Category Archives: MLA

MLA 2012: When Assessment Goes Bad

[x-posted at]

On the first day of MLA 2012 I attended “Assessing Assessment(s),” chaired by Jeanne A Follansbee (Harvard), with talks by Donna Heiland (Teagle Foundation), John M. Ulrich (Mansfield University), and Eve Marie Wiederhold (George Mason). Reed Way Dasenbrock was unable to attend, which is a shame because I heard an excellent talk that he gave last year and was looking forward to his perspective on this issue. (I have also taught his essay from Falling into Theory in my “Critical Methods in Literary Study” class.)

All the papers were sharp and interesting, with Heiland considering the role of assessment in cultivating student learning, Ulrich reporting on the highs and lows of his institutional practice, and Wiederhold offering a vigorous critique.

But what really enlightened me at the panel was the Q&A, during which it became clear that there was a lot of really terrible assessment going on out there. One speaker described how an “assessment professional” had been hired at her institution to set the learning outcome goals for all the programs. Another reported that he regularly turned in a series of graphs charting student grades, much to the delight of local assessment administrators.

I had mostly assumed that everyone hated assessment because it is part of the paradigm shift described by Tagg and Barr from “Instruction” to “Learning” (a point discussed by Heiland) which pretty radically goes against the status quo and thus makes people anxious. (Maybe this goes back to Dave’s discussions of “threshold concepts.”) Further, I too hated it at first, as it seemed redundant and intrusive. Now, though, I see it as part of a potential change from counting credit hours (or as my former provost used to say, “butts in seats”) or relying on student evaluations (or, as Roksa calls them, “student satisfaction surveys”) to opening up new ways of emphasizing, appreciating, and thinking about learning itself as the goal, which in turn leads to thinking that there might be better ways to get there than counting up things up, be they credit hours or survey scores. So while assessment has the reputation of bean counting, in fact we are currently wading through heaps of beans (credit hours; evaluation scores; grades; office hours; chairs bolted to the floor; multiple choice tests) without even noticing them as they have become so natural to our environment. In a true “culture of assessment,” there would be fewer beans.

It seems, though, at some institutions assessment has not been part of a larger consideration of student learning, but instead the evil bureaucratic exercise that many feared it would become.

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.


What’s Going On at MLA

Ted Underwood has a very smart response to Stanley Fish’s recent article in the New York Times, in which the latter characterizes digital humanities as an “insurgent” successfully overturning postmodern theory.  Underwood takes Fish’s characterization to be flattering for digital humanists (although off base, for persuasive reasons); Rosemary Feal, however, astutely points to the article’s crankiness in her twitter summary: “I see you on my lawn, kids.”

Having read all the comments to Fish’s article so far, I think we could summarize them as follows: “why are these people talking about things we don’t understand and why aren’t they talking about literature, language, and learning like they are supposed to be doing?”

Oddly, however, the Presidential Forum, with 70 linked sessions, is on “Language, Literature, Learning.”  These sessions overlap with many other interests, including digital humanities, but nevertheless they all explore the very topic that commentators seem to find so lacking at MLA.  This central theme does not make its way at all into Fish’s trend round-up.  Perhaps it would make a very dull column to report that thousands of scholars will converge to renew their fascination with language, literature, and learning, sharing their research, insights, and commitment to higher education.

How do we more accurately communicate what is really going on and liberate ourselves from these (dated?) Oedipal narratives?

the mla is dead; now go enjoy yourselves

I’ve provided this cheerful subject heading, along with Marc Bousquet’s upbeat post from the Chron of Higher Ed (Skype did it), to serve as an open thread for any MLA-goers who wish to report back on their discoveries and discussions at MLA.  And best of luck to all of you who are  interviewing or being interviewed this week.  Even LA can get cold at this time of year.


MLA Roundup #3: Why Teach Literature Anyway?

445. Why Teach Literature Anyway?

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 201-B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Program arranged by the Division on the Teaching of Literature

Presiding: John Paul Riquelme, Boston Univ.

1. “Literature as Public Humanities,” Wai Chee Dimock, Yale Univ.

2. “Reading versus Life?” Jonathan Culler, Cornell Univ.

3. “Reading Critically and the Recovery from the Stupid Years,” Jean Elizabeth Howard, Columbia Univ.

I imagine these papers will be published, but I thought this excellent panel, in which three speakers discussed “why,” deserved some rounding up as well.

Wai Chee Dimock answered the panel’s titular question by exploring the kinds of teaching that go on outside of the classroom, giving the examples of programs that offer literary study as an alternative to incarceration and also her own Facebook project on rethinking world literature.  She wanted to broaden the definition of teaching literature from things that happen in the classroom to things that happen outside of it, showing how research and teaching in our discipline have an impact in the world.

