Embracing Sisyphus or My First Year Leading University Assessment

Embracing Sisyphus or My First Year Leading University Assessment

I was an assessment ninja.

As a consultant, I could swoop into a campus, help re-establish, re-evaluate, or refine their assessment practice, and leave unnoticed. Nothing left behind but happy villagers and the memory of a moment in time when data started to inform practice.  My campus collaborators, often Deans, Vice-Presidents, Provosts, or Assessment overseers themselves, kept a lot of what was going on behind the scenes away from me as I tended to the many other villages I would swoop into.  I would return to find decisions made, processes finalized, and progress achieved. 

When I switched roles from consultant to client and leader of divisional assessment with just one university’s priorities in mind, it also meant hanging up the black belt, the stealth, and the blind-eye to the real groundwork that makes data informed decision-making happen on a campus.  I turned into something else entirely: Sisyphus.

I mean that in the best way possible. 

Assessment, if done correctly, is not a futile task, but like Sisyphus, it can feel like you are pushing a boulder up a hill.  Establishing an assessment culture where data informs but does not overwhelm practice is a matter of incremental progress, an understanding of just how far you’ve come, and an awareness of how much hill you have to climb.  Here is what I’ve learned after only one year with my shoulder to the boulder:

  1. Know your mountain.

The first months of my job were focused on the singular mission of understanding the work of my colleagues inside and outside of my division. I had meetings, lunches, and conversations in the hallways. I shook hands. I had to know the terrain of the university.  Not being the first person in my position, I was starting a few miles up the assessment mountain, and I needed to understand what my peers had done to that point in order to navigate our next few steps. Now wasn’t the time to drastically veer off course. Building strong relationships early across the university has already proven beneficial in mapping the path taken to this point and informing how to navigate the steps ahead.  And believe me, there are many pockets within the university that can be wellsprings of untapped information, and individuals across the university that will love to chat with anyone with “assessment” in their title.

  1. Your rock is my rock, and my rock is your rock.

Silos exist. That is nothing new. Some are arbitrary while others are protective.  It’s beneficial to see silos not as barriers, but as the lenses through which we process our experiences. Even with these pockets of expertise across a division and university, it’s important to know that we all have our shoulders to the same rock.  This kind of big-picture thinking can be difficult when your time is consumed with the day-to-day processes at the university.  That is where good assessment practice and planning are crucial. The university mission, competency frameworks, and co-curricular outcomes can all serve to tie our stories together and make it easier to see that my hunk of the rock is but a small piece of a larger rock that everyone has their shoulder against. A good assessment culture should celebrate the unique perspectives and angles of interpretation upon our larger goals while illuminating the much larger vision that is just outside our field of vision.

  1. There are other rocks on this mountain.

I once talked with a university that refused to learn from the innovative assessment work that their community college system was doing because, I assume, pride and status got in the way of practicality. It’s important to remember regardless of our size, resources, population or location, we’re all on the same mountain: student success.  It’s exceedingly rare to be the first campus to experiment with something, and I’ve quickly learned the Student Affairs community is quick to share and collaborate. Resources like SAAL, NASPA, ACPA, and countless professional organizations both nationally and regionally are treasure troves of information.  Can you exactly apply the work done at a small, private, liberal arts college to that of a public research institution?  Probably not.  But this insight could help you skip a few steps along your unique path towards the same goal.

  1. Every peak is a plateau in disguise.

This is probably the most challenging aspect to assessment for those not in the field. Using your data to inform decision making isn’t an end within itself, but more of a pause before you re-examine or turn your attention to new pathways. Sometimes the boulder needs to roll a little backwards before it can take the solid path forward, and this cycle of assessing and re-assessing can make it feel like we’re all marching toward a summit perpetually obscured by clouds and just out of reach. A good assessment practice should celebrate the small achievements, however we choose to define them, and encourage our colleagues to keep pushing forward.

As assessment professionals, we are the cartographers, the bridge builders, the obstacle clearers and sometimes the cheerleaders for our peers.  We help the university carve their stone. We refine every department’s hand-hold. We time the steps and ensure that everyone pushes in the same direction. And we move onward.

I, for one, couldn’t be happier to join you all on the mountain.

Daniel Kaczmarek, University at Buffalo

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