15 January 2008

On learning outcomes and the study of English

The Quality Assurance Agency is an easy target for UK academics. It is incredibly bureaucratic, and preparing for its "reviews" (inspections) soaks up vast amounts of time which could certainly be spent on other things. It has contributed to the development of a compliance culture in teaching in universities which is quite counter-productive, and it is great fun when someone like Thomas Docherty of Warwick swings his trusty broadsword of iconoclasm at it. (It is far from as much fun when Peter Williams, chief executive of the QAA, contrives to be waspish, patronising and smug in his response, all at the same time.)

But... Docherty is really against the notion that universities exist to get students to reach pre-determined learning outcomes. He teaches English, and I am right behind him on that. For English. I did my first degree in English. It was, I am happy to say, almost totally useless; that is not a criticism. So it did not matter what we actually learned, directly. We learned an enormous amount indirectly, but it was probably different for each of us. That was fine.

One thing I did learn, though, was how almost lethal it is to one's enjoyment of literature to have to read it and write about it every week. A week to compare Richardson's "Clarissa" (well over a thousand pages) and Fielding's "Tom Jones" (500 pages)? Stupid--but, yes, I did actually read them. Immediately after finals I turned to reading science fiction and touched nothing with any literary pretensions for twenty year, to my loss.

Perhaps we ought to specify in advance some non-learning outcomes; what we shall do our utmost to ensure that students do not learn from a course...

However, I digress. I wonder if English is not unique, or at least exceptional, in being a discipline where pre-determined outcomes may indeed be inimical to learning? They certainly make very good sense for any discipline which is in any sense instrumental or professionally focused. English is also largely a divergent discipline; convergent ones take to pre-determined outcomes much more readily. I wonder what fine art academics make of the point?

And of course there is the question of level; I know that knowing what happens in "Vanity Fair" does not really qualify as the study of English Literature, but familiarity with the canon (heresy!) is surely a sine qua non? And that requires pre-determined outcomes. They may not apply to the higher slopes of Bloom's taxonomy but they certainly apply at the lower levels.

However, I should recognise that I am out of touch; the study of English has changed enormously since my day having been colonised by the intellectual flatulence and empirical insouciance of incomprehensible French writers. Not that it matters that they are incomprehensible, or whether there are any learning outcomes associated with teaching about them; it is in the nature of post-modernism that it is impossible to be wrong!


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