This file was prepared for electronic distribution by the inforM staff. Questions or comments should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. PART ONE CONTEXTS AND CLIMATES CHAPTER ONE RELAXING YOUR NECK MUSCLES THE HISTORY OF THE PROJECT BY CARYN McTIGHE MUSIL "You're advising me to do what? An assessment grant on women's studies?" My voice grew thinner. The muscles in my neck tightened. I managed to feign a certain modicum of interest. This was, after all, a FIPSE program officer I was speaking to. She had called that morning to give me feedback about a proposal I wanted to submit to the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. The more she talked, the more my neck muscles tightened. The voice on the end of the line suggested that given the increasingly contentious national debate about higher education, it would be instructive to examine women's studies programs more systematically in order to assess their contribution to student learning. Although I refrained from expressing it, I felt an overwhelming resistance to what proved to be very good advice. My resistance was rooted in two things. The first was the weariness I felt, after nearly twenty years, from having to prove the value of women's studies one more time to a skeptical audience. The second was the negative associations the word "assessment" conjured up for me as a humanities professor. Assessment reminded me of the statistics course I never took, the computer programming course that was not available in my graduate days, and my deep suspicion that most quantitative analysis flattened out the more interesting things to be learned about education. I also thought of assessment as something that is done to you, frequently by external agencies with highly suspect motives. Paralyzed by my unfamiliarity with the expertise I thought one had to have to "do" assessment, for more than a week I was unable to write a single word of my grant proposal. Feeling the imperative of a FIPSE deadline driving me, however, I began to investigate assessment. After reading extensively in the assessment literature and consulting nationally with assessment experts, I began to understand the range of debate in the field as well as the enormous variety of methods--both quantitative and qualitative--for collecting data. I realized that assessment could indeed generate invaluable data about women's studies and student learning that would answer questions not only for skeptics but also for women's studies professors. Instead of a judgmental tool for punishment, assessment increasingly appeared as a source of illumination--the beginning, as Pat Hutchings of the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) likes to put it, of a more informed conversation about teaching and student learning. Since the image of an animated conversation over time is an apt one for women's studies itself, describing assessment in those same terms made it seem commensurate with our own educational goals. My own transformation from cool wariness about assessment to warmly embracing its possibilities paralleled the transformation I was to witness among the various participants during our three-year project. I recognized immediately the hesitancy and long list of questions that women's studies faculty members brought to our first workshop three years ago. As they themselves became assessment proponents, they began to describe the initial skepticism they encountered back at their campuses. In their final reports, however, faculty members at most sites commented how professors and students alike shifted their attitudes about assessment during the project's span. By sharing the process through which many of us moved from resisting to respecting assessment, we hope that Students at the Center: Feminist Assessment will become for its readers a vehicle that enhances campus conversations and ultimately expands what we know about what and how students learn. WHY SUCH A BOOK NOW? The larger context for the current educational climate of accountability is the global geo-political climate in which there is renewed pressure in the United States to demonstrate to the world--and to our own citizens--that we are still a superpower. There is an aroma of decline that frightens policy makers and citizens alike. This is especially true with regard to how the United States competes in trade and manufacturing, the quality of our products, and the productivity and creativity of our labor force. There is a fear that our powers are waning like other former imperial powers--England, France, the Soviet Union--despite our momentary triumphant euphoria when communist governments collapsed in the Soviet Union and Eastem Europe. In such an atmosphere of critical concern about what is happening to America, there is heated debate about what has caused this decline, who is to blame, and how to fix it. As students from other countries--especially from our economic competitors--outperform U.S. students on standardized tests, our educational reform that began in the 1980s and continues today, the earliest critique was aimed at elementary and secondary schools; the critique of higher education came later. The latter examination reveals concern about the content of the curriculum; the performance of students; the preparation of teachers and professors; the perceived decline in standards; the fragmentary nature of the curriculum; and the impact all this might be or already is having on the quality of college educated workers in the United States. Several questions are contested: Who will set standards for what is excellent? Are such standards even possible? How do you measure them? What ought the role of federal, state, and local governments be in terms of accountability? What kind of knowledge do students need for their personal lives as well as their work lives? Who