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The Humanities, Arts, and Education

Assessing the Humanities

The Academy’s Humanities Indicators takes a holistic view of the field, offering data that extend from early reading to children to older individuals’ visits to museums and historic sites. Marking the start of the 2016 National Humanities Conference, the Indicators released several updates about the public humanities this morning, describing the financial condition of key humanities institutions (state humanities councils, state library agencies, public libraries, and higher education). Alongside earlier reports that showed declines in time spent reading, as well as visits to public libraries and historic sites, these new analyses paints a picture of the humanities in the U.S. as having great vibrancy but also as facing challenges.

While the tracking of these data provides a big picture perspective on the infrastructure of the humanities, it offers only limited insight into the day-to-day experience of these institutions and the humanities in public life. The Humanities and Liberal Arts Assessment project (HULA) points to another way of looking at activity in the field, and tries to do so using humanistic approaches and tools. In the forum essay below, the HULA team (Danielle Allen, Maggie Schein, Christopher Pupik Dean, and David Kidd) describes its work, which start in the education sector but are now being extended to public humanities projects.

November 9, 2016

Assessment in the Humanities

posted By
Danielle AllenDanielle Allen is principal investigator of the HULA project, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and professor at Harvard University.
Maggie ScheinMaggie Schein, research director of the HULA project, is an educational consultant, teacher, and author of both fiction and non-fiction.
Chris Pupik DeanChris Pupik Dean is a researcher for the HULA project and is currently based at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
David KiddDavid Kidd is assistant research director of the HULA project and a postdoctoral fellow in social psychology at The New School for Social Research.

Assessment in the fields of the humanities and humanistic social sciences has been a durably challenging enterprise, regardless of whether the target of assessment is student learning, teacher or faculty performance, or the experience of public humanities audiences. Over the course of the last four years, our research team on Humanities and Liberal Arts Assessment (HULA) has developed a novel methodology for tackling this task. Our purposes in revisiting the question of whether it is possible to design assessment instruments that are appropriate to work in the humanities have been twofold. First, we have sought to equip humanistic practitioners—whether on campus or in public humanities settings—with tools to translate the impact of their work into the vocabulary of policy-makers and funders. Second, we have sought to equip these practitioners with tools that can provide meaningful insights into their work and support continuous improvement.

Scholars, teachers, and directors of humanities public programming are often told, explicitly or implicitly, that they can’t account for the impact or value of what they do. The suggestion is not merely that they haven’t found reasonable tools of assessment, but also that what they do may not be of much use at all. As someone who has labored in humanistic contexts and on behalf of the humanities for more than two decades, I know that neither of these suggestions is accurate. Humanists do have tools of assessment—for instance, the critical feedback written on student papers and the assignment of grades.   More... 

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