Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Speak Your Mind

The publication of a set of papers critiquing a widely-utilized national survey of college students, and the subsequent cancellation of an academic conference session aimed at discussing those papers, has caused quite a stir in the higher education research community.

Many of the details can be found in newspaper coverage here and here, so these are just the highlights:

There's a famous survey known as the NSSE (pronounced Nessie) the National Survey of Student Engagement. It is used by many colleges and universities to assess how their students experience college. The resulting data are also used by researchers who study topics such as how engagement relates to institutional resources, college graduation rates, etc. There aren't many such sources of data on the college experience, so the NSSE is a big fish in a tiny pond. For example, as states turn their attention to developing accountability metrics, some are considering NSSE metrics for that purpose.

The stature of NSSE has drawn the attention of researchers, in particular to how well NSSE does in terms of actually measuring student engagement. There are many potential flaws, most common to all data collection instruments, relating to the sort of things researchers enjoy obsessing over, stuff like sampling, question wording, constructs, etc. This is the nitty-gritty of our work as it comprises the methodology we used to answer our research questions. You know the old expression "crap in, crap out?" Well, it's why we care so much about these things and want to spend time thinking about them.

It seems that a lot of researchers care about the NSSE and its methods--so many that the Association for Higher Education's journal, Review of Higher Education, received a load of papers all about the NSSE, and decided to put them all together in a single special issue, published this fall. And that's where the trouble began. In one sense, it's understandable that a collected set of critiques can feel like an attack. The folks at NSSE were given a chance to respond in the next issue of the journal. Maybe it should have been in the same issue as the critiques, maybe not-- it happens both ways in social science and education journals. In this case, they are responding in the next issue. And researchers who authored the articles sought and were granted a presidential session at the upcoming ASHE conference to share their studies with others. This was an opportunity for open and frank discussion and debate, the kind of thing most academics thrive on.

Sadly, that conference session was canceled.

Last week, President Linda Serra Hagedorn emailed her members, saying it was up to her to schedule the session, and up to her to cancel it. She defended her choice with two rationales: (1) She's heard concerns with the content of the journal issue -- in particular she said that one of the authors may have violated the association's code of ethics, and (2) She felt that the journal issue had become too controversial. So she changed her mind, and decided the session about the set of journal articles would not be held. "It's my academic freedom to go in a different route," she said. "I don't understand what the hullabaloo is all about."

That was a mistake.

First, there has been no determination that the articles' authors violated ASHE policy—and the policy itself may violate academic freedom and need to be revised. We need more discussion and debate not less. If the tone of the issue or a particular critique was offensive, a session at the meetings might help to serve as a corrective.

Second, Hagedorn's decision to schedule the presidential session was hers to make. It does not matter if the papers were already published, if the conference program committee had rejected the session, or if all paper presenters planned to dress in purple-- no matter what this session was to look like, it was Hagedorn's to invite and plan. She did it-- and this constitutes a verbal contract, a promise to those scholars. She opened the door for them to share their ideas, and then she shut it, saying "too loud!"

Third, the assessment that a topic is too controversial is one that inherently limits academic discussion. Hagedorn's was a pre-emptive action that violates the rights of others— especially those brave enough to offer strong critique. She has limited their dissemination opportunities and academic discourse by backing out. It may be her right to decide, but the fact is that many people decide things that violate the rights of others.

I was a member of ASHE for most of the last 10 years, publishing in RHE and serving on the conference program committee, but this spring after I got tenure, I let my membership expire. The reason was simple: I usually find the discussions in the journal and the conferences dull, especially in comparison to the fierce and insightful debates I encounter at other meetings. There is a preponderance of group-think in the organization, which seems inclined to teach its members to be "team players" that do not contradict each another. This is not the way to make progress in a field desperately in need of new insights.

It is ironic that the first issue of RHE that I missed was this one on NSSE: it's the best one I've seen. And that now-canceled conference session would have been worth attending, no doubt. But it's not happening, and that's a darn shame. Critique is enriching and healthy-- it isn’t something to be avoided or frightened of.

I firmly disagree with Hagedorn's decision to cancel this session, and urge her to reconsider. The researchers and NSSE leaders should come to the same table and talk. The NSSE is a valuable resource, it is led by smart people, and they should be thrilled to engage in an academic discussion in such a prominent venue about this work. The big surveys dominate the field. In a sense, they are collective resources and thus subject to collective processes of improvement. Let's make that happen.

Finally, I hope the ASHE Board will think about the message that Hagedorn's actions has sent to scholars of higher education who seek to sift and winnow their way through difficult issues, and address any detrimental effects. Since I was until very recently an untenured professor, I can say that these sorts of actions make us very, very nervous. What if we write a paper that attracts too much attention-- will we be shut out of our association's conference? Not published? Shunned? Higher education needs researchers willing and able to speak their minds. The field deserves nothing less.

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