is not served well by our current educational systems? How do we create more affirming learning environments for diverse students? What the "Courage to Question" project attempts to do is offer some solutions for an educational system in a moment of crisis and transition. Student bodies have changed radically in their typical profile: in terms of sex, race, and age; in terms of how and how long people move through the system; and in terms of the delivery systems created to reach this widely diverse student population--an increasing majority of whom commute to their classes or take those college classes at their workplace, the local Y, or the neighborhood elementary school. The content of the curriculum is hotly contested and altering even in the midst of adamant arguments that it should remain unchanged. The debate about content is complicated by the knowledge explosion that has occurred in this second half of the twentieth century, manifesting itself at the college level in a dramatic expansion in the number of courses, programs, and areas of inquiry. In the face of such a panoply of possibilities, content no longer is the easy vehicle providing intellectual coherence. Many argue we should be looking more at how students know rather than concentrating so fixedly on what they know. Finally, in a world where most students will change jobs at least four times in their working lives and might, in fact, be employed in jobs we have not even imagined, what preparation do they need as undergraduates to function in a pluralistic society deeply interconnected with the rest of the globe? In the midst of all these questions and debates, what do we know about student learning? What can students tell us about what they need, what has worked, and how their lives have been changed by what happens during the college years? Our project turns to students to give us some answers, soliciting student opinions in a variety of ways. Some people today are advocating some sort of standardized "instrument of instruments" that can generate indisputable national score sheets against which we can all measure our individual and collective failures and successes. Our project sees such an approach as ineffectual. It stifles solutions rather than generating them. It offers simple answers where only complex ones will suffice. Most significantly, it creates a false sense of what the process of learning is all about. This is not to say that there are no insights to be gained from measuring things in statistical ways. It is not to argue against evaluation, defining areas for improvement, or coming to some consensus on a variety of goals we hold in common about the purpose of our educational enterprise. It is to suggest, however, that there is no single goal, no single solution, no single measurement relevant to all. In such a contentious climate, we are offering some space for collegial dialogue: among faculty members; among students; between faculty members and students; among graduates; and among graduates, faculty members, and current students. We are advocating a context-specific set of questions to be asked and a context-specific set of means for gathering information to illuminate those questions. We are urging that students be central to the assessment process, that they be asked to reflect about their learning, and that we listen and record those narratives over time. We are joining with those who say it is time to ask some hard questions--time to muster the courage to question even things we might hold very dear. And we are especially interested in evidence that students possess the courage to question, which is so fundamental to sustaining a vibrant, innovative society responsive to its citizens. WOMEN'S STUDIES: INSTITUTIONALIZATlON AND BACKLASH In 1989, the year the proposal for "The Courage to Question: Women's Studies and Student Learning" was submitted to FIPSE, two events were occurring simultaneously that affected the shape of the grant and the attitudes of many of us involved in the project. The first was the ongoing national call for educational reform already mentioned, and the second was a national plan to celebrate twenty years of institutionalized women's studies programs. By 1988 and 1989, the call for educational reform was acquiring a distinctly ideological edge; figures such as Secretary of Education William Bennett lambasted faculty members for caving in to "special interests" such as women's studies and ethnic studies, and National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Lynne V. Cheney advocated returning to an American past unclouded by what she perceived as "political" and intrusive distractions of race and gender. Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987) extended Bennett's attack on campuses by arguing that all the problems in higher education today could be traced to the radical reformers of the 1960s, the establishment of special programs like Black Studies--from which women's studies later modeled itself--and the decision to democratize academic institutional structures. In 1989, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a vociferous conservative group organized to stem progressive reforms, held its first national conference, which despite attracting only two hundred participants--was covered on page two of The Washington Post. The National Women's Studies Association's (NWSA) national conference, held just up the road in Baltimore a few months later, drew more than two thousand participants but received no coverage whatsoever in the Post. George Bush had been elected the "Education President" the year before and joined others insisting that educational excellence could be achieved if, among other things, we created the correct national test for measuring it. In 1989, he called for an Educational Summit of Governors, many of