Category Archives: education

“fair, accurate, and comprehensive”

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about synthesis, I wanted to mention this passage in Robert Scholes’s Rise and Fall of English, where he reminds the theory-struck (this was written in 1998, but it feels much older) about the importance of “truth” in academics:

My notion of academic truth  . . . is not profound but neither is it nebulous . . . It resides in words at a lower level of abstraction: words like fair, accurate, and comprehensive. In a discipline called English the minimal requirements for academic truth include scrupulous accuracy in citation, regard for what is already known about our subject, and rigor in situating and interrogating whatever material we are considering (57).

This is a superb distillation of the scholarly discipline we expect and should expect from ourselves and our students.  I would have loved to have had this little passage at my fingertips on many prior occasions.

As I think about this passage’s reception, however, I suspect that defining and applying these seemingly simple terms would fill many students with anxiety and confusion, especially in the context of the syntheses I discussed earlier: what does it mean to be “fair” to a 200-year old piece of writing that I am summarizing?  Which details need to be present, and which should be absent, in order for my close reading or annotated bibliography to be considered “accurate,” or at least representative?  Just how much research and background reading must I do, and how much of what I have done, should be reflected in my argument or footnotes?

These are the kinds of questions our curriculum is intended to answer, or stave off, but to the extent that the answers remain tacit, there will be surprises and disagreements for students and scholars alike.


PS: Even the most senior scholars in literary studies must confront these issues again when thinking about the issues raised by the new forms of dissemination and evaluation found in digital humanities.  So these questions are by no means closed for even the most experienced scholars attempting to read and assimilate this kind of work.

some keywords from last semester’s discussions of doctoral studies: synthesis

Spending a semester with students entering PhD programs in Literature, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric/Composition was both interesting and difficult for me because I struggled to find language for our activities that could serve for all three groups, each of which had distinct orientations towards writing, research, and teaching.

Throughout the term, even designating the class as a whole, or addressing the different groups that comprised it, was a challenge: was English studies in any sense a discipline, with discrete sub-disciplinary groups?  were we three distinct disciplines?  two research-oriented disciplines joined with an arts program? And so forth.  These answers varied, too, depending on whether we were comparing groups internally or externally.

One of my “solutions” (which of course only deferred these problems) was to begin the semester with Bruce McComiskey’s English Studies, which offered a narrative of a loosely disciplinary English studies that comprehended the various groups, but to pair it Tony Becher’s Academic Tribes and Territories, which described university life as a kind of organized chaos of competing disciplinary cultures and sub-cultures.  The advantage of Becher’s more “anthropological” approach, I learned, was that it showed that the hierarchical and boundary relations, as the source of both conflicts and institutional power, were the focus of everyone’s attention, and constituted the battleground in the usual Hobbesean war of all against all in the contemporary university.

One of the terms that came up repeatedly was synthesis, the combination of different elements to create new wholes.  Though it seems that each group maintained its own professional version of synthesis, it seemed to me that the literary studies group had the most institutional investment in a deliberate, closely monitored process of synthesis of one’s research and reading.

This heavy emphasis on synthesis to me seemed to be the most plausible rationale for practices like the comprehensive exams and the dissertation, which remain the transformational moments in grad education for lit students (different kinds of exams and expectations surround the other groups at these stages).

It also seemed to me that both periodization and close reading offer very distinctive forms of synthesis for lit studies. To use Shulman’s term, these are “signature pedagogies” whose rationale remains often unclear to students until they reach more advanced stages of reading and research. And, of course, it is precisely this kind of synthesis that we forget we have learned when we teach novices or address others from other academic subcultures, even if those are found in “our” departments.


Why do students hate groupwork? Part 2

[X-posted on Assessment for Learning 101]

One of the most-read posts on this blog is David Mazella’s classic, “Why do students hate groupwork?”  The original post prompted a lively discussion, including comments by students themselves telling us why, in fact, they hate groupwork.

I was thinking about this discussion yesterday at my MLA panel, “Academically Adrift,” which featured Josipa Roksa, one of the authors of the book after which the panel took its name.  Offering a brief overview of her findings (with co-author Richard Arum), Josipa introduced the section on study groups by saying, “This is the one that always gets me in trouble.”  And indeed, part of the discussion that followed concerned this issue.

In short, Arum and Roksa found that students who worked in study groups showed significantly lower learning than those who studied on their own.  What does this mean for collaboration?

