As I’ve said before, Emily Dickinson is my favorite poet (and one of her poems is the inspiration for the title of this blog). Walt Whitman is another of my favorites. When we begin the poetry section of my ENG 102 class, I always start with Walt and Emily, the “father” and “mother” of American poetry. One of the first poems we read (because students find it accessible and relatable) is “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
There’s a lot of talk in higher ed today about measuring student learning (k-12 ideas, like “outcomes-based assessment” have floated on up to the college-level). There’s a lot of talk of measuring student success. But really how do you define and measure success? It’s sort of complex. So we’re feeling a lot of pressure to increase graduation rates (completely unfair since a huge part of our population is the transfer program). Because this is something that is easily measured. It can easily be put into “charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure;” the figures can be “ranged in columns.” See the lovely diagrams on the White House College Scorecard website for example (diagrams that are not an accurate portrayal of what actually happens in our college–or any college).
But easy and right aren’t exactly the same thing, are they?
In his poem, Whitman is telling us that the way we measure our world (mathematically, scientifically), the way we break it down, does not do justice to the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of the universe.
The same is true of student learning: the measurements we’re forced to use to try to quantify it will never be able to accurately assess true student learning.
Because real learning is far too complex to “add, divide, and measure.”