45C Lectures [C. Altieri]


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Assessment in Literary Education

I think very few of us would not welcome more cogent attention to processes of assessment. It is obviously salutary to imagine teaching as a contract made with students to develop certain skills, powers, and bodies of knowledge. And it is apparent now that faculty members should make public on a web site their specific goals for each of the classes they teach. We also have to realize that personnel committees should do even more vigilant jobs in judging how individual instructors live up to their principles and prove effective in the classroom. More important, we now have the technology to enable faculty to post representative papers (with the grader's comments but the author's names blacked out) indicating what kind of work merits each grade from them. These postings can then also serve as indices of student growth if the faculty member indicates where they come in the course of the semester.

Yet the more avid proponents of assessment are not content to raise awareness and develop more careful modes of scrutiny. They point out that these personnel committees are bound to subjective judgments, usually reduced to attending to student evaluations and, at best, one class visit. Such committees rarely examine how teachers grade or seek measures that will tell how much the faculty member has actually improved the skills that students bring to the course in the first place. And they almost never rely on objective standards that might provide a comparative measure of teaching effectiveness that can be used also to assess entire programs, especially for those who are not within the academy. Without such objective standards even the proliferation of information about faculty work might make it more rather than less difficult to make these comparisons.

We have to respond to these new demands in two ways. We have to ask theoretical questions about whether such objective standards are feasible and helpful in the various disciplinary frameworks the university cultivates. And even if we think such objective standards feasible, we have to ask practically whether they are worth the labor and expense involved. Perhaps it might be wiser to spend the money creating smaller classes so faculty can pay more attention to the student efforts that are being assessed.

At first glance it should be theoretically possible to establish objective measures for degrees of success in teaching. After all the goals of teaching are implicit in the discipline; they need not be imposed by some foreign theoretical apparatus bound to a specific ideology. The teaching of writing should produce improvements in the student's uses of grammar, in their ability to formulate and criticize arguments, and in their facility with the language. If someone cannot show improvements in these domains it should be clear that he or she is not doing the contracted job or doing it in a much less than optimal way. Similarly if someone is teaching any kind of course that stresses reading, students should manifest improvement in their ability to summarize arguments or plots and in their ability to characterize how particular texts respond to the struggles and to the conventions that comprise relevant historical contexts.

Indeed arguments like these have been persuasive for many influential and impressive leaders in the field of composition studies.[1] But then we encounter a disturbing problem: why have so few professors who emphasize literary criticism joined their colleagues? Do they constitute a privileged remnant too lazy or too self-satisfied to acknowledge that something has to be done to develop public confidence that society's investments in higher education are worth the expenditure? Or does their involvement in the decidedly unfashionable study of literary texts make them unreasonably suspicious of anything that seeks objective knowledge and invites the heathen masses to make assessments about the high mysteries that it is their calling to defend?

I think there is another cause for their resistance to strong claims for assessment. There is first a justified suspicion that assessment and authority do not go well together. Everyone should be as transparent as possible about classroom goals and how he or she measures success. But this is a far cry from agreeing that it is even possible for public bodies removed from the classroom to develop measures that would have to apply uniformly to quite diverse cases. And these measures would impose another level on the educational process. It would be difficult not to teach to the measures once they are in place-we have learned this much from "No Child Left Behind." We would enter a situation where we have to trust in some abstract indicator of teaching success that is likely to be insensitive to what makes us commit to teaching in the first place. And the promise of comparing classes or institutions under one rubric is likely also to collapse all sorts of differences that make institutions and individual teachers attractive in the first place.

These suspicions are considerably deepened when we turn to theoretical frameworks that have traditionally been central to the teaching of literary texts, and have therefore shaped many of the expectations for professors of what is involved in the successful teaching of these materials. We will see that if we are to teach literary texts as aesthetic objects (at least in part) we also have to emphasize writing about these texts. And this kind of writing cannot dwell on these texts as objects of knowledge, or even objects that solicit knowledge about the culture. Rather such writing is best conceived as showing how one can participate imaginatively and affectively in the experiences promising to modify and reward our sensibilities as they strive to identify provisionally with particular struggles and particular modes of attention. These provisional identifications typically do not offer themselves as vehicles by which we develop knowledge and transform fleeting experience into stable generalizations. Instead they ask to be evaluated simply by how the writing articulates the student's capacities for responsiveness to particular qualities in the work.

