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Mind-numbing language and reasons for hope

Rubric–QEP–Templates–Student learning outcomes– Program assessment Plan–Iterative Systematic Assessment Cycle–Bloom’s Taxonomy– Primary Constituents–Triangulation of data–Project-embedded–course-embedded assessment. Gack! I first heard this mind-deadening language in South Africa, in the mid- to late 90s, when we were redesigning what a college education means. Mandela had just been elected president, and we were ready to question the Anglo-centric education model. We wondered if Edmund Spenser might be less useful to African English majors than Okot p’Bitek; if Shakespeare’s comedies might be less vital than Soyinka’s. Our intentions were cultural, political, even vaguely revolutionary. Each South African university had been operating in its own little sphere, so suddenly the people who controlled the funding for universities asked if the B.A. we were offering in KwaZulu-Natal was equivalent to those offered at Fort Hare or at Witswatersrand. We didn’t know. Somebody hired a gang of American education experts (God help us), who brought this language across the Atlantic.

When I returned to the USA in 99, my experience in slinging that kind of language helped to secure me an administrative job in Texas, where I was exhorted to “get the faculty onboard” with the task of developing “student learning outcomes,” and in identifying “assessment measures” that would enable us to claim publicly that everyone who teaches (for example) English at this institution is doing roughly the same thing as everyone else who teaches English; that the English or art or drama or music courses we teach are equal in value to those taught in other public institutions in Texas; that students who get credits for those courses from us should be able to transfer to other colleges (in Texas or beyond) with the same level of preparation as students from anywhere else. All that seems, on the surface, to be worth determining. The purpose of the whole exercise, we claimed, was to “encourage conversations” about the “teaching and learning process.” Because I was paid to do it, and I needed the money, I did my best to make the process interesting to the teachers I worked with. It was a hard sell. And now I’m admitting that I never sold myself on it either.

I guess I would be more excited about all this if those conversations about the process really occurred. Shop-talk is helpful, often engaging, sometimes enriching; shop-talk occurs in just about every group of people who do similar work, and it feels good. Unless we’re completely alienated from what we do, we like to talk about it with others who have the same problems and joys we do. I’ve heard snatches of such conversations in the coffee room, but I’ve seldom heard them in committee meetings, and never (in my experience) because the accreditation people want us to have them.

What matters most in teaching and learning can’t be quantified. What matters most happens because the student is ready, the teacher is alive and vital that day (not hung over, not preoccupied with a sick child, a missing dog, or a lover’s caprice), and the material being covered is (marvelously, coincidentally) relevant in that moment both to the teacher and to the student.

There’s no way to measure (that’s the operative word) the exchange of passion that occurs in a classroom in a moment of laughter, a moment of sheer pleasure in a text. There’s no way to quantify eye-contact that locks in a point between a teacher and a student, or between two students in a classroom discussion or standing at the Coke machine. Can’t measure that. When a young man, recently home from military service in Iraq, reads Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept On the Field One Night” and sobs, that’s a learning outcome. When a young woman’s panties get wet as she realizes viscerally the meaning of Whitman’s “Dalliance of the Eagles,” that’s a learning outcome.

I don’t give a shit whether anybody can measure the learning outcomes in my courses, and finally I am in my last semester of this institutionalized kind of teaching, so I can say that out loud. Yesterday I walked out after the first hour of a three-hour workshop that was mandatory for all faculty, and I didn’t go back. The very language of the inquiry has no passion, no imagination; it kindles no fire in the loins or in the heart. It belongs in some damn gray cubicle somewhere, in some concrete and glass building shaped like a box. I won’t do it any more.

I left the workshop and returned to my office, where I worked on questions to pose to my humanities students this semester:

What’s ‘good taste’ and what’s ‘bad taste’ in home decoration, and what are your personal standards for determining that? Whose standards can we trust? Where did we get our personal standards?

How do we define our identities by the music we play in our cars? Where do our standards in music come from?

What is ‘over the top’ in Christmas decorations for suburban yards, and what is ‘tasteful’? [Exterior home decoration is a significant industry in the Houston area.]

What in art (if anything) is ‘offensive,’ and why?

How do you feel about tattoo art? When is a tattoo ‘art’ and when is it ‘tacky’? Are body piercings ‘artful’? What messages do people communicate with tattoos and piercings?

What about logos? What about graffiti?

If we are willing to question our preferences and prejudices about works of art, music, sculpture, theatre, and photography, where do we begin?

I begin to look forward to what’s coming. Let it be a dance, I say. The hell with measurements. Let it be my best semester ever. Let me flame out, blazing.

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One response to “Mind-numbing language and reasons for hope”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    That’s the spirit! If that’s the consquence of going to a ┬┤zen centre’ and their own version of nonsense oanguage you had a profitable couple of weeks …..

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