STATEMENT ON LEARNING GOALS AND
That an academic
department should have “learning goals” seems obvious. That a department should
also have some mechanisms in place to assess whether these goals are being met
would also seem to be self-evident. As educators, we consider with care what
and how we teach our students, and we would like to know whether our
educational program is working. So would our students, their parents, and the
here is the issue. Our, or anyone’s, ability to know whether it’s working depends
a great deal on what it is.
common learning goals are easy to assess, as they emphasize the acquisition of
knowledge and skills: “demonstrate disciplinary knowledge,” “develop clarity in
writing,” and the like. But other learning goals are not as readily evaluated.
For example, our lives are defined by our capacity to make moral and ethical judgements.
Students grapple every day with questions of academic integrity and honesty,
fairness and respect. Their educational experiences confront them with multiple
and diverse cultural constructions, and they develop reasoned responses to
complex questions and debates. This development of ethical awareness, key to
living an engaged and examined life, is central to our mission, and yet we
cannot properly assess it.
our minds this is the real problem: it is the nature of assessment to privilege
those learning goals that can most
easily be assessed. And a society that overvalues assessment, in its focus on
incessant testing and measuring, tends only to produce better test-takers,
while severely hobbling students in other respects.
is more, a culture of assessment contributes to a broader misunderstanding of
the humanities and their importance. As the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard explains,
an emphasis on what he terms the “performativity criterion”—the choice to frame
one’s approach to learning simply in terms of efficiency, utility, and
outcomes—excludes from the outset some basic aspects of humanistic inquiry. While fields with a more quantitative focus
may embrace this ethos, the core humanities (English, History, Philosophy,
Religion), which deal centrally with ambiguity and nuance – in short, the
unquantifiable – may well ask: what possibilities get stifled when we simply accept the logic of
performativity of which assessment is a part?
in the humanities are certainly marketable: English majors do as well as, or
better than, other graduating seniors in pursuing careers. But we must resist
the urge to articulate the values of the English major simply in terms of a
narrowly defined utility. The pursuit of intellectual interests not obviously practical will
actually render our students more fit to navigate the complexities
of human experience in the world. These
truths – that the expansion of mind made possible by the college experience
helps fit our students for living, and that, in this sense, the college
experience is deeply productive – are by no means new. They are foundational to
liberal arts institutions like Trinity. The pedagogical practices that emerge
from these beliefs, the core pedagogical practices of humanities departments
like English, are least susceptible to assessment, and thus at
the greatest risk.
Taxonomy of Learning Goals
place of the brief list of learning goals that we have been asked to provide,
therefore, we would instead offer a taxonomy that better articulates our
priorities and identifies exactly how we address the expectations of assessment.
for which the language of “learning goals” is inadequate.
The very language of learning
“goals” forecloses on the notion of an activity -- like thinking -- being an
end in itself. For this reason, the thoughtfulness we uniformly encourage in
our students properly has no place in this taxonomy.
goals that are not open to assessment.
To be clear: these learning goals
are our highest priorities; to the extent that worrying about, and devoting
extra time and energy to, other, more assessable ends prevents us from
pursuing these goals, we are diminished. Like the college’s
expectation that students will develop some sort of ethical capacity before
graduating, these goals cannot be assessed without being fundamentally changed. For
example, one of our goals might well resemble the common expectation that
students “become critical readers of complex texts.” But the language of
mastery is of limited value. Literature and film are, among many other things,
attempts to grapple with, without ever solving, the problem of being human – a
problem with moral, ontological, political (in both the narrow and broad
senses), ethnic, erotic, and epistemic dimensions. We both hope and expect of
our students that the experience of the major will nurture capacities of
empathy and the appreciation of difference; that it will leave them less afraid
of ambiguity and of the questions of life that cannot, finally, be answered;
that it will make them aware of the extent to which the world around them is
a human world -- the product of human thought, creativity, and
effort -- and thus awaiting their own contributions to it. This deepening of
sensibility and broadening of experience is at the heart of the humanities. Literature
and film, in addition, are arts – and while we would hope that students achieve
“artistic literacy,” we would suggest that something still more fundamental is
at stake. In his poem “Asphodel, that greeny flower,” William Carlos Williams
writes that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems, yet men die
miserably every day for lack / of what is found there.” To be a humanist is to
take this claim seriously. Williams is making a point about aesthetics:
specifically, that “getting the news” from art is far more fundamental to a
life of purpose and meaning than those who pursue narrow ideas of assessable
performance typically realize.
