Assessing English

I just spent two days at a WASC-sponsored conference on “Teaching and Assessing the English Major.”  WASC is our institution’s accrediting agency, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, so we have to listen to what they say.  A WASC review is a six-year process culminating in an evaluation of “educational effectiveness” which largely derives from an analysis of the program assessment measures in place throughout the campus.  This conference was the first discipline-specific assessment workshop offered by WASC.  Clearly they think there is something lacking in the enthusiasm and expertise of English departments for assessment.

We were supposed to send a team with a specific project to work on.  However, for the most part the presenters presented to us.  When they gave us time to talk at our tables, it was usually for only five minutes, which meant that one person got half way though presenting an issue, and then we were interrupted.

I came to the conference with more enthusiasm for assessment than when I left.  Originally, I saw program assessment as a simple, commonsensical endeavor based on four questions:

  • What are we trying to do?
  • How are we doing it?
  • How do we know that we are doing it?
  • How can we improve?

The first question is answered with a series of outcome statements about what the department wants its students to be and do when they complete the program.  The second is about pedagogy and curriculum.  The third is about data gathering and analysis, and the fourth is about applying what was discovered in that analysis to address any gaps or problems that were revealed.   Faculty are generally very focused on the content and effectiveness of the courses that they teach.  They don’t often think about the cumulative effect of the entire program on the student.  An assessment plan that inspires regular conversations about the design of the whole program  and its results will improve the coherence of a department markedly.  It just makes sense.

The WASC representative at the conference stated that WASC is primarily interested in program assessment, not course assessment, and not assessment of individual instructors.  However, much of the material presented at this conference was about course assessment and student self-assessment.  One of the handouts was a chart that every instructor at Alverno College is required to fill out for every course, listing the mission statement of the college, the major outcomes, the course outcomes, and the plan for assessing those outcomes in the course.  This goes far beyond setting some goals, gathering some data, and discussing it at a yearly retreat.  This is putting the plan and the outcomes in the professor’s face on an almost daily basis.

I don’t know for a fact, but they probably put these outcomes on every syllabus too.  Words that are simply duplicated everywhere become invisible.  As scholars of language, we should know that.

I think it is important to define outcomes and have conversations at the program level, where such conversations do not usually occur, and leave instructors the freedom to teach as they will.  If program outcomes become too rigid and ubiquitous, they will become the material of an elegant cage.  Higher education used to be a refuge for brilliant eccentrics.  If we drive them all away we will have an institution of competent drones.

I can imagine a future in which universities create a non-assessment college in order to attract the best students and faculty.

Our department is fairly well along in developing an assessment plan.  We have nine outcomes, with rubrics for four of them, and a capstone course that helps students develop a portfolio of their work over their career in the program.  They collect papers from previous courses, write a new critical paper, and write a reflective essay about how they have grown in the program.  We also do an exit interview.  We have been assessing two outcomes a year, and developing one new rubric per year.  This year the new one is “Research Skills.”

I do think that English departments must change to survive.  People forget that English departments are only about 100 years old.  What can appear, can disappear. The traditional program covers literature, as they say, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf,  divided into historical periods, sometimes with genre and major author courses.   Faculty specialize in specific periods and authors.  That coverage model is severely threatened now because departments are so understaffed.  Professors are routinely asked to work up courses outside of their specialties.  The coverage is thinner, and the quality less.

However, is coverage of traditional periods, genres, and canonical authors really what English majors need to have?  Most departments also include practical disciplines such as linguistics, and rhetoric and composition.  We train language teachers and writing teachers.  Faculty in all disciplines agree that students should speak and write English well.  In fact, they think that is what English departments do, the primary purpose.  Perhaps they are right.

Our nine current outcomes are heavily weighted toward coverage of period and genre knowledge.  However, when we designed the capstone course, we realized that there would be gaps in coverage, so we focused on interpretive strategies.  The current instructor for the capstone assigns works by Italo Calvino which the students have never read before, and asks them to use what they have learned from the program to interpret these texts and write about them.  I think we are on to something here.  We are assessing the intellectual tool kit that our students have acquired from the program, and their ability to use these tools to analyze new texts.

Focusing on interpretive strategies instead of coverage is necessary in the reduced circumstances we find ourselves in today.  However, I think that these skills are also more marketable for students.  Necessity may have pushed us in a productive direction.  In order to complete this transition, I think we need to revisit our outcomes statements to reflect this new emphasis.

But let’s leave some room for eccentricity and brilliance and some holes in the elegant cage.  We are, after all, the English Department.

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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3 Responses to Assessing English

  1. Jim says:

    Thoughtful comments. I have to go to the upcoming psychology version, so thanks for the preview.

  2. Carol says:

    I agree with you: At the conclusion of the workshop, I had much less interest in and enthusiasm for assessment than before entering the Marriott. It was, however, worth it to have time to talk with my Cal Poly friends.
    Thanks for the post.

    • guitarsophist says:


      I think Aristotle was right. Moderation in all things, including outcomes assessment. I also think that Kenneth Burke was right in saying that humans are “rotten with perfection.” The goal of all of this is the perfect course, the perfect program, the perfect university. In aiming at this perfection, we achieve only mediocrity, because as all good teachers know, the most powerful, life-changing teaching happens in the kairotic moment when we encounter the right student and say or do the right thing because it is somehow there. The perfect course is a closed course where everything is known from the beginning. The perfect course is a teaching machine, an indoctrination device, a mechanism of intellectual management.

      Instead of “I think, therefore I am,” we have “I act, I assess, I am.” This is not going boldly.

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