Oct 16, 2010

"CLA" as an Analogical Term

"What is the CLA?" I get asked by colleagues at Fayetteville State and from other institutions, on an almost weekly basis these days.  Their stances vary, not surprisingly, according to the character and intellectual dispositions of these colleagues (some people are less curious, some more, some attempt to get the big picture, others shy and wriggle away from it).  But their interest, their receptiveness, their attention, their "angle" also varies in dependence with two other factors:  what they think they might do with the CLA and why they think they might (or ought to) do whatever they have their mind set -- vaguely, to be sure, but set on.

A few nights ago, as I composed an email to a Czech colleague affiliated with a neo-Aristotelian journal and interested in the Collegiate Learning Assessment, I realized that a set of linguistic distinctions (which we share because of our philosophical formation) and work open up one particularly felicitous way to set out the scope of what the term "CLA" covers.  "CLA" is an analogous term.

(notice, not quite the same thing as analogy in general, a type of argument, trope, or form of inference)

There is a distinction whose first tentative technical conceptualization ultimately goes back to Aristotle, later refined by Medieval philosophers and theologians (and put to a lot of uses, particularly in theology!), then expanded in modernity by those studying language, argument, and metaphor (for example, the hermeneutic scholar Paul Ricoeur or the semiotician Umberto Eco) and now fairly routinely applied all the way by those whose philosophical formation includes a good solid basis in the classics of Philosophy.

The basic idea behind it is this:  a term which is analogous has multiple meanings, all of which are connected with each other in some way(s).  There is some core meaning to the term from which the other meanings derive and to which they remain connected, but this core meaning does not capture the entire fullness or range of meaning of the term.  The other, ancillary, spun-off meanings make their own contributions, expand the scope of the term, interconnect it with other terms and concepts.

For one hearing about analogy and analogical predication -- as I know from the experience of bringing it up with colleagues and teaching students about it -- at first this can be a bit confusing.  So. . .  the term does have a meaning, right?  . . .  but it's got other meanings, and these are all somehow connected with each other? So. . . Huh?

What I (and pretty much everyone else I know who teaches about this) do when faced with this initial confusion is explain the contrast between analogical terms and two other sorts:  univocal and equivocal. 

Univocal terms have one single meaning, and all not-simply-metaphorical uses of that term relate to that single meaning.  It's actually not that easy to come up with terms that in every and any context are univocal, not least since without realizing it we often rely upon analogy.  In clearly delineated contexts, it becomes much easier to find examples.  "HTML code" is an univocal term.  Granted it applies to an awful lot of objects or things, but the term is used the same way (as far as I know) in referring to that vast set of things.

"Seal" is a now-classic example of an equivocal term.  When teaching about equivocation, I'll ask the class for different meanings of the term, and they'll usually come up with four very quickly:  the animal that we see in the zoo or on television; the emblem of the state, country, or other office ; the action of closing something up (or sometimes the portion itself  that closes); and, this guy

The meanings of the terms are not related to each other.  The word "seal" refers to very different, unconnected things.  Of course, you might tie them all together in one sentence, for example:  "Seal took the baby seals and the state seal of North Carolina, and sealed them in a bag.  Still, all you would have done with this is heaped together words which denote different senses of the word "seal".

Of course, it might also refer, as they occasionally point out, to Navy Seals -- and now with that sense of the term we start getting back to the analogical.  Why are they called Seals, after all?  Because they are like the swift-swimming carnivorous animals, among other reasons.  These different senses of the term are connected analogically.

"Paper," which can mean the material, the material configured in various shapes, genres of writing set down on those configured materials, or a type of publication also put down on (differently) configured materials, is another good example of an analogous term.  "Health" and "healthy" are a classic example.

So, back to the CLA.  Many of the faculty (and even some of the students -- but different motivational structures for them) I end up talking with about the CLA understandably want to wrap their head around it, and to do so right away.  The context of discussion can change -- it  might be a faculty development seminar, a consultation with a program about incorporating the CLA into their major, a meeting about our five year Quality Enhancement Plan, or just conversation with an individual faculty member.  But the governing assumption remains the same, sometimes explicitly stated ("but the CLA is just. . . ."), sometimes just lying dormant, implicit, silently generating confusion in the hearer's mind.

Two approaches, oriented around different anchor-points, suggest themselves:

The CLA has its origin in the CLA test, used by schools for assessment of advancement of student learning,  graded and reported on by CLA Assessment. All the other meanings and referents of "CLA" derive historically from their relations with this testing tool.

Or, the CLA is a determinate approach, developed and taught by CLA in the Classroom, then implemented concretely by individual institutions, programs, faculty members.  All the meanings of "CLA" are tied together by their greater or lesser alignment with this approach.

In classic structural linguistics, or in semiology/semiotics, this contrast is immediately recognizable as the difference between adopting the diachronic perspective or the synchronic perspective. The first looks at history, development and change in time, the second at the articulated system as a whole, abstracting from time.  Adequately engaging the reality of a term, a thing, a phenomenon, of course, requires attention to both perspectives.

All of the meanings -- at least the ones germane to pedagogy -- of CLA relate back to these two core meanings.  The CLA is a form of test marked by several consistent general features and a growing number of instantiating exemplars.   It can be an "official" CLA Performance Task employed for assessment of "value-added," indexed to other measures such as incoming students' SAT scores, the results compared over time and to those of other institutions.

It can be an assessment tool like FSU's Rising Junior Examination, used as a second, independent means for institutional assessment of student learning.  That exam itself as a CLA, but we considered several "different CLAs" (i.e. Performance Tasks) as possibilities before settling on one.  We have already been assigned the task of creating another "CLA," this time incorporating the topic of personal responsibility.

It can also refer to an individual student response, so that one can speak of "having graded 20 CLAs today."  It can refer to the general approach, as when we say someone is "really good with the CLA" or "just started learning about the CLA".  This is the meaning somewhat erroneously used in advertising the Saturday Academy workshop I will provide in roughly four weeks, which has been billed as being on "CLA," but which will really focus on one main element of the CLA, the rubric, and the practice of grading.  Of course, learning more about one element, dimension,  or concept of the CLA does entail learning about the CLA more generally, since the parts do cohere.  Still, the confusion I anticipate when new junior faculty show up expecting a workshop which will introduce them to and lead them through all of the elements of the CLA, and find out that I will mainly talk about and provide them resources dealing with rubrics and grading shows that the term can be used in a more proper sense, closer to the core, and a less proper, more derivative sense.

So, long story short:  the CLA means a number of interrelated things.  It is not, like the old trope -- very old, in fact, going back to Jain polemics with Hindus and Buddhists in ancient India --someone brought up at a recent meeting, about the blind men discussing the elephant, up for grabs, meaning radically different things for different people.  It is possible to attain a synoptic, holistic understanding of what is comprised by the term, and what  its primary senses are.  So, when someone says they work with, or know, or use the CLA, perhaps the most prudent thing to do is to ask them precisely what they mean by the term.