For the past two days, the Shimer faculty was involved in an assessment workshop with a knowledgable consultant who was so enthusiastic about our program that he offered his services for free. One thing that struck me was that I had been thinking of assessment as a kind of “meta” layer on what we already do in terms of grading — coming up with parallel rubrics, etc. In reality, our consultant said, we’re assessing student learning all the time. This is all the more true of Shimer’s discussion-based curriculum, where we get vastly more insight into student learning than you would get in a lecture class. People tend to think of things like learning outcomes as artificial, and they really can be, but as I thought about it, I realized that no student would get an A in my class without demonstrating things like critical thinking, effective communication, etc.
One admittedly optimistic way of looking at the assessment movement is that it prompts college instructors to be more transparent and purposeful about what they are really asking of students. This serves multiple purposes: it can help us to do a better job of judging whether a student really is making progress, it can make for greater consistency in grading over time and across different instructors, and it can help us to provide more meaningful preparation and feedback for students so that they will get more out of our classes. Academics complain that students are obsessed with grades, but when that’s the only kind of feedback we give them and when they are often inscrutable to the students, can we really blame them?
I think that part of the reason I feel that assessment at least has the potential to be really helpful is that a lot of the things they’re asking us to do are things that I’ve more or less spontaneously been trying to do over the course of my teaching career — and in particular since I came to Shimer, where it is totally impossible to rely on the traditional model where as long as I do my best in presenting the information, the rest is really up to the students. For me it started with our writing intensive courses. I asked myself what skills I really hoped that a first year student would be able to take away from my class, and my written feedback was almost obsessively focused on that handful of qualities — and the students who worked seriously and did the rewrites actually improved. I’ve made similar efforts with discussion, trying to find one or two specific styles of thought in each class that I really want to be able to work with. I’ve probably been less successful in that regard, in part because discussion is inherently much more difficult to direct and comment on than written work, but hopefully I’ve made progress.
What makes me more willing to stick to these types of commitments is that I know that at Shimer, there will be someone to pick up the baton after the students leave my class — whereas in my previous teaching situation, it felt like I was working in a total void. I can imagine that after a few more years in a more monadic type of institution, I may have given up and just lectured. The idea of more systematically working through these types of expectations with my colleagues so that I can trust that someone who came from a particular course can be held accountable for some particular skill or habit of thought is even more encouraging in this regard.
The thing that makes the whole regime an artificial imposition is that faculty don’t actually want to sit down and discuss what is most important to them and how they want to hold students accountable for that — and so the goals become empty clichés that we grudgingly copy and paste into our syllabi. A place like Shimer has an advantage in that it’s small and the faculty has a profound investment in the community and institution, so that you don’t get the isolated monads who populate most colleges and universities. And that’s the paradox of the politics of assessment: it’s based on the model of the student as consumer, who should be given full information about the product they’re buying, but what it actually requires is more collaboration and open dialogue among faculty. In other words, it’s premised on the most objectionable liberal individualism, but actually implementing it requires turning our institutions of higher learning into more meaningful intellectual communities.