Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Numbers and Me

Yesterday, a student who came to my office said, "You used to teach English, didn't you?"

Even though I still teach, those kind of comments cause a brief emotional panic. Yesterday, I wanted to say, "Yes, I used to teach English, but now I do assessment."

Happily, I don't do assessment all the time. But yesterday was one of those days given over almost completely to assessment. Our department has a test that we give graduating students to try to determine how successful we've been in meeting our department objectives (objectives like acquiring communication skills, analytical skills, that kind of thing). Every so often, I need to set down with the test results and crunch some numbers.

Yes, there's probably a computer program that would do it for me, but I'm guessing that inputting the data would take almost as much time as just crunching the numbers myself.

So, much of yesterday, I counted right answers and wrong answers, and then I tried to analyze what it all meant. Should I be upset if only 55% of the graduating students got the Math questions right? Students can do the Math question that deals with measurements, but not the word problems. Should I look at the questions again? I'm resolved to rewriting the test only once a year. On and on I went in this vein.

I went home bleary-eyed and cotton-headed. So, I did what anyone would do: I made a batch of brownies.

Yes, I pulled down my Moosewood Cookbook, with its perfect brownie recipe. How many years have I been making these brownies? Well, almost 30 years, if you really must know. And I've never made a bad batch.

I settled down to my supper of wine and warm brownie bits. Unconventional, sure, but when you've spent countless hours staring at columns of numbers, you deserve a treat.

Today is our quarterly General Education Festival, which has morphed into a huge event, that showcases not only tie-dying, but student clubs, the library, and this month, a hurricane awareness event. Our Culinary Club sells delicious food. It's a wonderful day.

The goal of assessment is to quantify, so that we can be sure that we're actually doing what we say we're doing. The goal of assessment is to attach numbers to goals that could otherwise be vague and theoretical, and to track those numbers, so that we know for sure what we're doing.

A good brownie recipe does the same thing; it takes the abstract and ties it to the earthly realm. So does our tie-dye event.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, my father used to say. As a grown up, I understand far more fully than I did as a child.

Some day, I plan to write a poem about the modern numerology, our faith in numbers and data and quantifiable items, and our belief that we can use those to foretell the future. But not this morning. It's time to start thinking about dyes and how they interact with white fabric!

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