“Who,” Yes, But “How” May Be the Real Question

In “Who Will Hold Colleges Accountable?”, Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation writes in The New York Times:

I suspect those courses that will be most valued will be those where students actually learn.

Of course. Most of us who teach don’t just suspect that–we know it (as does Carey, I am sure… he’s deliberately understating the obvious). One of the reasons we teach is that we remember when, where, how, and why a particular course and teacher gave us knowledge and skills that have stayed with us for years, for decades… for lifetimes. Courses where we actually learned, and the learning actually stuck.

I carry with me the image of Professor Morrissey at Beloit College, grinning over the podium, his eighty-year-old skin crinkled like old wrapping paper, his words relishing “The Grand Inquisitor” in a way I’d never heard literature analyzed before. Only a decade later did I begin to understand what he had been trying to do in that course, “A Natural History of Satan.” The ex-Jesuit hadn’t been trying to teach us close reading or about the differences between good and evil–he was trying to get us to engage with the work, trying to make us better readers by showing us that we could establish real dialogues with the texts before us.

If student feedback had been part of teaching back then, I probably would have rated Morrissey about average. It was only when I was a graduate student a decade later that I began to appreciate what he had done for me, how much I had actually learned–how he had even made the road to a doctoral program in English possible for me. Later, as a teacher and as a writer, I found his influence continuing.

We do need to hold colleges accountable… but how? What sort of test, what sort of “outcome,” could have told Beloit’s administrators that Morrissey was doing something special… for one of his students, at least? Carey suggests that:

the most promising solution would be to replace the anachronistic credit hour with common standards for what college students actually need to know and to be able to do. There are many routes to doing this. In the arts and sciences, scholarly associations could define and update what it means to be proficient in a field. So could professional organizations and employers in vocational and technical fields.

The problem lies in the terms “common standards” and “proficient in a field.” What sort of standard could Morrissey have been held to that would have made any sense? And “proficiency” generally is backward-looking (in terms of education), measuring students against what has already been done, not against what is needed for the future. Morrissey was not toeing the New Criticism line of his time but was doing something much more heart-felt and–for me, at least–effective for his student’s future. If he had to work to ‘defined and updated’ standards, he probably never would have been able to teach the course.

Though I think Carey is right, what he is suggesting might, in today’s climate, lead only to an intensification of emphasis on outcomes and quantifiable assessment. His question “Who will hold colleges accountable?” is a good one. But the answer might be much more difficult than we imagine.

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