So I just got back from an academic conference where I presented a paper. I will not identify the conference except to say this–it brings together scholars from the education sector (not humanities), there is a great emphasis on assessment and evaluation, and pretty much everyone in the room was wearing a suit–men and women. To say that I was a fish out of water in my Betabrands and mules would be an understatement, but thankfully my sorethumbness went unnoticed in the thick cloud of ambitious with-whom-can-I-network-next.

The best thing about these conferences is that when they trot out the keynote speakers, they also feed you–well. So I set to my salmon and fingerling potatoes, pen poised over paper, ready to earn my supper by (at the very least) recording the wisdom that must surely be dispensed. The format for the talk was a fireside chat–one sage asking the questions (of Proustian length, I might add), the other grabbing the ball and running with it. I heard “affordances” and “evidence-based” and all the yummy geek-speak one has come to expect at events such as this. There was much humor–isn’t it delightful how we persist in our disdain of good science . . . ha, ha, ha, ha! And much confidence–“clearly” . . . “without a doubt” . . . “true, true,” . . . .

Then this.

“The test administrator has a B.A in English–lovely fellow, but he wouldn’t know an R-square if it bit him on the nose!”

I set down my fork.

Did he just dismiss one of the most senior members of the Department of Education of one of the most populous and progressive states in the country in one, twenty-three-word sentence?

I picked up my pen.

It had been languishing on the white table cloth for the last twenty minutes, unable to keep up with all the dense, insider-speak coming at it from the front of the room. Unable to care.

I wrote down what I had just heard word for word. (Yes, it is a superpower I picked up back in my college note-taking days, before, before the cell phone)

“The test administrator has a B.A in English–lovely fellow, but he wouldn’t know an R-square if it bit him on the nose!”

So let’s take a look at this sentence now, shall we:

  1. The “test administrator” being referred to is actually the Assistant Commissioner of the Office of State Assessment for the afore-mentioned state. But calling him a “test administrator” makes him sound like the guy that passes out papers in the exam hall, a peon.
  2. Then the qualifier, “He has a ‘B.A.'” which in most circumstances would be a way of assigning credibility, but in that room of multiple-lettered folks, a B.A. is tantamount to saying “illiterate.”
  3. And as if that weren’t enough, he offers another qualifier–“In English” – Does anyone still major in English? How charming! What a perfectly useless degree–up there with the Classics and . . . I don’t know, French!
  4. But my all time favorite has to be, “Lovely fellow.” It’s what one might say while patting the head of a very large, very affectionate, dog! “Lovely fellow, come! Fetch! Who’s a good dog??!!”
  5. And, of course, the laughingly offered, “he wouldn’t know an R-square” if it bit him on the nose, or otherwise! Why would he?

(Note to self: Look up R-square.)

Yup, in one fell swoop, this guy and what he had done was dismissed, hands dusted off, gone.

I wish I knew what he had done or what he had not done, but I’d been preoccupied. You know, bread roll, . . . leftover sauce, . . . what’s a girl to do!

I was paying attention now, though.

Here are the words that came out next:

“So we hired this guy from MIT to come in and do some analysis, and, of course, it was all test inflation.”

MIT. I’d heard that mentioned before, as I did Harvard. They’d come up at least a dozen times in the talk. So I thought, hmm, that’s interesting perhaps these gentlemen are from one of these two esteemed institutions, but no, one was from Johns Hopkins (slacker!) and the other a policy wonk from some state or another. So why MIT and Harvard? And why so many mentions? I don’t know, but it did give me an idea for how (best) to spend the remaining minutes of the keynote.

I decided to count the number of times MIT or Harvard came up in the conversation. Each time one of these institutions was mentioned, I made a little hash mark in my notebook. They looked so pretty!

By this time, white gloves were clearing away the plates and serving dessert–beautiful parfait thingy’s with fresh berries and unsweetened greek yogurt and nuts. It was lunch, after all. I dug in. I wanted to reach for the sugar packets to help the un-seasonal berries along, but feared that might be too gauche for this crowd, so I mooshed them until they were all juicy and stained the yogurt just enough to make the whole mess edible and downed the lot in four decisive bites.

I have to confess, I didn’t catch everything that was said from then on, but there were a couple of items that caught my attention.

Did you know, for instance, that in Singapore when an educator shows some promise, some interest in becoming a school leader, they are shipped off abroad for six months to study with the CEO of a company? Now why don’t we do that in this country??? Surely, it’s obvious that business is the source of all good leadership training. Why, if it’s good enough training for the Presidency of these United States, then it’s good enough training for a school leader!

Then, when one hapless audience member, drunk, no doubt, on overly sauced fish, asked a question about how to get all this good research back to where it can actually do some good, the classroom, she was met (first) with a moment of silence (perhaps the question was so profound it deserved a moment of respect) followed by some waffle about “dissemination” . . . and “methodology” . . . and “replication studies” . . . and “policymakers” . . . . My bad. I didn’t catch it all, but I was listening for words like “teachers” and “students” and “classrooms.” I should have paid better attention.

By this time, the conference organizers (smelling restlessness and anarchy in the air) called time on the whole thing and left us to our own devices.

All was not lost, however. I lingered over my Earl Gray and slipped a bread roll into my purse. I thought about what I had learned (nothing) and what I had eaten (everything). I tallied up the hash marks.

Final score: MIT = 12; Harvard = 7.


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Categories: Reflections

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3 replies

  1. I love this – well, I don’t love hearing about the edu-speak conference, but I love you’re take on it! I’ve done the hashmark trick myself during similar speeches, never about Harvard or MIT, but the subject doesn’t matter. Blow hards are blow hards. I wish you had heard more about students and teachers and classrooms as well.

  2. Have we been to the same conferences? I’ve tried the hash mark trick myself while being subjected to some ridiculous remarks from “academics” who never use the words “teachers”, “students” and “classrooms”. Thanks for this.

  3. Lisa, I think we have all been to the same conferences. Catch you next time 😉

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