In my “about” page I reveal that I am an assessment (not a dirty word) enthusiast. This may fill my two or three readers with confusion or dismay. So perhaps I ought to explain myself. Yesterday Melissa Dennihy published a piece on “How to Talk About Assessment in Faculty Job Interviews” in Inside Higher Education that may help me do so. It’s good. Very good. I suggest you read it; if you’re spending any time here at all, it can only mean that you care about this, too, or are motivated to try.
In the piece, Dennihy provides advice to job seekers about how to handle possible questions about their experience with assessment. I would emphasize the last three items she mentions– transparency, communication, and failure– as particularly important to me. Over the past several years, as I have worked to develop a coherent and consistent curriculum on the language and civilization sides of Agnes Scott’s Classics program, I have become increasingly transparent about the assessment I do. On syllabi. In assignments. Through rubrics. With students. With my departmental colleagues. With college-wide colleagues. Communication is key, and it is a two-way street, or maybe more like Little Five Points down the road. Involving students as well as colleagues in discussions of learning goals is essential to success, and to avoiding or improving upon failure.
To explain what I mean, let me provide an example of how I have been using assessment to rectify what I saw as a bit of a failure: our students were arriving at their capstone experience, our senior seminar, not fully prepared to develop a sophisticated and well-supported research project. I asked myself why. I looked at the range of courses they usually take before arriving at that point. And I decided to reverse engineer the majors to ensure sufficient preparation for that experience (and, of course, the world beyond). I made specific changes to provide students with multiple rounds of practice locating and assessing primary sources and their value; reading, digesting, and redeploying scholarly approaches to problems in the field; crafting and presenting potential research topics and thinking about how to pursue them; and developing those topics or others in subsequent courses. This has led to initial primary and secondary source exercises in all third semester Latin and Greek courses and 100-level courses in English. It has led to “theory and practice” exercises and research proposals in fourth semester Latin and Greek courses and 200-level courses in English. It has led to the development of such proposals in advanced Latin and Greek and in 300-level courses in English. It has also led to improved senior seminar projects– more clearly defined, more manageable, better supported, and better written– and to greater coherence and consistency in the program as a whole.
In the big picture, though, these evidence-based changes that have benefitted Classics majors and minors have, I think, benefitted the much more numerous ranks of students who take all of our courses. They now have a clearer idea of what the program prioritizes and why, how we help students reach the department’s learning goals, and how a range of approaches from our Classics faculty can support these goals. Ideally, both our program as a whole and individual student learning have improved, with individual faculty autonomy and creativity still of critical importance. If I write another post– and again, don’t hold your breath– perhaps I’ll tackle that topic: how to promote and autonomy within a framework of shared goals, and how to assess its success.