our programs; accrediting organizations and governmental bodies demand that we produce it to justify our methods and our budgets, and administrators swear by it (and, if the truth were known, also swear at it.) Most of us on both sides of the process slog through the assessment trenches, hoping that by soldiering on our end result will have some lasting effect on our work and institutions, but many of us despair along the way—how can we possibly make our assessment—or our demands for them—worth the sacrifice of time and energy involved?
I’ve been in the middle of my department’s annual assessment process, going down that long, long trail a-winding while fighting the usual classroom and rehearsal battles to stay effective. In an infrequent moment out of the firing line, I turned for momentary relief to the work of one of my favorite cartoonists, the legendary British WWI artist and infantry officer Bruce Bairnsfather, and ran across this classic darkly humorous take on the way assessment was often conducted in the British Expeditionary Force of the Great War:
Haven’t we all been in Colonel Fitz-Shrapnel’s place? We’re fighting like hell to carry out our primary function, things are going like hell (and sometimes to hell) all around us, and out of seeming nowhere we’re politely invited (notice the word “please” at the opening of G.H.Q.’s “request” for data) to ignore the current difficulties and dangers and carry out an assessment that looks from our dugout in the front lines to be both immaterial and irrelevant.
At the risk of analyzing the comedy right out of Captain Bairnsfather’s classic squib, let’s wonder why at the height of the bloody fall offensive G.H.Q. may want the information about the tins of raspberry jam* at this particularly inconvenient moment:
- Could G.H.Q. be checking to make sure that the right supplies are reaching the Colonel and his unit? That sufficient resources are getting to the people who most need them?
- Is G.H.Q. concerned that important resources are somehow being diverted from where they really need to be going to wasteful and low-priority parts of the front? Is G.H.Q. about to divert our allotment of jam to some other outfit?
- Are the folks at G.H.Q. under pressure from the War Cabinet to justify the expense of putting lowest-bid contracts out for a variety of jams to ensure that frontline soldiers don’t have their morale undermined by monotonous rations?
- Is someone at G.H.Q. looking to make up some impressive documentation to prove that their clerkly function is vital to the war effort and thus deserves recognition, reward, and promotion?
- Does G.H.Q. want to reserve all the raspberry jam for its own use?
- Is Col. Fitz-Shrapnel’s outfit getting more than their fair share of the raspberry jam?
Some—though not all—of these motivations may be useful and warranted, but from Col. Fitz-Shrapnel’s viewpoint, understandably obscured by the falling debris from his rapidly-disintegrating dugout roof, General Headquarters’ request at this dangerous and busy time is absurd, prompting these complaints:
- Who gives these orders, anyway?
- Who in his outfit has seen any kind of jam except plum-and apple since the start of the bloody war?
- Why hasn’t the Colonel been told the “why” of this particular data collection? Why the secrecy about for what the data’s being collected? Is there a raspberry-jam procurement scandal that needs to be hushed up?
- Why is this urgent? Is the jam poisoned/? Contaminated? Are we all about to get dysentery?
- Why hasn’t anyone up the chain of command given any reason for requiring the information, nor explained how the data might lead to better decision-making and allocation of resources that would directly benefit the Colonel’s outfit—that the Colonel’s battalion might get more raspberry jam?
- Why has no one up the line bothered to tell the chaps in the front line how raspberry jam fits into the “big picture?”
Denied any context, Colonel Fitz-Shrapnel and his lads will just shake their heads in disbelief at the polite request— and question the motives and sanity of those at G.H.Q.; if the front line fellows survive their current situation or are given some timely support and relief, they might have time to comply with the data collection directive, but without explanations of the relevance of and the use to which the data will be put, why should they be enthusiastic about the task placed before them?
So, what’s the takeaway from Captain Bairnsfather’s minor masterpiece for those of us in the assessment trenches? Open and transparent communications about assessment tasks, communications which keep everyone informed on an equal footing, will go a long way to remove the suspicion the front line has of Headquarters’ motives and will earn G.H.Q. better and more informed cooperation from the folks at the sharp end of things. If we can openly discuss why we want the assessment information and demonstrate how its collection will be used directly to benefit, and not punish, those from whom it is collected, we might just get out of the trenches alive—and end up with more raspberry jam.
*Raspberry jam was very scarce on the Western Front in the first half of WWI.