Assessment, Knowledge, and Magic in the Humanities

I do not recommend becoming chair of the accreditation team at your college if you value your mental health.  I do, however, recommend it if you want to understand the multitude of cultures that make up your own institution and to think through how they all fit together, or not, in the common educational enterprise.  Like all academics living it seems, we are grappling with various levels of success with the assessment tsunami that has hit higher education in the past decade or so.  One feature that’s very evident is that different parts of campus have different attitudes toward assessment and its virtues or evils.  Among we humanists, there’s still a large contingent that believes that what we do is unassessable, that our value can’t be assessed but that at the same time it should be obvious to everyone.

I think this approach is mostly self-defeating;  it seems to me that it mostly invokes a mystification that, if taken literally, means that we can’t even know ourselves what we mean when we say the humanities have a value that should be recognized by the institutions in which they live and move and have their being.  I do think there is a truth to which this mystification speaks.  Some of the most important moments in learning, perhaps the most crucial moments in learning, in the humanities are unreplicable and so unmeasurable. The fact that reading Soren Kierkegaard changed my life in some fundamental sense and filled me with a love for the life of the mind that has never since been expended is not a fact that means Kierkegaard should be required reading for everyone, as if reading SK were like learning an algebraic equation.

On the other hand, the fact of these transformative experiences, and most academics have such liminal experience or they wouldn’t be academics, shouldn’t lead us to say that no thing is measurable in what we do, or that because the things that we can measure are not the liminal experiences that made us who we are they are therefore not worth assessing at all.  This would be like saying that because the really crucial things in music are things like Verdi’s Othello or Handel’s Messiah, we shouldn’t bother to see if a music teacher’s methods are helping students to learn to play Bach two-part inventions effectively. It’s less sexy, but if students can’t do analogous things reasonably well, they won’t ever be in a position to have the kinds of transformative experiences with humanistic work that we ourselves value and recognize as fundamental to who we are and who we hope our students will become.

Over at Digital Digs, Alex Reid has a very good blog on assessment and the humanities  where he points to the need to develop forms of knowledge that help us get at things that will lead to useful change, and points out that doing this well is related to our oft-professed desire to be pursuing work that makes a difference in the world:

This is why, when it comes to assessment, I always ask “What kind of knowledge would we require in order to make a substantive change?” That question asks not only about the specific knowledge statement but the process by which the knowledge is constructed. Anecdotes are not strong enough. And my concern for the humanities is that it doesn’t believe that any knowledge is strong enough to make such decisions. This, of course, does not mean that curriculum doesn’t happen or that changes don’t occur. It simply means that we deny ourselves the opportunity to produce knowledge that is strong enough to inform decision-making. Instead we are left with individual feelings, opinions, and beliefs and whatever they amount to. A skeptic might say that this is all that humanistic knowledge has ever been. 

But I can’t believe that. I can’t afford to believe that. If we believe that as humanists we cannot produce knowledge of real value with the strength to make changes in the world, then what would we be doing as teachers or scholars? We would be engaged in some kind of self-pleasuring activity, perhaps with the idea that our performances might instill in others (through some quasi-magical, sympathetic incantation) a similar practice of finding self-pleasure (or aesthetic appreciation) through a purely subjective/cultural/discursive encounter with the objects we study. No doubt there is a strong strand of such thinking in the humanities, especially in English, that goes back at least to Matthew Arnold (though in his case the self-pleasure was imbuded with a chaste religiosity rather than the psycho-sexual implications one probably sees here). However, no one would imagine self-pleasure as the sole goal of humanistic study. We must be able to produce knowledge that has the strength to make changes. And that requires an understanding of how knowledge is constructed and operates in a world that isn’t divided into natural, social, and discursive realms. And this is as true for our research and teaching as it is for assessment.

via digital digs: constructing academic knowledge.

Reid points out that over and against this, we are usually driven by classroom lore, anecdotes about our students that seems to identify problems and lead to certain forms of common knowledge, but that never actually rise to the level of knowledge that can make a difference.  This is what we ought to be seeking in the humanities.  Knowledge that will make a difference in our students lives.  Because we clearly can’t replicate those magical moments that all of us have had with books and culture, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be attending to those more mundane items that are the ground through which that magic happens.  And so we need to figure out basic questions like the following:

  • Have our students established a fundamental level of disciplinary literacy such that they are able to make connections across the discipline and find connections for their work in other disciplines?
  • Do our students understand how to enter in to a disciplinary conversation through effective research, the development of an argument with a point of view and a broad grasp (appropriate to an undergraduate) of the issues that are at stake for the argument in the discipline or in the culture at large.
  • Do our students understand logical fallacies, the appropriate use of evidence, and the nature of different rhetorical situations?
  • Can our students effectively discuss the application of their humanistic knowledge to non-academic areas of life, and can they effectively articulate the relationship of the skills and abilities they’ve developed to the world of work and careers following college?  (An outcome I realize not everyone may embrace, but which I have come to think of as fundamental following the Rethinking Success conference of a few weeks ago).

There are probably others, maybe many others that are more important, but these would be a start, and we ought to be willing to work to find the tools that will effectively measure such things even though none of these speak to the magical moments we and our students have when we are seized anew by an idea.

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2 thoughts on “Assessment, Knowledge, and Magic in the Humanities

  1. Hi Pete,

    I’m loving your posts about different majors and unemployment, as well as your musings about the usefulness of majors, both generally and more specifically. It would seem you’re not the only one thinking about this these days, either. I don’t know if you ever visit XKCD.com, but his latest strip seems inspired by the same zeitgeist that has been at work in your blog: http://xkcd.com/1052/

    Also, I would definitely take Extreme Hemingway 101.

    – Becca

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