Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A lesson in "outcomes"

Sometime in this technological era the word “outcomes” (the strange-sounding plural of the perfectly respectable “outcome”) crept into the language.

I’ve never encountered it in casual conversation. I do, however, become entangled with it while wrestling academic bureaucrats fixated on results. Except that they call “results” “outcomes.”

I suppose the word “results” would be just too common. To justify one’s rank (and salary scale) in the bureaucracy one must use “outcomes.”

“Outcomes” seems so scientific, so precise, so antiseptic — like its sister “inputs.”

You know, you put something “in” (usually a precisely measured quantity) and “out” it comes (usually a new, transformed, precisely measured quantity). I suppose that’s OK if you are making hamburger (cattle in, hamburger out), but what does it mean for a teacher to list educational “outcomes.”

As a teacher, I’m not sure — or wasn’t until recently.

The higher authorities at the community college wanted a description for a proposed course. I was to use the standard template, which asks for “intended outcomes.”

I paused. Might it be that UNintended “outcomes” are more important than “intended” ones? Perhaps I should throw in some of those. Something along the lines of “sex appeal,” “a Ferrari” or "bliss."

Instead, just to play it safe, I stuck with the “intended outcomes” and listed three.

• Ability to write clearly and concisely in an appropriate journalistic style
• Experience with editorial process and the demands of evolving journalism formats
• Awareness of various audiences and their needs

As “outcomes” go, I thought those were pretty good, but oh no….

My department chair informed me that the curriculum committee wants outcomes to be something “outside class and not something testable in the class.”

Ah soooo. . . .

Note the OUTside (not “in”). OUTside—OUTcomes. Get it? (also, grok outlaws, outdoors, outhouse, outsource, outsmart — but I digress.)

But what if, as in my short list, the outcomes are both outside and inside the class? And what if it is obvious how the “outcomes” I listed are useful in the world beyond the campus. It was obvious to me.

I ask you, have you ever been called on to write clearly and concisely outside the class room? Following graduation? Beyond the confines of a campus? Indeed, your employment, friendships and marriage may depend on it. Isn’t that obvious?

Apparently not to the curriculum committee, confined to campus as its members are. I got the sense that “outcomes” to them meant “economically useful.” It all comes down to money and being fit for employment.

Mercifully I wasn’t proposing a course on 19th Century poetry.

So I caved and embellished my original “outcomes” thus:

• Write clearly and concisely in an appropriate journalistic style to meet the demands of the journalism and public relations professions
• Experience with editorial process and the demands of evolving journalism formats to prepare for the requirements of the communications industry.
• Awareness of various audiences and their needs in order to communicate effectively.

Bingo! My department chair deemed my revised “outcomes” bulls-eyes.

As for me, the best part of this little dance was secretly transforming unintended “outcomes” into overt, intended ones.

One new “outcome” is to make sure that my students never, EVER, write “outcomes” when they mean “results.”

PS. The inevitable next step in the demise of “outcome” will be turning it into a verb. “How did you outcome with that class?” Yikes! That’s a mere word inversion away from “How did you come out with that class?” The outcome is near.

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