Good afternoon. It’s my pleasure and honor to welcome the class of 2009, along with all returning and transfer students, staff, faculty, and esteemed guests to the beginning of this new academic year.
I have some mercifully brief remarks to share with you. For my few moments with you today, I would like to direct your attention to the question of ASSESSMENT.
Now, if you are a perceptive and close reader of body language, you will have noticed that when I said the word assessment, there was a stiffening -- something akin to a wince -- within the collective faculty body in front of you. The flash of white that you saw next was the faculty’s eyes rolling back up into their heads. Only years of practice kept them on their chairs at all. This is because assessment has been heavy on our minds these days, in some new and challenging ways.
You, however, are no strangers at all to assessment. You have been assessed in countless ways all of your lives, so much so that at times you may have felt as though you were the subject of an oppressive scientific study. You’ve handed in research papers, solved equations, formulated hypotheses, and conducted interviews all as part of being evaluated. You’ve made art projects, performed recitals, played in the big game, and memorized Baudelaire, in French.
And the tests! The PSATs, the SATs, the ACTs, it’s enough to drive you to crank up an MP3 of AC/DC loud enough to alter your DNA, and wonder why you didn’t just settle for a GED. And of course, all of this was in the contexts of other ways in which you have felt assessed, by your family, your friends, and by people you don’t even know.
We aren’t really strangers to assessment either. We gave up lofty scholarly pursuits and the writing of exciting classroom lectures long ago to spend time assessing each other, and to spend time devising the bizarre and internecine tools that we will use on you in classes starting this week.
What is new for us is the question of how we assess what we do as an institution. Ostensibly, we’re here to help you get yourselves an education. We teach, you learn, we assess you, and you are on your way, presumably more educated. But what does that really mean? What will you be able to do more of, differently, and better in four years than you could when you arrived a few days ago? And if we can define what it is that we are trying to teach, how can we measure if we are successful?
These questions are very important to us as an institution, and answering them will be an ongoing challenge. But let me turn the question around a little and challenge you. How will you measure your own success? Let me rephrase that a little: How will you know if you were good at college? How will you assess yourself?
If you want to be entirely passive about it, you can accept all of the external criteria of teachers, coaches, bosses, family, and peers, and leave it at that. But a passive approach is a narrow one, and it robs you of agency, of your capacity to act and decide for yourself. An active approach puts the responsibility in your own hands. This might seem like a burden, but spending time trying to figure out what really matters to you will help you to know what to do, what path or paths to take, and how to take them.
You have chosen to go to college, something that only about one percent of the world’s population gets to do. It is a tremendous privilege. You’ve chosen a liberal arts college, where you will be challenged to develop your critical thinking abilities and study a wide variety of ways of knowing the world.
And you have chosen a school that has a stated interest in getting you to think beyond reading and writing and even critical thinking to questions of the global community, of ethics and diversity and all aspects of the human condition. Now that you are here, what do you want to do with all of these resources?
How to figure out what matters to you is a question unto itself. Action is your best bet. Action helps you figure out who you are. Action is the body of passion. It is no coincidence that so much social change has happened in cultures worldwide through the actions of students. Action propels you to test your assumptions, to voice your opinions and wrestle with those of others, and action puts you in situations where you encounter what you did not know before. With action, growth is inevitable.
I suspect that if you act, if you get involved, if you speak up in class, if you really listen, if you play, if you pay attention, if you do service, if you go abroad, if you argue, if you offer help and if you accept it, you will find that the line between knowing what to do and assessing what you’ve done will begin to fade. And as the external measures of what you do become less and less important relative to the internal ones, you will know that you have done well indeed.
Faculty Address, Nicholas Ruth, associate professor of art
August 31, 2005