by J J Cohen
Ask most any academic who has been teaching for the past five years or so, and you'll elicit a dyspeptic mutter about their institution's sudden craze for assessment and the clumsy way in which these measures have been implemented. Assessment is a mixed bag. On the one hand: yes of course we should have sturdy and transparent measures of how well we attain our goals. More than that, we should actually articulate our goals so that we and our students understand lucidly what a particular course and what a particular degree strives to accomplish. I was department chair when the assessment craze began at GW (triggered by ... an assessment of the university itself by the accrediting agency that assesses such things and, surprise, they said we don't assess as much as these assessors would like to see us assess, because after all assessment is so important that they have made their careers from it). I don't mean to mock assessment per se, but rather the way it sometimes is decreed from on high and ineptly implemented. One semester the syllabus does not have learning objectives, and the next it must, but no one is informed about why this matters, or how to formulate them effectively, and how one might be creative in articulating these goals. In the reading I did to start moving my own department along to mandated conformity (we needed to have 90% of our syllabi with these goals, or ... well, I'm not sure what. I told my faculty that one of them would be chosen at random and sacrificed in a festive bonfire outside the president's house). One thing that really stuck with me was how little thinking most of us do about the correlation between the goals of a course and the tests and papers we build into it. Often these are rituals inherited from tradition, but they do not necessarily test what we think we are training our students to do, or at least they are not necessarily the best way to determine if our students have attained the skills and knowledge we want them to possess.
That's a long winded way of saying that both undergraduate and graduate education in the humanities could be more creative when it comes to course requirements and pedagogical processes. It struck me, for example, that at a certain point within graduate training, multiple assessments via the same mechanism lead to diminishing returns. How many times does a graduate student need to compose a 25-30 page seminar paper during coursework? Three papers per semester times four semesters and we are at twelve such seminar papers. Wouldn't it be useful if at least one of these assessment exercises in a semester assisted with related skills (close reading, innovative method, cogent argument) performed differently? This semester I gave the students in my Objects seminar a choice for their final product: they could write a traditional seminar paper, or deliver a fifteen minute conference paper. If they chose the latter, they would be part of a mini conference open to all who wished to attend. They would be judged on overall presentation; handout; clarity; cogency; staying within time limits; performance; creativity. Four of the six students taking the class for credit chose the conference option.
I'm happy they did. Holding a conference gave the seminar a tremendous sense of closure, as well as an unalterably final deadline for work to be completed. We held the event Thursday, and it provided an excellent moment of community. The presentations were very good -- so good, in fact, that they could be brought to any "real" conference and be presented proudly. Plus the graduate students had the chance to obtain feedback on their style, their timing, their methods. I am hoping that nurturing these presentation skills will serve them well as they start to present papers professionally at conferences but also for some of them on eventual campus visits.
Having this moment together ended the course on a celebratory note. Also conference-like: we all went out for a drink afterwards, and spoke of the papers but also chatted about all kinds of other things, including conference banter and what you learn by socializing with people you don't know. I don't want to make it all seem drearily pedagogical; it wasn't. For me it was another reminder of the vibrancy I will miss now that I look at up to 18 months out of the classroom.