Last week a document circulated among some of my far-flung colleagues — maybe some of you saw it? Titled “Learning Outcomes are Corrosive,” by Frank Furedi, it was linked approvingly by folks in the humanities, many of them friends of mine. Its final sentence may be the one I most resonate with, as it expresses the kind of optimistic idealism about humanistic education that I think many of us share: “students should be treated as grown-ups who can be allowed to embark on a journey of discovery instead of directed to a predetermined destination.”
It is, of course, a lovely sentiment, but one that seems completely at odds with the current climate in higher education.
And yet. I administer a program which is, like all academic and non-academic programs in higher education today, subject to regular assessment. When we began designing the program, however, we included at least some immeasurable goals amongst our learning outcomes — we began by claiming, for example, that First-Year Seminars should “expand and deepen students’ understanding of the world and of themselves.” We know we can’t measure that—but we still think it’s important to say it, and to remind ourselves and our students that it’s part of what we’re doing. Are we kidding ourselves? I hope not.
This past weekend I read a more measured document than the first one I linked — an article from the AAUP journal Academe on Evaluating the Humanities. In this second piece, Howard Brody cogently lays out the problems with certain ways of evaluating the humanities that assume immediate, measurable, skills-based outcomes from humanities courses—the exact kinds of things that Frank Furedi inveighed against in the first piece. It is the tension, as Brody puts it, between instrumental and intrinsic value, that catches us up when we try to determine how—or even whether—to assess humanities courses. Instrumental value is of course measurable but may, in humanities courses, be trivial compared to the intrinsic value that may take years to realize—and that may even call into question the instrumental value of the same material.
I find myself mulling over these problems not only in my role as coordinator of the First-Year Seminar Program (and, of course, not all of our seminars are in the humanities) but also in a new course I am teaching this semester, a half-unit course called Accounting and Literature. The title is something of a misnomer, as I am not teaching any Accounting (you will be relieved to hear); rather, the title signals that the course is restricted to Accounting majors, almost all of them seniors, who are also taking another half-unit course in Government and Non-Profit Accounting. With the encouragement of a colleague of mine in the Accounting department, Joe Ben Hoyle, I developed a half-unit literature course for these students that is designed, among other things, to call into question what Brody calls economism. The students are reading three long Victorian novels (if that’s not redundant), discussing them, and writing papers about them. (The novels, for the curious, are Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.) As the semester continues I’ll report back on our successes and failures in the class (Joe is a big part of the experiment as well), and I’ll talk some more about how we decide to assess student work. But right now I’m claiming as our mantra Furedi’s closing sentence: our ten shared students are grown-ups, and we are doing our best to provide them with a journey of discovery. I’ll let you know where it goes.