Sunday, 29 June 2008

Assessment, authority and the ownership of knowledge

Over the past week or so I have been researching 1970s student politics, especially around the ownership of knowledge (of course, since that is my topic). Naturally I have barely scraped the surface but I have been thinking about something.

Themes, as well as the ones we know well (Vietnam war, apartheid, aboriginal land rights, feminism, gay rights etc etc) included examination, assessment, professorial authority and democracy in education.

UNE had a peasant’s revolt against exams and students completed the exam on Marxism collectively, to the horror of the poor exam supervisor. Eliminating exams was on placards along with other political statements and an idea that students should “assess the teachers” (instead of being assessed as students) seemed quite reasonable to students. And to some staff, mind you.

Sydney university largely went on strike in 1973 over the professorial board failing to approve a course on feminism in the philosophy department – which was one of several departments experimenting with allowing all students to vote at departmental meetings. Students at Sydney conducted a 3-day hostile occupation of the Registrar’s office over failure by the university to grant advanced standing to one of its students.

Universities responded surprisingly positively to student wishes, despite the bluster of a number of Sydney professors and concerted efforts by the Sydney professorial board in 1970 to piss students off with particularly paternalistic approaches. There was a little war (of letters, mostly) for a while.

A free university was set up at Sydney, and at UNE and probably other places too.

For even by 1975, professorial boards were being replaced by academic boards changing the role of professors and giving expanded say to junior staff and students. Faculties and departments were now required to have student representation and universities tended to encourage continuous assessment, take-home exams and discourage single-exam-only forms of assessment.

UNSW addressed the period’s whimsy, if nothing else, by officially appointing a Wizard as a part of the university’s organisational structure.

But there was still a minority that felt assessment should be eliminated all together and I think this is interesting. I find it difficult- probably due to lack of research so far – to really understand how this could be. But I am sure it is related to authority and the ownership of knowledge. Looking closely at the philosopher’s strike at Sydney uni, the course proponents felt that the professorial board was unqualified to judge the value of this new knowledge – knowledge which students could explore and access, which undermined the traditional authority of professors. Given that the new – and important – knowledge was something young people possessed and professors didn’t, professors should have no role in assessing them. Also, professors clearly care about a range of things that have no importance in comparison to the new knowledge possessed by students and the legitimacy of their authority in the university should be questioned.

References I've used in think and scribbling this are:

Bashford, Alison. "The Return of the Rpressed: Feminism in the Quad." Australian Feminist Studies 13, no. 27 (1998): 47-53.

Beer, Don (ed.). A Serious Attempt to Change Society: The Socialist Action Movement and Student Radicalism at the University of New England, 1969-75. Transcripts of Interviews. (Armidale: Kardoorair Press, 1998).

Jacka, E.M. and Curthoys, J, Open letter to members of the Committee appointed by the Professorial Board to to consider the qualifications of two persons recommended for appointment as Part-Time Lecturers in Philosophy (1973)

Several Sydney Professorial Board Minutes and some Academic Board minutes between 1970 and 1976.

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