April 25, 2012
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This post is a revision of this one: Classroom Love.
What do your students know and how do they know it?
Giving tests, like the comprehensive final exams that college students everywhere will take in the coming days, just doesn’t cut it anymore. This is the age of “assessment” in higher education, in which administrators and accreditors expect measurable, reportable ”outcomes.”
Having colonized institutions like medicine and government services, the űber-instrument of outcomes-assessment made its way into K-12 instruction in the early 2000s. So if ”assessment” sounds a little like No Child Left Behind for undergraduates that’s because assessment is pretty much No Child Left Behind for undergraduates. In 2005 Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, commissioned a panel on the future of higher education which concluded that colleges and universities should “measure and report meaningful student learning outcomes.” This information, the panel said, should be made available to the public and ought to be “a condition of accreditation.”
Academics and administrators have been hashing this out ever since, arguing with an educational philosophy/mandate born of Bush-era politics (not a little irony here: leftist academics toeing the conservative line on education) and arguing with each other about whether, how, and when to implement it. You want Josh and Katie to be critical thinkers? Of course. Prove it, then. Whether your subject is Irish Poetry or Microbiology or the Sociology of Gender, show us how you will test and assess the skill of critical thinking (and a host of others) in your students.
Reputable counter-commissions and studies that call into question some of the fundamentals of outcomes-assessment have had little influence but they raise interesting concerns. For example, The Study of Undergraduate Learning at the University of Washington determined that writing and critical thinking are not generic skills but rather are “mediated by the disciplines.” It turns out that such skills are learned and applied differently in, say, chemistry than they are in Christian Ethics. The upshot? The attempt to measure broad competencies–assessment’s clarion call–is futile.
The root cause of this push toward assessment (from kindergarten to college) is economic: how will America compete in a sophisticated global economy if we aren’t producing graduates with certain measurable, marketable skills? How will we contribute to advances and innovations in science, technology, and industry if schools can’t adequately demonstrate what their students are learning?
Never mind that No Child Left Behind has been abandoned in secondary education. We have another metaphor, another instrument for measuring achievement and outcomes: Race to the Top. It is telling, though not surprising, that learning in western democracies is almost universally conceived of as a competition. Republican or Democrat, every modern president’s plea for overhauling America’s educational system–no matter how lofty or flowery the rhetoric–comes down to this dreary rationale: we must improve our schools for the sake of capitalism.
All this can weigh heavy on a teacher’s heart. Even when the learning outcomes have been “embedded” in the syllabus and the exam questions have been reworked to account for required ”broad competencies,” we are still left with one of the foundational truths of classroom pedagogy: that the very nature of the teaching/learning enterprise–instructing, hearing, comprehending–is necessarily partial and incomplete. Professors can never say all that needs to be said; students can never hear all that needs to be heard. Failure is an inescapable part of the process. But this kind of failure is morally instructive; it reveals that education is less about mastery (and the instruments deemed necessary to measure it) and more about the kind of humility required to be a life-long pursuer of truth.
Finally, assessing the competencies of our students doesn’t address how it is we’re supposed to love them. Indeed, “loving the students you teach” is unintelligible speech within the discourse of “learning outcomes.” But good teachers come to love their students (which doesn’t mean that they always like them) because the art of teaching is an act of giving oneself away without reservation or embarrassment, of regularly making a fool of oneself for the sake of a subject one loves unequivocally. When you do this enough, the love can’t help but spill onto the other people in the room. If you’re lucky, once in a while those other people love you back.
Presidents and panels, administrators and accreditors don’t seem interested in measuring this kind of outcome. At least we can be thankful for that.
April 18, 2012
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It’s the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s choral work, Chichester Psalms. A boy soprano (or a countertenor), in the “role” of the shepherd boy, David, sings in Hebrew the opening verses of Psalm 23. He is accompanied–sparingly, fittingly–by the harp. The first several measures are tender but not tentative; filled with sentiment, but without sentimentality (this per Bernstein’s instructions). When the women’s voices take over the text at גַּם כִּי־אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת . . . (Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .) there’s an ethereal echo-canon effect. This part of the movement, when executed well, is something sublime.
The tranquil beauty is then violently interrupted by the tenors and basses intoning the first four verses of Psalm 2: לָמָּה, רָגְשׁוּ גוֹיִם; וּלְאֻמִּים יֶהְגּוּ־רִיק . . . (Why do the nations rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?). It’s a manic few measures (allegro feroce)–abrupt, angular, agitated–with frenzied orchestral accompaniment.
But gradually, unobtrusively, and, according to the vocal score, ”blissfully unaware of threat,” the women return to Psalm 23: תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי,שֻׁלְחָן נֶגֶד צֹרְרָי (Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies . . . ). Underneath them, though, in the men’s percussive whispers, the turmoil continues. Even when the solo voice completes the last phrase of the 23rd Psalm and the women repeat its opening line, the final few measures of the movement belong to the instruments who, misterioso, recall the disturbing interruption of Psalm 2. The movement ends, as Bernstein himself once said, “in unresolved fashion, with both elements, faith and fear, interlocked.”
