Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The What?

The What?

            By “Diogenes”

Once upon a time I, Diogenes, taught at the College of San Hemlock. CSH had its quirks, but it was much livelier than the College of San Generic, its neighbor. Take for instance the building signage. At San Hemlock, my department’s office was in Socrates Hall, which had a Hemlock Cup icon. Galois Hall had a Pistol icon, Marlowe Hall had a Dagger icon and Trotsky Hall had an Icepick icon. At CSH, every hall’s icon was an image of what killed the hall’s honoree.

Some may question the good taste of this, but compare that to signage next door at the College of San Generic. At CSG, Socrates Hall’s icon was a vase, because Socrates was Greek, and so are vases. Edison Hall had a football icon because Thomas Edison was American, and so is football; and Curie Hall had a Polish Sausage icon because Marie Curie was Polish, and so is Polish sausage.

I preferred CSH’s signage system to CSG’s. The Hemlock Cup icon told a better tale than the Greek Vase icon. It was offensive but vivid. It also expressed the administration’s true attitude towards the faculty with refreshing clarity.

My department’s office was on the third floor of Socrates Hall, with the Hemlock Cup icon painted large on the wall next to the front door. The department was run by Dean Rubicon. She was an electronic manager, very cybernetic. The entire College of San Hemlock was very cybernetic, and correspondingly glitchy. Once I saw a whole restroom full of urinals all stuck on eternal-flush because of system error. Another time, in the middle of a summer heat-wave, the heaters at the tutoring center were on full blast. The IT staff was away for the long weekend, so the only solution was to open up all the windows. At the College of San Hemlock, the design philosophy was not to do anything right, but to do everything, right or wrong, by computer.

One fine day Dean Rubicon confronted me. She ordered me to submit the SLO. I said, “The what?” She told me that the SLO must be in every course syllabus; and that it meant Student Learning Outcomes. I thought this just meant the course topics, already listed on my syllabus; but no, that’s not the SLO. Perhaps the SLO was the textbook table of contents; but no, no, no, that wasn’t the SLO either! Then what’s an SLO? Dean Rubicon was vague yet urgent. As near as I could tell, the SLO was education’s mystical inner essence. It’s the pure Platonic ideal of learning; details don’t matter! The SLO’s the most important part of the syllabus, so how dare I not know what it is? How unprofessional of me! Having an SLO is college policy; so it didn’t matter what an SLO is, I just had to write one; or failing that, download one from the CSH website.

Baffled by such addled insistence, I queried the only person in the department office who knows anything; Belladonna, the Dean’s secretary. Belladonna explained that pressure for the SLO came from above. Chancellor Basilisk was struggling to save the college’s accreditation, and the accreditors were demanding compliance.

So I gave in. I logged onto the department’s website and looked up its SLO; two paragraphs of clotted educratese. The SLO quivered with the same vague terror that radiated from Dean Rubicon. I tried to read the foggy thing, but my mind couldn’t find the slightest trace of meaning. I then tried to insert the SLO into my syllabus’s file, but it failed to embed! Some weird invisibility code was attached to the text. Again I gave up; so I copied the SLO into another file, which I printed out separately, and xeroxed onto the back of the syllabus handout.

I handed out syllabi to all of my students on the first day of class. I insisted that they read and understand the entire syllabus; but I knew that the students wouldn’t read everything. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Or put it this way; students are more like cats than like dogs, for Fido will do whatever you want Fido to do, but Kitty will only do whatever Kitty wants to do.

I handed in the new syllabus, with SLO, to Dean Rubicon’s office; but the Dean heatedly demanded an electronic copy. The accreditors didn’t want a paper trail; they wanted computerized proof of compliance with their arbitrary demands.

I went home and turned on my work-station. I tried sending the office an email with the SLO attached; but the email failed. I looked for a blank thumb-drive to load the SLO onto. The only one I could find just then was on my daughter’s desk; a thumb-drive that looked like Speedy Gonzales. I loaded my SLO onto Speedy, I drove to CSH, I walked to Socrates Hall, and I plugged Speedy into Belladonna’s computer’s port. Belladonna speedily loaded my SLO onto her computer’s desk-top. Problem solved? No! Belladonna’s word-processor couldn’t read the file!

I sensed a weird pattern at work. When I heard of the SLO, my first response was  ‘the what?’ The dean was vague, colleagues were puzzled, the accreditors weren’t saying; and now even computers were displaying the same bewilderment! The SLO, a slippery beast, refused to be remembered, even by machines!

Belladonna fixed the glitch; she saved the file as a PDF, then transmitted it to her colleague’s computer. Problem solved! A good secretary is a pearl beyond price.

In retrospect, I admit that Dean Rubicon had a point. I erred by giving the wrong SLO to the wrong people. The accreditors didn’t want me to give a paper SLO - whatever that is - to the students; they wanted me to give an electronic SLO - whatever that is - to them. The SLO was a fraud and a sham, but it was their fraud and their sham. How unprofessional of me not to harmonize with the bogosity program.

Naturally the students ignored the SLO; it had nothing to do with them. The student body’s resolute apathy revealed principled indifference to nonsense, and reflexive rejection of babble. The students acquired these virtues by exposure to CSH bureaucracy. The College of San Hemlock was educational despite itself.

Still, the whole caper annoyed me. The SLO was an arbitrary assertion of power by out-of-touch bureaucratic empire-builders. The political dynamics were familiar; as usual Parkinson’s Law ruled, as did Murphy’s Law, the Peter Principle and every other iron law of bureaucracy. The corruption was stereotypical.

The SLO reminded me of Caesar’s incense. In the Roman Empire, subjects had to sacrifice a pinch of incense at Caesar’s altar. Those who refused to offer incense were thrown to the lions. The SLO was the incense, the accreditors were Caesar’s ravenous legions, and the faculty had to offer compliance. It was a test, not of faith but of subjugation. You had to offer incense, or be thrown to the lions, but you didn’t have to believe that Caesar’s a god. Only martyrs resist.

I’m no martyr, but fake gods bother me. So I wondered; how do you slay a fake god? With critical intelligence, of course, but also with humor; for a horselaugh is worth a thousand syllogisms. Aha! The weapon I needed was satire!

So one Friday morning on the campus of the College of San Hemlock, I ran an informal poll. I approached  students at random; I politely asked for a moment of their time to answer some questions. Bless their hearts, almost all of them had nothing else to do just then. I lost count of the sample size; more than a dozen but less than twenty; so call this poll unscientific if you wish. Nonetheless, here are the results, with divided and unanimous responses noted:

Q: When the semester began, did the instructor give you a syllabus sheet?
A(all): Yes.
Q: Did you read it?
A(divided): Yes / Some of it / I skimmed it.
Q: Did you read time, place, teacher, textbook, grading method?
A(all): Yes.
Q: Did you read everything important to you?
A(all): Yes.
Q: Did you read the SLO?
A(all): The what?

I, Diogenes, swear that every single student, when asked about the SLO, said “The what?” Those exact words! As did I, and the Dean, and even the computers!

Therefore it is unanimous; the SLO is the Unknown, the Undefined, the Infinitely Indistinct. It is a mind-breaking Zen koan. The SLO is nothing divided by nothing!

So here is my answer to the Riddle of the SLO:
What is the SLO?
The SLO is the What!

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