whom already were working with their state legislatures to institute mandatory assessment of public schools and state-supported higher education institutions. Accountability was the rallying cry, global competitiveness in the marketplace was the overwhelming driving force, and shrinking economic resources cloaked all of these initiatives with a punitive taint. In the midst of this backlash, I--then executive director of NWSA--was planning an invitational conference for women's studies directors to mark two decades since the first program had been formally approved. The conference was designed to celebrate past achievements and forge an agenda for women's studies in the 1990s. Held in Washington, D.C., it drew almost double the number of participants in the NAS conference. NAS had titled its first conference "Reclaiming the Academy," which explained in part why we in women's studies were celebrating and a small contingent of conservative academics were organizing. There was no question that our presence had made a difference in the curriculum, in faculty and staffing, and in campus life. While we sought to take pride in the difficult intellectual and political accomplishments of the previous two decades, we had few illusions that we were, as our critics liked to portray us, "running the universities." We understood better than they that we had indeed become institutionalized within academia, but we also knew that we had little more than a toehold in many places. Today there are 621 women's studies programs, but many are understaffed, underfunded, and housed in basements. Faculty members teach their women's studies courses and invest hours in cocurricular programming often with little reward from their institutions. Women's studies teachers continue to be subject to accusations that they are politicizing the curriculum by including women and gender in their courses, while those who exclude women are not. Nonetheless, we understood that feminist scholarship had made it impossible to return to the unexamined biases of earlier years. Twenty years of feminist scholarship had transformed many disciplines. Curricular transformation efforts had produced not only thousands of women's studies courses but thousands more courses that integrated new scholarship about women and gender into general education and the curriculum as a whole. New faculty lines in women's studies were becoming more common--a fact that insured curricular stability. In addition to the unwavering growth in the number of undergraduate women's studies programs, more of them were establishing majors and minors. Moreover, what already had happened at the undergraduate level was being replicated at the graduate level as concentrations in women's studies, specializations within disciplinary degrees, and the emergence of full master's programs in women's studies became evident by the decade's end. The most powerful witness to the influence of women's studies, however, was the number of students attracted to it. Despite a period in the 1980s when the national climate was largely unsympathetic to feminist concerns, students continued to flock to women's studies courses. Those students were women of all colors and ages who represented an increasing range of political orientations. Men, too, began to take more of the courses, especially as they became exposed to the new scholarship on women and gender through their transformed general-education courses and electives. From those students we continued to hear women's studies described as intellectually rigorous, personally transforming, dynamic in its teaching, and challenging in its insistence that students integrate what they learned from courses into the choices they make about how to live their daily lives. FRAMEWORKS FOR THE GRANT I was poised, then, between two tensions as I constructed the FIPSE assessment grant, "The Courage to Question: Women's Studies and Student Learning." Women's studies was both embattled and triumphant: attacked by some as the reason for the current crisis in education, yet confident that it possessed some insights about how to remedy some of those crises. It was a time when we in women's studies were weary of having to justify our new courses, our tenure-line requests, our scholarship, our existence. But it was also a time to pause after twenty years of sustained activity and examine more systematically what the effects of all our program building were on student learning. At this historical juncture, more than anything else, we needed time for reflection. The project's title, "The Courage to Question," was inspired by a student who claimed, "Women's studies gave me courage." Challenged by her words, I wanted us to enter full force into the national debate and see if we had such courage ourselves--courage to question whether we actually did what we said we were doing. Courage to question whether some of our critics might be right about us. Courage to listen to what our students were telling us about our courses, our teaching, our programmatic outreach. And finally, courage to go public with what we discovered, even if it might be used negatively by people unsympathetic to women's studies. The grant, then, sought to assess questions fundamental to us in women's studies. We wanted to ask whether women's studies courses provide a dynamic interactive environment, encourage critical thinking, empower students as learners, enrich their sense of civilization's rich and diverse heritage, connect their knowledge from other courses, and challenge them to become actively engaged in shaping their world. From the outset, there were some basic assumptions undergirding the design of the grant that were crucial to its success as an assessment grant. The evolution and refinement of those assumptions are discussed in more detail elsewhere in this book. From