Let’s talk about assessment, and how we assess your final 599 thesis paper.

Some of you in the program are already teachers or are employed in fields of education in other ways. If you are, you probably know that American education has become overrun at every level by the current trend, “assessment.” While the basic idea of assessment, the connotation you probably get from reading that word, is something everyone in education has always done–we do it when we give you a grade for any paper or class–this new type of assessment I’m talking about is something very different, very specific, and very difficult to apply to less-linear studies such as of art, music, philosophy–and literature. This new type of assessment involves a reductionist view of what education actually is–one in which students produce “data” which we can presumably “measure” against a set of “learning outcomes” and by which we can then determine whether or not you are “learning.”

That concept works great in many disciplines (math, physics, etc) but less so in others. I and many of my colleagues teaching in the humanities have a hard time seeing your insights, explications, analyses and expressions of such as “data” which can be measured against some fixed yardstick. Many of us harbor a much more complex and varied notion of what learning actually is, of what is actually taking place over the course of your literary studies (and we believe that these things will be diverse and different for each of you, are not able to be homogenized.) Well no matter what I or any of my like-minded colleagues think about it, this type of rigid assessment is something we have to do now because our accrediting body demands it. As a result, over the past year or two we faculty have had to come up with a program assessment structure, a fixed “yardstick” to use to measure whether or not you, our graduate students, are learning, in the sense that our accreditors define the term.

We’ve tried then to appease that directive while also creating a structure that respects diversity and difference, that respects the irreducible complexity and variety of literature, literary studies, learning; that respects you. First, we devised a set of “student learning outcomes” (or SLOs) which we tried to word in a way that both focus in on the things we want you to accomplish during your MA study, while remaining unfocused enough to allow for a variety of ways that you might address (and we might assess) each outcome. So here’s what we came up with as the five SLOs for the program, meaning the things that we hope you’ll all be able to demonstrate by the time you complete the program:

  1. Students will demonstrate critical thinking and interpretive skills reflecting knowledge and comprehension of important British literary texts.
  2. Students will demonstrate critical thinking and interpretive skills reflecting knowledge and comprehension of important American literary text.
  3. Students will demonstrate critical thinking and interpretive skills reflecting an awareness of theoretical trends and criticism.
  4. Students will demonstrate knowledge of some of the literary traditions, and/or cultural situations, and /or historical eras from which the literature referenced in SLO1, SLO2, and SLO3 emerged.
  5. Students will create original research topics, research primary and secondary sources on those topics using digital databases, and produce writings on those topics which demonstrate clear grammatical prose and accurate style.

Then, we had to come up with a way to measure these five SLOs against every student to determine if students are meeting these by the the end of the MA program. We created a rubric which we now use to “assess” papers written in the program’s final course, ENGL 599 Master’s Thesis Tutorial. Mentors and second readers now complete the rubric for each 599 paper at the end of each semester. We file the completed rubrics with a copy of the thesis paper. Eventually our accreditors will come around as they periodically do and when they do we’ll point to the filing cabinet as proof that program assessment is taking place. Students can ask their 599 mentors to show them the completed rubric for their 599 papers. But hopefully your mentor will have made clear whatever strengths and weaknesses your 599 paper showed during the feedback and mentoring process of the 599 tutorial. Nothing you might see on the rubric should be a surprise.

Now because this rubric will be held against every 599 thesis paper, each of you should be aware of what it looks like now, even if you’re in your first semester here. This way you can be aware of the sorts of things we’ll be looking at in the 599 paper and can work on developing these things in your courses leading up to 599. Click here to see the rubric.