Publication Date

January 1, 2015

At this point in the history of higher education in America, it is probably too late to argue against student learning outcomes (SLOs). Whenever it was that they first evolved from the primordial ooze, they are now fully evolved organisms at the top of the food chain. As a species inhabiting the same ecosystem, we college instructors may hope for an SLO extinction event, but it is probably wiser for us to adapt and move on.

There are as many critiques of SLOs as there are academic disciplines. Psychologists and mathematicians each have their own reasons for disliking them. In this critique, I speak for the historians, or at least as one historian who teaches at a community college in southern California. To be clear, I am not picketing on the sidewalks in front of my college’s administration building. SLOs have appeared on my course syllabi for at least seven years, and I have participated in good faith in my college’s efforts to follow the rules regarding the care and feeding of SLOs. To shift the metaphor, if some future society decides SLOs are a crime, I will be guilty of aiding and abetting.

The spoonful of sugar that helped the SLOs go down was the fact that faculty members could write SLOs themselves. The opportunity to write SLOs did not defeat every argument against them, but it did help convince a critical mass of instructors to play ball, at least for the sake of maintaining their institution’s accreditation. We are now entering a golden age of measurement, assessment, and continuous improvement. Loops are closing all over the place. Our teaching gets better every term. O brave new world, that has such metrics in’t!

SLO Doubts

And yet, SLOs still bother me. They don’t bother me for the reasons they bothered me five years ago (there is no proof they improve instruction; they fool us into thinking we can measure the immeasurable; they help turn campuses into assembly lines). The reason they bother me now is that they reduce the definition of good teaching to a small number of canned, anodyne, zombified phrases. “The student will be able to distinguish reliable sources from unreliable sources. The student will be able to synthesize primary and secondary sources in order to construct a historical narrative that makes an argument or offers an interpretation. The student will be able to identify historical forces that have shaped the present day.”

Are these admirable goals? Absolutely. Do I strive to realize these outcomes for each of my students? Every semester. All kidding aside—and please excuse the sarcasm that ended the paragraph before the previous one—most SLOs I have read are thoughtful, rigorous, and laudatory. In all sincerity, I think my colleagues have done an excellent job. The process of writing and implementing SLOs has required many historians to articulate their answers to the question “What do we want our students to learn?” Some SLOs answer this question with the wisdom of the ages, while others show new thinking and fresh ideas. As a profession, we have acquitted ourselves well.

But what is still missing from SLOs, and what I wager can never be captured by them, is what I really want—in my heart of hearts—my students to learn. A few years ago, I asked an administrator what I should put into the SLOs I was writing, and he said, “What do you want your students to learn in your class?” On the outside, I nodded and retreated to my writer’s garret. On the inside, a tiny voice asked my interrogator, “Do you really want to know the answer to that question?”

What Would Crash
Davis Do?

That administrator’s question reminded me of the scene in Ron Shelton’s 1988 film Bull Durham, in which Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon) asks veteran minor-league baseball player Crash Davis (played by Kevin Costner), “What do you believe in, then?” Crash Davis answers:

I believe in the soul . . . the hanging curveball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there oughta be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter! I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve. And I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Good night.

He responded to the question by saying, “Well, now that you asked and while we’re on the subject,” then gave an answer that was both unexpected and revealing.

Administrators who demand that we write and assess SLOs are asking historians the same question that Annie asked Crash. What do you historians really believe in? Instead of reaching into the larder for the same canned responses and old chestnuts, which have their place and can be useful, let me for once answer that question in the manner of Crash Davis.

I want my students to stumble out of the classroom in a daze, wobbling at the knees, because all of a sudden the world looks unfamiliar and strange.

I want them to read something so mind-blowing that it makes them lie awake in bed for hours.

I want them to wonder, perhaps for the first time, why anyone celebrates Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.

I want them to sit in front of a keyboard paralyzed by doubt, struggling with the epistemological questions “How do I really know what happened?” and “What exactly is a fact?”

I want them to read, hear, or see something that—at least for a moment—makes them think that every teacher they ever had, and maybe even every parent and guardian, was lying to them.

I want them to sense the depths of history—the feeling that we are just floating on the surface of a dark, mysterious ocean. All that we know about the shipwrecks on the ocean floor are the deductions we can make from pieces of flotsam and the reports of deep-sea divers.

I want them to hesitate for the rest of their lives before ever using the word inevitable.

Same goes for permanent.

I want them to treat the passive voice the same way a lab scientist treats an infected tissue sample—with extreme caution.

I want them to wonder why they always heard so much about Rosa Parks, but next to nothing about Ida B. Wells and Homer Plessy.

I want them to catch themselves every time they habitually refer to a monograph author as “they.”

I want them to do the same thing when they talk about a film—to acknowledge that there was a director, a screenwriter, an editor, a production designer, a dialect coach, a hundred others, not just a “they.”

I want them to whisper a silent thank-you to our forbears who devised electricity, indoor plumbing, antibiotics, and vaccinations.

I want them to realize that people in the past were not always dead.1

I want them always to look for the date.

I want them to think I am one of the craziest people they ever met.

I want them to think I am one of the most reasonable people they ever met.

This list of outcomes is idiosyncratic and personal. I’m sure that other historians would come up with a different list of the outcomes they felt most passionately about. But like the credo of Crash Davis, these are the animating principles that drive my teaching. They cannot be measured or assessed or reported in a self-study, but they are possibly the most important things that I do. The fact that none of them will ever appear in an SLO does not, in my opinion, cast the entire SLO enterprise into worthless oblivion. But they do render SLO assessment an ineffably impoverished way to evaluate our efforts as educators. We are in the business of mind expansion, not just skills dissemination.

teaches US history at Fullerton College. He has served on several campus committees overseeing SLO implementation and is part of the AHA’s Tuning project.


1. I lifted this phrase from Professor Virginia Scharff of the University of New Mexico, who used it in her “Teaching the American History Survey in the Twenty-First Century: A Roundtable Discussion,” in Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser, eds., Teaching American History: Essays Adapted from the Journal of American History, 2001–2007 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009), 9.

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