There are many elements of this perspective on literary education that I will have to unpack and clarify. So I will offer an account borrowed largely from Hegel about what is involved in getting students to respond to the aesthetic dimension of what we teach. [2] Hegel will also indicate why the project of cultivating powers of aesthetic judgment can serve as a paradigm case for difficulties that arise on various levels in any educational enterprise in which writing is an important component intended to demonstrate how the students develop their own capacities for various kinds of judgments. Being clear about the aesthetic also entails recognizing the difficulty of postulating determinate practical outcomes when one wants not only to communicate a body of material but also to model a standard for how to modify our sense of value through that reading? For many of us, teaching literature begins with the effort to communicate how that discipline differs-for better and for worse-- from the kinds of disciplines devoted to communicating directly usable knowledge. In teaching aesthetic values we have to emphasize considering states and values like attentiveness, intensity, force, and complexity that are extremely difficult for anyone to measure. But, I hasten to add, the difficulty is precisely the reason why this kind of teaching has to be encouraged because it aims to articulate values that affect mainstream life while being inaccessible to its dominant practical languages.

Now I face the challenge of being persuasive about how the goals for teaching literary appreciation can be clear and at the same time indicate how difficult it would be to translate that clarity into the practical testing of proposed outcomes. Invoking Hegelian abstraction will seem to many a strange means of confronting that challenge. But I think his abstractness makes it possible to present the case in its most elemental form. For the abstraction is not so much an evasion of concrete particulars as an attempt to capture conceptually what is involved in valuing those particulars.

My specific focus will be elaborating three "common ideas of art"[3] that Hegel puts at the center of his "Introduction" to his Aesthetics:

  1. The work of art is no natural product; it is brought about by human activity;
  2. It is essentially made for man's apprehension, and in particular is drawn more or less from the sensuous field for apprehension by the senses:
  3. it has an end and aim in itself.[4]

These propositions, especially the third, are not uncontroversial. But minimally they clearly define the beliefs involved if we are both to distinguish art from other modes of activity and to insist on the degree to which teaching literature is training in responsiveness to art objects.

Let me not be so happy in my abstraction that I dismiss examples. Examples measure the applicability of abstractions while abstractions articulate what might be possible to exemplify. For brevity's sake I am going to emphasize two one-line speeches by Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, one from the beginning of the play and one from 3.13 just after a Roman envoy offers promises to Cleopatra. The first passage comprises Cleopatra's first words in the play, "if it be love indeed, tell me how much"; the second is her response to Antony's shame and jealousy as he abuses Caesar's messenger, "Not know me yet." Both passages invite historical speculation about how Cleopatra dealt with imperial power. But I suspect that most university teachers of this play still focus their attention on how Shakespeare interprets and embodies the psychology of Cleopatra's dealing with imperial power-hence the importance of Hegel's first and second claims.

Notice all that Cleopatra's first speech accomplishes. This speech occurs just after the play has given the typical Roman soldier's view that their commander has become "a strumpet's fool" as he devotes himself to becoming "the bellows and the fan/ to cool a gypsy's lust." But these words are the not the expression of a strumpet, and not even an exercise in lust. Cleopatra defines herself primarily as someone who mocks calculation, demands infinite attention, and possesses a complex mind capable of only half-believing in the games that the monarchs are playing about love. Speaking quasi-seriously in this way just is an intense form of erotic love, primarily because only that kind of love can occupy the space between the practical and something like an absolute domain where people contour themselves to intricate exchanges involving different degrees of belief and possibility. And the love is not merely narcissistic. Cleopatra taunts Antony in way that reflects her understanding of his proclivity to shame while obdurately refusing to let him give himself over to something that in her eyes is not his best self. She uses the language of quantity to remind him that this is not the language that could even approximate what they share. This sharing takes performing the love, not trying to measure it.

Much more can be said about Cleopatra's opening speech. But we have seen enough to appreciate how Hegel's first claim is carefully worded to produce several important corollaries. Art is not a natural product because there is no rule of nature that explains its production or its use. There is no discovering in nature a Cleopatra or prototype for her, and there is no deciding from nature what the dramatic reality of Cleopatra has to be. The Roman soldiers try that route. We do not recognize Cleopatra as a natural creature but as in every word and image Shakespeare's product. It is Shakespeare who creates the possibility of a character whom we have to take a providing a model for nature. And that possibility is not quite a matter of a single creative idea. Rather it stems from a continuous sense of invention that establishes endless surprises as the character in effect learns its own possibilities for establishing an identity. The authorial activity becomes a fundamental internal feature of what we take to be the power of the characters to invent themselves.

