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It is overwhelming to wake up in the morning thinking about all these challenges. How am I supposed to do my day’s work when I’m not sure that it matters, or that it will matter years from now? It takes a lot of energy to craft a syllabus and prepare for class. As a historian, all I want is for my students to share some of my excitement and fascination with the past. Do I really care if they develop transferable skills for future employers? Honestly, no; I’m much more interested in their enjoyment of reading, thinking, and having conversations.
Gayle Greene’s Immeasurable Outcomes: Teaching Shakespeare in the Age of the Algorithm (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023) is fully aware of this context, and offers a provocation: Good teaching matters, but it can’t be measured. As Greene, a professor emerita at Scripps College, sketched out in January in The Chronicle, efforts to defend the humanities and assess their effectiveness based on predetermined and measurable criteria (including syllabi with standardized learning outcomes and attempts to measure student growth) are inadequate and irrelevant. These efforts estrange both student and professor from what really counts. Her counterargument to those who want to mechanize teaching and learning comes in the shape of an invitation to her seminar on Shakespeare.
No one has recently captured as well as Greene the experience of being a humanities professor — what we hope to do, what happens (and doesn’t) during our classes, what gives us joy, and what makes us sad. I recognized earlier versions of myself in her students. While I like to think of myself as having been a super engaged student, I was probably like one of Greene’s more typical students: relatively checked out, until, one day, something clicked. As teachers, we hope for Dead Poets Society, but the humanities classroom yields humbler triumphs: discrete moments when a mind is activated, and something connects unexpectedly. Worthy of a movie? Perhaps not, but momentous nonetheless.
These victories were hard-won in my classroom last semester. For whatever reason, I had difficulty connecting with this group of students. I generally felt that, as Greene puts it, “the class is with me, though not enthralled.” But there were also a few moments when a student who I thought was not paying attention would interject or ask a question. Something one of us in the room said, or something in the reading, provoked them. And, after talking about it, the world might look a little different for that student than it did before. These tiny moments are immeasurable and unnoticeable unless one is there and has been teaching long enough to recognize their power. A flame flickers, and just might light. Those moments come and go so fast, but I live for them.
Greene’s classroom is unpredictable, but not unplanned. It’s a place for grappling, for allowing a certain kind of freedom that moves between structure and play, and for close readings and big questions. We join Greene as she meets a new crop of students. A few of them seem to know each other, but the rest are strangers. How can this bunch of diverse people become a community? She surveys the students and makes quick judgments about them; she sees what they wear, how they look at her and each other, and how they sit. They size her up in return. Will that student in the hoodie sit there in silent resistance? Will that engineering student rise to the occasion? Greene is worried. “These are deep waters we’re sailing into — are we seaworthy?”
Students read excerpts not to understand the human condition but to learn how to identify the main theme.
“Are we seaworthy?” That captures my first day of class anxiety perfectly. “I look around the room,” Greene writes. “Will you be the kind of class that puts a spring in my step, that feeds us lines that we can work with, or will you sit dull and inert and gag us all?” On that first day all is potential. “Here we all sit,” she observes, “a room full of bristling egos, each bringing expectations, experiences, equipment to the table, all so different.”
Greene also weighs what her students will need from her: “Some will need teasing out, others need damping down. Some are brimming with confidence, others, barely scraping by.” Her classroom is small enough for each of its inhabitants to be noticed, and each of them to be touched.
She also does something I dare not do: She eschews the use of a lengthy syllabus with policies mandating this, that, or the other thing. She does not decide ahead of time what — or even how many — papers the students will write. A syllabus full of thou shalls and shan’ts, she believes, is a managerial tool, not a pedagogical one.
This is a bold stance, as professors are repeatedly informed that a syllabus is a contract: It protects us as well as them. It can be unfair for students not to know what to expect. They must assess whether they can fit our classes into their busy lives, alongside their other, sometimes more important to them, classes. “Will there be a final exam?” asks one student. “Maybe,” Greene responds, “It says on the syllabus, ‘there may be a final exam.’”
“Getting to know a class,” she observes, is “like watching a Polaroid photo come into focus: at first it’s a blur, then the features begin to take on definition, emerging in clear, sharp relief.” Stereotypes may govern first impressions, but students rarely reflect them. “It’s revelatory, really, watching real live human beings emerge from the categories we’ve cast them into,” Greene writes. And likewise she becomes more human to her students, who have themselves presumed to know her type.
Then comes the real work of the class: reading closely, discussing, parsing out meaning from words written long ago. This requires improvisation. Greene starts with the text and hopes that as she talks or reads a student will say something. The next move is to take that something, respect its idea — still in an incubation phase — and develop it. She then seeks to reconnect the idea to the text, and to try to spark another idea. Slowly the class begins to read and think together. “I have to admit, I don’t know how it happens, but I do know that it happens from time to time, that classroom magic, moments when the class is fully present, tuned in, freed, momentarily, from the pressures that weigh on us all.” Those instances when our individual moments align are rare. But every student deserves to experience that joy at least a few times in their lives.
For humanities professors, it’s about getting students “to attend to the words on the page, read the words with attention, let alone enthusiasm.” It’s particularly difficult today, she admits: “It’s a big deal even to get them to bring their books.” Education reformers have killed the joy of reading. High-stakes standards like the Common Core have forced K-12 teachers to treat reading as a technical act, not an imaginative one. Students read excerpts not to understand the human condition but to learn how to identify the main theme.
Reading skills were declining well before the Common Core, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, Greene argues, but these standards “delivered body blows to pleasure reading, narrowing what is taught to what is tested.” New technologies make it even harder for students to “get quiet, slow down, shut out other claims” and read. Students thus arrive in college reading less well. This makes majors like English, which, she writes, were once considered soft, much more challenging.
Because students “don’t develop the habit of reading, reading is hard for them, and a downward spiral sets in: The less they read, the worse they read, the less they want to read.” And so in a classroom like hers or mine, we must inspire students to read, but also recognize just how hard it is for them to do so. Reading is not a default skill that students bring to college but, like engineering, something that requires a new set of capabilities. Students will invest energy to develop these capabilities only if we make it worthwhile. And fun.
These are the stakes for the humanities today. The classroom is threatened by false understandings of what can and should be assessed, by online education, and by the world’s distractions. It needs to be protected. It is, in Greene’s words, “a site of resistance against the dehumanization that’s hollowing out our lives.” In our interconnected digital world, full of anxiety and pressure to perform and conform, where who we appear to be matters as much as who we are, a humanities seminar — that humble room with chairs around a table — offers nourishment. It reminds us that professors and students are not human capital with transferrable skills, but human beings who must live with ourselves and one another on a fragile, damaged planet.