Assessing or Not Assessing

I am lucky to have had as many jobs as I've had for as long as I've had them given how often I break the rules. This week for instance when I was free of the need to give a final exam, or, I should say, having freed myself of the "need," I took the morning off and drove out to a nearby flea market that, lately, seems to be open daily. I go there usually on Saturdays in the morning, but after a long, grueling eight weeks of condensed teaching, or my scatter-brained version of it, I had to open the pressure valve. For me, this is done a few ways--walking, talking (to others or to myself), digging, decorating, washing, writing, or searching through documents, digital or paper, and, most satisfying of all, through handling discarded items. Flea markets are the perfect answer to my neurotic sensibilities, my compulsion to handle, meditate on, and own things from the past.

Like right now as I write this at my kitchen table, which yesterday I envisioned moving to the living room under the front window so that I might turn this end of the kitchen into a library since my growing collection of books is overtaking the living room, I am looking at and am comforted by an antique wooden caddy that I got for $1 a year ago at a yard sale given by a woman who let me have it so cheaply because she said she'd gotten too old for the junk business. Was she passing the baton to me? I'd like to think so even though I am fifteen years shy of retirement.

If I knew what was good for me, I'd keep my eccentricities to myself, but no. A couple of weeks ago, as I prepared a lesson on. Hm, what was it exactly? Well, it was I think on consciousness or caring. I'd been picking up on and somewhat frustrated by my students' lack of compassion for the conditions of others, especially the poor. They'd explained to me early on that they'd witnessed too much abuse of social welfare to have sympathy for most people taking advantage of it. Over the course of the module, a few students had adjusted those early views; some were stopped in their tracks for instance after learning that child labor is still a problem throughout the world including in North Carolina where kids possibly as young as seven years old are still being used to harvest tobacco. But, by and large, I continued to feel that most of the students just wanted to have my class over with. There were plenty of days where they yearned, five minutes after my arrival, only to return to their rooms to sleep.

So, what I had in mind two weeks ago when I brought to class in two shopping bags thirty "antique items" including scarves made in Japan, leather-soled Florsheim men's shoes, tiny wooden spools of cotton thread, a maroon and taupe polyester dress that was my great aunt's and a plum-colored silk dress that was her daughter's, I was hoping not only to get my young charges in touch with the past, I was hoping to get them in touch with themselves, in touch, that is, with their own senses, predispositions, blindnesses, and unfortunate judgments. I suspected that there might be a relationship with not caring about history or with books and not caring about people even. One girl, for instance, whom I passed a book that I thought beautiful because of its tan, linen-like cover, gold embossed emblem, and red spine, described these colors as depressing and the book itself as unappealing. The same girl, with another joining her, a week later couldn't control her laughter when I passionately told the process by which I had discovered the family that had, in the era of slavery, owned mine.

This is how I teach, as often as not, by inspiration and by my sense of what my students need at an given point. I admitted this once to a dean of a different college, who, thank goodness, either hadn't really been paying attention to what I was saying, had not taken me seriously, or had not known what I meant. When one teaches by inspiration, one cannot stick to outlined objectives. That would be way too linear, way too left-brained. At the very least, stated objectives multiply exponentially every day in the minds of creative types like I am. And how does one assess such teaching and learning even when one feels incredibly pressured to do so in an era of Big Brother accrediting agencies? At least ten times a week on my campus, mostly in faculty meetings and meetings with administrators, I hear the word assessment. What the speakers of the term mean is that we have to constantly prove that what we say we are teaching the students are learning. This should be so even if one wakes up on any given weekday of classes not knowing what one will teach because one hasn't quite decided what students still do not yet know. More important is the realization that some students are not going to "get" what one has been trying to teach until far down the road. Perhaps the student who laughed at the story of my life-changing discovery will get it if she has children who ask her about her own family's past or, just as likely, do not ask. Yet, if that light bulb turns on, it may not be for another ten years.

Rigid assessment feels for me then way too mathematical--like a one-to-one ratio--which is what makes the teaching of math in the West, by the way, too rational. I want to feel numbers much in the same way I want to feel and smell the geometry of a quilt piece. I do not want to abstract from it--leaving the soul of she who made it behind. And maybe this is what it means for me to be human in a certain kind of way, a way that too many of my colleagues think is inefficient.

I don't know if my strategy for nurturing more thoughtful sensibilities worked. Judging from the way these young people handled the items I cherish it would seem not--at least immediately. I only know that I am incredibly worried about to whom among the generation I've tried to teach I myself will pass the baton and what sort of workers, people, "mathematical" pedagogy and assessments are producing.


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