Assessing Assessment

Does the move toward assessment provide support for the Humanities and Social Sciences or threaten them? Cary Nelson, the final speaker in our series on the Relevance of the Humanities and Social Sciences, published a provocative essay in which he described the move towards assessment as a threat to the “fierce humanities,” which he describes as “teaching that seeks not merely learning, but unlearning, that seeks to unsettle knowledge and assumptions in ways more fundamental than any exam can or should test.”

In this essay, Nelson uses a course on Holocaust poetry to illustrate the unsettling that he sees as an important goal in his teaching, forcing students to confront human potential for evil. Such a course relies on the intimacy of a seminar that creates a space for students and faculty to struggle together. Tying his opposition to quantitative assessment to other issues of relevance, including the employability debate, he asserts, “Some of the most powerful intellectual and emotional experiences of my life have come in classroom discussions, in moments when my students and I together struggled with difficult questions and the impossibility of finding definitive answers. I am neither interested in having nor willing to have legislators, administrators, and corporate flacks reduce such experiences to job training or to quantifiable or testable ‘results.’”

Nelson’s assertions provide an important contrast to my post last week, which linked to an article suggesting that quantitative assessment demonstrated the educational value of the traditional liberal arts. The question of the relevance of these disciplines has significant bearing on responses to assessment.