rosenthal and heiland’s literary study, measurement, and the sublime, reviewed

Since we’re talking about the value of curricular discussions, even when these reveal fundamental disagreements, contested terms, and hidden curricula, I thought I would point out that the Laura Rosenthal and Donna Heiland’s collection Literary Study, Measurement, and the Sublime has just been  discussed (and reviewed) in the latest issue of Change.

The writer of this article, Pat Hutchings, endorses the approach of Rosenthal, Heiland and many of this volume’s contributors (including myself), which is to use assessment in all its varieties to inquire into what is singular and distinctive about literary studies in relation to other fields.

Of course, this approach contrasts strongly with how assessment has generally been understood and practiced for many years in American higher education, as Hutchings admits.  She observes that

assessment’s focus on cross-cutting outcomes makes perfect sense, but it has also meant that the assessment of students’ knowledge and abilities within particular fields, focused on what is distinctive to the field, has received less attention. And that’s too bad.

It’s too bad because we do, after all, value what our students know and can do in their major area of concentration and because students themselves typically care most about achievement in their chosen field of study. But it’s also too bad because anchoring assessment more firmly in the disciplines may be a route to addressing its most vexing and enduring challenge: engaging faculty in ways that lead to real improvement in teaching and learning.
What Rosenthal’s and Heiland’s volume shares with the threshold concepts framework Kathryn and I have been discussing is the fact that, as one researcher notes, “getting academics to think about what is critical to learn in their subject is easier than getting them to think about learning outcomes” (7).  It also addresses a persistent problem in persuading literature faculty to adopt both assessment and student-centered learning, which has been these discourses’ consistent “mortification of the teacherly self” (Cousins, 5), or “erasure of teacher expertise” (6). Such a “restoration of dignity for academic teachers” (6) also helps to address the unsettling suspicion voiced by a number of contributors to the Rosenthal and Heiland volume, which was that the subjective, first-person experiences explored in literature courses would have to be “translated” via social science methodology into something more valued and “objective” before it could be taken seriously by outsiders, whether in- or outside the university community. Beginning, though not ending, with the disciplinary perspective of practitioners and experts seems like one of the best ways to address this disciplinary imbalance.

2 responses to “rosenthal and heiland’s literary study, measurement, and the sublime, reviewed

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Thanks for this post, Dave. I agree that the instructor’s control seems to be a key issue here. Non-disciplinary assessment seems frustratingly out of everyone’s control. But at the same time, course-level assessment also seems out of instructor control. When an assessment process focuses in too tightly like that, instructors object that those outcomes only reveal effort put in by the students. So the level of the program, which also usually maps onto a discipline, can I think most readily translate into instructors thinking together about student learning. Being either too distant OR too close both seem to produce the “erasure of teacher expertise.”

  2. I think the rationale for the institution-level, cross-cutting assessment is to see how the student population is entering and exiting the institution as a group. Same for program-level: it’s measuring inputs and outputs. A more sophisticated view of teaching and learning, though, has to have a more dynamic model of what happens “in between,” which is very much about the interactions among teachers and students, students with one another, prior knowledge, and so forth. The teacher, in my view, is not an engineer on a train running on a train track, with nothing but a brake to control his speed and no steering; it’s closer to being a leader of a cross-country skiing expedition, working its way across a terrain. There are a lot of decisions being made, a lot of judgment being exercised, every moment of the way.