The value of Barbara Walvoord‘s contribution to Heiland and Rosenthal’s anthology on academic assessment is spelled out in its title: “How to Construct a Simple, Sensible, Useful Departmental Assessment Process.” Before she gets on to that task, however, she clears up a few misconceptions about assessment. One is that assessment can in fact be consonant with both the values of academic departments and the requirements of external evaluators. Another is that assessment is not a tool to evaluate faculty, but rather a “systematic collection of information about student learning for the purpose of improving that learning” (336). The formula she gives is stunningly simple: set your learning goals; decide on at least one direct measure (eg, faculty evaluation of student work using detailed rubrics) and one indirect measure (eg, student surveys); and use the information to improve curricula and teaching.

What makes her article especially compelling is that she departs from that rather benign definition and pushes us to think broadly about what counts as student learning. Echoing Donna Heiland’s language, Walvoord asks, “How we might assess our most ineffable goals—qualities of mind and heart that we most want the study of literature to nurture in our students?” (336) The solution she offers is not unlike the one suggested by Heiland: write down your learning goals and device ways of measuring them. She gives a very useful list of seven goals that a literature department might decide upon, which include very specific language on the analysis of literary works, the effective and proper citation of sources, etc. Things really start to get interesting, however, when she pushes us to set learning goals that touch on qualities such as broad mindedness or the ability to tackle “Big Questions” (pertaining to selfhood, morality, and the like). Here are just two possible ways of framing those learning goals:

8. Students draw upon literature to contribute to their own search for meaning, their own engagement with the “big questions” of life and values—questions of life and death; good and evil; individual and society; power, transcendence, and virtue.

9. Students come to a new understanding of themselves, their world, and what might be at stake in the complex text before them. They dare to explore new ideas and literary experiences.

She then gives a specific example of student work that can be used to track those goals: student journals in which entries respond to specific literary texts or films from class. In the best instances, she explains, these entries will show how the student is able to go beyond a basic summary or analysis of it by:

  • relating the text or film to her own life, explaining the connections;
  • bringing in material from other readings or courses to help her think about certain “big questions”;
  • recognizing the complexity of the text or film and the “big question(s)” it poses; and
  • demonstrating a willingness to entertain new and unfamiliar perspectives, and perhaps reflect on an ongoing change in her thinking in response to the text or film.

Journals can thus be easily scored on a rubric modeled on such criteria.

As much as I enjoyed reading Walvoord’s article, I recognize in myself some resistance to goals 8. and 9. Even as they arguably capture the core of the humanistic endeavor of literary study, I can’t help but feel like there’s something so Oprah’s Book Club about them. I am almost sure that this is my own failing to recognize reflections on the personal as a cognitive exercise that belongs in the classroom. (I’m working on it!)


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