03/10/2014 11:28 am ET Updated May 10, 2014

Kafka on Campus

College campuses are fast becoming strange places where nothing makes much sense, where everything creates a haze of confusion and dislocation, where, to quote an idiom from the Songhay people of Niger and Mali, "you don't know your frontside from your backside." Such a state makes me feel much like "K," the protagonist of The Castle, which is arguably Kafka's greatest novel, a narrative of palpably disturbed dislocation and social alienation.

Writing about Kafka's great work in The Guardian in late December 2011, William Burrows suggests that it is a common mistake to think that The Castle is fundamentally a critique of mindless bureaucracy. Instead he suggests that

...Kafka writes about simple and important things: aloneness, pain, the longing for human companionship, the need to be respected and understood, sex, and the struggle of being employed...This book will make you sad for the things missing in your life. The reader is forced into confrontation with basic human need. We bear witness to K's futile struggle for recognition and respect. The whole ground of his being is undermined by those who will not acknowledge his task or his right to be in the village....

For me, the corporate university has become Kafka's Castle. In our struggle for "recognition and respect" students and faculty have become much like Kafka's character "K." Although we are an integral part of the academy, we feel left out--numb. The reason for his sad state of disorientation is that the university has become a corporation that provides "services." As such the corporate university must ceaselessly produce protocols and mind-boggling procedures that measure the "quality" of its "product." In this product-oriented atmosphere of service provision, we wander about Kafka's Campus in states of disorientation.

What can we expect?

How can we proceed?

Overwhelmed by incessant emails, policy changes, assessment exercises, learning outcomes and mission statements, we don't know where to turn in our search for an education or a meaningful life.

Some readers may think I'm exaggerating the sad state of contemporary higher education. I wish that were so.

Consider a recent ad that appeared in Higher Ed Jobs for an assistant professorship of English at Texas A&M--Kingsville. In bold face letters, the ad states:

Provide Excellent Customer Service

In his recent blog, "How Did We Get Into This Mess?," Professor David Perry stated:

I do not provide service to my students. When I am at my best, and let's face it, I am not always at my best, I drive my students, encourage them, plead, cajole, debate, critique, and praise them. This is not service. And importantly, while our relationship is enmeshed in broad systems of exchange, we are not in an exchange-based relationship.

...Students are not my customers and thank goodness for that, because the responsibility of a teacher to his or her students is far greater than the employee to the customer.

One of the most important features of customer service is assessment--of employees and products. Indeed, the university-as-corporation is a awash in assessment--so much so that it is hard to make your way as a student or a professor.

Consider the Kafkaesque document that the assessors at my institution, who spend much of their time in The Castle, sent to faculty members. Titled "Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes Within Academic Programs At..." this missive identifies key terms (academic units as opposed to professional education units, assessment reports, TracDat Assessment Tracking software, TracDat Periodic Updates, and reporting groups that "are responsible for implementing and overseeing the assessment process for individual programs and/or departments").

The document lists seven hyperlinks that explain who gets assessed, what an assessment plan looks like, who coordinates the reporting of student learning outcomes, how assessment results might be applied, the assessment timeline, where the assessment results might be published as well as the institutional resources that support the assessment of student learning. If someone is interested in writing about assessment results, he or she

...must include, at minimum, a listing of all programmatic student learning outcomes, but could also include

1. examples of the specific skills students are expected to acquire as a result of the experiences within a curricular program

2. types of knowledge and/or dispositions that students in a particular program are expected to demonstrate or develop with regard to each general programmatic student learning outcome.

It goes without saying that "...course learning objectives and programmatic student learning outcome information must be included on all course syllabi. Furthermore, the course learning objectives must be linked, directly, to programmatic student learning outcomes. "

Such a range of assessment requirements is enough to steer students into a bank of thick fog. Such stuff will certainly make any professor's head spin.

Having labored for almost 35 years in university classrooms, I have a few simple questions to ask the people who work in The Castle.

1. Do you really think students, professors or the public will read and discuss the highly manicured and thoroughly debated course learning outcomes, let along programmatic student learning outcomes? In an era during which people don't read very much, they're not likely to savor this kind of dull bureaucratic prose.

2. Do you really think you can use quantitative means to "measure" things like critical thinking, clarity of expression, or creativity? In my experience it is a mistake to reduce the human condition to a set of outcomes?

Like most undergraduates, my students are preoccupied with exams, research papers, and, dare I say it, grades. They don't give a damn about student learning outcomes. The same can be said for most professors who don't want to waste their time writing mission statements, student learning outcomes and assessment reports. Wouldn't it be better if we devoted more of our time to refining our knowledge, reworking our class presentations, or writing essays and books--all which enable us to better able to inspire our students, all of which enable us to introduce our students to the complex wonders of the world?

If I were to assess the assessors, I would make two suggestions. First, I would urge you to leave The Castle. If you manage to find your way out, why not explore the open spaces of the classroom. Try teaching a course, which is a good way to recognize and respect the students and professors you are bent on assessing. Second, I would recommend that you read--or reread--The Castle--to get an intense sense of the existential consequences of transforming universities into customer service institutions.