Thoughts on Assessment and Feedback while teaching art in the neoliberal realm.

Art schools could be thought to be about teaching art and the making of art. This idea presupposes that we know what art is and whether a piece of work is a success or a failure. Whereas the community of learning and exchange of ideas and sharing of experience may support the creativity and the making of art, the neoliberal drive to provide standardised evaluations in the form of internationally comparable grades against sets of ‘valuable’ competencies may conflict with the process of art making and risk taking. Too much assessment, too much concern with grades is bad for creativity. 

On the other hand ‘feedback’ can be a helpful form of conversation. The purpose of employing the practicing artist is that they are assumed to be able to understand the non-visual language of the student and locate it within the history of art and the contemporary artworld. This experience is shared as feedback with the student in the studio visit – now the online tutorial. Within a community of learning this conversation would ideally be one between peers, practicing artists in conversation. Realistically, the setting of ‘school’ and the ascribed roles and power imbalance of ‘student’ and ‘teacher’ cannot be ignored. My solution to this is then to recognise the power imbalance and the responsibility that comes with power, just as I seek to erode it by performing the role of artist peer.

Within the formal assessment and grading I am asked to employ my skills, which the bureaucrat who demands the grades, does not have, and then assess and grade students who employ very different theories, practices and outputs against a standardised marking criteria which attempts to capture the skills and competencies required to succeed within the creative industries or become employable. These grades and assessments can be used by both student and institution to develop strategies for ‘improvement’, which is a neoliberal imperative. However, my aim is not to encourage the student towards continuous self-improvement and give them grades they can use to market themself. My aim is to think together with the student about what art means and what art does in the world and how to make it, think about it, transgress boundaries and even have fun with it.

Thinking about the assessment process, as I embark upon it at the end of the current module, I am trying to hold these different thoughts together. I am trying to grade and assess in a way that meets the expectations of the students and the university. These are the expectations written and repeated in the brief, in the lecture, in each tutorial in the form of learning objectives. I am also trying to teach art.

Prior to the PGcert and the reading I have encountered on the course, I may have found the learning objectives annoyingly vague and to some extent dismissed them, working intuitively with the students who in turn responded intuitively to meet the objectives of independence, curiosity, risk taking and so forth. Now, I embrace the space within the learning objectives. I embrace my ability to refer to these objectives and instead of ignoring or dismissing them, work intuitively with the students who in turn respond intuitively to meet the objectives of independence, curiosity, risk taking and so forth, in the way that works for the student and arises through conversation, discussion and thinking together.

Collaborative Observation

Matt O’Leary & Vanessa Cui (2020) Reconceptualising Teaching and learning in higher education: challenging neoliberal narratives of teaching excellence through collaborative observation, Teaching in Higher Education, 25:2, 141-156, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2018.1543262

Having ‘paid attention’ (a la Ranciere) to the Teaching and Excellence Framework I considered potential problems with it (see my blog post of on TEF). I then undertook some online research on views of the TEF and, in particular, ideas for teaching that counter its negative neoliberal tendencies.

In an article by Matt O’Leary & Vanessa Cui the TEF as incorporating neoliberal ideas of marketisation, the commodification of education and the measuring of value in economic terms. Within the HE sector education is seen as ‘value for money’ and linked to the wider economy by increasing employability. These neoliberal values are translated in practices including the introduction of quantitative metrics which allow comparisons and competition in the HE institutions and increased control and scrutiny over work through measurements and observations of performance.

Looking specifically at the impact on the approach to teaching and learning that this engenders, according to the authors this promotes “an instrumentalist model of teaching and learning (T & L) with teaching staff often perceived as the deliverers of knowledge and skills and students as the consumers.” The student voice is the voice of the consumer, who evaluates teaching as a consumer at the end of each year by completing the National Student Survey.

Their article examined a more qualitative, collaborative and active approach to improving teaching and learning: collaborative observation. In this approach the student voice as evaluator of product is replaced by learner voice, which “is about students expressing their experiences and understanding about their learning in the context of their programme; what is meaningful to them and their lecturers/academic tutors.” 

Reminiscent of the teaching methods bell hooks describes in “Teaching to Transgress” where an active learning community within a specific environment, in this article the authors maintain that “students and staff should be considered as members of their programme community who have agency and are active participants in understanding and shaping T & L in their community”. Teaching and Learning are not separate, knowledge is not delivered to students, teaching and learning interact together within a community. Teaching and Learning are not individual activities but involve hearing other perspectives. Again, like hooks, a complex learning environment is acknowledged as the authors recognise that “Today’s mass participation in HE means that students are from a diverse range of socio-economic, cultural and educational backgrounds with a wide-ranging set of needs, thus resulting in a highly complex T & L environment.” Reducing the assessment of teaching and learning to easy to quantify and measure metrics is therefore reductionist and ignores this complexity.

My big take away from this article has been to somewhat confirm my scepticism of the TEF whilst also acknowledge my own agency and ability to resist performing to targets. This is possible within a community of peers who, my own interactions and readings have shown me, are curious and creative and have the aim of achieving teaching excellence despite constraints.

Bell Hooks ‘Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom’

I am a fan of bell hooks. I read ‘Aint I a woman’ many years ago and since then she’s always been on my radar, so when I saw her on our reading list I immediately got a copy of the book. ‘Teaching to Transgress’ seemed exactly the sort of thing I was up for. But what about the subtitle: ‘Education as the Practice of Freedom’? What was all that about? Sounds a bit liberal…hopefully (surely) not neoliberal, I thought. There is a theme going on here with Ranciere’s Emancipation and hooks’ Freedom… Of course Ranciere comes with a massive dose of equality (Fraternity missing from the triad).

So what is all this talk of freedom in education? Is it about formal freedom or substantive freedom? intellectual freedom (of thought and speech) or something else? I will take an initial look at this idea of freedom by examining the ideas in the first three chapters.

In chapter one freedom is liberation from “boundaries that confine”(p13), critical thinking, resistance, even, to normative discourse and representations, leading to self-actualisation. The pedagogic requirement is to “teach without reinforcing existing systems of domination”(p18).

In chapter 2 these systems of domination are described as racism, sexism and sexist oppression and class exploitation. Within education itself, domination is seen as natural and freedom is presented as synonymous with materialism (p28). Freedom, justice and democracy require an understanding that education is not politically neutral. 

In chapter 3 we can see how this education as freedom requires that different perspectives are taught, shared, included and practiced. In an inclusive classroom, there are no universal norms or experiences and no one way to approach a subject. The classroom should not be quiet. A quiet classroom may seem ‘safe’ but it doesn’t necessarily feel safe for everyone. Silence can represent the fear that speakers feel they will be judged inferior or made ‘native informant’. In an inclusive classroom – a classroom community – everyone’s perspective is examined, whiteness is also examined, and everyone takes responsibility for speaking and  everyone listens. In this climate there can be real freedom of expression.

Education as the practice of freedom, in the first three chapters, therefore seems to include ideas of negative and positive liberty. It is both practice that is free from patterns and practices of domination and marginalisation and  practice that produces a climate of freedom of expression and thought by embracing perspectives and ways of being that are inclusive and diverse.

So how do I translate these ideas into my own practice?