"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. This month, Dr. Woolf covers the topic of assessments within education abroad and welcomes new perspectives from a professional colleague in the field.
“Do you realize that we are in a profession in which our fate depends on the judgment of 22-year-old Americans. We are inventing the rules by which they will hang us”.
—The late Joseph Brockington of Kalamazoo College in conversation with Dr. W.K. Obi.
I am as enthusiastic about assessment as anybody. I never look bored or emanate indifference. In our education abroad discussions, there are two statements that we inevitably meet with fervent approval:
We need more assessment.
We need more data.
Thus, it was alarming to hear the mutterings of a naysayer at the Forum conference in Chicago. From the shadows, a theatrical whisper became audible in stunned silence: “Why? We don’t do anything with the stuff we’ve already got!” The source of this apostasy was the notorious Dr. Obi. This is not, of course, his real name but, to avoid even more twittering abuse, the alias “Obi” will suffice.
You may also know the source of this name. I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars films myself but, somehow or other, I have acquired the useless information that in the original draft script a character was called Old Bloke One which, as nobody could think of a better name, morphed into OB Wan Kenobi. If the name was good enough for George Lucas, it will suffice for me as an alias for our irritating curmudgeon. So, the elderly vexation is, for these purposes, to be known as Dr. W. K. Obi.
Obi refuses to accept, or even be quiet about, concepts that are dear to our hearts (wan of a kind?).He loudly proclaims, for example, that global citizenship is a vacuous slogan used to lure students abroad by telling them that a few weeks in Paris (or somewhere) will instill within them Solomon-like wisdom and the mystical capacity to bestride competently the complexities of the globe. Dr. Obi’s outrageous rant on the subject went beyond the bounds of polite discourse, comparing global citizenship to a “mishegas”—“madness,” in Yiddish.
NB. For a parody of Obi’s unrestrained extremism see: https://frontiersjournal.org/index.php/Frontiers/article/view/273
Dr. Obi has also burst blood vessels over cross-cultural learning. “If you ever read any history, you would know that countries aren’t cultures,” he thundered, spraying seditious spittle upon the heads of stunned colleagues. Obi went further, crossing the mythical river of Lethe to land on the shores of oblivion when, in an uncontrolled diatribe, he asserted that “‘study abroad has changed my life’ has done more damage to our work than Joe McCarthy and Trump combined.”
Caption: An artistic representation of W.K. Obi’s journey across the River Lethe into oblivion.
NB. A note from the author: long ago and in a country far away, I joined colleagues in a panel discussion intended to expose through satire the fallacies of Obi’s reasoning. A report of this event sadly failed to comprehend the intended ironies.
With trepidation, and against the advice of wiser colleagues, I determined to seek an interview with Dr. Obi so as to, once and for all, expose the roots of his obsessional delusions and, in so doing, shatter those remnants of his reputation that mysteriously linger.
Dr. Obi is still, surprisingly, somewhat employed in education abroad in roles that combine court jester (as in the medieval court of King Ethelred the Unready) with mascot and adviser to his organization’s leader, who continues to smile benignly upon Obi’s eccentric interventions. One explanation is that he has learned over the years not to hear them.
Caption: Obi at work.
Obi was not easy to pin down. He tends to read emails selectively and, if he responds, addresses subject matter that interests him rather than that which the sender intended. However, he finally agreed to my many requests for an interview on condition that it would take place in his apartment, immediately after breakfast on Sunday, at precisely 4pm.
Dr. Obi lives in squalid disarray in an obscure corner of London. The apartment block within which he resides represents a small pocket of disorder and deprivation in an otherwise prosperous, leafy part of the city. I arrived nervously but promptly to be greeted by a shuffling, unshaven, somewhat portly figure wearing shiny trousers. The interior of his apartment may be taken as a metaphor for his state of mind:
Caption: Obi’s apartment!
For health and safety reasons I turned down his offer of refreshment: “What do you want? Whisky or vodka?”
