All Things are Within Repair ... Almost
Of the many poems and wise sayings that might guide us in our journey together, this little poem of Emily Dickinson has much to offer:
Contrary to the somber tone of the first line, these verses describe our formidable powers of creation. Always a poet of nouns and verbs and with enormous economy of expression, Dickinson weds substantive and action to assert improvement, growth, renewal: a dynasty repaired, a system settled, a citadel dissolved, a life resown.
Impermanence, often thought to define our finitude, here liberates. For we who read the poem can, if we wish, convert these passive constructions to action. We can make it better; we can dismantle the fortress. We can adjust all we see and all we do. Only death remains beyond our control.
Great teachers embed Dickinson’s message in every moment they spend with their students. Indeed, these verses convey the great aims of education. University study, well done, prepares us for countless future encounters when affective, material, and physical health will hinge upon our ability to repair, to settle, to dissolve, to resow. The conviction that change is always possible, and the capacity and courage to undertake change, undergird everything we say and do in the University.
As if to safeguard in a permanent vessel the elixir of transformation, universities themselves have remained among our most conservative institutions. Enclosed precincts, high walls, iron gates, and sacred traditions have for centuries been the markers of University life, little altered since the Middle Ages. And society rewards this perceived stability, which also interrogates and champions change.
A 2006 survey by the American Association of University Professors found that 41.6% of Americans have “a lot of confidence” in American colleges and universities. The White House, by contrast, enjoys the confidence of 20.7% of Americans, organized religion 29.9%, and the press 10.8%. The “only public institution with a higher percentage of public support than colleges and universities was the military, with 53.9%.” Most important, public support is linked to the role universities play in promoting that very American version of change—upward social mobility.
In December 2005, Texas A&M International University completed the re-accreditation process for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). There are no prizes or honorable mentions for extraordinarily good performance, only recommendations and directives to correct deficiencies. To emerge, as we did, without comments is to complete successfully the exercise. But we are, as a result of that re-accreditation process, a profoundly altered institution.
Implementation of current standards for accreditation demanded that we institutionalize systems of accountability and disclosure, planning and measurement, which must frame both the academic and administrative environment. Such procedures are familiar to business and not difficult to attach to administrative practices. For teaching and learning, however, SACS’s new requirements are generating significant changes in universities throughout the country.
As they plan programs of study and courses, faculty must address the following questions: What do you wish your students to learn? How will you know that your students learned what you intended? How will you measure their learning? How does what you are teaching link to the program of study in your discipline, your department, your college?
In national directives widely viewed by University faculty as invasive, the new model prescribes learning outcomes for every course, clearly stated on the syllabus, together with the means of assessing those outcomes. While still free to teach whatever he or she thinks best, each professor must nonetheless align the published outcomes for each course with programmatic outcomes for an academic department.
Even more difficult than alignment of outcomes is the question of assessment. The grade a student receives is, surprisingly, no longer considered a means of assessing student learning. In the past, judgments about what a student had or had not learned derived from the grade assigned and recorded by the teacher. “If he (she) receives a B from me, that means he (she) has learned the material!”
The new model links learning to a wider audience. National achievement tests, especially in mathematics and the sciences, are helpful in benchmarking student learning within a large population and hence offer a preferred means of assessment. Student evaluations of teaching and learning are not sufficient, as they tell only what a student thinks or feels he or she has learned.
Higher education’s traditional mission, the one clearly understood and embraced by faculty, is difficult to fit into a model structured around outcomes and assessments. And yet the visionary, often elusive goals of a liberal arts education remain at the core of traditional University curricula: to nurture an informed and compassionate electorate; to arm graduates with the twin capacities to think critically and act strategically; to awaken minds for a lifetime energized by curiosity and a love of learning; to preserve the knowledge we have received; to increase our understanding of ourselves and the world.
Modern institutions, especially public ones, must pursue a more complex charge. The training and credentialing of professionals able to consume goods and services and pay taxes is now central to University study. And though it will perdure as an inescapable component of all study, assessment—its role and its bounds—remains the subject of strenuous debate. We can assess the professional competence of an accountant or a nurse or a teacher. How can we know, except at the end or in unexpected moments, whether or not University study enhanced our ability to think, to act, to live?
One might easily conclude that the opposing demands to change and to hold fast, and then to assess and to explain, present universities an impossible devoir. Politicians, the business community, and most citizens expect us to lead the way for improvement in public education, to address social concerns, to foster research for advances in science and medicine, to promote historical preservation and urban renewal, and to encourage rural development.
Emily Dickinson summarized our freedom to act, which is also our task. Repair, settle, dissolve, resow. Only death continues beyond our reach.
Ray M. Keck III