As Hegel develops this first claim he recognizes how dependent the aesthetic domain is on what can be known objectively (and assessed as knowledge). There is a purely technical side of making that should become an object of study: "Skill in technique is not developed by any inspiration, but only by reflection, industry, and practice". Without such skill one cannot be expected to "master" intractable "external material" (27). And where there is technique there are particular histories of its development and its distinct uses that are nourished by comparison with other skills and genres. But this acknowledgment also makes manifest the significance of what cannot be quite grasped as knowledge but has to be experienced as authorial intelligence purposefully putting qualities to work for quite specific imaginative purposes.

This sense of pervasive intelligence need not accompany every awareness that the particular is a product of human labor rather than of nature. In fact there is here a contrast quite useful for defining the distinctive role of art in most societies. Many products tend to take on something like a second nature-in the sense that we treat them primarily as aspects of a cultural landscape that we know how to use. We simply accept them as already categorized. For example, I think it is a crucial fact that most of us do not worry about how light bulbs are invented or produced. They are objects ready to hand. We concentrate on what they are useful for rather than on the manner of their invention or substance. Art works have a very different status. Cleopatra is not a determinate object in our world with clear uses. Rather she becomes a living particular capable of changing and growing to the extent that we can gain further appreciation of what the making process establishes as her distinctive traits. Rather than assume we know what to do with her, we have to attend to what our attention might reveal about her and about our capacities to respond adequately to the particular emotions she presents.

In choosing Cleopatra as my example I probably cheat a little by making it easier to illustrate what Hegel means in his second claim about the sensuousness of art. She is nothing if not sensuous. Even her claim on Antony to tell her how much he loves her is ultimately a bid to have all her senses active and self aware. But the sharpness of the example provides a timely contrast to a social and critical order obsessed with acts of interpretation eager to transform every sensuous detail into an allegorical meaning. With Cleopatra Shakespeare established an imaginative object insistent on its sensuous being, and insistent too then on the importance of foregrounding the particularity of the work. Shakespeare seems less interested in what Cleopatra might stand for than in how her ways of standing elicit telling reactions from the other characters and so contribute to establishing a dense singular world.

The crucial point of assessing assessment is how Cleopatra's sensuousness manifests the importance of distinguishing sharply between the particular interrelations that a work offers from anything for which we can claim knowledge. To claim knowledge one has to show how the particular is an instance of a class or category with determinable relations to other elements within the category. But here all of Shakespeare's skills seem devoted to showing how the imagination through the particular can take up residence in the sensuous. It is less important to formulate ideas about Cleopatra than for students to give evidence that they can feel their way into her distinctive ways of processing experience. Indeed that is why there is an immense gulf between formulating why she says "if it be love indeed, tell me how much," and identifying with this character who can at once make her lover ashamed and stimulated so that she can take her pleasure in her own strategies.

Making the case for these values embedded in particularity requires Hegel to distinguish between levels of sensuousness. On one level the activity of making brings out signifying capacities in the sensuous material. Music orders sound and elaborates rhythms; literature awakens us to the capacities of language to become articulate-both semantically and sonically. But if we deal only with this level of sensuality we risk connoisseurship on the one hand and the cult of feeling or sheer reader response on the other. We can collapse the work into the expertise visible within the medium or we can collapse all sensuousness into a focus on how the work makes us feel. However, this is insufficient to what the human activity within the work can produce. I risk Hegelian language to demonstrate this because his statement is so powerful in defining a more capacious version of the sensuousness that calls upon our full imaginative energies:

Of course science can start from the sensuous in its individuality and possess an idea of how this individual thing comes to be there in its individual color, shape, size, etc. Yet in this case the isolated sensuous thing has no further bearing on the spirit, inasmuch as intelligence goes straight for the universal, the law, the thought and concept of the object. On the contrary the sensuousness in the work of art is itself something ideal. These sensuous shapes and sounds appear in art not merely for the sake of themselves but with the aim, in this shape, of affording satisfaction to the higher spiritual interests, since they have the power to call forth from all the depths of consciousness a sound and echo in the spirit (37-39).

