How Donna Heiland approaches “the ineffable”

I began discussing Donna Heiland‘s views on assessment in yesterday’s post and today I wanted to take a closer look at her article, “Approaching the Ineffable: Flow, Sublimity, and Student Learning,” which is part of the volume of essays she edits, along with Laura Rosenthal, on the topic of accountability and assessment in the humanities. Heiland brings a unique perspective to the problem as a former literature professor who now works in grantmaking. She inhabits the world outside the ivory tower while very much remaining a member of the tribe, which positions her to be a wonderful interpreter for the assessment and the educator camps alike. Having been trained in literary study, she is someone who speaks our language and sympathizes with many of our concerns. During the MLA panel discussion on assessment I found myself much more drawn to her sensible, and yes, pragmatic approach to assessment than I was to those of the professor who unequivocally rejected assessment on the grounds that it was a practice that privileged the visible and representable (I am paraphrasing, but the key terms are hers).

It may sound like I’m making fun of the professor’s perspective, but as someone who has devoted much of her academic labors to the notion of representability in political thought and practice, I do in fact sympathize with her concerns and her objections. As the saying goes, Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. But what I think Heiland urges us to realize—aside from the fact that humanities scholars really have little choice but to submit to the current culture of assessment—is that assessment in itself is not the enemy. Yes, there are a lot of bad practices that threaten departmental autonomy, heap mountains of useless work onto already over-burdened professors (I’m still reeling at the third panelist’s account of how he doubles his assessment workload in order to please administrators while staying true to departmental ideals), and most importantly, do little to actually ensure that students walk out of classrooms exhilarated by their learning experience. But after hearing Heiland speak, I also walked away with the sense that enlightened assessment practices could actually lead to a win-win(-win) situation for educators, students, and administrators alike, since in theory good assessments would make for better teaching practices and more of the “ineffable,” “sublime,” “inspired” moments that make teaching, thought, and learning truly joyful activities.

So how, exactly, does Heiland recommend we think about assessment? First of all, she debunks the notion that what we humanities scholars do is literally “ineffable” by assuming that inspirational teaching—or more to the point, inspired learning—really is quantifiable. She does so with the help of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, which describe the experience we feel when we are totally immersed in what we are doing that we lose all sense of time and the “work” of that activity becomes enjoyable in and of itself. Such a state of mind often leads to bursts of creativity and insight. Like L. Dee Fink before her, Heiland is utterly convinced that if we can enumerate the conditions under which individuals experience flow (for example, clear goals, immediate feedback, a balance between challenge and skills), then we should be able to heighten the chances of replicating such an experience in the classroom. Such a perspective treats flow not as the unique province of the individual, but something that occurs in a systemic context that can indeed be made more amenable to recreating what Heiland calls “‘catch fire’ experiences”(116). (For obvious reasons, I adore that term.)

Since the experience of flow leads to discovery and insight, Heiland proposes that we consider it as “a learning outcome in itself” (120). Recognizing the affective aspect of flow, and pointing to psychological and neuroscientific studies on the interrelation of thought and feeling, she argues that we need to broaden our definition of learning by acknowledging the ways in which emotion might be considered a form of cognition insofar as feelings can lead to knowledge. She gives a precise example in which this view could influence classroom teaching by suggesting that “students’ ‘gut feelings’ and affective responses to texts can be understood as valuable in themselves and as pushing into the realm of cognition” (121). This immediately reminded me of a recent article I read detailing how two very different New Jersey classrooms tackled “Of Mice and Men” from opposite perspectives and were nevertheless able to find common ground with each other with a bit of empathy.

Lest literary scholars begin to suspect that Heiland has drifted too far away from the discipline, she brings it back home, so to speak, by framing her discussion using a combination of Burke’s and Kant’s theories of the sublime. Burke first describes an experience by which the individual is so overwhelmed by something external to her consciousness—a novel or a painting, perhaps—that she feels herself completely absorbed by it. Heiland wryly comments that such an experience in and of itself might not be a desirable educational outcome, which is why she recommends that we now shift to Kant’s understanding of the sublime as the moment in which the individual asserts her self-consciousness against that external object in order to master it. Heiland draws our attention to how these theories of the sublime, hand in hand, are not so dissimilar from Csikszentmihalyi’s account of the creative process, whereby individuals first go through a period of immersion and incubation before reaching some sort of “Eureka!” moment that then demands elaboration and mastery.

At this point in her argument, Heiland insists that “if one can increase the likelihood of a flow experience, the one can also increase the likelihood of a sublime insight or “aha!” moment. And one can—and must—develop ways of assessing whether those experiences have been achieved and what students have learned as a result” (125). In this way, Heiland has circled back around to the matter of assessment, and this is really where I found her article of most use because she points to studies that successfully manage to pin down the kinds of questions and data points that educators use to capture and predict two things that are commonly regarded as the je ne sais quoi of learning. The first is nothing less than a disposition (“the need for cognition,” or a student’s thirst for learning), and the second is the growth of that need. I’d like to devote a separate blog post on survey questions, but for now I will mention one in particular that caught my eye. On the list of questions that predict the growth of the “need for cognition” is one on the frequency with which students discussed ideas from their readings or classes without others outside of class. This question lies close to my heart because I chose my college largely on the fact that students seemed to be talking about their classes everywhere—in the cafeteria (MoCon!) and outside on Foss Hill. Something about that really spoke to me about the learning environment, and I really wanted to be part of such an impassioned student body.

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