Reflections on ‘Learning Outcomes’, Research, and Writing in Academia

In current university pedagogy we are encouraged to plan our teaching around ‘Learning Outcomes’. The course ends with an assessment to see if the ‘Learning Outcomes’ have been achieved. But now I’m on research leave, no longer teaching, I am floating freely, drifting from one idea to the next, and for the first time in years(!) there is no framework that I’m supposed to be in. I’ve had the space to pursue knowledge that, until recently, I didn’t even know I didn’t have. That’s how research works. You start with one question, but that leads to more questions, and those lead to even more questions until you have learned an awful lot, but still have more questions than you could possibly have time to answer within the time you have. I’m not sure how I’d translate this onto the pattern of ‘learning outcomes’ even if I wanted to.

It’s taken me a while to switch into curiosity mode and to allow my brain to work in this inquisitive way again. My last ten years, on both sides of the assessment and teaching sausage machine, have indoctrinated me with the idea that there are ‘desired outcomes’ and that either my own or my student’s knowledge will at some point be quantified. It’s hardly surprising, then, that in the first weeks of my research leave, I found myself compelled by the urge to be ‘productive’, but not knowing what to produce. Nor did I realise that I had to water the soil in my brain before anything was going to grow in it.

After a few weeks of giving my poor, dried out brain some gentle watering and a sprinkling or two of fertilizer (art! novels! sleep!), I am now surprised each day to have ideas growing in all directions. I find myself hurtling down internet rabbit holes, clutching at whatever I see on the way down, occasionally dangling for a while before tumbling gleefully on my way. Aha! This is what learning is supposed to feel like! And at the end of each day, I feel I want to shout from the roof-tops what I have learned.

But once I’m up there on the roof I often find myself asking, what if everyone else already knew that anyway? I worry that what I’ve learned might have been obvious to everyone else, that it’s not worthwhile if someone else already knew it.  That’s the old internalised sausage machine again – telling me that what I’ve learned should be measurable against some kind of standard (and preferably, in some way, excelling beyond that standard), rather than affirming my sense that the journey I’ve been on has been valuable in itself.

As I’ve been thinking more about writing, and who I write for, I have been asking myself about the differences between writing for my academic peers and for those exotic, unknown readers outside of that category. I feel that when I write for academics I am supposed, first, to find out what they know, so that I can show them what I know that they don’t know. But, to be honest, I’m getting a bit tired of this way of approaching knowledge. Of course I can profit hugely by reading other academics’ work, but do I want to write exclusively back to those same people? If so much of that process entails telling them what they already know, in order to show them where I’ve done something ‘ground-breaking’, then perhaps not.

The concept of a ‘literature review’ is also bound up in the idea of intellectual property, isn’t it? We cite scholars in order to not plagiarise their work, not to ‘steal’ their ideas. But the concept of intellectual property is a bit bananas, given that two people can come to the same idea on their own, without realising. Or given that we often write, not to show off what we know, but actually to find out what we know. This is where, I fear, academic writing under neoliberalism has come unstuck from its actual purpose, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Socrates supposedly said that ‘Wisdom is knowing how little we know.’ He didn’t say that ‘wisdom is being able to show you what I know that you don’t.’ And when Hannah Arendt was asked what she thought the effect (Wirkung) of her work would be, she replied, ‘When I work, I’m not interested in the effect of my work. […] That’s a masculine question. Men always want to be seminal. […] I just want to understand.’

This period of leave from teaching has shown me, above all, that I need practice in writing and thinking outside of ‘learning outcomes’, and that’s why I’m writing these posts. If you’ve read this far, thanks for sticking with me, and maybe we can free ourselves together.

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