Monday, September 15, 2014

Abe Feuerstein on writing to reconcile educators’ experiences with theories about assessment and accountability

Associate Professor of Education Abe Feuerstein

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?

I’m currently in the middle of a project that is examining department chairs’ views of academic assessment in a local college.  Academic assessment has become an important focus in higher education as some educational leaders have begun to question whether students are really learning what we think they are. This was a subject that I worked on a lot over the last 4-5 years as an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, and now I’m trying to take a step back from that direct involvement and understand better the experience of those individuals who have the direct responsibility for implementing various systems for assessing student learning within their departments.

What do you love about it?

I have enjoyed talking with the chairs about their work. Through our conversations I have been able to get new insights in the challenges posed by assessment and the various ways that departments have sought to address those challenges.  I like the way the project is forcing me reconcile the experiences of the chairs with more overarching theories that seek to explain the growing emphasis on accountability in organizations ranging from schools to prisons.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?

The analysis of the data itself can become fairly tedious.  Looking at the transcripts of my interviews for common themes takes a long time, and I sometimes find myself losing focus. So, while I like knowing what people think, having to characterize that thinking in a systematic and defensible way is a really tough job.

How would you describe your writing process?

Generally, I’m someone who likes to start with the general and work toward the specific.  In my writing this sometimes means spending a lot of time considering the general context of the issue that I am trying to write about before getting to the specific question that I want to explore. While this is really good for my thinking, it doesn’t always work for a typical chapter or journal article, so I end up cutting a lot of that material later in the process after I’ve clarified the focus of the piece.  

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?

I’ve really benefited from reading my work out loud to someone (often Peg Cronin in the Writing Center) who is willing to listen and ask questions. The questions asked by a listener often show me where I have left my audience in the lurch and have more explaining to do.  This is particularly true with transitions, where I am prone to jump from one topic to another thinking that the relationship between the ideas is clear even when it’s not. Having a listener say that she doesn’t understand how I got from point A to point B is helpful because it makes me think more clearly about that relationship and how to explain it.   I also find that reading things out loud helps me to think more about the overall structure of the article and helps me to find grammatical errors and typos.

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?

I would like students to know that I work very hard at my writing because it does not come naturally to me. When I was in college, I received some really mean- spirited feedback about my writing from a professor, and I found it to be paralyzing.  Since then, I’ve learned how to parse mean-spirited feedback from feedback that is meant to help my writing and my thinking improve, and I focus on the latter. I think students would be well advised to take a similar approach -- try to focus on what is actionable in the comments provided by your professors.  Try to pay attention to what the reader thinks could be made better (even if it is hard to hear) and let the mean-spirited comments go.

Abe Feuerstein studies issues related to local educational politics, interest groups, and school reform. He started teaching at Bucknell University in the fall of 1996. After gaining tenure in 2002,he served for six years as chair of Bucknell’s Education Department. He then served as Associate Dean of Faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences between 2008 and 2013. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Virginia. Prior to teaching at Bucknell, he worked in both private and public schools as a chemistry teacher and school administrator.

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