Interesting minds

(Warning: here comes a rant)

shutterstock_116693740I recently had the joy of meeting with colleagues from around the state, but unfortunately most of our meeting was focused on one of the least interesting topics with which academics can interact: outcome assessments, or essential learning outcomes, or “learning how to measure what we value”. Everything that can be said under this heading can easily be articulated within your own brain with a few minutes’ thought. Academic programs need to articulate what knowledge and skills they are imparting to their students; along with this, they need objective measurements of how successful they are at doing this; and the loop must be closed – meaning, programs need to use the results of these measurements to modify or reform what they are doing.

What, pray tell, are the skills and knowledge to be taught? Well, the principles, terms, and theories that are fundamental to the discipline, of course; and the skills are critical reading, thinking, writing, and the ability to work constructively with others. Even (!!!) in humanistic programs like philosophy or literature or languages, programs can boast that they are giving students the critical skills they will need to combat the difficult problems they are sure to face in their multiply-careered lives. (Another way of putting this point: even though what humanists teach is crap, the skills students gain by learning that crap are useful.) And on and on and on. All too predictable.

But in this eager race to the lowest (but easily measured) intellectual denominator, the “most essential” learning outcome of all is seldom noticed. What do students expect from college? What do professors like to see as they watch students proceed through the ranks? What do employers want to see emerging at the other end? Interesting minds. While it is said that students want college to give them jobs, I very much doubt that it is true. Students want to have their worlds rocked by ideas and insights, and they want to become intelligent and interesting. Professors love nothing more than to see the lost and naive freshman become a thinker alive to ideas and objections and concepts. Employers want college grads who are interesting (meaning: smart and creative) – people who can diagnose problems in fresh ways and brainstorm solutions into being. That is exactly the sort of thing you can’t reliably obtain from someone who hasn’t spent months or years grappling with treatises, fictions, heterodoxies, and paradoxes.

Indeed, most of the discussions regarding “assessment” are fine examples of exactly what we do not want to see college producing: vague and uniform truisms, hooked up with measures so meaningless as to guarantee that nothing will ever change. It is the deadened life of the bureaucratic mind. But imagine, as an alternative, academics charting the careers of students who have turned out to be really interesting, and trying to figure out what really happened, and to what extent their own courses or programs can take any credit for it. Undoubtedly, there never will be any sure-fire formula. But we might be able to collect a range of good practices, interesting ideas, experiments to try, as well as some solid critiques of what can stultify a college career.

There would be in-house benefits as well. It may turn out that each discipline needs something outside itself in order to improve the chances of its students gaining interesting minds. An accounting major might be lit afire by an art history course, as a philosophy major might develop new approaches by spending a semester in computer science. Professors, to the extent they wanted to make their students interesting, would have to get out in the wide world of the college campus and see what was on offer, just so that they could better advise their students. Who knows? In the end, they might end up having interesting minds as well.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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8 Responses to Interesting minds

  1. Uncle Homunculus says:

    Salient points pointedly put, Professor. Rant on.


  2. Jake Mabey says:

    Dr. H, the rant is incisive. I’m reading through a book that I learned about from an interview on NPR with the former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt. He says that the hiring practices of Google are paramount to their success and says what he’s really looking for is “Smart Creatives.” Here is a transcript from a portion of that interview:

    We look for something — a term we’ve used in the book called smart creatives. And I would venture to say that there is a much larger movement afoot. If you go back to what we said about these millennials and their expectations, they’re better educated, better trained, more capable of taking on responsibility. But they’re going into corporations of the old kind. You know, the corner office, and the traditional hierarchy and so forth. So in Google’s case, what we tried to do was to look for people who had — let’s call it sort of three broad characteristics.

    They were technical in something. It didn’t have to be computing, but they had to know something analytically. You know, they were a rocket science or a medical doctor or a physicist or an economist. Right? Or a very technical lawyer. They had to have some business savvy, some business acumen. They had to have a feel for business. And they had to be curious. And the test that we describe in the book — which is my favorite one — is we call the LAX Airport test.

    Which is, if you were struck in the LAX Airport for six hours with this person…

    Six hours, okay.

    …would you have six hours’ worth of things to talk to them about? By the way, this is a very tough test, for those of you that have been at the LAX Airport. And in your case, you’re in D.C., let’s think about Dulles, JFK.

    Sure, sure.

    You pick your favorite large airport to take the point. But the fact of the matter is that most people — if you talk to them for a while, they’ll tell you what they’re working on. They don’t — they’re not very curious. They don’t have a lot of new insights. We want those people who have great insights and great ideas, even if they’re wrong. And we want them to challenge themselves. We want them to aim much higher than they would in any other corporation.


    • Jake Mabey says:

      The LAX test is the way that Google has operationalized, (a psychology term for attaching a measurement to an abstract concept like “anger” or “creativity”), your idea of “interesting minds.”


  3. Al says:

    “It may turn out that each discipline needs something outside itself in order to improve the chances of its students gaining interesting minds.”

    This made me think of Douglass Parker, a classicist to whom I was recently introduced. (Jazz trombone + Greek lit!)

    “My perpetual, “I’ll-never-finish-it-but” project is a translation of the Dionysiaca of Nonnos. Nonnos died about 450 AD and wrote an epic in forty-eight books on everything the god Dionysus ever did and he had the funniest sense of language that anybody ever had. I have a whole thing I do on improvisation, although I usually think of it as musical improvisation: it’s where the river meets the road. This is where they stick you up in front of a crowd and say “do something” and you gotta do it. That’s where it’s important. That’s why I love playing in the band. Anyhow, the connection is, I’ve got a paper I’ve been working on. It’s an idea for a book. It has some record of improvisation from antiquity. This was not musical improvisation, it was verbal. In the 2nd century AD your movie stars were rhetoricians: Lucian, Apuleius, people who went around and talked. And the great point is, improvisation. Somebody says, “Talk about . . .,” you ask the audience what they want you to talk about and then you do it. And we’ve got some of the choicest bits of Nonnos preserved and also a statement of his on the whole process and why it’s really not fair to judge him on this, and this just before he goes and blows the roof off…”


  4. sandiatwood says:

    For the record, I came back to college not as a career move but with only the objective of cultivating my mind. I have perused virtually every department on campus in search of interesting minds. I found one or two professors and 3-4 students in each department who expanded my perspective and challenged my thinking. Charlie honestly you’ve been my greatest mentor. There is no one better suited or prepared to lead such a worthwhile and needed crusade. Above all, thank you for making me more interesting and creative!


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