Where the WGA strike intersects with undergraduate education in my head

When I saw a note in the New York Times recently saying that CBS is going to bring in some Canadian series to fill the void left by the WGA strike, I thought, “now there’s a good idea – Canadian TV rules.”

Which may not always be true, but some of my most obsessive television viewing moments have happened in Canadian hotels. Like the time we watched almost an entire season of Canada’s Next Top Model in a two-night marathon. Or the time we watched a whole Lost rerun in French, trying to find out what they would do when Danielle Rousseau had to talk (she wasn’t on – we still don’t know). And then there’s the time I spent a whole afternoon in Vancouver watching the BC skip Kelly Scott lead her team to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts championship.

(Seriously, like four hours of curling)

So you may want to take it with a grain of salt when I say that I love the Canadian series Slings and Arrows so much that I think everyone else might love it too.  But really, this isn’t just weird obsession – it’s a really good show.  It’s been running on the Sundance channel, so some of you might have seen it already. It’s set in a regional theatre company, and each season is loosely centered on a different Shakespeare play. The first season is about Hamlet – and they pretty much had me there.

In the third episode there’s a sequence where troubled actor/director Geoffrey teaches Hamlet in a business seminar that is the perfect explanation for why the liberal arts matter, and should continue to matter. It’s in the middle of this much longer clip on YouTube here – the segment I mean starts about 3 minutes in.

(warning – the segment right before it is a little racy)

I was doubly reminded of this by the writer’s strike note plus this story in Inside Higher Ed‘Business’ by Any Other name – about how Spelman is trying to develop an interdisciplinary liberal arts program that prepares graduates for the business world.

Ever since I was an undergraduate at a school that had both a highly respected B-school and a topnotch liberal arts college I’ve had doubts about the undergraduate business major. My roommates pursuing business majors started talking sophomore year about their classes cross-listed with the MBA program – and since they expected to need the MBA themselves, they were looking at essentially repeating those classes a few years after graduation.

And it’s not exaggerating to say that most of the people I know well who did the undergraduate business major option wished later they had taken their chance to do something else at 18. They talk about the intangible benefits of their liberals arts classes – the ability to write, to speak another language, to comment on the art in the interviewer’s office at the place where they got their first job – as the things that have really benefited them in the “real world.”

The section of the IHE article that really struck me was this one:

Particularly for first-generation college students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, “When you dangle a ‘business major’ in front of a student who is not necessarily sophisticated in her understanding of the strengths of a liberal arts background, she may say, ‘Aha, I want to be successful, I want to go into business, I should be a business major.’…It’s a choice that’s being made without a full understanding of the options that a broader educational focus will provide for you,” Tatum says.

That feels true to me – I know that I told people I was going to law school even after I was pretty sure that wasn’t true because it meant I could get past the “what are you going to do with a history major” question without an argument.  I’m sure it is much harder for students whose parents don’t already think the liberal arts are important than it was for me.  To a certain extent, this gets back to what I was talking about the other day – we need to figure out how to communicate why these things are important to people outside the academy.  And, personally, I think Slings and Arrows is a good place to start with that.

5 thoughts on “Where the WGA strike intersects with undergraduate education in my head

  1. Can you articulate an “outcome” and a way of “measuring” what happens in that seminar that would satisfy the current pushers of assessment for “accountability”? We’re always told that we can control how we’re judged, but somehow, I don’t think that, say, “passion” would be taken seriously as a learning outcome. The way these conversations go, the fact that all of those people in the seminar have jobs where they get to go to retreats like that would be more likely to show up in assessments than what Shakespeare means to them. If you can’t track the connections in this post, there’s a good chance that you won’t see much value in a liberal arts education. And isn’t that the problem?

  2. Dude – this is punky because answering it right takes way more than would fit in a blog comment. I think a lot of the answer to this would depend on who you mean when you say “the current pushers of assessment for ‘accountability.'” Of course, it’s possible to come up with outcomes that get at high-level cognitive activity, but to measure them, one still needs to rely on the expertise of faculty. Because passion probably wouldn’t be taken seriously as a learning outcome – but is that really the end of what’s going on here? I mean, if we had students who were passionate but who wouldn’t or couldn’t do ANYTHING else with what went on in class would that be okay? What would that even look like? Don’t we expect that passion connects with other things – the ability to think in new ways, draw new connections, etc?

    Action verbs like create, infer, transform, interpret – they can be the basis of measurable outcomes, and there’s lots of examples of assessment tools in Angelo and Cross alone to get at those outcomes on a course- or assignment- level. But student work isn’t going to be uniform or standard, and we’re going to have to trust faculty to evaluate, and we’re going to have to collaborate across campuses to make it meaningful.

    So yes – I suspect the “current pushers” you’re talking about might have a problem with that. Which doesn’t mean they’re right about what is measurable or even what we should be trying to measure. I think my real answer to that question is yes, people who don’t see the value of a liberal education would have trouble with these connections – which is why we shouldn’t let them define our goals for us. Meaningful assessment isn’t about giving ourselves A’s for doing what others want – it’s about deciding what we value and figuring out ways to tell ourselves how we can help students get there better.

  3. We’ve had different versions of this conversation lately, so I don’t want to belabor these points, but I do think that passion, and I’ll add, meaning, are the outcomes that Geoffrey cares about. Certainly the character from the seminar that the episode focuses on is enraptured by the play, not drawn to “management lessons from Hamlet” or some such thing, and the suggestion is that performing the play fills some void in his life, makes his life better than it was. Can we adequately measure what that thing is, which I think is an important part of the humanistic side of the liberal arts? I don’t know. Maybe we can measure other, related outcomes and that’s good enough.

    What Geoffrey and university faculty have to struggle with is the fact that what we see as the desired outcomes of what we do may not only be hard to measure, especially in a quantitative way (and I do see quantification being held out as the gold standard in most discussions of assessment no matter what we’re told about defining our own terms or how qualitative measures are just as legitimate), but that they may not be valued by those to whom we are supposed to be communicating what we do and how well we’re doing it.

    Maybe my skepticism is an artifact of how assessment is being addressed on my campus, where it’s all framed in terms of satisfying “outsiders,” whether in the immediate sense of accrediting agencies, or in the more remote sense of the Department of Education stepping in and imposing a testing regime or national standards or whatever. In the case of Slings & Arrows, “we” would be Geoffrey and the company and the “pushers of assessment” would be the board of trustees, who mostly care about turning a profit. Maybe Richard represents where we all actually have to live – trying to survive in-between imperatives, rather than living comfortably on one side or the other.

  4. this is all good stuff but I’m just going to pull out this one piece that I think we do agree on —

    “but that they may not be valued by those to whom we are supposed to be communicating what we do and how well we’re doing it.”

    This is what I’m starting to say over and over again so I’m like a broken record. I don’t think there’s any “may” about it — I think they are not valued by many of those people. And in some cases I think they’re actively resisted. But I think there’s another big group of people who matter who don’t value those things because we’re not telling them well enough why they should. I do think this partially on us.

    I don’t think we should be just capitulating to what those people already think is important – we need to be ready and willing to build a case for what we think is important. This all intersects – you addressed it when you talked about public writing, and I addressed it when I talked about debate. But I see a lot of our campuses floundering without any ready to take that particular standard into this particular battle. I’d assess until the cows came home if I felt like someone would go in front of the legislature or the media or whoever and say — THIS is what WE’RE doing and THIS is why it matters.

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