Learning Goals

Statement on Learning Goals and Assessment

            That an academic department should have “learning goals” seems obvious to the point of triviality. That a department should also have some mechanisms in place to assess whether these goals are being met by students would also seem to be self-evident. Between these two banalities, however, lies a morass of unexamined assumptions, lazy thinking, and, at worst, outright hypocrisy. We do not believe that it is in our interest, or the interest of our students, to allow this situation to go unchallenged. Accordingly, before we provide our list of “Learning Goals” – i.e. what you would find if you clicked on the equivalent link at most of our sister departments – we would like to comment about the stakes in offering such a list in the first place.

            To begin, then, with an underlying premise that we believe to be both incorrect and dangerous: it is simply assumed that any learning goal that we might articulate is capable of assessment. On the face of it, this assumption would appear to belong to our growing list of banalities: surely nothing is worth teaching if student learning cannot, at some point, be quantified. If the math department, let’s say, requires that its majors master the basics of calculus, then the assessment mechanism could not be clearer: at some point, math majors are tested on their knowledge of calculus, and the department tweaks its teaching methods based on the results. It only takes a moment’s reflection, however, to recognize that many -- and perhaps the most important – learning goals of a school like Trinity are beyond assessment. On the college’s own website, for example, as part of its “Mission Statement,” we find the following “learning goal”:

            Cultivate the ability to make informed ethical judgments

            No one course or major has a special monopoly on moral and ethical reasoning, yet our lives are constantly infused with the necessity of making such judgments. In an academic community there are special occasions for such judgments involving academic integrity and honesty, fairness and respect. Students' educations must acquaint them with multiple and diverse cultural constructions of moral and ethical behavior. What is more, students must be given the opportunity to explore the complexities of ethical questions and debates and to develop their own informed and reasoned responses to them. They must understand that this is an ability that needs to be central to the "examined lives" their educations are preparing them to lead. The Student Integrity Contract, we hope, will be an additional mechanism for encouraging right conduct among students in both the academic and the social aspects of their lives in a residential college setting.


Noble sentiments indeed, with which we’re basically in agreement. But how, precisely, is one to assess for the “examined life” or a deepened ethical sensibility? Perhaps we might submit incoming first-year students and graduating seniors to Milgramesque experiments in empathy; we might, surely, find a fewer number of sadists and blind followers of power in the latter cohort. More likely, however, there is simply no way to assess for one of the college’s own stated priorities.


            This failure would not matter much in the scheme of things were it not for one hard truth: it is in the nature of assessment to privilege learning goals that can be assessed. Please pause to consider the implications of that statement. The “culture of assessment,” if we may call it that, is, to repeat, premised on the idea that any stated learning goal can be quantified and measured. When one runs into a learning goal that patently resists quantification (like the expectation that students develop the ability to make “informed ethical judgments”), one is met with one of two standard responses: a) that the learning goal should be rewritten or rethought in such a way as to make it assessable; b) that the learning goal should be eliminated altogether. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that these responses are gentle and harsh versions of the same idea – and that their effect on an institution’s, or an academic department’s, priorities is likely to be considerable. Some of Trinity’s learning goals, as it happens, are assessable. On that same “Mission Statement,” one also finds the following:

            5.         Acquire quantitative skills.

            6.         Develop scientific literacy


It is only to be expected that the pressures of assessment would lead to a prioritization of these goals and a de-emphasizing of the less measurable. The effect this could well have on the overall culture of the institution, in the long term, is not trivial.


            We are not pretending that the demands of assessment can be evaded: Trinity’s next reaccreditation comes with the requirement that the college have effective assessment mechanisms in place. The college’s current work on developing these mechanisms is being underwritten by the Teagle Foundation, in whose own Mission Statement one reads the following:

            The Foundation provides leadership by mobilizing the intellectual and financial resources that are necessary if today's students are to have access to a challenging and transformative liberal education. The benefits of such learning last for a lifetime and are best achieved when colleges set clear goals for liberal learning and systematically evaluate progress toward them.


