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Talking the Talk, Then Walking the Walk

Talking the Talk, Then Walking the Walk

September 25, 2009

Without intending it, I offended my friends by speaking a foreign language.

When I left a research center for the humanities and started work in a philanthropic foundation over five years ago, I wanted to know if a foundation could make a difference to the extent and depth of student learning in the liberal arts. To answer that question, I had to learn as much as I could about how students learn and how we know about their learning. Before long, I was studying reports such as the one produced by the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative (LEAP) that argued that liberal education ought to be understood not as exposing students to certain fields of knowledge, but as helping them to develop long-lasting cognitive and personal capacities. When I started using that phrase, I was on a slippery slope.

The next thing I knew, I was asking whether colleges and universities were translating that understanding of liberal education into clear learning outcomes. The phrase did not come tripping off the tongue, but the question was such an important one that I went right ahead and asked whether their practices were truly and effectively aligned with these outcomes. Were scaffoldings in place to help students move from one cognitive level to a higher one?

Despite its efforts to strengthen teaching, almost no one at the humanities center had spoken this lingo -- or asked such questions. When I started to do so, I found myself making the strange hiss sounds of “assessment,” a sound so savagely obnoxious that my friends began to hint that I was opening the gates to the barbarians.

I tried to conciliate them by substituting the term “evidence” for “assessment,” but they were too smart for that. And when I found I needed to investigate the various instruments that had been developed to help measure student learning, it was clear to many friends that I had gone over to the dark side. Terms such as NSSE, CLA, HERI, and CIRP were shibboleths that marked me as one of them.

It did no good to explain these were just convenient acronyms for titles in plain English. The titles themselves gave the show away: the National Survey of Student Engagement, for example, was clearly code for an alien view of education. The surveys were quantitative, a classicist friend noted with horror, warning me that “You can’t measure the human soul with numbers.”

Even worse, when I learned that the NSSE surveys had produced an empirical base for identifying a few high-impact practices, ones that demonstrably improved student engagement, learning, retention and graduation rates, the terms were so off-putting that in some quarters the ideas behind it could, as they say, gain no traction.

One friend -- who has somehow remained so despite my wayward behavior -- told me I needed to find some way to “translate” phrases such as high-impact practices into language more acceptable in the more ethereal reaches of the academy.

But I had done enough translating in my days as a classicist; now I was more interested in changing practice, and that, I realized, meant changing discourse. My theoretically minded friends had taught me one thing, after all. Discourse shapes practice.

Or, freely translated, “You have to talk the talk before you can walk the walk."

So I went on to other ophidian sounds, asking how higher education could successfully make systemic and systematic changes. Teagle Foundation grants for this purpose were going well, but the sibilants still sounded pernicious in many ears. Nor did it help to “translate” systematic into the phrase continuous quality improvement. That had few sibilants, but an unmistakable whiff about it of a Toyota factory or some other banausic enterprise.

The new mode of speech had a disconcerting inflection as well as an annoying vocabulary. For example, the stress in the “teaching and learning” moved disconcertingly from the first syllable of the dactyl, “teach’ing and … ” to the penult in the spondee, “learn’ing.” That reflects the emphasis in the new discourse on student learning. It expects students to take responsibility for their education rather than leaving the burden on “great teachers” and “good pedagogy.” Goodbye, Mr Chips. Hello daily development of cumulative cognitive and personal capacities.

Although it continues to give offense, the new discourse has in the last year or two passed a tipping point. It has now become the dominant mode of arguing, thinking and doing something about higher education.

There are two reasons, I believe, for this. First the accrediting organizations now insist on clear learning goals and rigorous assessment of progress toward them. And they are “drilling down” to the department and even course level to see what is being achieved.

More important, however, is a second reason: Faculty members who approach teaching in this way report that it is energizing, empowering, refreshing. It’s a welcome change from endless debates about the literary canon, or the curriculum. They say the terminology is no more opaque than the vocabulary of the economists, or the language we philologists use in establishing the stemmatics of ancient texts, or the useful technical terminologies developed in reader-response theory, deconstruction, and subaltern studies.

Every craft has its discourse, and every discourse shapes practice. It’s the results that count. It’s worth learning some new vocabulary when new friends whose speech I have come to understand are saying that they like having students who are more intensely engaged in learning, and taking greater responsibility for their education. They even talk about greater “satisfaction.”

How’s that for a change in discourse?

Bio

Robert Connor is president of the Teagle Foundation.

 

 

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