For sometime I’ve been concerned that the American Academy of Religion would venture into the waters of learning outcomes and assessment. But now one of its committees is working on this and its the topic of a leadership workshop, offered by the Academic Religions committee, at the upcoming annual meeting.
My concern is linked not just to my longstanding disagreement with some ways in which the field is understood by some of my fellow members (and thus my concern over what takes place in classrooms, curricula, and degree requirements, not to mention in our scholarship) but it’s also connected to my experience as the Chair of a Department, whose members have given some careful thought to this topic for some time (and who have successfully navigated these waters).
Regarding the first, it likely doesn’t need to be spelled out in detail that a professional body like the AAR could propose classroom goals that run counter to how a number of us understand the field and it’s purpose — the danger being that credentialing associations eager to hold local feet to national standards will likely jump at the chance to use such outcomes as an authorized yardstick by which to both measure and spank schools that do not fall in line. And this is where my experience as Chair comes in; for, in my experience, institutional success often means establishing adaptable, elastic conditions in which a thousand flowers can bloom (to borrow and re-purpose that terribly problematic phrase) — conditions in which those of us who disagree on the details can nonetheless agree on the big picture.
So while I sometimes have little optimism for how national committees do their work — I think here of what I found to be the terribly problematic statement released over a year ago by the AAR on research responsibilities — I have enough optimism to offer the following suggestion, in hopes that those on this committee will take seriously that they may very well be establishing benchmarks that some of us will have to live with.
My suggestion is simple: focus on skills; do not focus on data.
For I would hope that we all could agree that, whatever else our students learn from us, they will leave our classes knowing how to describe, compare, and analyze — whether that analysis is interpretive or explanatory.
Simple as that.
You’ll notice that I have not included define among my list of required skills — I’d prefer to include it, of course, as not just the first bit the necessary moment in the above grouping, hoping that we all could agree that learning how to determine what was worth describing, comparing, and analyzing is fundamental to our work as scholars; but I know that many colleagues feel this has already been settled for us, and that our job is simply to recognize the religious aspect of this or that thing. (“I know it when I see it.”) So I’m willing to let that one go (though it’s pretty important to how some of us practice this field) for the benefit of proposing this hopefully broad range of required tools that we help students to acquire: description, comparison, and analysis.
Add to this the no less important skills of oral debate and written presentation, and voila, we have five goals (a number that I find credentialing organizations like) that, I would hope, somehow touch upon pretty much every class that we teach — no doubt we all could come up with some assignment, some exercise, that we already do where each of these are either the implicit or explicit focus (often used in tandem, in fact). And thus we have already established a variety of ways to demonstrate our efforts (and successes) accomplishing these goals.
Leaving it entirely to the instructor or program to decide where these skills should be practiced and applied (i.e., sidestepping claims about what should be taught in our classes), such an approach to assessment has the benefit of making a strong claim for the wide applicability of what we do in our classes (instead of defining our field as unique, as previous generations tried to do) while leaving to individuals those debates over what counts as religion or the purpose for its study.
So are we here to appreciate the object we study (as one school’s assessment plan claims)? Let’s leave that to faculty members to sort out for themselves and in conversation with their students; for when approaching this from the 30,000 foot level of a national professional association, let’s at least recognize that to get to such a goal you need to be able to help undergraduate students learn to describe, compare, and analyze — and present their findings to others in a well-argued and well-written manner.
For when it comes to assessment and the role played by national organizations in setting bars over which faculty members and their Departments may have to jump, I am strongly in favor of the old saying that less is better.