The liberal arts make a habit of sneering at certain parts of the university -- vocational training and athletic departments, to be precise. I've certainly done my share of eyerolling about the deviation of those departments from the grand traditions of academe.
But I also take delight in any reversal of the expected that helps us see something familiar in a new light. And the truth is that there's at least one way in which the football team and the college of education and the business school are far ahead of the liberal arts. Their students perform and are evaluated in public. The coach's work with the players bears immediate results visible to crowds every weekend. The student teachers are judged by real teachers in real elementary and secondary schools. The business students do required internships out in the corporate world, and the reputation of the faculty and the curriculum is on trial every time one of those students sets foot in an office. Undergraduates in the health sciences spend their final years engaged in practicums and clinicals, putting their education to the test.
In the liberal arts, the tradition is still largely internal. A faculty member sets the curriculum for what should be learned about a subject. That same faculty member delivers the knowledge through lectures and texts. And that same faculty member tests the students' mastery of the content. A perfect closed loop.
We have a lot to learn about letting our students -- and therefore our teaching -- be judged by somebody other than us. It's an exciting and frightening prospect for faculty. We lose control. None of us want to be the football coach, with our win-loss records on display, our success or failure a matter of the unchangeable public record. In fact, we resist most proposals to measure what we do at all, preferring to believe that our results are ineluctable and unquantifiable.
But if we lack the confidence to open our classroom doors to extramural evaluation, are we protecting students or shortchanging them?