Into the Wilderness
Paul J. Willis

                                   We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a book,
And calculating profits—so much help
By so much reading. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth—
‘Tis then we get the right good from a book.
              —Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
               Aurora Leigh 1.702-09


In the college where I teach there is now an Office of Educational Effectiveness—which, to increase its Orwellian elegance, may as well be called the Office of Efficacious Educational Effectiveness. I have suggested we ban the term educational effectiveness and replace it with the word learning.

But what do I know?

The administrators in this office are dead set on measuring student learning outcomes, as they call them. As far as I can tell, measurable student learning outcomes are a figment of the utilitarian imagination. But the federal government and our accrediting agency believe in them—they very much believe in them—so we are told that we must believe in them as well. It so happens that the abbreviation for student learning outcome, SLO, is the same as that for a neighboring town, San Luis Obispo. I do believe in San Luis Obispo, so that is a start, I suppose.

I have a tendency to stand up in faculty meetings and start and stammer and blush and say that we are in danger of unweaving the rainbow, that for all our efforts to quantify them, teaching and learning remain a mysterious art, not an exact science. “I am not data!” I once announced. “My students are not data! I am so tired of hearing about data!” Then there was a long silence, and I was conscious of having said something overwrought and maybe even very stupid.

But this is an issue that does not go away for me. I lie in bed making up speeches to the faculty and administration. One of them goes like this: “Do we want to be a college? Do we want to be a liberal arts college? Do we want to be a Christian liberal arts college? Or do we want to be some junior varsity version of IBM!” (Thunderous applause.)

Just recently, I had a full year off from teaching, perhaps my last sabbatical before I retire. For several months I got to be an artist-in-residence in North Cascades National Park. My whole job there was to hike around and write poems about what I saw—which I did, with abandon. (Your tax dollars at work!) But I also found myself, in between poems, writing and recovering essays that seemed to be about learning—the kinds of learning I have done over a lengthening lifetime. Some of this learning has happened in the official capacity of student or teacher; some of it on the sly.

None of this learning can tolerate the confines of San Luis Obispo. In some cases it has taken thirty, forty, or fifty years to arrive at a kernel or narrative of reflection. I found myself noting in one particular essay that curiosity, love, and wonder always take circuitous paths toward understanding. That’s a hill I am willing to die on, as they say, so I have elevated these dying words into a mantra for my teaching. And gratitude is part of it as well, I think—gratitude for new and immeasurable understandings.

David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, recently said, “Why are we letting data geeks determine how we value an education? It’s not a quantifiable product” (Edwards, 2014: 35). I copied that quote in an email to our administration and heard back, at length, within thirty minutes, from our president, provost, and associate provost. I must have hit a nerve, I guess.

Where do I come by these convictions? It may not be an accident that I planned that collection of essays while living in a national park. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the presence of mountains and forests. My childhood home in Corvallis, Oregon, was built on the city limits. From our backyard, we looked across a dip of pasture to a tall ridge of Douglas fir in the Coast Range. On summer evenings, fresh winds from the ocean blew through those Doug firs, and I took this as an invitation, sometimes hiking alone for a day or two just to see what was there in the university-owned forest.

In high school my older brother and I began climbing the volcanic peaks of the Cascades, which we could also see from our house, east across the Willamette Valley. Then, in college, we began guiding wilderness trips together in the Sierra Nevada, the Trinity Alps, the Wallowa Mountains—as well as in the Cascade Range. And, eventually, we both became involved in grueling, on-the-ground political efforts to save and preserve wilderness.

All this must have informed my teaching. I think of a poem, a play, a class as a wilderness area full of unanticipated delights. Recently a friend and I went on a two-week backpack trip without a map, and this suited us just fine. “The freshness, the freedom, the farness,” writes Robert Service in “The Spell of the Yukon”—“O God! how I’m stuck on it all” (Service, 1940: 4).

If a classroom is like a wilderness area, I do not want to presume that I know what we will find there together. So I do not like to over-script my syllabi. I especially do not want to be in the fraudulent business of predicting measurable student learning outcomes. The classroom is not a factory—it’s a wilderness area. That is the metaphor I carry within me. You can calculate the number of board feet of timber in a forest, but once you have done that, it’s no longer a forest—it’s a pile of lumber on the ground. We need to step lightly on the path, be alert to what lies in wait beyond every switchback, every silent turn of the page, every hand that is not quite raised.

“Well,” I say as a teacher. “Will you look at that . . .”

But to all of you data geeks in the Offices of Efficacious Educational Effectiveness Everywhere, let me say that I am grateful even for you. Were it not for the irritations you daily provide, I might never have ventured quite so consciously upon these musings. (And were it not for the irritations I daily provide to you as well, your own lives would perhaps be much less interesting.) Also, it is just possible that in your feeble heart of hearts you do want people to learn, and that in my febrile heart of hearts I want people to learn too, so we might still have something in common. So, though I refuse to fill out your surveys and chart your charts and graph your graphs, I hope you will accept the outcome of my own meandering thoughts.

In other words, peace be with you.

But also with me.


Paul J. Willis is professor of English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. His most recent collection of poetry is Getting to Gardisky Lake (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2016).


Works Cited

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. New York: Norton, 1996.

Edwards, Haley Sweetland. “Should U.S. Colleges Be Graded by the Government?” Time 28 Apr. 2014: 32-35.

Service, Robert. Collected Poems. New York: Putnam’s, 1940.


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