Ethical Learning, Responsibility, and Assessment

A long time ago, when I first became enamored with the possibilities of digital communication and deconstruction, I remember constructing a piece on spectrality and student work. I was proud when the piece won a Parlor Press award at Purdue for Best Multimedia Project, and a bit disappointed when it was rejected for publication at Kairos (though I can't blame them, the thing is a mess). Essentially, the piece emphasized how rhetorical practice involves more than a knowledge of and ability to enact Aristotelian tactics--that interacting with real, responsible (que Levinas) human beings requires a pathetic sensitivity and strength, and that the only way to gain that strength is engage in situations that leave us "weak," out of control, beholden to a spectral other/future over which we can have no mastery or assurance.

I remembered this piece today reading over a Chronicle piece on Assessment and Ethical Learning. One cannot materialize ghosts, nor can one accurately measure an individual's response to the affective rush of alterity, the traumatizing experience of facing an Other that calls a self into question, the infinity that interrupts totality (etc), outside of the radical encounter itself. Recreating that situation is (virtually?) impossible. I'd link to think--in the best cases--that the blogging pedagogy I've been working on approaches the problem; but I certainly wouldn't claim it solves it, or that it in anyway ensures ethical responses. Rather, it makes possible this kind of encounter, and aims to cultivate a responsible (que Levinas again, in this case a response that weighs the other to the neighbor while recognizing the inevitability that violence will occur) response. As the article intimates, there is an issue of kairos to ethical learning largely irrelevant to critical and epistemological pedagogies:

"It is really hard to measure ethical learning because it's not declarative or semantic knowledge, but, like any expertise, it is knowing the right thing to do in the right way at the right time," says Darcia F. Narváez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. In her research, she has found that intuition plays such a big role in moral decisions that she argues it is a mistake to ignore its influence.

As the article further complicates, such attempts run into trouble once they begin to determine what/whose particular values are right. One reason I enjoy Levinas so much is that his work doesn't articulate a morality (hence, it does not belong to logos). Rather, it attempts to establish, via pathos, a mood from which we can hospitably approach those impossible, but necessary questions. Levinas' phenomenological account of subjectivity dis-posess us of any claim to a spontaneous, autonomous foundation, thus, I hope, generating an embodied dis-position from which we can ethically approach argumentation (remembering that we dispute with other people, rather than with mere ideas). Ethics, when I deploy the term, doesn't mean to signify a list of truths, or even an accepted collection of moral laws. Rather, it speaks to the cultivation of a spectral subjective attitude, a pre-condition to productive human encounters. Referring to yesterday's post on Tim Morton, it is the cultivation of a dis-position both open and weird. Irrational though it may be, argumentation is not a matter of simply deploying proper arguments or upholding the proper morality.

As I continue to work on my Nussbaum article, its articulation of post-pedagogy, and the emphasis of ethics over critique, I am caught up in contemporary will to assess. I am trying, hard, to avoid adopting an intellectual position anti-thetical to standardized assessments, especially after reading Academically Adrift such a move would feel reactionary and stupid. Thinking about the kinds of qualitative assignments in Academically Adrift, I am beginning to have new appreciation for the CLA test they endorse. I feel much more obligated to acknowledge and endorse such maneuvers; if we do not cultivate more sophisticated forms of assessment, then we could be burdened (in the post-Spellings Commission, hyper-attentive, economically-crisised-driven University) with something much worse. In my article I deal with recent "reforms," by the CollegeBoard, in Florida's primary and secondary schools--they are now driven by a scripted, day-to-day program accompanied by standardized tests leaving little room for kairos and invention on the part of teachers. To say that such rigid policing could not come to higher education is, I believe, a dangerous stance.

And, if you haven't read Academically Adrift yet, and you teach writing, then I cannot emphasize enough how important this book is. Sure, there are methodological issues with their study (I remember Pat Sullivan emphasizing how, when people want to reject a conclusion, they begin by attacking the methodology), but the picture they paint of learning on contemporary campuses warrants attention and response.

1 comment:

Megan said...

I think the question of assessment is one that haunts both Rickert and Ulmer's work on postpedagogy. I'm especially enamored of Rickert's pedagogy of the act and the kind of spontaneity and attention to kairotic invention that it encourages, but I think the questions you raise here are vital not because they're the most intellectually stimulating (at least for me) but because we ignore these questions at our own peril. Subject assessments are coming to universities; accountability is the watchword of the moment in educational legislation and publicly funded universities aren't going to escape the calls for teacher accountability. As you say, "if we do not cultivate more sophisticated forms of assessment, then we could be burdened...with something much worse."