T.S. Eliot asked in his 1934 poem The Rock: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” I find myself admonishing myself with these words as I craft my syllabi. I should note that I am coming off a year sabbatical, which makes the problem I describe here only more acute.
When I was on the job market I was given sage advice about how to answer a certain interview question: how would you teach course X? I was told: don’t hand them a syllabus, don’t spout a bibliography – talk about what you want students who take the course to come away with.
I took the interview advice and I also took the advice as it was probably intended: if you get the job, think this way about your courses as well. I followed it. But eight years later, I find myself having more difficulty taking that advice. In crafting my syllabi I seem more interested in what the students should know – what information they should have – than in what they should, cryptically, take away from the course.
As the bloggers here know, I have an uneasy relationship with assessment. In a trivial sense, it is absolutely necessary and helpful. But for many of us earnest and honest teachers, it also makes us uneasy – not because we do not want to be assessed, but because it tends to ask the very questions that are making me uneasy about the way I have found myself thinking of my courses lately: should courses be judged on what information and knowledge they impart?
I’ve been prepping a course in Modern: 17th and 18th Century philosophy. In trying to cover as much as possible and in trying to make sure that students understand the scientific and historical contexts I find myself crafting a syllabus that maximizes information at the cost of trusting the texts and trusting myself.
This post doesn’t pose a question so much as a challenge to myself and others during this pre-term time: how do we, in the age of assessment, take course goals seriously by asking what it is that we want students to (cryptically) come away with? For my part, it is not information or knowledge, but understanding. And such understanding might come at the price of information and knowledge.