What’s in a name?

When I first floated the idea of a weekly column, everyone in the Dean’s office seemed to be on board.  But when I proposed calling it “Delicious Ambiguity,” I got more than a few funny looks.  Although these looks could have been a mere byproduct of the low-grade bewilderment that I normally inspire, let’s just say for the sake of argument that they were largely triggered by the apparent paradox of a column written by the measurement guy that seems to advocate winging it.  So let me tell you a little bit about the origins of the phrase “Delicious Ambiguity” and why I think it embodies the real purpose of Institutional Research and Assessment.

This particular phrase is part of a longer quote from Gilda Radner – a brilliant improvisational comedian and one of the early stars of Saturday Night Live.  The line goes like this:

“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.  Delicious Ambiguity.”

For those of you who chose a career in academia specifically to reduce ambiguity, this statement probably inspires a measure of discomfort.  And there is a part of me that admittedly finds some solace in the task of isolating statistically significant “truths.”  I suppose I could have named this column “Bland Certainty,”  but – in addition to single-handedly squelching reader interest – such a title would suggest that my only role at Augustana is to provide final answers – nuggets of fact that function like the period at the end of a sentence.

Radner’s view of life is even more intriguing because she wrote this sentence as her body succumbed to cancer.  For me, her words exemplify intentional – if not stubborn – optimism in the face of darkly discouraging odds.  I have seen this trait repeatedly demonstrated in many of you over the last several years as you have committed yourself to help a particular student even as that student seems entirely disinterested in  learning.

Some have asserted that a college education is a black box; some good can happen, some good does happen – we just don’t know how it happens.  On the contrary, we actually know a lot about how student learning and development happens – it’s just that student learning doesn’t work like an assembly line.  Instead, student learning is like a budding organism that depends on the conduciveness of its environment; a condition that emerges through the interaction between the learner and the learning context.  And because both of these factors perpetually influence each other, we are most successful in our work to the degree that we know which educational ingredients to introduce, how to introduce them, and when to stir them into the mix.  The exact sequence of the student learning process is, by its very nature, ambiguous because it is unique to each individual learner.

In my mind, the act of educating is deeply satisfying precisely because of its unpredictability.  Knowing that we can make a profound difference in a young person’s life – a difference that will ripple forward and touch the lives of many more long after a student graduates – has driven many of us to extraordinary effort and sacrifice even as the ultimate outcome remains admittedly unknown.  What’s more, we look forward to that moment when our perseverance suddenly sparks a flicker of unexpected light that we know increases the likelihood – no matter how small – that this person will blossom into the life-long student we believe they can be.

The purpose of collecting educational data should be to propel us – the teacher and the student – through this unpredictability, to help us navigate the uncertainty that comes with a process that is so utterly dependent upon the perpetually reconstituted synergy between teacher and student.  The primary role of Institutional Research and Assessment is to help us figure out the very best ways to cultivate – and in just the right ways – manipulate this process.  The evidence of our success isn’t a result at the end of this process.  The evidence of our success is the process.  And pooling our collective expertise, if we focus on cultivating the quality, depth, and inclusiveness of that process, it isn’t outlandish at all to believe that our efforts can put our students on a path that someday just might change the world.

To me; this is delicious ambiguity.

Make it a good day,



4 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. I like it! Thanks, Mark, for expanding your reach and posting on InsideHigherEd.com.
    Another challenge in trying to get too precise with measuring learning is that many outcomes don’t show up along a predictable timeline. Some seeds (ideas, habits, attitudes) that get planted take years to germinate, sprout, and blossom.

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. It is as enriching personally as it is professionally. I research issues around how data are used in schools; I’m also interested in things like complexity theory and how school organizations deal with ambiguity. You’ve given me some food for thought. At the same time, you’ve helped me put into words some of what I love about classroom life. This is especially timely because I’m supposed to speak to some undergraduates about vocation next week, and you put it much better than I could have!

    • Thanks for the kind words. There is some very interesting work by Keith Sawyer and others who think about applying the principles of improvisation – originally coming from the work of Viola Spolin and others in the world of improvisational theater – to teaching in elementary and secondary education. It might be interesting to apply this stuff to examine how organizations behave as well.

  3. Pingback: Breakthrough | Datapulted

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