Friday, January 12, 2007

"Ora et labora": Quantifying "Aesthetic Response"

This week has been our Faculty Development Week for the spring semester. There's not been much to report from these meetings--not a bad thing, mind you. I am pleased to report two things, though: 1) All my classes have made, the overloads included; 2) One of those classes will be up in Topeka on Thursday evenings (which is where Mrs. M. is, as my reader(s) may recall). A guaranteed (paid!!) weekly visit to see her will be very good for us, especially given that I have no teaching or other professional responsibilities on Fridays.

But enough of that. You want to learn, I'll bet, why I've posted an alchemist's chart on this post.

Assessment has been our theme for the past few faculty development weeks now, and this week we divided up into groups to talk about the assessment rubric we've been using college-wide for a couple of years now. I was assigned to a group discussing the rubric of "Aesthetic Response."

Lead into gold? You betcha--though not quite in the way the alchemists wanted it . . . and, as you might expect, not at all in the way we faculty would want things.

First things first. My group consisted of Yours Truly and another English department member; the music prof who is responsible for our (pretty good) jazz program; our facilitator, who is a marketing prof; and a biology instructor who teaches botany and plant identification. And now, here are the specific elements of the rubric we've been using to evaluate student work that our intrepid band discussed:
1) Identification of interrelationship of the major components of the artwork.
2) Prescriptive evaluation of the work of art based on consistent criteria regardless of personal bias or preference.
3) Acknowledgment of personal, emotional and/or intellectual response as the art work applies to the student's life.
(3) is, in essence, "I like it" or "It sucks." That gave us no trouble at all; what the instructor is asked to measure there is the degree to which the student elaborates on his/her sentiment.

The other two gave us considerably more trouble, though. (1) would appear to be easy enough: That's the realm of vocabulary that allows us to talk about the parts and features of art, and that information is covered in Intro to Lit and the "Appreciation" classes devoted to art and music. As we realized through our discussion, though, the key term isn't "major components" but their "interrelation." It's one thing to identify, say, assonance in an Emily Dickinson poem, but quite another to decide, much less discuss, how that assonance contributes to the poem's theme. For some, after all, it might not--the repeated sounds may just be pretty ornamentation to the reader's ear . . . or, for that matter, that may have been the case for the poet as well; and Dickinson being inconveniently unavailable for consultation (and in more ways than one--she had very little to say about the craft of writing poems), "interrelationship" comes down to interpretation and, thus, subjective, hard-to-quantify determinations.

Even so, (2) was and remains, without any question, the knottiest of the three. "Consistent criteria," sure--but "regardless of personal bias or preference"?? Codified determinations of what is considered beautiful passed on long ago. In any case, what exactly would the criteria reflect except personal bias, no matter how consistently applied? Or a collective--that is, an institutional--bias, for that matter? Take melisma, for example--as, in fact, the music prof and I did. Nothing at all is wrong with melisma in the abstract, either technically or aesthetically--indeed, in some musics it's a dominant, even expected feature. But anyone who has listened to contemporary R&B or seen American Idol knows that melismatic singing is what, apparently, garners downloads (and maybe even sells a few CDs--who knows?) and wows the audience, the song itself be damned. Imagine, if you dare, a melismatic version of Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . "), which I'd heard one of the Simpson sisters (I forget which, they are so interchangeable to my mind) sing a couple of Christmases ago. At some point, melisma-as-ornament intrudes on the song's integrity, and you'd hope the performer would recognize that. Ms. Simpson, to my mind, had no clue regarding the song's integrity or else she would not have sung it as she did; her adoring audience, standing in fake snow at Disney World, was similarly untroubled. Alas for one of the great (secular) Christmas songs ever written, on that night. But my larger point is this: Where is that point beyond which ornament intrudes on the song's integrity? How do you determine that? And if you're a voice student and your sense of that point differs from your instructor's, then what?

At this point that some of us would-be philosophers stoned the rubric. "We can't measure this objectively, not even according to the elements listed here, so let's just dump it!" I had my big insight for the day, then: "If we jettison this, there go the arts programs." That's something of a logical fallacy where I teach--the various arts programs there are well supported and well regarded in the area besides. However, without that rubric we'd be offering to the state legislature no institutional justification for one of the most important purposes of the arts, the chief thing we claim they provide their audiences: Beauty in their lives. And since the arts and humanities aren't exactly magnets for R&D grant money, we'd best find a way to quantify and measure aesthetic response that is both legitimately objective and as true as possible to the vagaries of aesthetic judgments.