the beginning, it was understood that the assessment designs would be institution specific and that each program would have the responsibility for determining what questions it wanted to explore and how. All participants knew they were to use multiple measures to gather data and that those measures might include both quantitative and qualitative methods. There also was the expectation that the process would involve campus-wide consultations with faculty members and students as well as the national consultations, which the two representatives from each institution would have with two dozen other faculty members at our project meetings. Finally, there was an assumption that we needed a "National Assessment Team" of experts, familiar both with women's studies and with a variety of evaluation approaches, who could instruct project participants in assessment methods. Implicit in our design was the belief that, like our students, faculty members could be empowered as learners and anyone could be taught to "do" assessment in their courses. In selecting the NATs--as they came to be known--there was a deliberate attempt to create a group of assessors with diverse yet complementary kinds of expertise. Combining scholars of learning and teaching with researchers who focused on diverse assessment techniques and methodology, the NATs could offer campus participants a wealth of approaches to evaluate student learning. It also was important to the success of the grant that the NATs not only were experts in assessment but also familiar with the interdisciplinary area of women's studies. Ultimately, these assessment consultants became the authors of the various chapters in Students at the Center. For a fuller description of each National Assessment Team member, see the "Directory of Consultants" at the end of this volume. The team included the following people: * Carolyne W. Arnold, a senior researcher from the Wellesley Research Center for Women and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, has expertise in quantitative assessment with a special emphasis on minority women and public health. * Pat Hutchings, a senior research associate at the American Association for Higher Education and former director of AAHE's Assessment Forum, has a national overview of what is being done in assessment and which approaches have revealed the most. * Lee Knefelkamp, chair of the Higher Education Department at Columbia University's Teachers College, has written and lectured widely about students' intellectual and ethical development and about different learning styles. * Joan Poliner Shapiro, associate dean at Temple University's College of Education and formerly co-director of the Women's Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, uses both quantitative and qualitative assessment approaches in her area of expertise: feminist assessment. * Jill Mattuck Tarule, dean of the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont, uses qualitative research and formative evaluation to trace developmental themes, especially conceming women as learners. * Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault, dean of the School of Human Development and Community Service at California State University-Fullerton, is known for her work on feminist pedagogy and curriculum development and most recently has used an ethnographic approach to analyze teaching. In communicating to the public what it had discovered, the project had at least two stories that needed to be told. The first concerned the actual research findings of the seven participating colleges and universities. That volume of case studies became The Courage to Question: Women's Studies and Student Learning, which was followed by the publication of a twelve-page Executive Summary. The second story that needed to be told was not about the findings themselves but about the process that led to them. Students at the Center is a hybrid of a typical assessment manual. We wanted a "how" and a "why" assessment book, not just a "how to." We have thus retained the practical value of collecting sample questionnaires, alumnae/i surveys, strategies for focus groups, bibliographies, a directory of campus consultants, and other such useful information. We also have sought to include a more theoretical and historical framework. Would something evolve out of this project that we could call feminist assessment? What would its governing principles be? What is the relation of feminist assessment to the broader assessment movement? What kinds of approaches and methodologies would our project create? How would they compare with the range of alternatives used by any number of evaluators? Were there new questions that women's studies people would pose about assessment? What were the political implications for women's studies to participate in such a project? What use would be made of the findings? by whom? for what purposes? What were the particular sources of greatest resistance to assessment in women's studies, and what might we learn by being attentive to those resistances? The chapters, while individually authored, are the result of an ongoing three-year conversation about the topic among the seven of us. It is a conversation that has occurred during formal meetings with National Assessment Team members, conference calls, and papers prepared for panel presentations over the life of the project. Our conversations also have assumed the form of short written exchanges about focused issues as we conceived the shape of Students at the Center. As we debated a title for our assessment book, we kept coming back to what we thought distinguished "The Courage to Question" as a project. It was, at heart, student-centered. At each campus, students, for the most part, were involved in every level of inquiry: in the formulation of program goals and of key