Immeasurable Outcomes - Campus Explorations: Ethics


How do we measure the immeasurable? At Palomar College we have struggled mightily with the relatively new accreditation standards set forth by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), an arm of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Those of us who regularly read The Rostrum are keenly aware that these standards were adopted in spite of enormous opposition from faculty representatives up and down the state, who rightfully asked for a rationale that might explain why we should engage in work that would undermine authentic teaching and learning in favor of efficiency and data-driven performance reporting. No reasonable explanation was ever given, and the college version of standards-based education is now upon us in the form of several new accountability measures and the new accreditation standards, all focusing on "measurable improvement" based on Student Learning Outcomes. Consider the following excerpt spelling out the accountability piece:

The institution engages in ongoing, systematic evaluation and integrated planning to assure currency and measure achievement of its stated student learning outcomes for courses, certificates, programs including general and vocational education, and degrees. The institution systematically strives to improve those outcomes and makes the results available to appropriate constituencies. (Standard II.2.f.)

This language allows for a wide variety of implications, of course, but we suggest that it ought to direct us all to focus on academic and professional matters that require our immediate and careful attention.

The faculty has primary responsibility for curriculum and program development, and we are obligated to think critically about the establishment of any "systematic" approaches to evaluation and assessment.

Because of legislation such as "No Child Left Behind" and local designs such as Bersin's "blueprint" in the San Diego City Schools, our K-12 system has seen a significant shift, as increasing amounts of energy and time go toward testing, assessment, and accountability. The community colleges now face some of those same potential consequences, and if we hope to push back against the most reductive possibilities, faculty expertise in disciplines and curriculum development will be most critical. At Palomar, many faculty members have invested an enormous amount of energy in considering how we might respond in a real and authentic manner to the current calls for accountability. How can we make them work for our students, our programs and our classes without giving way to reductive moves toward standardization?

As we move forward with our specific approach for Palomar College, faculty expertise is in the foreground and is the heart and soul of any conversation about student learning and measurable (or immeasurable) outcomes. In both stated commitments and careful planning, we intend to reinforce this important idea: at Palomar College our students encounter an opportunity to become more educated citizens, and our highest ideals about that opportunity should be at the center of this conversation.

Our Campus Explorations project was developed as a specific response to the idea that we should attempt to measure the immeasurable. Note the language of the accreditation standards outlining some of the "comprehensive learning outcomes" for general education:

A recognition of what it means to be an ethical human being and effective citizen: qualities include an appreciation of ethical principles; civility and interpersonal skills; respect for cultural diversity; historical and aesthetic sensitivity; and the willingness to assume civic, political, and social responsibilities locally, nationally and globally. (Standard II.A.c)

We find this language somewhat chilling, and not because we think these elements of education are unimportant. Indeed, the opposite is true, and we feel compelled to resist the suggestion that we might treat these very important qualities as "measurable" outcomes, that we might claim to assess them fairly and consistently in the way that we can assess demonstrable skills.

At the college level, ideas such as citizenship, ethical principles, and social responsibility should be considered in all their difficult complexity, distinct from the "citizenship" of the K-12 classroom.

Within the boundaries of our Palomar College District we have both a military base and reservation land; thus we are obligated to approach these elements of education with care and respect, recognizing their powerful intellectual and philosophical foundations.

Given this consideration, our Learning Outcomes Council and the Faculty Senate have endorsed the Campus Explorations project, a kind of campus-wide learning community, to allow for complex, interdisciplinary discussions of issues and ideas like the "immeasurables" listed in the standards. The Campus Explorations project allows for the entire campus community to vote for a central theme, and this year's inaugural topic is "ethics." In years to come we hope to encounter other suggestions that were contenders on our very intriguing list, topics such as human rights, peace and war, and the environment.

This year our ethics seminar has involved faculty in conversation with our students and with the broader campus community. We have developed a one-unit lecture series and sent out an open invitation to faculty to discuss ethics and ethical issues in relation to their disciplines and professional expertise. Thus far we have encountered ethical issues framed by faculty members in the disciplines of philosophy, economics, history, English, psychology, business, photography, journalism, political science, theater, biology and fashion. In this way, students have been exposed to interesting, complex discourse on this subject and others, becoming more aware of the disciplinary nature of knowledge and critical thought. Additionally, we have developed a series of "connected occasions" and have begun a film series that follows some of the faculty lectures. Films we have screened this semester are related to the lecture topics, and they include The Insider, The Crucible, Shattered Glass and The Long Walk Home. Our performing arts department offered a special afternoon performance of its production of Moliere's Tartuffe, with a panel discussion on the topic of ethics and religiosity immediately following.

Faculty at Palomar College may choose to have their individual courses marked as participating in Campus Explorations. The level of participation by each faculty member is completely open and not directed in any particular manner; some have added an ethics component, some have always had this component, and some allow students extra credit for participation in one or more of the scheduled lectures. Our attendance has been comprised of a core group of students who are enrolled, a core group of faculty who regularly attend (and can earn Professional Development credit if they choose), and a varied assortment of additional students, staff, and administrators, who join when they are particularly interested in a topic.

In terms of assessment, we will argue that we do well to assess our institutional commitment to the complex humanity of our students rather than to the reductive language of standardization.

If we can say that Palomar College provides authentic opportunities for students to grow in the knowledge that they are connected to their communities, connected as citizens of the world, then perhaps the conversation about Learning Outcomes will have been a conversation worth having.

In addition, the Campus Explorations project and other such endeavors, whether undertaken in individual classrooms or elsewhere, will allow us to demonstrate to the accrediting commission, and other "appropriate constituencies," that Palomar College recognizes its role in the education of free citizens. In doing so, we effectively push back against trends and regulations that might ask us to do otherwise.