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Adventures in Academe

Examining teaching and learning through a neoliberal lens

On faith, metrics and the neoliberal university.


Until recently, I worshipped at the temple of teaching and learning with unadulterated devotion. I made yearly pilgrimages to national and international conferences, immersed myself in the literature, reflected on my teaching and organized communities of practice. My catechism, repeated dutifully, included phrases like “student learning outcomes” and “core competencies” and “transformative learning.” A true believer, I was a founding member of the Teaching and Learning Centre at my university and have been evangelical in my support of our grassroots, faculty-led movement dedicated to enhancing capacities for pedagogy, research and educational leadership on our campus and beyond.

A crisis of faith

Recently, however, sceptics have challenged the dogma to which I had unquestioningly subscribed, precipitating a crisis of faith that has prompted me to scrutinize the tenets of teaching and learning. These sceptics assert that “teaching and learning” is not a cultural system of beliefs and practices but rather a tool for maximizing labour efficiency in the neoliberal (corporate) university. In this model, professors are a labour cost: the challenge becomes how to get the maximum number of students through the system to increase revenue for the university with the fewest number of professors.

Sceptics argue that teaching and learning centres are vehicles to manage faculty via mechanisms borrowed from the corporate sphere. The suggestion is that teaching and learning centres increasingly oversee quality assurance, including performance measurements, under the premise of enhancing student learning outcomes. Metrics become tools to measure efficiency and, in turn, the assessment results drive resource allocation.

According to this logic, teaching and learning centres are employed by the administration as a panacea for growing class sizes, a rise in precarious work conditions, and the decline of tenure stream positions without ever addressing the fundamental problem: that is, universities are chronically underfunded and teaching is undervalued.

What happens when we cannot measure the impact of our efforts?

Metrics have become controversial and expose tensions between these two divergent interpretations of teaching and learning. Terms like “data-driven innovation,” “benchmarking,” and “academic analytics” are increasingly prevalent in discussions about what and how our students learn. Ostensibly, performance metrics can measure the efficacy of particular teaching strategies, contribute to a culture of accountability and fiscal responsibility, or inform evidence-based policies designed to improve results.

What happens, however, when we cannot measure the impact of our efforts? What happens when we do not have adequate tools to meaningfully assess how and what we learn? And, most dangerously, what happens when we use faulty metrics to make decisions about how to fund programs or institutions?

Thomas Henry Huxley, coining the term “agnostic” in 1869, states: “In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” If we extend the basic principles of agnosticism to the context of metrics – and student learning outcomes more specifically – we must ask ourselves if we can truly measure the process of encountering and internalizing knowledge.

I am not referring here to the acquisition of skills or content or even competencies, which we assess regularly and with varying degrees of efficacy. I’m referring instead to the process of learning that shapes you as a person, informs your view of the world, or equips you to be a responsible global citizen. Although we cannot see the results on a Likert scale or on a data graph, it doesn’t mean these learning experiences shouldn’t drive our mission and vision of higher education.

Enhancing my appreciation for the pursuit of knowledge

Looking at teaching and learning through a neoliberal lens has been revelatory. My faith has been renewed in the fundamental tenets of teaching and learning; for me, that means a commitment to facilitate intellectual and personal growth for members of our diverse learning communities.

I will continue to use terms like “student learning outcomes” and “core competencies” and “transformative learning,” because although they have become buzzwords, they still have profound value. Understanding the important role of scepticism has helped me to better identify and challenge neoliberal policies. And, finally, this process has enhanced my appreciation for the pursuit of knowledge on how we can improve while also recognizing the limitations of what we can measure.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, in Prometheus Unbound, writes: “The deep truth is imageless.” This line struck me when I first encountered it as an undergraduate, and it continues to resonate 15 years later for its exhortation of hope and humility. For Shelley, acknowledging that something is unknowable doesn’t make the pursuit of knowledge futile; rather, the value lies in the struggle itself, and is what makes us “good, great and joyous, beautiful and free” (Epilogue).

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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