Wednesday, June 28, 2006

No Such Thing

Over on White Bear

the Venerable Bear asked a question I don’t actually want to deal with, so I am staying out of her comments, and writing my own post over here.

Bear did raise a question, in passing, that I do want to deal with, which is how we affect our students, and how we know that, and how, if we can’t measure that – which we can’t, can’t measure the important bits – we can know whether we have affected our students: whether we have succeeded at our job, in other words.

Ho, what a can of worms this puppy is. (Metaphor mixed with abandon.)

My first thought was how much I hate this approach to the academic world.

I too have sat through multiple workshops on assessment: true assessment, real-life assessment, workplace assessment, Assess This, Motherfucker: For The Humanities. Assessment is so much a standard of the academic world that it is now one of the goals on my yearly self-evaluation sheet – I have to say how I’m going to assess something about my job. And it has to be a true assessment, mind you, a real world assessment, a workplace assessment.

I understand why this is. I do. Because if we can’t measure what we’re doing, then how do we know if we’re doing anything in the classroom, yap yap yap, blah blah blah, prove to me your students learned anything about Chaucer oh you can’t can you then how do you know they did tastycakes.

So I get it.

But the bit you can measure is, frankly, beside the point.

The bit you can’t measure is the entire point.

And how do I know it’s there? Well, yes. I don’t.

I’m in my HEL class yesterday. We’re talking about Semiotics. (Which students always hate, for the same reason that administration hates it when I say, “Well, I don’t.”) We’re talking about Sapir-Whorf and the whole notion that you can’t think of things unless you have the words to think about them in, and one of my students is objecting, because you have to have the thing in your head before you invent the word for the thing.

“Like a chair,” he says. “Someone made a chair and then called it a chair, right?”

“Interesting point,” I told him. “Plato says that too, sort of. But he claims it’s because we have the concept in our heads before we’re born. That we experience a world of ideals, and come into this world with them, and then just recreate them here. Ideal chairs, ideal democracies, ideal justice. He says he knows this must be true because we see things in this world that aren’t here. Like justice. Justice doesn’t exist in this world. Right?”

They gape at me, astounded.

“Anyone ever see any justice?” I asked. “It’s like a unicorn, in’t it? Any of you ever see a unicorn?”

(I always throw this bit it. It cracks them up.)

“None of you have a unicorn in your backyard, do you?” I ask. “Eating grass in your backyard?”

They laugh.

“None of you have justice in your backyard either?” I ask, looking around like someone might actually have some. “No? But you take two three year olds and you give one a cookie and you don’t give a cookie to the other one and what does the three year old without the cookie say?”

I always have mothers in these classes. About four of them say at once: “It’s not fair!”

“He’s three!” I cry out. “How does he know that? He’s never seen any justice! Justice doesn’t exist! How does he know he’s not getting it?”

Now this is not exactly the speech that Raeburn Miller, my professor at the University of New Orleans, gave to me when I was 20 years old and taking the first half of Classical Literature from him. But bits of it are his. The unicorn eating grass in the back yard is his. The justice not existing is his. The ideal chair is his. (The three year old with the cookie is mine.) The love of teaching is his.

Raeburn Miller is the first professor I ever had who loved books as much as I did. He’s the first professor I ever had who loved teaching, who loved being in the classroom. (He looked a great deal like mr. delagar, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.) The way he taught is, in many respects, like the way I teach today – he used daily reading quizzes, for instance. It’s not a coincidence at all that his field was classical literature and that when I got my doctorate I specialized in classical literature.

But I never spoke to this guy again after I took the two classes with him when I was twenty years old. Classical Lit I and Classical Lit II. If you had tried to assess what effect he had had on me, then, or over the next two or three or five years, the assessment would have showed no effect at all – at twenty-two I was wandering in circles. At twenty-four I was working in a medical library. (Well, a deli first, and then a medical library.) What effect did Raeburn Miller have on me? He had changed the entire course of my life, in fact – but there was no way to assess that, by any outside, “true,” “real-world” measure.

So I’ll keep assessing what I’m doing in the classroom – measuring how many of my students learn to read Middle English compared to how many do not, and how many students in my mythology class can now recognize an allusion in a given literary work, compared to how many could, previous to the class, recognize an allusion in a yap yap yap, but really. Really. Come on. Is that why we’re here?


zelda1 said...

I am reading Plato's Republic and the justice/injustice is so cool. I am thinking all the time I'm thinking their is justice, no, hell no. And is it just to be just, no, it is not. No one is just because they want to be, hello, they have to be. We have to not steal the cow or we go to jail. I like that the unjust is really the just or was it the just really the unjust. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Hmm, I think the egg.

Mouse said...

I think you see it randomly, when you don't mean to see it, but you do and you're like hey I do that.

Yah, my babies do that to me--make me see myself in them because little bits stick with them forever. kinda like the reading quizes.

A White Bear said...

I think this is what I was hoping to get to in my conversation with the professor who was asking me this question, in that I do feel like at least I give my students critical tools for picking open stories and language. I make those tools explicit and give them names and show me they know how to use them. A few come back and say they went on to read Tristram Shandy or something and I'm, of course, delighted, but it's, as you say, the unassessable stuff that matters. I want to know that students I've had no longer fear reading texts they're told are "too hard," which include, yes, poems and novels, but also letters, documents, and the Constitution. Just a little more confidence in evidence would make my day.

(I finally rectified not having you in my blogroll; I am so sorry that took so long.)

delagar said...

Hey, thanks! I'd have you on my blog roll if I knew how to do one!