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 college’s accreditors.

But here is the issue. Our, or anyone’s, ability to know whether it’s working depends a great deal on what it is.

Many 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.

To 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.

What 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.[1]  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?

Degrees 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.

A Taxonomy of Learning Goals

In 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.

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, the thoughtfulness we uniformly encourage in our students properly has no place in this taxonomy.

Learning 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.

Learning goals for which an additional 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 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.

Learning 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 students.

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 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:

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



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