Keep Your Hands Off the 'Fierce Humanities'

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

August 28, 2011

The organized assessment, accountability, and productivity-measurement movement aims to focus higher education on testable outcomes that can be comparable—and potentially uniform—across courses in a given discipline at multiple institutions. The movement has nearly overwhelmed elementary and secondary education, and it includes many advocates seeking to quantify higher-education goals and outcomes as well. I am opposed to this movement and to everything for which it stands. I offer the example of the humanities at their fiercest as a telling critique of the ideology of outcomes assessment and the mechanized, uniform philosophy it invokes. In ways both subtle and not so subtle, the movement is gradually undermining academic freedom.

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Of course, teachers assess both their students and their personal success all the time, sometimes obsessively. Some assessments take place during a course, while others take years. A faculty member who teaches a freshman course in architectural design tells me her best assessment of the course's success comes four years later when she evaluates her students' senior projects. My most reliable assessment of my graduate students takes place when I look at their careers 10 years after graduation.

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." I use this somewhat overheated tone advisedly, for much of what I devote my professional life to is increasingly endangered.

From time to time I teach a graduate seminar in Holocaust poetry. Although I have not yet offered it to undergraduates, it would work as an advanced undergraduate seminar as well. What would be irresponsible—and possibly dangerous—would be to offer it as a large lecture course, seeking high enrollment to satisfy some productivity metric. The students and I need to share our responses in an intimate setting, and I need to follow the level of stress individual students display.

The purpose of the course is to help all of us confront the infinite human capacity for evil and to evaluate poetry's capacity to bear witness to it. I can track the success of the course in meeting those aims in every week's e-mails and discussions, but I will not debase either the process or the results by testing my students in that course. Nor is there a proper form of assessment beyond reflection, debate, and writing to judge how severely my students have been challenged culturally, psychologically, and intellectually by the seminar. I am interested in learning how their work and their lives have been changed, and I track that not only through continuing conversations and evaluating their final projects but also through long-term interaction.

Anne Frank is understandably applauded for asserting that people are basically good, but she did not have the opportunity to reaffirm that article of faith after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The seminar puts up for consideration the proposition that human beings are not basically anything, that they await culture, family, society, institutions, and accident to be shaped into what they are. All physically possible actions and behaviors, all arguments capable of articulation, fall within the parameters of the human. Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is prohibited. Nothing is too monstrous to wear a human face. And the seminar reinforces relentlessly how severely the music of literary witness is undone by the facts it confronts.

All this places a burden of pain on my students; it makes it harder for them to live their lives. It complicates their self-understanding and their understanding of others. It should haunt the years as they go forward. Are such outcomes to be assessed? These are extreme goals, but I relate them to suggest how fundamental are the threats to academic freedom, to faculty and student rights, and to shared governance that we see coalescing today.

Because the experience of reading hundreds of Holocaust poems is nearly unendurable, the class offers an opportunity for all of us to come together and discover the power and value of collaborative work, the work of analyzing the poems together in detail. But I have no interest in calibrating the character of our fragile classroom community. And, though the seminar is an occasion to hone skills in close reading, I would regard an effort to detach that skill from its historical context in the Holocaust as an obscenity.

There are those who urge us to seek compromise with the assessment and quantifiable-outcomes movement. Let's own it and do it right, they urge. Not for what I do. Not for what I teach. Not for what I am calling the "fierce humanities," for 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.

If you visit the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, you will walk among a large field of massive granite blocks ranged row upon row. But the stone pathways among the monoliths are not level but undulated. And the blocks themselves are not perfectly squared. They are subtly angled and off kilter. It is a monument to seriality and rationality unhinged, to uncertain knowledge, to human reason faltering and failing.

For what I teach and what I seek to do—and for the fierce humanities in general—the assessment, accountability, and quantifiable-outcomes movement is nothing less than a benighted Enlightenment fantasy of mastering the unmasterable, of quantifying what cannot be measured. If you as a teacher want to adopt its protocols, that's fine. That's academic freedom. Just don't try to impose them on me. That is academic freedom as well.

As the AAUP itself asserted in its 1915 Declaration of Principles, we must preserve the faculty right to challenge our students. That's not what the forces aligned today against us want. Some want to reduce access to higher education so as to preserve an exploited underclass that can contribute to the wealth of a few. Others want higher education itself defanged and commodified for the same reasons. We have no political party behind us supporting a more complex and unsettling view of educational aims. We who teach the fierce humanities should step forward, testify to what we do, and create an emboldened constituency for academic freedom.

Cary Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the American Association of University Professors. His most recent book is No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (New York University Press, 2010).