A sort of performativity and exam week thoughts

I’m not sure what blogs do, but I can speak to one reason why I’m writing one — it’s to gain a bit of influence on how I’m visible, to put a bid out for myself.  I suspect others may share a sense that some of our ability to present ourselves is slipping away.  Organizations like the university I work use accountability systems to shape and regulate our work, and accounting, as many scholars note, is essentially about making work and workers visible in certain ways in order to make them predictable, interpretable, and controllable.  In schools, standardized tests are key parts of these systems, forming a kind of “policy technology” Stephen Ball calls “performativity”

Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change — based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organizations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organization within a field of judgement. (“The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity,” The Journal of Education Policy, 2003, 216)

We don’t get categorized by our students’ standardized test scores (yet) but we are increasingly rendered visible through what the administration here likes to call “metrics” that calculate our monetary returns to the university and our contribution to the program’s ranking.  Living inside such systems, Ball suggests, we learn to think and talk about ourselves in terms of and in the terms of these systems, we become “ontologically insecure” (220) when we can’t locate ourselves in their vocabularies.  A blog is a kind of sideways space is one way for performance defined in different terms — it is for me, at the moment anyway.

Of course, reading that bit from Ball one might note that the type of system he’s describing is precisely the one teachers (in the US at least) have been using to control students for generations — our testing and grading systems.   A case of “blowback,” perhaps.  It’s worth remembering how strange “grading” seemed to many early in the 20th century (the great sociologist of education Willard Waller, for example) — and indeed how strange it seems to educators now when we look at it in different contexts.  News of the Weird for 6 March noted that the Department of Education’s plan to rate Colleges of Teacher Education with an A-F ‘grading’ system had been attacked by them as ‘overly simplistic.’

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