Sarah Webster Goodwin’s inspired class project

I am still making my way through the Teagle anthology on assessment, which I can’t recommend nearly enough to educators who are invested in bettering their teaching practice. Today I read “Fearful Symmetries: Rubrics and Assessment” by Sarah Webster Goodwin. You might be able to tell from her title that Goodwin is a scholar of British Romanticism, and her approach to education owes a lot to Blake’s notion of poetic or prophetic learning, which goes beyond what is known and taps into something (you guessed it) sublime or ineffable. The most engrossing part of her article detailed a particularly novel project assignment she handed a freshman class in Skidmore’s interdisciplinary Human Dilemmas seminar.

In the effort to wake up a course that had gone particularly flat, Goodwin scheduled a class visit to a gallery exhibit of works made up of everyday objects (old records, love letters) were “processed” (ground up, glued together) by the artist into sculptural objects that commented on part of the human condition or told a personal story. Following the show, Goodwin asked her students to respond both to the artist and to the semester’s course material by choosing one of the “human dilemmas” they had studied (questions regarding the nature of knowledge or the relationship between self and society, for example) and create something made up of meaningful objects from their lives that they had processed in some manner suggestive of metaphor or metonymy. She additionally asked students to write a three-page paper explaining the significance of their work.

Since the assignment was so unorthodox everyone, including Goodwin, was a bit nervous about it. In order to assuage some of their anxieties and doubts, she reassured her students that they were not expected to create “works of art. She handed them a rubric that carefully laid out the questions she would be asking of each student’s work, with respect to both the object (eg, “How well does the object express the dilemma it is meant to represent?”) and the written commentary (eg, How well does the commentary explain the object and its representation of a dilemma?”) (144). The possible answers she would give in every case are: very well; well; somewhat; not very well; not at all—each of which correspond to the letter grades A, B, C, D, and F.

Goodwin’s report on the results is quite breathtaking, and I urge you to read them for yourself in detail. She writes that her students were so committed to creating their artifacts that she had to dissuade many of them from permanently destroying ancestral artifacts and other objects of sentimental value. Even better, the presentations of those objects in class were uniformly strong. Everyone’s artifacts showed an intense engagement with the class material and an effort to relate it to their personal lives. She highlights on project in particular, where a student, Sergio, filled an old pair of shoes from high school with soil and leaves, placed them outside on the snow, and set them on fire. When he showed the class the video recording of the burning, Goodwin immediately thought of Sergio’s earlier comment on how so many people, upon learning that he was the son of Mexican migrant workers, assumed that he must have walked across the border. She also sensed that the shoe burning captured the transformative experience that he underwent after a semester of wrestling with unsettling questions. She was especially pleased at Sergio’s explanation that “‘Shoes are like knowledge. You walk in them a way, and then they wear out and you move on to a new pair'” (142). He further elaborated on this epistemological reflection in his paper, where he brought in the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce.

Goodwin notes that the written commentaries were predictably uneven (reflecting, to some extent, the diverse high school backgrounds of the entering freshman class), but that all the students met the criterion of being “original and creative” (a category on the rubric that she said would be weighted more than others), and that some even surpassed her expectations and attained something she could only refer to as a certain “Je ne sais quoi.” She confesses that she still feels a certain amount of awe looking at photographs of those works and reflects, “This project went well beyond “a certain something” in the students’ creativity; they were looking backward at who they had been, and forward at who they were becoming, in a way that seemed urgent to them” (143). Goodwin’s brilliance lies in her ability to design a project that tapped into this amalgam of creative and critical thought in every single one of her students. This reinforces the truth that, despite the disparity in their educational backgrounds, all of them were equally capable of producing thoughtful and provocative artifacts.

Goodwin also offers another rubric for teachers that might help assess the ability of assignments to foster such engagement:

  1. The topic is engaging for the faculty member as well as the students.
  2. The topic leads the students to take risks, to learn some new concepts and to synthesize familiar ones.
  3. The topic as a certain je ne sais quoi. And most importantly,
  4. The topic continues the dialogue between the teacher and the students in ways that are not fully scripted, channeled or contained.

It is a good reminder that if the assignment is not interesting to the teacher (if, in essence, we already have a good idea of the results we want or expect), then the chances are low that it will bear out as a sublime learning experience for either the teacher or the students. I am ever more encouraged to take more risks!

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