Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How Do We Define Student Success in the Humanities?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “student success.” I like the way it pushes us to define our terms and ask questions about metrics: What does student success look like? How do you know that what you’re doing will make your students successful? How do you measure whether they are successful? We do better by students when we track them —that is, when we start to examine more closely how they are affected by what we teach and how we structure the university. Which course in a major has the highest failure and dropout rates? Why do students take longer to graduate in one major than they do in another? Why was the retention rate so much higher last year than the year before? When your major leads directly to a career — through licensure (as social work) or through a natural pipeline (such as criminal justice), it’s relatively straightforward to track students’ success. Did they get placements in social-service agencies? Are they working in law enforcement or elsewhere in the justice system? But as a dean of humanities and social sciences, I am well aware that postgraduate success isn’t so clear-cut for many degree recipients in my college. Which careers they will or should pursue is not so obvious. The humanities curriculum centers on content rather than practice. What does the content of a history curriculum add up to if you don’t want to be a history teacher? A chemistry major becomes a chemist. What does an English major become? (Yeah, we’ve heard it before: “a barista.”) Measuring student success means more than tracking retention and graduation rates: How successful have we been if a student graduates in four years and four years later is still unemployed? But success also means more than job placement. We don’t want to produce unhappily employed 25-year-olds whose work doesn’t draw on anything they learned as philosophy or theater majors. To try to wrestle with these questions, a group of folks from two- and four-year institutions in my region is getting together as a working group, focusing on student success in the humanities. It started because I’d been trying to get colleges together to host a national gathering of English department chairs. As I started canvassing interest in that event, I noticed that the department chairs and administrators to whom I was talking weren’t super enthusiastic about the idea until I started talking about its theme for the event — student success in the humanities.

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