goals for which an additional assessment mechanism, though conceivable, would
The learning goals that we group
under this heading are reflected, primarily, in how we structure our
curriculum. We believe, for example, that our majors, in all three
concentrations that we offer, should acquire a grasp of literary history. Accordingly,
we require that our majors take survey courses that investigate both the
complex social circumstances that give rise to literary production and how
genres develop over time.
Our majors also take a certain
number of upper-level courses in literature written before 1700, and a certain
number of courses in literature written after that year. In addition to this
historical emphasis, we offer courses that introduce students to a broad range
of cultural production: American and British, upper class and working class,
“anglophone” and “ethnic” (all in their endless varieties).
These requirements shape students’
experience of the major. But their taking and passing these courses constitutes
a more significant, objective, and revealing marker of goal achievement than
any secondary mechanism could provide. These goals are ultimately at the
service of our deeper priorities (in B), which are not susceptible to any
codified rubric of assessment. Why do we care, that is to say, that
our students be exposed to literature from the distant past, and to cultures
fundamentally different from their own? Because: if literature is, among many other
things, a grappling with the problem of being human, we think it important that
students see how people have grappled with this problem in different times and
in different cultural contexts. These learning goals (C) matter, in short, because they
contribute to the deepening of sensibility and critical thought that
constitutes the main purpose of an English department.
goals for which we believe our students should take assessment responsibility.
Part of a student’s career – in any
major – should ideally involve a) a growing awareness of the discipline as a
discipline (its cardinal discourses, how the areas of study comprised by the
discipline relate to each other, etc.), and b) a growing sense of
responsibility for -- and ownership of -- her or his own path through the
discipline. To address the first of these “meta” concerns, we require that
students take at least one course in critical reflection (for our view about
assessing this goal, see C). To address the second goal, we ask that our
students, in the first semester of junior year, conduct a self-assessment, in
which they articulate their goals for the major and integrate their previous
coursework with the courses they still have to take. This self-assessment then
forms a basis for conversations with their advisors – with an effect,
potentially, on our own thinking about the curriculum. The work of thinking
through their careers as majors, however, belongs fundamentally to the
goals for which assessment is possible.
There are, finally, a handful of
learning goals for which assessment is possible and potentially useful. These
are the only learning goals we will list – but before we do so, we would offer
two observations about them. First: these learning goals are, uniformly, skills.
As such, they are most in accordance with the bias in assessment culture
towards quantifiable outcomes. While one cannot square the conceptual goals
that we discuss in (B) with a positivistic or practical rubric, it is possible
to do so when evaluating writing or research ability. In a national culture
deeply suspicious of the humanities, teaching students to become better writers
still fortunately retains an obvious “practical” value, but writing and
research are ultimately crucial for the way they allow our students to explore
the core questions of the discipline and to claim their own places in key,
ongoing conversations. Second: skills assessment is dangerous and misleading to
the extent that it is believed to be objective. Unlike matters of
fact, the province of the more positivistic disciplines, a student’s writing,
or the quality of her or his research work, can only be judged
subjectively. Whatever mechanisms we put in place to evaluate these learning
goals, the evaluation will ultimately reflect subjective and idiosyncratic
preferences. With these provisos in mind, we expect that our students will:
the ability to communicate clearly, coherently, and effectively in written expression.
2. Develop research and
Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern
Condition, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1974), 62-64.