Dear Cynical Professor: How Did Your Students Change the World?

Last week I mentioned to a class of mine that I hoped to grow up and one day to become an old, wise, cynical, professor (I didn’t say “with elbow patches,” because that’s obvious). The students laughed, but I didn’t really mean it as a joke. Turns out, I don’t think they appreciated my dedication to the cynical part. They are still yet young and hopeful.

I really do think cynics play an important role in society, but this week I’m changing my personal timeline slightly after the reading for a course I’m taking at NDSU. In a chapter called, “English Education” Robert Yagelski, professor at SUNY-Albany uses Paulo Freire to rock my academe world (from Bruce McComskey’s collection, English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s).)

mgyUUaeI won’t summarize the chapter because, well, it uses big words and this is a blog post after all. But Yagelski says, in short: we must remember all education comes with values and assumptions. It necessarily shapes “knowledge, skills, and beliefs” whether we admit it or not. So, let’s not pretend otherwise and get over it, let’s use our power as (English) teachers to change the world.

Sure, it’s a “Utopian project,” as Yagelski puts it, but one that world desperately needs.

But, I’m sure you’re wondering, in our academic context of assessment gone wild, how do we measure this pedagogical vision?

Certainly not by standardized tests, or even narrative faculty evaluations.

Such a way of teaching moves from language of “fulfilling credits” in the first place. So, I say, if we’re educating to change the world, let’s assess that.

This takes me back to Concordia College where the theme of our core curriculum is about becoming responsibly engaged in the world. How should we assess this bold goal?

What if we connected with graduates 5, 10, and 20 years after graduation and ask not how much they’re making, or how many SUVs are in their garage, but “How have you changed the world for the better?

Screw the scantrons. Let’s measure social action. Let’s measure poverty alleviation. Let’s measure climate change reduction. Let’s measure lives saved, mouths fed, and minds filled.

Cynicism has its place (as do elbow patches). But even so, I’m grateful that Dr. Yagelski gave me a boost of inspiration this week of Thanksgiving. I—and my students—needed it.


  1. donna monteith says

    As a member in good standing of POEM, (Professional Organization of English Majors,) I feel obligated to point out that “it’s” means “it is,” while “its” is the possessive. Proofread, my dear, proofread!

  2. says

    Of course, I love the idea of long term assessment. The real question becomes how to determine “for the better”? How close would our versions of better be even across academe, across a department? But I am sounding like a cynical old professor. Let’s change assessment – and the world.

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