What follows is a heavily-edited version of the disconcerting interview. The worst excesses of inappropriate language and the more obvious examples of collapsed coherence have been omitted for reasons of propriety, readability, and taste. Those of nervous disposition should probably read no further.
An Interview with Dr. W.K. Obi as Conducted by the Author
Interviewer: Dr. Obi, please tell me and our reader(s) why you audibly muttered “humbug” during the discussion of assessment at the Forum conference in Chicago?
Obi: Assessment! Assessment! I’ll tell you about assessment. We used to do it properly. A good student got an “A”; the fool or idler, a “D”; the complete waster, an “F”. We made them write essays, compelled them to take exams. That’s how we found out if they’d learned anything at all in between chasing around foreign fleshpots and lurking in lurid estaminets.
Caption: A lurid estaminet as often found in foreign parts.
Interviewer: But, Dr. Obi, we know that in education abroad students may learn many other things through their experiences. It is a holistic mode of learning in which students broaden their consciousness, widen their horizons, gain empathy...
(At this point, Obi had lost patience with my eloquent exposition. He quite rudely interrupted.).
Obi: None of our business! Move on!
Interviewer: A moment, however... are you saying that all that matters is the material you want students to understand?
Obi: Let me ask you a question. I’m not interested in your answer but how, in the name of all the gods messing with our brains, did a university, even one with the reputation of Hull, award you a PhD? We, you especially, have no right to meddle with students’ emotions or sensibilities. Cook the meal by all means but don’t aim to digest it for them as well!
(It seemed wise to abandon this area of interrogation which had become, I feared, rather personal. Dr. Obi paused to refresh his glass).
Interviewer: What about students assessing faculty?
Obi: I used to be a faculty member and they did that in my day too. “Dr. Obi is a complete jerk” was a not uncommon remark, or when I taught in Italy “Dottore Obi sei lo uno scemo stolto calzato e vestito”. Quite enough assessment there, I think. In any case, how can students evaluate things about which they know next to nothing?
Interviewer: Did you receive any student comments that you were proud of?
Obi: Indeed. One student wrote “Obi’s class was not cool!” I was delighted to receive this. Being regarded as “cool” by the young is indicative of infantilism. It would depress me inordinately. “Obi non e fico” would be another way of making the same gratifying judgment.
Interviewer: (A touch exasperated). Is there anyone capable of usefully assessing your work then?
Obi: A committee of peers? Though, out of malicious enjoyment, they might turn the whole thing into a Star Chamber inquisition. Wimpy, nervous types would probably be constrained by the fully-justified fear that I, in turn, would be part of a cabal that ridiculed and condemned them. There are joyous possibilities in being a peer reviewer; fearful consequences in being reviewed. Dispassionate objectivity is rarely spotted in institutions committed to the pursuit of higher learning.
(Dr Obi paused to refresh his glass).
Interviewer: I think we’ve exhausted this area of our discussion. Perhaps you would admit that assessment of organizational performance is valuable?
Obi: There are three reasons why institutions and organizations go through these ordeals. The first, and most important, is that they have no choice. In many countries, authoritarian accreditation agencies, or pale imitations thereof, require you to demonstrate that you are qualified to carry on doing what you’ve been doing for years. They are unconvinced by the power of the market. As we all know, if we weren’t doing something like we said we were doing, education abroad students wouldn’t turn up and we’d all be looking for jobs—perhaps with accreditation agencies and their pallid impersonators.
Interviewer: How do you prove that you are competent to continue?
Obi: With a legion of bits of paper demonstrating that you’ve done what you said you would do. It is critical that there are lots of reports revealing your successes. It is equally critical to ensure that failures are edited out of history.
Caption: A successful review.
