The Reaccreditation Blog is Your Communication Center

This blog provides a space where those of us who are working on the reaccreditation self-study can communicate with the rest of the campus without overwhelming you with email. The reaccreditation team will post information on this site that will be used for the North Central Association team visit in 2010. We will try to post updates regularly to let everyone know how our work preparing for that visit is progressing. We will also use this space to raise issues that come up in the course of our self-study that might be of interest to the entire community.

And we want to hear from you. We welcome your comments, opinions, and questions. Please use this blog to make your voice heard and tell us what you believe makes Kenyon the institution it is today by responding to our posts. And don’t forget to check out our web site at

Monday, July 27, 2009

On Serendipity

In favor of the new idea, the unanticipated epiphany, the bolt from the blue.

Having written previously in defense of assessment and trying to explain its potential benefits, let me know say something on the other side. What are the shortcomings of the assessment centered university? What do we risk losing in our rush to measurement?

All of the calls for accountability and assessment in higher education today risk taking so much of our time teaching to and then documenting success at checklists of facts, skills, and experiences that we risk obliterating the single most important feature of higher education--especially liberal arts education--and that is the luxury of the time and space to create a lively and engaged environment in which smart people--teachers and students--can come together and think the previously unthought. This process is at heart unpredictable and so unmeasurable, but it is also the motor of innovation.

The unthought of, the unplanned, the serendipetous conjuncture of time, place, and chance, can never be assessed, can never be accounted for. But we all know how exciting it can be when all of the pieces fall into place, when some new and exciting idea (not in the lesson plan) takes shape in the middle of a discussion or a paper. Colleges cannot promise that every student will have an epiphany, though of course we hope that they do. We can try to inculcate facts, figures, names and dates, we can cultivate habits of mind like thoughtfulness, critical reading, good writing, but we cannot assure the big bang. It's not that such experiences are ineffable. That's not my claim. We can pretty accurately describe (after the fact) what happened when a student or group of students suddenly has an important insight. Rather, we can't predict how or when they will happen. They are insights precisely to the extent that they are unexpected; they cannot be anticipated and so can't be planned for, listed as a goal, and then measured. Worse, to create classroom situations that facilitate such experience is hugely risky, since one can never guarantee that one's students will reach the desired destination, precisely because there is no desired destination. The spontaneous occurrence of something we didn't plan is what we mean by serendipity. It has to "just happen" and to do so, we have to run the risk that nothing at all could equally well happen in the classroom (which seems to be the heresy we fear).

A good college education must create the circumstances in which students--and teachers-- have the chance to experience these kind of ground-moving insights. These opportunities should not be limited to the best and brightest. The insight of the C student who struggles and struggles and suddenly "gets it" is as important as the honors student who effortlessly writes a "graduate level" essay. Space needs to exist in syllabi, class discussions, assignments, curricula, group work for these moments to happen.

We can perhaps measure the ability to analyze, synthesize, memorize, and categorize, but we will never measure the epiphany, the "aha" moment. And too much focus on measuring, assessing, and accounting may risk smothering those flashes.

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