In the college classroom, teaching is often framed in terms of objectives. Students master sets of content or skills while professors provide the necessary instruction and support. Professors design tests and assignments that allow students to show how they have progressed in relation to course goals.
Last week, a group of SUNY Fredonia professors who taught in a Books@Work program for staff at the Chautauqua Institution gave a roundtable presentation on their experience at the SUNY Fredonia Teaching & Learning Conference. All of the professors, in one way or another, remarked on the value of teaching in a context without the usual objectives around content and skills mastery. One professor described Books@Work seminars as “less outcome-driven than a college seminar”; another added that it was challenging – but exciting – to “talk about a book without learning outcomes” to guide the discussion. Yet another explained that he was “miles outside of his comfort zone” – which is why he found the experience so valuable. Still another professor said that, without the structure of a set of objectives, she wasn’t sure what she “taught” or what the participants “learned.” But about teaching in Books@Work, she said,“I would love to be who I was there in my classroom.”The participants and the professors learned a great deal in spite of the apparent lack of learning objectives. Which is not to say that there were no learning outcomes. In exit interviews, we have amassed a great deal of evidence that significant kinds of learning happens in Books@Work seminars.
The larger question then, isn’t whether anyone learns anything in a literature seminar, but what it is that our culture and the teaching professions have come to classify and value as learning. The typical evaluation tools in college classrooms don’t measure all the other things students learn through challenging material, difficult conversations and interactions with each other. And when that other learning is not evaluated, professors are not given much encouragement or credit for teaching it.
Part of the magic of Books@Work seminars is the freedom from objectives and outcomes that gives professors an opportunity to re-discover their core motives for teaching. And the participants are learning. Participants gain a richness of vision, a new relationship to texts, deeper social relationships and other outcomes that are often implicit in course objectives but secondary to the goals of traditional classroom instruction.Objectives keep professors honest by ensuring that classroom activities are aligned with the evaluation of students. In our current climate of what many have called overassessment, however, concerns about student performance on educational outcomes can distract stakeholders from seeing the other kinds of value that come out of a college classroom. Learning to encounter difference, or have difficult conversations, or see more complexity in the world shouldn’t necessarily be evaluated through tests or essays. But these outcomes often receive less attention and support in a college classroom because they aren’t evaluated. Giving them the space they deserve in a Books@Work seminar re-energizes professors as it enriches participants’ lives.
Image: Gerrit Dou, An Evening School, c. 1655-57, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, [Public Domain] via metmuseum.org