Jonathan Culler proposed that those who have written about the value of teaching literature fall roughly into two camps: one group appeals to “critical skills,” while the other appeals to literature’s usefulness for life.  But the “literature as useful for life” argument, he pointed out, doesn’t actually make the case for teaching literature.  To experience the positive effects of literature (extended empathy; bracketing self-interest; resocialization) one needs to read it, but not necessarily take a class in it. The “critical skills” advocates appeal to analysis: students can be taught to read against the grain and to expose implicit ideologies. Culler noted, however, that students often resist this form of teaching; they don’t want to tear apart works they love.  An informal survey to find out how students might answer the “why” question from their end revealed that only a tiny percentage answered in ways that their professors might have hoped. Culler asked a lot of interesting questions: how are these two ways of seeing literature related? Divergent? Opposed? He concluded by suggesting that the distinctiveness of literature is not easily assimilated into either lessons for life OR the exposure of ideological investments.

Finally, Jean Howard gave an inspiring talk about the value of “slow reading.”  Essentially, she argued that the Bush years were a time when the dominant culture celebrated stupidity.  Our work involves teaching student to read critically, welcoming complexity and helping to recover from those stupid years.  For Howard, the skill of critical reading has an important political payoff.  She defended the exposure of ideological investments, but also argued that instructors should not push their own points of view on students, as doing so would be the opposite of teaching critical reading. Slow reading must be learned, she argued, thus answering Culler’s critique of the “literature as tool for life” arguments, for students need guidance to develop this kind of close attention. Critical “slow reading” teaches students to question the face value of a text and its truth claims.  While the text being read is ultimately less important to Howard than the way one reads it, literature departments, she pointed out, teach critical reading better than anyone else.

I hope I’ve done justice from notes and memory here to these very worthwhile talks. Each raised important points.  I was struck, however, by the way each of them read the question “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” in a slightly different way.  An article in the Chronicle claimed that none of them had an answer for the question, but I think it would be more accurate to say that each of them answered a different version of it.  Perhaps Dimock answered the question:  “How does teaching literature, capaciously defined, benefit society?”  The classroom did not figure into this particular talk (although she certainly wasn’t arguing against the possibility that classroom teaching is socially useful).  Culler answered the question: “Why do I teaching literature and what do I want my students to get out of it?”  Howard asked, I think,: “How does my teaching benefit my students and shape their role as citizens, and thus benefit the world in which they participate?”

I think the Chronicle reporter was disappointed because none of them actually answered the questions heard perhaps more frequently outside of MLA meetings: “Why should my tax dollars go to professors teaching literature at my local state school/community college?  Why should literature classes be a priority (or funded at all) in the face of so many other needs and so many more practical and/or relevant options?  Why should I/my kid take a literature course?”  That is, the speakers tended to focus on why they (and perhaps by extension “we”) teach literature rather than on why, from a social point of view, literature should be taught. (It seems to me that the title, lacking a subject, could be read either way.)  I appreciated the important ways that they answered the question, but I hope we can find opportunities to talk about this second possible meaning of the question as well.


mla round-up: this is enlightenment

It’s a cold winter night in Houston, and I thought the best use of my time, besides watching “Worst Cooks in America,” would be to discuss the “This IS Enlightenment” panel from last month’s MLA.   By putting it here, rather than on the nifty new “comment” function on the MLA program website, I suppose I’m undermining the MLA’s attempts to make the MLA forum a little more bloggish, but I’m not seeing much evidence that people are extending the discussion there.

Here’s the listing of the panel’s participants:

503. This Is Enlightenment

3:30–4:45 p.m., 402–403, Philadelphia Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature

Presiding: Janet L. Sorensen, Univ. of California, Berkeley

Speakers: Peter de Bolla, Univ. of Cambridge

Lynn M. Festa, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

Paula McDowell, New York Univ.

Michael McKeon, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

Clifford Haynes Siskin, New York Univ.

William Beatty Warner, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

I don’t have the space to summarize or respond to every speaker, but the title of the the session echoed the title of an upcoming essay collection entitled, “This IS Enlightenment,”  which is being edited by Siskin and Warner.  Most speakers seem also to have been contributors to the collection, which brings together some of the best-known American scholars in 18th century British studies. Continue reading

so who’s going to mla?

This is just to let Long 18th readers know that Laura Rosenthal and Laura Mandell will be hosting a session on assessment that I’ll be participating in.  Here’s the information:

215. Learning from Assessment
12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Liberty Ballroom Salon A, Philadelphia Marriott
Program arranged by the MLA Office of Research
Presiding: Donna Heiland, Teagle Foundation
Speakers: Laura C. Mandell, Miami Univ., Oxford; David Samuel Mazella, Univ. of Houston; John Ottenhoff, Associated Colls. of the Midwest; Laura Rosenthal, Univ. of Maryland, College Park

Otherwise, I’d like to hear if any other readers doing 18th century or early modern stuff would like to announce their panels here.  If anyone attending wants to get together for drinks during the convention, contact me here or offline at

Happy holidays,