Making knowledge explicit through learning outcomes in the study of literature

I like this multi-faceted definition of “knowledge.”

It is one thing to be able to parrot information received and regurgitate it onto a page. It’s another to be able to put it into your own words and apply it outside its original context.

I also like this discussion of what I’ve come to understand as “learning outcomes.”

It is one thing to, as Dr. Sample illustrated, fill a fifteen or sixteen week syllabus full of reading assignments that complete a semester. It is another to intelligently designate how those reading assignments contribute to a larger process—or, to steal from Wiggins and McTighe: have perspective.

I feel “having perspective” is a crucial element to course curriculum, at least in the Humanities, as one of the biggest contemporary issues facing us is that of perception. How does the ability to read a book translate as a useful tool in work force? I believe making our learning outcomes more explicit is one way, given that I believe that most of my coursework in English fruitfully invites the play of multi-faceted knowledge yet isn’t made so discreetly obvious the way the Pythagorean Theorem would be to a math student.

To steal Robb’s example (as I am a huge FMF fan), I can explain that The Good Soldier is a critical work that exemplifies the fragility of marriage in early twentieth-century Europe. I can interpret that, even with its title and publication proximity to World War I, the book is not about war but love—and having that love lost, not by war, but peace-time problems like mental illness and suicide. And I can apply that knowledge by comparing it to other canonical Modernist works (such as Mrs. Dalloway), illustrating its differences, as I did a couple years ago in my final year of my undergraduate program in a survey course on early twentieth-century Literature.

Yet to have perspective, to empathize—to have self-knowledge … these moments very rarely crop up in the classroom explicitly. They’re certainly intended to be learned a subconscious level (“textual power”). And I believe that a degree in English Literature, despite its lack of proximity to any real field of work but the academy, can be similarly applied to other doctrines/fields because of its practice in multi-faceted knowledge. But do we make that process explicit to our students? Do we even make it most explicit to ourselves? With designated learning outcomes we could at least get closer to addressing these two questions and answering them.

In regard to perspective and the larger picture, “So what?” is one of the most divisive remarks a professor can put on a student’s paper. Many students may find that kind of remark condescending. Others simply may not see the purpose behind it (something I spent a lot of time on as a campus writing tutor). Yet really, truly, all the professor is trying to get at is for the student to see the larger picture, to make certain the argument being made—and the thesis supporting it—is grounded in the perspective of legitimate “worthiness.”

Really, it’s hard to think that a classroom is ever NOT founded on learning outcomes, at least on a subconscious level. But by making them more explicit to ourselves, we may avoid confusion down the road in communication with our students and help overturn flawed “perspective” regarding the teaching of literature at the college level.