18 June 2007

Still Measuring Horses' Asses

I have a story I tell my students about a pot roast, to help illustrate cause and effect to them. (This is as opposed to the meatloaf story, which teaches them about subtext.)

You will have to register for one of my classes to hear the pot roast story in action, but at this morning's outcomes assessment seminar for faculty development--which proved to be much more fascinating than it sounds--I heard a parallel story, one that illustrates critical thinking.

We were asked, "Does anyone know why American standard gauge railroad tracks are five feet four inches apart?"

Oddly, I knew this, being a veritable font of useless information (read: librarian), and answered, "Because that's how far apart Roman chariot wheels were." I got a lot of bewildered looks from my colleagues from various community colleges around the area, and a grin from the speaker. I was, of course, correct.

Then he wanted to know if I knew why. "Um, because I'm Caesar, and I decree it to be so?" (this was when I got accused of being a mom.) The ultra-short version of the reason behind this arcane bit of trivia is that most railroads in this country were designed and built by British engineers, and that's how far apart they made railroad tracks--because early railroad cars were made of old wagon parts, and wagons were that width to match the pre-existing ruts in the Roman roads....and that this is how far apart the chariot wheels were.

Which is, of course, how wide chariot axles have to be to accommodate two horses.

Duh, you're probably saying. Of course. Why didn't I think of that? (At least, that's what I was saying at this point, although anyone who's ever taken Roman history classes or lived with a Roman history scholar knows that my answer is just as likely a scenario.)

The speaker was trying to make the point that outcomes assessments in education are outdated. Why, he asked, are we still using the same sorts of assessment tools that we were in the 1950s?

It was at this point that some genius in the back corner (who shall remain, of course, nameless, but she now goes by the nickname of Caesar in the workshop) "Because we're still trying to measure things with the same horse's ass."

By the way, yes, my department chair was in this seminar and yes, I do still have a job.

1 comment:

Deirdre said...

Good story - it made me laugh.