This Academic Life
  General Education
General EducationYesterday was a very tightly scheduled day, starting with a two-hour planning meeting for the PhD teaching seminars that I am involved in running at 9am, then a talk by a colleague from 12-2 that I coordinated, followed by a mini-retreat for the General Education committee of which I am a part from 3-8. Run run run. Needless to say, no grading got done -- I was exhausted when I finally did get home and barely managed to stay awake to watch the Yankees get drubbed by the Red Sox again. Not the most fun day I've ever spent.

The General Education meeting featured some interesting discussions about the overall shape of the program. University committee service is a blend of administration and philosophical argument: the arguments about overall shape and content are interwoven with more mundane concerns about requirements and paperwork. So we both envision the program as a whole, and handle the nitty-gritty of evaluating course proposals and monitoring syllabi for their conformity with the goals of the program. Yesterday's meeting was more of the "envisioning" task, as we concentrated on three issues:

  • "raceclassculturegender." One of the program goals for General Education on our campus involves increasing students' "attention to a variety of perspectives," particularly those involving race, class, culture, and gender. One of the problems with this goal is that the four components are usually lumped together into one massive charge, one which is usually recited without pause as a single long word. And people have very different opinions about what it means to integrate "raceclassculturegender" into their General Education courses. To my way of thinking this concept is too narrow; I much prefer something like "identity," of which race, class, culture, and gender would be specific types or instantiations; identity would also cover other issues, like nation, civilization, region, and the like. all sorts of self-other differentiations and community bounding practices. But for some people, integrating raceclassculturegender means pontificating to their students about the privileges that they enjoy because of their race, class, culture, and gender, and in effect proselytizing for a certain view of diversity (which is, to my mind, an unsatisfactory one that reifies certain distinctions and positionalities instead of analyzing the practical-moral effects of the practices of distinction that maintain them.

    So we had a discussion about that, and agreed to plan a faculty development seminar during which people could discuss these issues with the help of some invited speakers. I pressed for us to invite not "scholars of race" or "scholars of class," but "scholars of identity" who may happen to be concerned with these particular markers and differentiations, among others. It's a subtle distinction, but given my pedagogical philosophy -- especially as it applies to General Education -- I am steadfastly opposed to turning the classroom into a bully pulpit from which a professor can expound her or his particular views about social relations. Classrooms are for students to grapple with these issues, not for students to figure out the "party line" and then spit it back on tests and papers.

  • assessment. "Assessment is coming," came the cry from the higher levels of the administration; "get used to it." Yes, the lovely edu-speak involving learning outcomes and the meeting of defined objectives that is presently sweeping the primary and secondary schools throughout the US is also making its way onto college campuses. So we needed to start thinking about rubrics, measurable categories of performance, and the like.

    Much of this to my mind is very silly, since I still have no idea how to measure something like "critical thinking" or "a global perspective" (also a program goal). Nor do I think the effort likely to be worthwhile. some educational objectives can be measured, I think: those that are skills, like "information literacy" and "quantitative competence." Skills can be evaluated more or less precisely precisely because they are rule-governed activities which people perform by following the rules, so if we lay down the rules precisely we can see who has certain skills and who does not -- and which programs improve those skills and which do not. This may be why the departments more interested in and amenable to assessment are those that try to impart skills: math departments, economics departments, computer science departments, etc.

    But I am not a skill trainer. Students taking one of my International Relations classes do not have to master skills; they have to participate in discussions, make and defend arguments, read closely and engage critically, and reflect on their experiences. The point of most of my courses is to confront students with issues and conceptions and paradigms and analyses with which they may not be familiar, and then for us as a class to wrestle with the implications of those claims. "Horizon-broadening," one might call it. Or "identity construction" -- I want my students to become more self-conscious about the ways in which they construct their identities, and hopefully to take some more responsibility for those practices. I do not care where they end up. some of my best students take positions which I vehemently disagree with, but I consider this a success inasmuch as they can better defend their take in relation to the materials and literatures and arguments with which I have presented them over the course of the semester.

    These are not skills, and they are not facts. Facts are "knowing-that," i.e. mastering a set of claims and gaining a facility with the nuances of that set -- like memorizing one's multiplication tables, or the capitals of the 50 states. Skills are "knowing-how," i.e. rule-governed sets of activities (like tying one's shoes) which one must master in order to achieve some desired outcome. They are means, not ends. Identity-construction is more of a "knowing-from-within": developing the sense of how one "goes on" in a given social setting (because identity-construction is irreducibly social, and never takes place purely inside of one's head) and the kinds of possibilities that are afforded by different components of that setting. Personal responsibility for one's identity is an achievement, not a presupposition, and also involves acknowledging the extent to which one is never fully responsible for one's own identity. This is not a skill, and it isn't a fact. It's more like a craft practice, something that one learns not by rote or by internalization of rules but through emulation and engaged apprenticeship and critical feedback in a community. And it's not formalizable.

    Defining the rules for "great art" is a silly exercise. Great art subverts rules. Self-crafting is great art. Even when I teach students to do research, I don't teach it as a skill; I try to teach it as a craft.

    So I proposed that we not try to think about what "critical thinking" was in any definite way, but instead gather data on before-and-after writing exercises and see if there is a noticeable difference. If students have become better craftswomen and craftsmen, it will show in the product that they produce. And because there aren't rules for defining this sort of thing, we should simply observe the products and see if there has been improvement. Granted, this raises a methodological problem in that students are taking multiple classes and one can never be sure that it is a particular class or program which has resulted in that improvement, but whatever -- improvement is improvement and we'll be happy to take the credit. In this way maybe we can keep control over the assessment process and prevent it from becoming yet another disciplining tool for those obsessed with productivity and quantifiable results.

  • study abroad. The university is making a major push to promote study abroad programs, and we discussed how those programs would relate to the General Education program. Given that one of our program areas involves international and intercultural experiences, there might be an overlap here that we can strengthen. Everyone should study abroad, I think, but especially American students, who really have no idea what it's like in the rest of the world because by living at the center of the empire the world comes to them and reforms itself to their implicit expectations. Going abroad can be a shock to their systems, and I'm all for such shocks.

    Long day of meetings. Now for a long day of grading :-(

    [Posted with ecto]
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    "Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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