Obi: The whole thing becomes trickier if you have rashly claimed that your students gain global competencies, have become intercultural communicators, and have emerged from your expertly constructed chrysalis to fly home as winged global citizens. As nobody really knows what any of this means, there is scope for obfuscation. Nevertheless, ultimately, sadly, you will have to convince your inquisitors that some kind of miraculous transformation has occurred. You will be required to survey students—enter into a perilous world. A carefully constructed set of questions, that can only be answered in one way, is required. There are people who do this work throughout the world of education abroad and you can pay them to write a survey that achieves your objective. Students are sometimes obstinate though and judicious editing may also be required here. You would be well advised to omit anything from someone like the super smart and skeptical Talya Zemach-Bersin. Back in 2008, as a recent graduate, she demolished the concept of the global citizen in a splendid essay. For the last 14 years, international educators have ignored or willfully forgotten those arguments.
NB. Here is the essay to which Obi is referring: Talya Zemach-Bersin, “American Students Abroad Can't Be 'Global Citizens’”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 7, 2008, Section: Commentary, V.54, 26, p.A34 (https://www.chronicle.com/article/american-students-abroad-cant-be-global-citizens/?cid=gen_sign_in)
Interviewer: I’d forgotten that... moving on...please. Don’t organizations use assessment for improvement?
Obi: No, well rarely—which brings me to the second most common mode of review. As with the global citizen survey, we use external consultants. The objective in this context is to bring in people who endorse your perspectives. Colleagues who would never agree with anything you’ve been saying for years are much impressed when someone from outside also says it, especially if they are being paid excessive amounts of money to replicate your opinion. The credibility of consultants is directly connected to the size of the fee you pay them for their services.
Interviewer: But how can you ensure that they will agree with you?
Obi: Bring in your friends, entertain them royally, and give them notes in advance. Those will form the basis of their considered recommendations. The consultants will appreciate the fact that they don’t have to think too much.
(Dr. Obi paused to refresh his glass. Then, swallowing a copious amount of an amber fluid, he rummaged through the remnants of memory and seemed to soften towards me).
Obi: As time goes by, I am beginning to dislike you less. I feel a kind of pitying affection for you. I shall share a story that some might see as ever so slightly unethical. The colleague responsible has always argued that, on the contrary, this was an efficient use of everyone’s time. In short, the report was delivered to the consultants three weeks before their visit, requiring, after exhaustive investigation, only their signatures. The names of those complicit must remain our little secret.
(Available by negotiation – the interviewer).
(Dr. Obi paused to refresh his glass).
Interviewer: Dr. Obi, I share your sense of restrained outrage. Some time ago, you mentioned that there were three reasons for conducting assessments. What is the third?
Obi: This is the easy one—so you can get rid of types like the worthless dullard Dr. Pincus in Academic Affairs and harridans like Mrs. Magwitch in Administration.
Assessment as a form of revenge...
(Dr. Obi chuckled rather nastily – an unpleasant sound that dissolved into a wet cough).
Interviewer: My final question: Dr. Obi, don’t we need more data?
And So, It Ended
I left Dr. Obi slumped in an ashtray. This had proved to be a most difficult interview. Obi belongs to the darker ages of education abroad when a myopic focus on teaching and learning obscured the noble aspiration to transform students’ souls and minds, whether they wanted them transformed or not.
He does not share our dream of creating an elite tribe of global citizens who, because study abroad changed their lives, display global competence on a grandiose scale. We have faith that they will get better jobs and we believe that they will earn higher salaries that distinguish them from the lumpen proletariat. Oh, brave new utopia! Dr. Obi and his like, meandering through the faded vestiges of past practice, have no place in our future.
Instead of the timid aspiration that students will know a little more when they leave than they did when they arrived, we envision a greater significance for education abroad. Students will be empowered to think like us; the best, inspired to become like us. We have banished doubt and wasteful introspection. We hold these truths to be self-evident. Endowed by their creators with incontrovertible orthodoxies, these unalienable concepts are the foundations upon which we build our Temple.
Caption: This picture is included at the request of Dr. W.K. Obi (the editors).
Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Engagement of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.