This language is more or less standard, and is increasingly widespread in academic circles – the lingo of an “assessment culture.” We might pause, however, to ask: in whose interest are these requirements for assessment? It is fairly clear what the answer to this question would not be: anyone with an investment in the humanities (whatever the ecstasies of the Teagle Foundation over a “liberal education”). That is to say: fields with a more positivistic (i.e. black and white) approach to knowledge are unlikely to be impacted much, if at all, by assessment requirements, while the core humanities (English, History, Philosophy, and so on), which deal with ambiguity and nuance – in short, the unquantifiable – are far more vulnerable. Our example from the math department, while purposely glib, and potentially unfair to some mathematicians who believe some of their learning goals to be beyond assessment, is very much to the point: when fields, like mathematics or the hard sciences, set learning goals that are concrete and essentially matters of knowledge (“you shall master calculus”; “you shall master the details of particle physics”), coming up with  assessment mechanisms to measure those goals is not difficult (i.e. testing). Indeed, it is likely that such departments already have adequate assessment mechanisms in place – which is one reason, though by no means the only reason, why faculty members most enthusiastic about assessment, and least likely to recognize its dangers, tend to come from that part of campus. But what to do about nuance and ambiguity?


            The cliché that the humanities are under attack in contemporary America is no less true for being a cliché. At the very least, the value of the humanities, as legitimate fields of study, has increasingly come into question, for reasons usually presented as “practical.” Only two days before the drafting of this very statement, two Trinity English majors appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; when they mentioned their major, he responded with the all-but-automatic line, “Oh, so you don’t intend to get jobs after you graduate.”[i]  One supposes that the laughs this joke elicited from the studio audience would have been even more spasmodic had he worked in a reference to “burger flipping” or “moving back in with the parents.” Despite the demonstrably (indeed, quantifiably) incorrect nature of these claims – in fact, English majors do neither better nor worse than other graduating seniors -- the canard that the humanities lead only to unemployment enjoys widespread consent. Parents are rightly concerned that, after they have spent breathtaking sums of money on a Trinity education, their children make good starts in “the real world.” The pressures students themselves feel to make their educations “pay” drives them in the direction of programs of study perceived (often incorrectly) to be pre-professional (like economics, or pre-law, or pre-med).


            The humanities, meanwhile, are viewed as indulgences, impractical, useless. In the 1970s, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard caught these attitudes at an early stage, and deftly identified their deepest motives. Do try to bear with the language of theory: there’s something to it.

            The performativity criterion has its “advantages.” It excludes in principle adherence to a metaphysical discourse; it requires the renunciation of fables; it demands clear minds and cold wills; it replaces the definition of essences with the calculation of interactions; it makes the “players” assume responsibility not only for the statements they propose, but also for the rules to which they submit those statements in order to make them acceptable. It brings the pragmatic functions of knowledge clearly to light, to the extent that they seem to relate to the criterion of efficiency: the pragmatics of argumentation, of the production of proof, of the transmission of learning, and of the apprenticeship of the imagination…. Such behavior is terrorist…. By terror I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him. He is silenced or consents, not because he has been refuted, but because his ability to participate has been threatened…. The decision makers’ arrogance…consists in the exercise of terror. It says: “Adapt your aspirations to our ends—or else.”[ii]


To translate: the culture of assessment (which adheres to what J-FL would call the “performativity criterion”) is ultimately in the interests of a society envisioned as managerial, bureaucratic, systemic – a society in which efficiency replaces “metaphysical discourses” (like, to pick a few examples at random, discussions of “the examined life” or the ability to “make informed ethical judgments”). The path to such a society is all too clear – and is to be found in the fetishization of incessant testing and measuring, which has already overtaken primary and secondary education in this country, and which the demands of our accreditors and the Teagle foundation are now extending to higher academia. That the processes of incessant testing have only produced better test-takers, while severely hobbling students in other respects, has not diminished the official enthusiasm for assessment. We, as educators, on the other hand, may legitimately wonder whether we are doing our students any favors by acceding to the logic of “measurable learning goals,” or preparing them to be cogs in the wheels of an “efficient” society.


            Whatever our local concerns as an English department, finally, we would also suggest that it is not in the interests of Trinity College, as an institution, to accede to this logic. The premises underlying a small college like Trinity are indeed “metaphysical” – one might even say that they are “fables.” In any case, they are articles of faith. Over against a national (and political) culture increasingly bent on the pragmatic, the measurable, the efficient, Trinity offers students, and their parents, a promise that might seem quixotic: that, for four years, students may spend their time enriching their minds (and, very importantly, also expanding their social connections) without a concern for the practical ends that will absorb them, for the rest of their lives, the moment they leave campus for the outside world as graduates. Moreover, it is part of this faith that the pursuit of intellectual interests not obviously practical will nevertheless render our students, not less, but more fit to navigate the complexities of the world once they have left us. These beliefs – that the expansion of mind made possible by the college experience helps fit our students for living, and that the college experience, in this sense at least, is therefore “practical” – are by no means new. They are indeed foundational to institutions like Trinity, and perhaps the last, best reason we can still give why eighteen year olds should choose us over larger research institutions or state schools, with their inevitably professional priorities. It is these beliefs, at any rate, and the pedagogical practices that emerge from them – the core pedagogical practices of humanities departments like English – that are least susceptible to assessment, and thus at the greatest risk.