I sang the Chichester Psalms this past Sunday as part of a reunion concert at the college where I teach (and from which I graduated many years ago). The event honored Dr. Larry Parsons, the school’s long-time choral director and professor of music who is retiring this year. The Bernstein piece is a favorite of his and it was both musically satisfying and emotionally bittersweet to sing it one last time under his direction.
But I also sang the work with other thoughts in mind. On Friday I learned of the death of a dear friend, a woman of such light and loveliness that, in the years I have known her, she seemed to exude a kind of palpable joy at the sheer giftedness of being alive. She was playful and kind, compassionate and magnanimous–always sensitive to the needs and struggles of others. She was a person of deep faith, possessed of a fierce integrity and with little patience for apathy, idleness, or easy answers. In all my knowing of her she was a seeker of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
But in recent months my friend faced serious struggles of her own. Old demons returned. Important relationships were lost. And despite having given so much encouragement to others through the years, she could not receive the needed strength and support from those who loved her and who reached out to her. She was broken and in despair. She felt alone. I know that, till the end, she sought to hold onto belief, but in her death, ”in unresolved fashion, both elements, faith and fear, interlocked.”
And yet unresolved tension is not the end of things.
The coda of the third and final movement of the Bernstein is the first verse of Psalm 133:
הִנֵּה מַה־טּוֹב, וּמַה־נָּעִים– שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם־יָחַד.
Hineh mah tov, Umah na’im, Shevet aḥim Gam yaḥad
Behold how good, and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity.
By including it, Bernstein intended it, he said, as “a prayer for peace.” But it is a prayer born of pain and struggle. Bernstein conveys this musically in the opening of the third movement with its tonal chords, dissonant semitones, and minor 9th chords. Conflict and irresolution abound. After this menacing dissonance and before the final coda, Psalm 131 is sung in its entirety. The musical tension is relieved and this gentle chorale, sung in rare 10/4 time, prefigures the final prayer that all might “dwell together in unity.”
In broader terms, the entire work might be said to represent the bringing together of the seemingly irreconcilable: everything from minor seconds and major sevenths to Bernstein’s own eclectic musical styles to gutteral Hebrew texts set for an English cathedral choir. That Bernstein wrote the Chichester Psalms in the mid 1960s with that era’s cultural upheaval and racial tension only makes the prayer for peace more poignant.
But on Sunday–a day that resonates with resurrection hope and with the promise of rest and renewal for all of creation–I sang it for my friend. I offered a prayer for her peace, that she might now dwell in unity, the tension of faith and fear finally resolved in her weary, restless spirit. I pray that she now rests eternally in God, that light perpetual shines on her, and that she knows as never before that in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
April 3, 2012
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Reposted from Holy Week 2010.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Is it any wonder that since the beginning of the Jesus movement Christians have been suspected of doing strange things when they gather for their sacred rituals?
Cannibalism was the charge leveled against the earliest Christians: “What do you mean you eat the body and blood of your Lord?” incredulous civil authorities demanded of those first underground believers. Their understandable horror is lost on us.
This ”fellowship meal” that Christians continue to share (sounds so benign, doesn’t it?) is rooted in denial, betrayal, a disciple’s suicide, a Messiah’s death, the body and blood of this crucified Messiah, and . . . dirty feet.
Jesus gave the mandatum (from which we derive “Maundy”)–”to wash one another’s feet”–after he showed his disciples how to do it. This act of humility, he said, is not peripheral but integral to life in the reign of God. It is servant leadership learned in the doing of it.
With his enthusiasm characteristically misplaced, Peter wants the full-service wash: “my hands and head also, please!” But Peter’s foolishness provides the opportunity for Jesus to prefigure another friend’s imminent betrayal: “you are clean, though not all of you.”
Peter’s ignorant exuberance. The silent treachery of Judas. This fugitive community gathered for the last meal of a soon-to-be-condemned state criminal. Strange beginnings for a strange community, indeed.
In the midst of misunderstanding and a friend’s double-cross, Jesus sinks down to the lowliest of places to reveal not only the nature of servant leadership in the Kingdom but the very meaning of his death. Into the chaos and confusion of human existence the God of heaven stoops to dwell; into deceit and double-dealing, into the misery, fraud, and loneliness of our small lives–into this and more the Word became incarnate, and lived among us “full of grace and truth.” And the life he lived led to the death he died.
In a video segment of the popular Bible study, Jesus in the Gospels, South African theologian and Methodist bishop Peter Storey notes how fond Christians are of saying–especially during Holy Week perhaps–that “God sent Jesus to die on the cross.” But that way of putting it, says Storey, robs Jesus of his humanity, his capacity for moral choice; Jesus, on this view, is little more than a programmed robot, marching passively to a preordained fate.
God sent Jesus into the world not to die, Storey reminds us, but to love. And to those who tried to fence his love in, whose empty legalism was exposed, whose very social order was threatened–to those it became clear that to stop his loving they would have to destroy him. And so they did.
But on the night before he died, Jesus spent his love–his profligate, prodigal love–in an act of domestic servitude, washing the feet of his mystifed family of followers. This act of love was wasted on a dunce like Peter and a scoundrel like Judas and from this we know that it is wasted, even now, on cons and failures like us.