I’ve been delighted to take up my new full-time job as educational technologist at Boston University. It’s been great to use my background in scholarship and teaching in a way that, unlike faculty work, actually makes a living.
My specialty as a technologist has been to help faculty adopt ePortfolios – electronic collections of student and faculty work, typically with the intent of making student learning visible to an outside audience. There are a variety of purposes to ePortfolios, but one of the most common is assessment – figuring out whether students are really learning what they’re supposed to be learning.
Educational institutions have come to emphasize assessment more and more in the past decade. Assessment is sometimes resisted in the humanities because of an emphasis on quantification – often with good reason, as in the case of the UK’s catastrophic RAE and its relentless insistence on quantity over quality of scholarship. But there’s no reason for humanists to be opposed to assessment in principle. We always claim that our students come out of our classes better than they were when they began – better writers, more careful readers, more thoughtful, more critical, more knowledgeable, more engaged citizens, whatever. If they didn’t improve in some such ways, there would be no point in our teaching them. And surely at least some such improvements can be observed, even if we resist attaching numbers to that improvement beyond the grades we give. Moreover, some of those who have tried to observe whether students do indeed improve in these ways in their college classes – notably Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa – have found that in many cases, in the US at least, they don’t. This fact, if true, would be disastrous, considering that US students typically go tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for their educations. Surely we cannot merely assume that this is money well spent. And so assessment of some sort seems to me quite a valuable task.
Working professionally with assessment has led me to think more about the question: how do we assess philosophy? It is this question, I think, that may have contributed the most to the notorious divide between analytic and “continental” philosophy. Continue reading