Contemporary policy makers in education do not have much truck with talk of "spirit." But Hegel is careful to define spirit as self-consciousness seeking to find expression for all its potential. In other words, Hegel is first of all an educational theorist attempting to define the many distinctive ways we bring self-consciousness to what we construct as our places in the actual world. Basic modes of self-consciousness each require different kinds of assessment if they are not to collapse into something ultimately alien. Art asks that self-consciousness be directed to how the imagination can provide individual transformations of experience that take particular sensuous form but cannot be exhausted by straightforward description of that mode of appearance. As Richard Wollheim demonstrated, art is not just a viewing of the sensuous but a seeing in to that sensousness so that it cultivates self-consciousness of powers that we realize only through this mode of apprehension.[5] Try imagining a range of experiences of joy without music or rapt attention without visual art.

Hegel's third claim is the one must dependent on, and illustrative of, his idea of spirit because it depends on the possibility that self-consciousness can grow and intensify its focus by having itself as the object which it must try to understand. Most of us now are as suspicious of claims that anything can be an end in itself as we are claims about spirit-and for good reason since the two beliefs are very closely connected. But I think there are many experiences that we cannot sufficiently honor without a distinction between treating situations as having ends beyond themselves and as having at least important dimensions in which the experience is an end in itself to be elaborated simply for the sake of what it affords self-consciousness. (This is easier if we admit that experiences can have different dimensions inviting different modes of apprehension and assessment.)

The point is sufficiently important that I will indulge in some amateur philosophizing before returning to Shakespeare and the topic of assessment. We can treat any purposive action as having its end either outside itself or in-itself. Attributing an end outside itself consigns the object of the action to the status of an instrument or tool that facilitates the accomplishment of some desire. But the object itself then ceases to interest-compare eating to fuel up with eating to relish some distinctive qualities in the food. (Or compare what one can call meat fishing with perfecting one's fly-casting, even at the risk of going hungry.) Notice that when we choose to treat some process as an end in itself rather than as an instrument, we grant it the power to establish values, and we orient ourselves to acknowledging in practice the difference this makes. We can be happy with our fly-casting even if we catch no fish and remain hungry. We might contest someone's assertions about ends in themselves but we rarely feel free simply to override what they refer to for our own purposes. And we therefore give some concreteness to the notion of spirit as the capacity to dwell within conditions where we seek to intensified consciousness of who the self becomes as it renounces its habitual sense of treating the world in instrumental terms.

Shakespeare probably wanted to intensify just this contrast between kinds of ends in the second speech of Cleopatra that I have chosen as an example. So please ask yourselves what is accomplished by Cleopatra saying "Not know me yet?" as the climax to her frustration and disappointment with Antony's letting his shame at the military defeat turn into jealousy and self-pity. I think here she has to be fully self-conscious of the roles she has chosen to play because she may have only her self-consciousness to dignify what she is likely to happen with Caesar's victory. So she relies on the internal relationships that Shakespeare composes for his drama to find a self adequate to this moment. She experiences a close connection between trying to establish a self not governed by prudential interests and the capacity of looking back on what she has been in the play to establish powers to maintain what can resist the prudential. Notice that her one line statement itself builds on a series of one line refusals in the scene that are all directed against Antony's self-pitying theatrics. (Her richest moment may be her statement "Have you done yet" that magisterially dismisses Antony's letting himself indulge in the shame he feels because of the contrast between what he "was" and what he now "is."

Cleopatra's "Not know me yet" also elaborates a much more comprehensive sense that the play is the thing wherein to establish a sense of character that one can bring to the actual world. What would it mean for Antony to know her at this moment? And by implication what would it mean for the audience to know her? Indeed what can we assess of that knowing-what outcome can we project and test? Probably our only answer can be that the knowledge has to reside in the quality of our reading and participating imaginatively in what she composes as her character. Antony can not know her at this moment because he is so full of himself. He is doomed to be a bad reader. But he can show by contrast what good reading will probably involve. And that reading will not produce an object of knowledge. Cleopatra could not even produce that. Rather good reading will provide evidence that one has provisionally taken Cleopatra's part so that one can give full imaginative credit to her ability to manipulate political situations and, more important, to be faithful in her fashion to the image both lovers have created of a kind of transcendent dignity of passion.

