Friday, April 27, 2012

What the Hell Is Quality? -- Writer's Poke #386

We act like we can measure quality. In the game of education, we develop “rubrics” and then we measure performance by how well students measure up.  This is somehow supposed to be different from just giving out letter grades. Sure, an A can tell a student that she’s doing quality work, but it doesn’t explain why. The Rubric is supposed to break it down so that the student can see where quality lives.

But can the Rubric be used to help a student achieve quality? Accrediting agencies and politicians, and therefore school administrators, seem to have a fanatical appreciation for Rubrics. At Rochester Community and Technical College, for example, the Rubrics for Aesthetic Response, Civic Responsibility, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Global Awareness/Diversity are all available on the Faculty homepage. Anytime I wish, I can click on a Rubric, access a specific class that I am teaching, and rate a student’s performance in a number of subcategories on a 1 (Unsatisfactory) to 4 (Above Average). The data generated from the report can then be used to assess how well the course is working to achieve expected outcomes.

Actually, the Rubrics can be quite useful for summative course evaluation purposes. And as a result, I would go as far as to admit that having data to drive how a course is designed may be useful increasing the overall quality of the course. Will any of this actually help more students develop quality in their individual work? That’s the bigger question. No matter how well designed a class may be, some students will always do well, and some students will always perform poorly. Rubrics will always be able to measure the differences, but they will never be able to ensure that all students perform well.

Do people promote the salvation of rubrics because they have a strong distrust for just doing what “feels” right?

“Do or do not… there is no try.” -- Yoda

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Passion of Uncertainty -- Writer's Poke #385

Why are there so many books written about Alexander the Great? I have at least eleven in my personal library, and I’m sure that I will end up buying even more.

In Paul Cartledge’s introduction to his 2005 biography, he offers what sounds to me like a preemptive apology when he writes that “no explanation is necessary” for why he decided to offer the world another biography on Alexander the Great. While that may be true, it does seem as though the thought crossed his mind, or that at the very least, he knew the thought would cross the minds of others.

Yes, Alexander the Great was, at least for a brief moment in time, King of the World, but how important is he really in the grand scheme of things? His empire, after all, fragmented almost immediately upon his death. On the other hand, his influence on the so-called “known world” was everlasting.

Most modern historians rely on three ancient texts when writing about Alexander: Curtius Rufus’ The History of Alexander, Plutarch’s Nine Lives, and Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander. Problematically, Rufus, Plutarch, and Arrian all lived 300 years or more after Alexander. The one advantage these men have over modern historians is their access to more ancient texts that no longer survive, but consider what a disadvantage we face when we attempt to study Alexander. We’re already 2300 years removed from his time, and we rely on primary texts written 300 or more years after his death. How certain can we be about who Alexander the Great was?

Do historians continue to write books about Alexander the Great, because they believe their interpretations of the ancient texts available are really that much better than what’s been offered before? That their interpretations will somehow bring clarity and certainty to the man who claimed to be the Son of God (Zeus)?

How or why does uncertainty contribute to our fascination?

“Although our intellect longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.” – Karl von Clausewitz

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Center of the Universe -- Writer's Poke #384

Ptolemy believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. This view was the “truth” for hundreds of years. Only in the 16th century did Copernicus challenge the truth and suggest otherwise.

Today, of course, we can look back on Ptolemy’s beliefs and laugh, but as Robert Pirsig notes, it took Copernicus to help us fundamentally change the way we understand the truth of our universe.
People simply are not generally willing to question the established truth. Perhaps, as Pirsig suggests, this is because institutions in control of “truth” are more interested in perpetuating themselves than they are in questioning the fundamentals.
Why should anyone be so worried about protecting ideas from scrutiny? One reason may be that ideas define who we are. Maybe they shouldn’t, but there is fear of change and security in stability, even if the stable foundation is incorrect.
How do we really know if our perspective is “incorrect”? After all, we cannot look outside ourselves. We are locked within our perspective, and we have the tendency to assume our perspectives provide us with the proper experiences necessary to see the truth.
How scary it must be to wake up one morning only to discover that the Earth you’ve always known is not a place, at least in a sense, you’ve ever known at all. How many of us are willing, truly willing, to seek out the truth, even if it means erasing everything that we have once believed to be true?
When is the last time the center of your universe (or your understanding of truth) fundamentally shifted?
“A lot of people have this ego need that makes them want to believe that Earth is the center of the universe and humans are the most important species, the supreme expression of creation.” – Ann Druyan