On (not) accounting for “intensities” in student learning

Like most liberal arts and sciences faculty at most American colleges and universities right now, I am asked, seemingly constantly, to justify and account for what I do in languages and metrics acceptable to administrators and, indirectly, to external constituencies like state legislators and members of governing boards. Typically, the preferred measurements are quantitative and extensive: number of students enrolled at the university, number of students enrolled in course sections, number of students enrolled in a major. Assessment of student learning is sometimes more nuanced than that, but still revolves around collective measurements and on drawing out generalizations regarding what is happening in the classroom (not to mention keyed to pre-determined priorities which may or may not have been articulated by teaching faculty).

As someone who works in the qualitative and interpretive areas of the social sciences, I am troubled by the biases in how my “success” or “failure”, or my field’s worth to the university, is most commonly measured. In one sense I am frustrated because by these measures, I often end up lacking, and this, of course, fosters anxiety about my position at the university. Most terms I have at least one upper division course that falls short of enrollment targets and I then have to spend time and energy justifying the offering. Similarly, while, historically, the geography faculty teach a significant number of students as part of the general education curriculum and play an important service function for a number of other programs, we tend not to attract a large number of majors, and there are very few students who would report that they decide to attend Western specifically for the geography department. So, yes, on one level, I have a material interest in how and what the university defines what matters and what doesn’t.

On the other hand, I am troubled by the nature of these choices because I think that there are crucial aspects of the college experience for students, in particular, that are missed by the focus on numbers and generalization.

To provide on example, I have a student this term from my introductory cultural geography course who clearly found our discussion of the body, sex, and gender to be revelatory, maybe even life-changing. I base this judgment on what I’ve seen from this individual in their writing and in their responses to routine learning assessments in class.

Maybe this student will take this experience to mean that they should major in geography or, at least, that they should take more geography courses. As much as I would love for either of these eventualities to come true, my experience tells me that the former is highly unlikely and the latter, while more likely, will largely depend on what the student’s program of study ends up being rather than on what they find natively interesting. The salient point here is that this student’s experience is unlikely to be captured by two of the most commonly referenced measures of success or worth at my university, namely, number of majors and course enrollments.

Furthermore, this student’s experience in my class may, from an institutional perspective, actually benefit programs other than my own. Maybe they become a gender studies minor or choose to focus their studies in their major on the body. Maybe they connect what they learned in my class to a class in some other department and for whatever reason choose that field as their major. Maybe this student defines their future education, job and career paths around these kinds of topics. Or maybe this experience simply enriches their understanding of who they are what they do in the world. I’d be happy with any of these outcomes, but the way success and worth are counted at my university, faculty are actually given an interest to compete with each other over students like this rather than encouraging the student to pursue their interests and passions in ways that make the most sense or appeal to them.

There is a chance that some part of this student’s experience could be captured by assessment of departmental learning outcomes, but as chance would have it, we were looking at an outcome this year that prompted me to pick a different area of the course for my contribution. In any case, even if that had not been the case, what I am writing about here is not whether or what students learn, but what’s meaningful about that learning. This student doesn’t stand out for how well they learned what I intended, but for the intensity of their response to the material.

Students are affected in different ways by what they do in their classes. Because so many enroll in my courses without really understanding what they are going to be learning, I frequently have students who report some kind of transformative experience as a result of having taken a course. Sometimes this stops at, “Wow, I had no idea that this is what geographers do,” but in other cases, more rare, but still notable, the response is more profound. I also often have students leave my courses having discovered a love of comics or a new appreciation of film. Needless to say, our departmental learning outcomes aren’t designed to anticipate these kinds of individual responses to material.

More to the point, no one in university administration is asking me or my colleagues to try to gauge these kinds of intensities, or to “count” these qualitative aspects of student learning when demonstrating what we do and why we matter. Fill slots. Acquire majors. Demonstrate what students, in aggregate, are learning. These, and especially the first two, are what drives decisions about faculty lines and non-tenure track hires. I’m not going to suggest that this will be true for everyone, but I would not be surprised if, for many students at schools like mine (smaller state schools with an undergraduate teaching focus and, nominally at least, a liberal arts mission), the most significant course or courses they take, over the course of their lifetimes, are just as likely to be from the general education offerings they took as from the more specialized coursework in their majors. Service like that to the university is seemingly discounted by every measure that matters in terms of material resource allocation.

Fundamentally, students are no longer being treated as students, but as tuition checks, and higher education has been reduced to a product. Departmental faculty are valued according to how much product they produce in the form of degrees conferred. Any other reason or value for what a university does is treated as frippery by just about anyone with immediate power to shape the institution.