Cautionary tales from Michael Holquist

I intended to go over some of Heiland’s sample survey questions as examples of evaluative tools that are able to capture meaningful data in the humanities. But I think I will postpone that post until I have read a bit more on the topic. I have heard wonderful things about the assessment practices at U Mass Amherst, and I would like to read a few more articles out of Heiland and Rosenthal’s anthology before collecting my thoughts on assessment tools.

Today, for balance, I read Michael Holquist‘s contribution to Disciplinary Asssessment. He is one of the cautionary voices in the debate, and it’s useful to summarize here his main warning: that when assessment, in the name of standardization, economic concern, or “consumer protection,” is forced bluntly upon departments by external bodies—be they university administrators or government bureaucrats—threaten the critical (in the Kantian sense) mission of the humanities. The US need only look to Europe, where university reform programs such as the Bologna Process are coercing departments in the humanities to conform to standards that are at odds with their disciplinary philosophies. In particular, Holquist decries mandates for programs to prove their “financial viability,” insisting that such a perspective brings our institutions of higher learning down to the level of vocational schools, which do little more than teach students employment skills.

To be clear, Holquist is not against any sort of assessment, and indeed he champions a ground-up effort for departments to develop cohesive, progressive curricula that give students a clear understanding of why they are being asked to take a given sequence of courses.

The big question he leaves us with is, What is the proper tool for assessment and what is the correct unit of measurement for courses in the humanities? We cannot begin to answer this without precisely pinning down the qualities and, yes, skills (is it really such a dirty word?) we want our students to have when they exit our courses. Holquist points us in a general direction by reminding us of the distinction Wilhelm Windelbund drew between the humanities and the sciences: “His argument was that the human sciences seek to understand what is distinctive, unrepeatable, new and unpredictable in our individual lives and in human history. At the other end of the spectrum is the emphasis of the exact sciences to elicit from nature general laws, whose validity is greater the more abstract and predictable they are” (86). It is the humanistic emphasis on uniqueness that makes “learning outcomes” of disciplines such as literature and history so difficult to measure. And yet…and yet, we need to move past empty rhetorical proclamations that literature “expands minds” or (worse) “makes us better people.” To do that, we need to be precise about the kinds of big lessons and specific skills that we are in the business (ahem) of teaching. (Yes, I am gearing up for a future post.)

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