To me, the most interesting point that came out of the conversation was that the problem might not be group work itself, but the way it is done.  Roksa speculated that there is a tendency for the professor to assign group work without enough structure and also without providing any training for students in collaboration itself.  We tend to come up with a project, give it to a group of students, and say “go collaborate,” which turns out to be ineffective.  She briefly discussed a colleague of hers who teaches a semester-long course specifically on collaboration.  So perhaps her answer to the question posed by Dave’s original post might be that students hate it because they don’t know how to do it and as a result they don’t learn much.

What I found particularly interesting was Roksa’s emphasis on collaboration as a skill that needs to be learned.  As someone raised on theory that taught me how gender, race, and all kinds of identity formations are constructed, I had never given much thought to collaboration as “constructed” as well.  Perhaps for too many of us, it seems like something that students should just know how to do.  But apparently they don’t (and in fairness, we often don’t either).  I wonder, then, if we should be thinking about ways to get collaboration skills into the curriculum—not just in the form of collaborative assignments but as a learning outcome goal in itself.


Literary Study, Measurement, and the Sublime

Not exactly about the eighteenth century, but this project on Literary Study, Measurement, and the Sublime: Disciplinary Assessment, edited by me and Donna Heiland, has several excellent contributions from eighteenth-century scholars (Dave Mazella, Lucinda Cole, Kirsten Saxton; Donna is herself author of a book on the gothic).  Free for downloading!  There will be a hardcopy in the Spring. 


What happens when the disciplines make themselves heard in the discussions of learning outcomes assessment that are ubiquitous in higher education today? What do disciplinary perspectives and methodologies have to bring to the table? This volume engages these questions from the perspective of literary study, with essays by education leaders, faculty from English and foreign language departments, and assessment experts that offer a wide range of perspectives. Together, these essays take a pulse of a discipline. They explore what is at stake in the work of assessment in the literature classroom, what we stand to gain, what we fear to lose, and whether current assessment methods can even capture the outcomes we care about most: the complex, subtle, seemingly ineffable heart of learning. They also implicitly invite teachers and scholars in other disciplines to come to the table, and carry the discussion further.

The essays in this volume are divided into four sections that focus on:

  • Outcomes assessment in the context of current national discussions of higher education and the work being done by various professional organizations.
  • Approaches to assessing “sublime learning” (that is, learning that can seem unassessable) and creativity.
  • The question of what outcomes assessment can measure in the literature classroom, as well as the theoretical and political implications of doing so.
  • Case studies and templates for the assessment of literature programs, with related discussions of the assessment of writing and foreign language acquisition.

“it was conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment . . . . “

Give this a view (and a listen):

I really like this little “animate” of Sir Kenneth Robinson talking about the challenges facing our contemporary system of education (from K-12 to higher ed), but I was left wondering about his characterization of curricular standardization as a legacy of both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution (you’ll hear it around 2:05).

I understand and agree with his point (made many times by others) about standardization as a consequence of industrial theories of organization, but I’m not clear how educational theorists like Locke or Rousseau could be blamed for this.  In many respects, Robinson’s pedagogical agenda, in its insistence on following the individual pupil’s rate of learning, is at least as reminiscent of Rousseau’s Emile as it is Dewey’s critique.  I was also intrigued by his notion that the (unspoken?) assumptions driving Enlightenment theories of education reflected an “intellectual model of the mind” focusing exclusively on “deductive reasoning” and “knowledge of the classics,” assumptions that will quickly divide students into an academic elite of “smart people” and a much larger group of “non-smart people.”  What’s more, such assumptions persist, zombie-like, in our contemporary obsession with high-stakes testing of cheaply delivered, testable content, “student tracking,” and curricula based on a lockstep progression of students into an industrial workforce.  And he shows, without much difficulty, how very different the (advanced, post-industrial?) world is from the assumptions in which the current system is formed.

As someone who agrees with much of this diagnosis of contemporary education, and who witnesses how it has played out in my state’s system, I think there’s a lot of value to this critique. (I do wonder how to scale up the kinds of interactions he calls for, to maintain the educational access that everyone says they want).

But without expecting too much from a thought-provoking cartoon, I’d still like to think about the Sir Ken’s characterization of the “intellectual culture of the Enlightenment” (if there is such a thing): does it really foster a reductive notion of the mind and its capacities, and does it really divide education into academic and non-academic tracks?  Another way to put this question is to ask whether practices like standardized assessments of learning represent yet another legacy of Enlightenment theories of mind, or something that the historical Enlightenment could teach us how to critique?