questions to investigate and in supplying the data on which the case studies rest. On several campuses, students became central investigators with women's studies faculty members. Although it was published after we had already picked our title, Jean O'Barr's and Mary Wyer's Engaging Feminism: Student Speak Up and Speak Out captures eloquently the way we in higher education do not listen carefully enough to students. Because of our inattention, we have overlooked one of our richest resources: students themselves. It is all well and good to suggest that students might learn from each other....It is even acceptable to say that...we should learn with students, cooperating with them in a common classroom activity. It is another issue altogether to suggest that thos teaching in American higher education today, including those in women's studies, would be enriched by a shift in our perspectives on students, to suggest that we might be more effective teachers if our approach was grounded in an appreciation for the knowledge, diversity, and intellectual strengths of those who take our classes. If we listen to what these students...say, they thrive on recognition, appreciation, and trust; they notice their marginalization; and they despair of the waste of their talents. Sharing O'Barr's and Wyer's desire to refocus new attention to students' voices, especially as we assess the strengths and weaknesses of the education they are subjected to for so many years, we titled our book Students at the Center: Feminist Assessment. THE STRUCTURE OF THE GRANT Ten women's studies programs were invited to be part of the project. Seven ended up completing all three years. The grant was structured around a series of workships with two representatives from each campus, the National Assessment Team members, and the project director. The first year focused on defining campus-based program goals in consultation with broad campus constituencies, determining what key areas they wanted to investigate about student learning, and designing an assessment plan for their program. During the second year, programs put their plans into practice-- gathering data, bringing National Assessment Team members to campus for site visits, and writing preliminary reports of their findings. In the third year, final data collection and analysis were completed and final chapters of the findings written for The Courage to Question: Women's Studies and Student Learning, published in June 1992. At the beginning of the project, each campus was asked to define its women's studies program goals in four areas: the knowledge base, critical skills, feminist pedagogy, and personal growth. There were, however, no preconceived formulas for program goals and no assumption that they would be the same at each campus. We did assume, nonetheless, that once they were compiled we all would gain a more accurate picture of what women's studies learning goals were across the nation. With this task as the focus of the first year of the project, yet another given of the grant proposal surfaced: nothing was permanent, nothing was sacred, and, like most women, we could change our minds. The first year of the project began with a workshop in October, 1989, tied to the invitational women's studies directors' conference, "Women's Studies: The Third Decade." Participants gathered around the table for that workshop arrived with all the recognizable signs of caution, resistance, and suspicion about assessing women's studies that had surfaced for me during my first phone conversation with FIPSE. Central to the work of the first year was articulating on each campus what we came to call "passionate questions." The phrase builds on the use of "passionate" in Women's Ways of Knowing, where the concept of "passionate knowers" is defined as "a way of weaving their passions and intellectual life into some recognizable whole." They are described as "knowers who enter into a union with that which is to be known." We urged students and faculty and staff members on campuses to become "passionate questioners," focusing on issues of greatest concern, without worrying until later about how to answer them. The decision to focus squarely on questions of great importance provided an overriding purpose for the project and gave us the impetus to plunge ahead. Passionate anxieties began to give way to passionate questions. By the spring of that first year, campus representatives had accumulated an expanded set of questions spawned by several months of consultation with faculty members and students. Although we debated whether to have a common set of questions to ask across all campuses, we decided against such an approach. Instead, we remained firm in our premise that positionality and institutional context should determine the specific questions posed for each of the women's studies programs involved. "I like to keep things messy," said one women's studies faculty member who was explaining her distrust of predetermined questions and categories. Generating the questions proved the most important part of the process. As Mary Kay Tetreault, one of the National Assessment Team members, put it, "Being clear about what you want to know is the hard part. Measuring that is easier." One of the greatest obstacles during the first year was wariness toward the assessment movement and its language. We devoted many discussions to assessment: its uses and misuses, its range of methods, its value, and its potential as a vehicle we could claim as our own. Had the programs not ultimately decided that they could, in fact, create a version of assessment consistent with feminist goals and maintain some control about how the results would be used, the project would not have lasted beyond the first six months. Faculty members at Hunter College described the gradual transformation in their attitudes