We came up with a (to my mind) intriguing suggestion regarding #2. As all colleges claim, ours says one of its objectives is the education of the whole person, which would involve, in part, the development of criteria for making critical judgments of various sorts. So, why not rewrite #2 to read "Prescriptive evaluation of the work of art based on consistent personal criteria"? Our reasoning: we don't expect every student to leave us as budding aesthetic theorists (imagine how to pitch THAT to the Kansas legislature!), but there is value, at the level of the activity of critical thinking, in asking students to begin to think seriously about and articulate how they arrive at their judgments concerning art and how their standards compare with those of others.

Assessment is a necessary evil in and of itself: we have a right to expect public and other accredited schools, allowing for gradations of quality, to at least be competent, and so we should measure that. Moreover, I don't have any problem, in the abstract, with tying funding of public schools to assessment. Self-assessment isn't the most objective way to do that, but it's certainly the least intrusive. But. The bad thing about assessment is that implicit in it is the idea that nowadays schools increasingly have to justify their existence to legislatures who aren't always exactly friends of education, even as more and more students are enrolling in colleges; and one wishes that the need for quality public education, from K-12 to college and graduate programs, could be seen as being about as self-evident a proposition as one could hope for. Hence the tendency, always strong in this country but especially so these days, to think of education in fairly utilitarian or vocational terms: "What can you do with an English major besides teach?" You can see the bind, then, that arts programs find themselves in just as a matter of course; and where, as has happened at other campuses, the nexus of declining enrollments and reduced budgets occurs, their noble and true plea, "But we make and appreciate beautiful things!" gets laughed at.

So. Because we educators agree that this is important but just flat cannot quantify discussions of beauty, we are compelled to create an Aesthetic Response rubric based on the principle behind Intelligent Design's premise: we fudge about what is really going on--indeed, what should be going on--in order to keep school finance committees and taxpayers happy. I feel considerably less tawdry about that, though, than IDvocates (I would hope) do, seeing as
Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

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Camille said...

What a can of worms.

As long as art education is marketed as a cool bourgeois "boutique" major, there will be no shortage of students, but that doesn't hold any water with the legislators. In elementary school- land, we have to justify art and music's ability to raise reading and math scores. That reduces it to a servant to more important subjects. It doesn't seem to be enough that humans have had a satisfying relationship with the arts for thousands of years and should continue doing so.

Gwynne said...

I have only struggled with this in the grant-writing world in which arts organizations exist...I cannot imagine the frustration faced by educators to have to continually justify the existence and need for the arts. Our ability to create art, and to appreciate beauty, is really the one thing that sets us apart from the animals.

How did the botanist find this discussion?

John B. said...

Thanks as always for your comments.

I need to say something a little more precisely than I did in the post: The rubrics we've established are for those things we as a college faculty have determined are important that our students be able to do--so, via the assessment model we're justifying ourselves to ourselves. The state and the regional accreditation folks just want to see evidence that a) we do what we say we do; and b) we do it competently (that also being defined by the faculty). Having said that, though, if we didn't have Aesthetic Response as a rubric on the model yet persisted in wanting state moneies for arts programs and in, say, hitting up potential donors for a new Arts Center, it's not too hard to imagine someone with an unfriendly grip on the pursestrings ask, "How important can this be, after all, seeing as you're not even measuring how well you do it?" And you have to admit, that's a pretty good question; for that matter, it's just a more bottom-line version of the age-old question of what, if anything, art "does." It's a hard thing to articulate what the arts are good for--all the more reason to try and do so.

Camille, It would indeed be pretty to think that we shouldn't have to even explain, much less quantify, the enriching of people's lives that the arts provide. But, so long as business models for assessment become and remain the norm and money for schools remains tight due to political cowardice about increasing revenues and public reluctance because of what they perceive to be wasteful spending in the past on education, this is what we're compelled to do.

Gwynne, the botanist couldn't see how this rubric specifically applied to his classes, unless he began waxing like a Transcendentalist and requested that his students do the same. In fact, as I recall he was the one who suggested we just get rid of the rubric when we were getting riled up about how difficult our task was. But he didn't say it in a spiteful or ignorant way--he was just speaking out of the frustration we all felt.

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