Ahmed Afzaal’s recent piece in The Chronicle, “Grading and its Discontents,” touches on a dynamic hot topic in higher education, student obsession with “the grade.” Afzaal presents several key arguments aimed at distinguishing performance grades from actual learning. He rightfully illustrates how peers, parents, and pre-college schooling have shaped this grade-oriented mentality, but we ought to also consider how the environment of higher education enables it. Too often classrooms reinforce the goals of the individual; students are held to individual expectations and assessed on individual performance. Certainly group activities may temporarily expand responsibility beyond the student to multiple members of class, but this is rarely tied to the overall purpose of the course. What is lacking is a sense of camaraderie.
Imagine a major league baseball team. Individual players are assessed in a variety of statistical categories: earned run average, home runs, on base percentage, innings pitched, etc. These statistics serve individual player goals for free agency, salary arbitration, and promotion from the minors to the majors. But what happens when a team is making a run for the playoffs? The only statistic that matters is team wins. All of a sudden the individual goals are not the driving force of the players. Clenching a wild card spot, knocking off a division rival team, and winning the Pennant and World Series are now the aspiration for all members of the team, something special and uniquely shared within the group. There is camaraderie in this pursuit and it brings out the best in players.
Imagine a non-profit organization’s devotion to a measure on an upcoming election ballot. The stakes are high. The amount of work required to have an edge is endless. There are no 40-hour work weeks. Late nights, creativity, teamwork, and resourcefulness are required. The members of this team develop camaraderie through the collective experience. The push leading up to the election resembles a semester course: the timeline may be limited but the outcomes will be lasting.
So how do we create this environment in the classroom? First we have to convince students that the stakes are much higher than grades. There are a number of ways to accomplish this: current events, service learning, community outreach, simulations, games, undergraduate research, etc. If students buy into the outcomes of these goals, then they will have a purpose in the class other than “the grade.” A second step is to show students that their semester in the class is a unique experience. When curricular courses are taught by professors the same way each time, there is nothing special about being in a particular section in a given semester. I’m not saying that professors have to start completely from scratch. Framing a course around an unique objective can help students bond and place their efforts into something far greater than their individual pursuits.
It is no surprise that service learning continues to gain momentum in liberal arts curricula, since the outcomes resonate well with many college mission statements. Preparing students for community and global citizenship is and should be a major priority. The new, peer-reviewed “Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education” illustrates the interdisciplinary conversations of this growing component of the liberal arts in the 21st century. Many majors are building in service learning courses and projects to engage students in relevant applications of theory to practice.
Some traditional liberal arts fields, including my own, however, have left the responsibility of service learning to other departments. But I suspect (and hope) that the growing interest in service learning pedagogy and the success of student writing across the curriculum initiatives will inspire faculty in all disciplines to altruistic pursuits. Music has understandably ignored the pedagogy of service learning for two main reasons: 1) students already give to the community through a variety of concerts, tours, and workshops. Everyone from young children to senior citizens benefit from these offerings. 2) Music students gain knowledge and relevant experience through these performance opportunities. The issue with this model is that there is a disconnect between volunteerism and the actual learning. Students are not expected to reflect and articulate the gifts of music to the cultural vibrancy of their communities.
Any field and subfield can develop a service learning component, but faculty should take a thoughtful and practical approach to designing a successful experience. A deterrent to exploring this possibility is the content course–no surprise! Any attempts to coordinate community partnerships with the schedule of course topics will be a challenge and the result could be a poor educational experience for students and an awkward exchange with the community. It is better to identify relevant needs and pair skills that can meet those needs.
The research paper assigned in my upper-level music history course requires several transferable skills, notably archival research methods and writing. Local libraries and historical societies house unkept artifacts of musical life that, while rarely conforming to course content goals, offer something culturally significant to the community if properly catalogued, interpreted, and shared by the able hands of undergraduate music majors. In the process of working with local collections, student have an opportunity to develop archival research skills while actively engaging with local history. While the exercise may not meet content needs, it certainly meets skill development needs as students have an opportunity demonstrate the relevance of their major and the course through service. Where local organizations find difficulty in managing collections with limited funds, students can help and learn something in the process.