The best readings of Antony and Cleopatra will not entirely submit to her capacity to control theatrical space. Rather they will know her also in a way that she resists knowing herself. They will know how tempted she is to find a way to reconcile with Caesar and how being a strumpet perhaps haunts her fears that success as an Egyptian queen may not qualify her to deal with those instrumentalist Romans who have built greater power. And they will know how desperate she is that Antony find his way back to the fragile but powerful myth of heroic lovers that binds them in what may be little more than illusion. In other words, these best readings devote themselves most fully to the various intense and intensive patterns of meaningfulness that the text establishes for and within its sensuous action. Assessing these readings then may well require an awareness of how students can ultimately develop a sense of texts as ends in themselves-not as escapes from the world but as the fullest possible means of honoring the intelligence the work brings to the world.

Hegel makes a pretty fair spokesperson for the kind of reading that answers Cleopatra's call for a distinctive kind of knowledge:

Against this [the idea that "the work of art would have validity only as a useful tool] we must maintain that art's vocation is to unveil the truth in the form of sensuous artistic configuration to set forth the reconciled opposites and so to have its end and aim in itself, in this very setting forth and unveiling. For other ends, like instruction, purification, bettering, financial gain, struggling for fame and honor, have nothing to do with the work of art as such, and do not determine its nature (55).

So long as we believe that it makes sense to confer a state of distinction on what cultures honor as works of art we will have to be leery of all claims about assessment that try to hold a variety of pedagogical practices to single standards. And in the case of education for appreciation this problem is exacerbated by the fact that any model of assessment responsive to the ideals informing the teaching will require an inordinate expense of money and time.

First, assessing such teaching for aesthetic ends requires assessing the quality of classroom conversation. Then it entails finding objective means of evaluating the kind of student writing that tries to be articulate about what is involved in engaging texts as aesthetic experiences. I do not think that can be done under the same rubrics we use to assess student writing intended to convey information because in writing on aesthetic objects every turn in the argument involves a display of sensibility that affects our sense of what the student can and cannot respond to. And the qualities of the thinking displayed cannot be presumed to the same qualities we value for the economical and clear presentation of discursive arguments. If students learn to be fully responsive to such plays they will want their response also to be at least in part something that they can feel reflects their own individual capacities to respond with affective intelligence to what moves them about their worlds. Even when papers on aesthetic objects take the form of clear arguments, the success of the argument depends to a large extent on an assessor's distinctive grasp of the object addressed. The more the emphasis at every level on the importance of particularity, the less useful any general rubric for assessment-whether it be of the student or of the level of work being accomplished by the class. The abstractness of the instrument runs the risk of swallowing the distinctiveness of the performance.

I hope I have demonstrated that there are good reasons professors concentrating on the teaching of literature resist efforts to develop models of assessment that can be applied to their classes across the board. The risk involved is substantial because it encourages thinking that objective measures of any kind can be easily adapted for this fluid and often idiosyncratic process. It is difficult even to imagine any objective language of assessment that would not distort and dishonor the commitments to particularity that faculty want to encourage and develop-both in regard to texts and in regard to the students' own senses of the qualities of discrimination they can bring to bear in their reading and in their writing. The effort to apply objective modes of assessment would influence how teachers being assessed taught their subject even thought it does not emerge from study of that subject. So we would in effect be changing the discipline in ways that few would explicitly defend, and we would be reducing the chances of students coming to experience what full cultural literacy can be.

Most important, if we ever found an adequate way to assess the achievement involved in writing about aesthetic experience, I cannot imagine that it would be very different in the long run from how any decent instructor evaluates writing by responding simply to criteria like attentiveness and imaginativeness. And it would take examining just what these instructors examine, so it would involve an immense effort with little promise of significant rewards. It would be far better to put what money we have into providing smaller classes so that instructors can assign more in-depth writing and develop more finely tuned assessments of how individuals are doing in the course.




[1] See for powerful statements on possibilities of assessment Susan Wells, "Assessment Without Angst," ADE Bulletin 144 (Winter 2008) and Gerald Graff, "Assessment Changes Everything," MLA Newsletter

[2] I will use the concept of "appreciation" as short hand for "learning that focuses on aesthetic experience," even though technically appreciation is a specific mode of aesthetic experience where we dwell in the possibilities of judgment rather than make practical determinations.

[3] I take my sense of abstraction as form from Hegel's notion of how philosophy brings out an internal necessity in relation to the phenomena under discussion. A successful concept is not content to provide descriptive terminology. Rather it develops an internal necessity so that the concept actually displays what we learn through it to be the necessary features of the concept. When we develop a concept elaborating relations among standard concerns about what makes art, we should be able to see that the claims so structure the field that they display their own fit and scope.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Translated by T.M. Knox. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975: 25.

[5] Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987: pp. 45-49.