What's the Metric, Kenneth?

David Clemens

Clare Cavanagh was in town last week for our colloquium on “Imaginative Freedom and Political Freedom.”  A celebrated translator, Clare is also the author of Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics (2010) in which she analyzes how the lyric poem served as a form of resistance and subversion in communist Eastern Europe.  She stresses how the lyric presumes that each of us has a solitary, private, and unique inner being which determinist, mechanist, and collectivist communism cannot tolerate since that unitary self lies beyond the reach of the state. The same week, the Wall Street Journal (10/22) published an article about quantifying the worth of professors (from the same folks who brought you the Skinnerian snake oil of SLOs).  In this latest move, professorial value reduces to profit produced for the college with no notice of anything that can’t be immediately observed, measured, or counted.  But the real value of a professor can’t be observed, much less measured, because it happens for the student in Cavanagh’s internal and private self, sometimes years later.

Last week I got two emails from former students, the first on Robert Hutchins’ The Great Conversation:

I opened that book and I felt like Hutchins spoke to me personally across the decades, saying that `…reading these books will make you a better companion to yourself.’”

And this:

Almost a year and a half after taking your class (Summer 2009), I'm still finding all sorts of references to the materials we read/watched and love that I have a broader perspective on the topics they address.”

I think my students found my classes worthwhile but darned if I know what metric can quantify my value.

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