(Warning: here comes a rant)
I 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.