Blog from February, 2008

At Academe Online, James Berger, professor of English at Hofstra University, has posted A Mission Counterstatement, which he characterizes as "an intellectual defense against the mission statement-outcomes assessment ideology." While I share Berger's distate for the way higher education has adopted various forms of corporate-speak in its efforts to communicate its purposes internally and to the public, I find his argument anything but "intellectual." In fact, it's anti-intellectual not only in form but in spirit.

What I mean by calling it anti-intellectual in form is just that it's a bad argument. Berger believes that the "current emphasis on mission statements and outcomes assessment is part of a political struggle over the status of the humanities. It's part of an effort to denigrate our values and methods." The methods of social science, he goes on to explain, are fundamentally different from those of the humanities. Whereas "the social scientist stands (or believes he or she stands) outside his or her data sample," in literary analysis the "scholar is always and necessarily implicated in the thing he or she studies." Setting aside for the moment the question whether all social scientists would recognize themselves in this characterization, consider the conclusion to which Berger's distinction leads. It isn't, as he seems to suppose, that outcomes assessment is a fraud, only that it can't be applied to the humanities. That leaves a considerable portion of the curriculum - well, most of it, in fact - where assessment might still be supposed to have some relevance. The inapplicability of assessment to the humanities - accepting for the moment that it's indeed inapplicable - isn't an argument against the validity or usefulness of assessment, much less an argument that assessment is part of a nefarious plot to turn the academy into Microsoft with dorms.

But Berger's argument is bad for other, perhaps more interesting reasons, too. "The knowledge conveyed by literature does not employ abstract models," he writes. This would come as a surprise to novelists, poets, dramatists, screenwriters, and so on interested in abstractions, whether moral, political, or scientific. It's also neither here nor there with respect to whether abstract models might be of some use in understanding what and how students learn - about literature as well as other things. But from asserting that literature itself conveys no knowledge of abstract models, he goes on (it appears) to argue that abstract knowledge of literature is unattainable. Narrative in particular is proof against modeling (don't quit your day jobs, narratologists!). But it's odd that this hostility to abstraction finds expression in so many abstract claims about the nature of literature and literary study. ("Literary study tries to understand what literature is and does...Literature imagines alternatives to the world as it is...Even the result of randomness in a literary text is the result of a decision by an author...Literature depicts lived experience.")

What's even more odd is the feeling one may have, reading Berger, of being transported back in time to the theory-wars of the 1970s and 80s, when impressionist and formalist literary critics who imagined themselves to be practicing an art neither requiring nor informed by theory inveighed against structuralist, feminist, Marxist, deconstructionist, and other systematic efforts to think in abstract terms about texts, readers, and the relationship between them. In practicing the occult art of "sensitive" close reading, all those traditionalist professors of English had turned themselves into a kind of literary priesthood. The theorists threatened to rob their practice of its mystery. It's Berger's similar attempt to protect the mystery of humanistic expression, scholarship, and learning that I have in mind when I say that his argument is anti-intellectual in spirit.

At the end of the day, though, all this is beside the point because Berger is working with an understanding of outcomes assessment apparently dervied from nothing more than the particular assessment initiative on his own campus - which, for all one knows, he may not have fully understood.

Good outcomes assessment in literature involves doing what we've always done in evaluating student work but doing it in ways that make our thinking more explicit to our students and ourselves. Like the anti-theorists of a quarter-century ago, we're only deceiving ourselves if we believe that our evaluation of our students' work isn't informed by a theory of what consitutes good, mediocre, and poor performance. Assessment simply asks us to (1) spell out the theory in some simple descriptions (e.g., "uses appropriate evidence to support conclusions," "provides necessary transitions between ideas") so that students understand what we expect of them, (2) check our students' work regularly against these descriptions so that we can see just where they're succeeding or failing to implement the theory of good performance we're teaching them, and (3) feed the information we get from this into discussions among ourselves about how to improve the likelihood that more students will succeed more of the time.

It's easy to advertise that our academic programs - whether in the humanities, the social sciences, or elsewhere - do this, that, or the other thing for our students. Be an English major! You too can learn to unweave the woven object that is the text! You too can learn to read critically!

Advertising makes the corporate world go round.

By contrast, what makes the academic world go round is theorizing practice and making practical decisions based on evidence.

Assessment is the opposite of advertising.

On the Modern Language Association's website, Gerald Graff, 2008 President of the MLA, explains that he has "become a believer in the potential of learning outcomes assessment, which challenges the elitism of the Best-Student Fetish by asking us to articulate what we expect our students to learn - all of them, not just the high-achieving few - and then holds us accountable for helping them learn it." He goes on to assert that "By bringing us out from behind the walls of our classrooms, outcomes assessment deprivatizes teaching, making it not only less of a solo performance but more of a public activity."

Update: Graff's essay is also available at It will be interesting to watch reader reaction as reflected in the page comments. Why not record your own reactions right here? Just click "Add Comment" to attach your thoughts about Graff's essay to this blogpost. (You must be logged in to add a comment.)