this way: "Learning about assessment as a tool for curricular improvement, and not as a means of disciplining the faculty and student workforce, has been extremely valuable." Through articles circulated to participants, group discussions, campus-wide consultations, and one-on-one meetings with members of the National Assessment Team, participants gradually made their peace with assessment. Although most resistance to assessment had been overcome, the residue remained in the reluctance to call their design an "assessment plan." We eventually settled for "The Institutional Research Design Assessment Plan." While IRDAP sounded more like a new weapons system than an investigation of student learning, it was language everyone could live with. The difficulty most programs faced as they were about to launch their assessment investigations was captured succinctly by one women's studies director: "Where is this going to fit in when nothing else has dropped out?" People worried there was no time, no staff, and few resources. On some campuses, the project was not a program priority for everyone. We tried to solve these problems by pressing for more institutional support in the form of released time, research assistants, and developmental funds. In some cases we were successful; in others the failure to get more institutional cooperation created insurmountable difficulties for some sites and slowed others considerably. We urged creative use of staff time by weaving the assessment plan into a seminar project for a women's studies major, a student internship, or a graduate student research project. That proved a very successful strategy for several programs. We also urged programs to pick a plan they could actually do, maintaining consonance between resources and ambition. We recommended an unobtrusive assessment strategy to embed the questions in what programs already do on campus. Once they had gathered the data, we reminded them that they needed only to ask some of the questions at this point and could return to the data later when time and staffing permitted. These various strategies did not solve every problem, but they gave programs momentum and confidence. As one participant described it, our workshop offered a reality check on what programs can accomplish and "helped check overambitious plans. The workshop provided me again with a sense of purpose, importance, and enthusiasm. All of the earlier reservations vanished as each campus got down to business." The efforts during the second year took place primarily on individual campuses where programs collected all sorts of data through a wide variety of methods. Some used focus interviews; others examined student journals over time; still others used surveys, pre- and post-tests, reviewed syllabi, observed classes, examined annual reports, and phoned alumnae and alumni. On several campuses, students were deeply involved in collecting data, analyzing it, and writing up reports. On most campuses, a significant number of faculty members became increasingly part of the process. The most recurrent problem during the second year was knowing what to do with the mountain of data that was now available about student learning in women's studies. National Assessment Team members made site visits and offered telephone consultations to help unravel this dilemma. Throughout the first and second years, and even into the third and final year of the grant, the project benefitted significantly because everyone was so willing to share what they knew and did. While the grant structured such a process into the design, the sites entered into the exchange with relish. Everyone had a copy of each other's program goals and institutional profiles. We compared our "passionate questions" and paired in different clusters to help each other formulate assessment designs, which also were shared with everyone in the project. Programs exchanged course evaluations, alumnae surveys, and classroom climate surveys already in use. This level of exchange, intense dialogue, and mutual support contributed to the project's eventual success. By the end of the second year, the seven participating programs wrote their preliminary reports, revealing among other things the importance of engaging in assessment. As Marcia Westkott of the University of Colorado put it when she compared our assessment project with the state's, "The state mandate created an atmosphere that encouraged compliance rather than enthusiasm." By the end of our project, faculty members and students had become passionate questioners in assessment, intellectually challenged through discussion with a women's studies national community, and informed in very concrete ways about some of the strengths and areas to improve in their programs. By the end of the project, every program had generated not only new insights about student learning but also a host of additional passionate questions to pose in their post- project lives. They had come full circle indeed. Women's studies participants became convinced that student- centered, feminist assessment as they came to define it is a useful vehicle for imporving teaching and learning in women's studies. In publishing this volume, our hope is that the conceptual shifts, strategies, and instruments we developed during our three-year experience will be useful to facutly members and administrators whether or not they teach in women's studies programs. We also hope that by the time you finish reading our book, the muscles in your neck will not tighten the next time you hear the word "assessment." 1. Jean O'Barr and Mary Wyer, eds., Engaging Feminism: Students Speak Up & Speak Out (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 1. 2. Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule, Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1986), 141. 3. Ibid.