A Taxonomy of Learning Goals


            In place of the brief list of learning goals that we have been expected to provide, we would instead offer a taxonomy, which better articulates our priorities, and identifies exactly how far we are willing to credit the expectations of assessment.


A.        Priorities 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, “thoughtfulness,” or “intellectualism” – habits of mind we tend to encourage in our students – properly have no place in this taxonomy at all.


B.        Learning goals that are not open to assessment.

            To be perfectly clear at the outset: 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 – not, at least, without being changed fundamentally.  So, for example, one such goal might well resemble the college’s own expectation that students “become critical readers of complex texts.” This sounds straightforward enough – but what, in the context of an English department, constitutes complexity? 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, epistemic (etc, etc.) dimensions. More dimensions, in fact, than one can count. We both hope and expect of our students, therefore, 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 (as writers, lawyers or, indeed, burger flippers). This deepening of sensibility, broadening of experience (or pick your own “metaphysical discourse,” which the culture of assessment, in principle, excludes) is at the heart of the “humanities,” if they are worthy of that title. Literature and film, in addition, are arts – and while we would agree with the college’s own stated expectation that students achieve “artistic literacy” (college “learning goal” #5), we would suggest that something still more fundamental is at stake, something best captured by disreputable words (in today’s climate) like “taste” or even “the appreciation of beauty.” In his poem “Asphodel, that greeny flower,” William Carlos Williams writes (famously) 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 art, as yet another of the “metaphysical discourses” that help make life meaningful and livable, is far more important than those who pursue narrow ideas of practicality (or, shall we say, “performativity”) typically realize – to their great loss.


C.        Learning goals for which an assessment mechanism, though conceivable, would be trivial.

            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 a certain number of courses in literature written before 1800, and a certain number of courses in literature written after that year. The conviction that our curriculum should be organized by literary period has also been reflected, more or less, in our hiring practices over the past two decades. In addition to this historical emphasis, however, we also believe that our students should be exposed to a broad range of cultural production: American and British, upper class and working class, “anglo” and “ethnic” (both in their endless varieties). For this reason, graduating majors are required to have taken a certain number of courses in “cultural context,” which reflect the complex social circumstances that give rise to literary production.


            These requirements, to repeat, largely shape students’ experience of the major. But how might one assess the success of these goals in a non-trivial way? We would suggest that this is not possible, for two reasons. First: we believe that these learning goals are achieved simply by virtue of the students having taken and passed the courses. A secondary testing mechanism (like having our seniors take the GRE in literary study) would be neither more objective, nor more revealing than the mechanisms currently in place. Second: these goals are ultimately at the service of our deeper priorities (in B), which are not susceptible to assessment. Why do we care, that is to say, that our students be exposed to literature from the distant past, or of cultures fundamentally different from their own? Because: if literature is, among (many) other things, a grappling with, without ever solving, the problem of being human, we think it important that students see how people have grappled with this problem differently – in different times and in different cultural contexts. These learning goals (C) matter, in short, because they contribute to the deepening of sensibility, the development of taste, (etc.), which constitute the main, unassessable, purpose of an English department.  


D.        Learning goals for which we believe our students should take responsibility assessing.

            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 focusing on literary theory (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 try to 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 (etc.). The work of thinking through their careers as majors, however, belongs fundamentally to the students.  


E.         Learning 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 that we are willing to 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 “performativity criterion,” it is (seemingly) easy to do so when evaluating writing or research ability. These goals are also most acceptable in a national culture deeply suspicious of the humanities, or inclined to view the humanities as trivial, as we discussed earlier: whatever the silliness of reading books, writing stories, or studying films, teaching students to become better writers has an obvious “practical” value. Perhaps that is all that humanities departments should focus on. Needless to say, we would insist that these skills are valuable mainly for the way they serve more important, unassessable goals. 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:

1.         Develop the ability to communicate clearly, coherently, and effectively in written and oral expression.
2.         Develop research and analytical skills.


[i] Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, September 23, 2011.

[ii] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974), 62-64.