Learning Outcomes for the End of the Worldby Elizabeth Kate Switaj
for Benjamin Pérez
“It’s the ultimate teachable moment,” said Malcolm as a comet, curled at the end like a ram’s horn, streaked through the corner of red sky visible through the broken glass of the skylight. “And as a liberatory pedagogue…”
“Would you shut up with that already?” Christi had brought a bottle of Green Bush to the emergency learning outcomes meeting of the general education committee—along with a necklace of what she claimed were devils’ teeth. Her long auburn hair she had shaved off when the apocalypse first began, and she now covered her scalp with a blood-stained bandanna. No one dared ask whose blood it was, so no one knew she had been trying to save the head of her department. Not that they would have believed her. They all knew that the two of them had had a screaming match about course outlines the night the first signs of the apocalypse appeared. “We’ve all read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It doesn’t make . . .”
“Christi.” Ordinarily Kevin would have been the one to tell her to put the bottle away, but given the circumstances, he just shook his head. She rolled her eyes and poured a shot into his empty violet mug. He clinked her bottle, and they drank.
The meeting was supposed to have been held in the Board of Regents Conference Room, but the whole administrative wing had fallen into a gaping maw of hell during the most recent tremor. Even the deans didn’t want to go down there—never mind the demons: there was no air conditioning—so they were all crowded around Dean X’s personal conference table.
She spoke: “I know the apocalypse is a stressful time for us all, and certainly if we follow the SLOs and GLOs”—the dean pronounced them as if they really were sluggish, shimmering worms—“on our set course outlines, it would be near impossible.”
Dean Y spoke from the other end, underneath the AC unit, which occasionally coughed out sulfur and a gasp of ice. “We cannot, for example, expect students to understand and apply the steps necessary to maintain health in life and studies with all this pestilence about.”
“We do not want you to let go of rigor.” Dean X pulled a machete out from under the table and cut off her long, black braid. “But there is no point in teaching to a standard if students will inevitably fail. For one thing, it would be rather damaging to our retention rates.”
“Retention?” Christi put down her bottle. “You know we’re going to lose them all, right? Our retention rate will be zero. Nada. Zilch. Because they’ll all be—”
“Christi,” said Kevin, “we don’t know how long these last days will last.”
“—and does anyone here honestly believe the accreditors will be checking shit like this, even if the End of Days persists for years?” Christi picked up her whiskey and tilted her head back for another drink.
“That issue aside,” said Dean Y, “morale is already low among students. Setting them impossible goals would be disastrous.”
“I always say that,” said Malcolm. “We should have flexibility in our outcomes if we want to be truly lib—“
Christi slammed her bottle down on the hardwood, but before she could say anything, Kevin tapped her on the shoulder and whispered, “That health example: was that a slow or a glow?”
She stage-whispered back. “Anything so general as to not have an actual meaning is a g-as-in-general GLO. If it’s a specific and oppressive standard, then it’s an SLO.”
Kevin smiled and half-shrugged. He had complained more than anyone when the announcement went out that they would be having a meeting on how to revise learning outcome statements in light of the End of Days, yet unlike most of the committee members, he had come. Of course, most of them weren’t staying away on purpose. They weren’t doing anything on purpose anymore, or, if they were lucky, anything at all.
Malcolm brushed a locust off of the table and folded his hands in front of him. “I think students are entitled to know what they’re going to learn.”
“Malcolm,” said Kevin, “I’ve been holding her back, but she’s right and the apocalypse is pretty much here. Do you really want to continue down that road?”
“I want his answer minuted!” Christi chirped.
“In the face of the impending catastrophe,” a whole chunk of Dean Y’s gray hair fell from his head, “it is more important than ever that we maintain collegiality. War may be one of the horsemen, but he is not welcome here.”
“Ohhh,” said Christi, “I thought this was the war room!”
“That’s why we can’t fight in it!” Kevin laughed at his own joke before Christi had the chance.
“Anyway, aren’t you the one taking the notes, Christi?” Genevieve usually spoke up sooner during meetings, but the rainbow of pustules that had appeared on her face had made her shy.
“Fu—“ Christi caught Dean Y’s eye as he shook his head “I mean, faculty . . . I only do that for Faculty Senate, and we haven’t had a quorum since the grocery stores burned.”
“You still might be the best person for it,” Genevieve insisted.
“Best person? Did you notice that I’m drunk?”
“We all noticed,” said Dean Y. “But in light of the mitigating—”
“Rain of toads!” Christi had gone falsetto.
“Pus, blood, and viscera!”
“And, more broad—”
“Warfare! Firestorms! Death and—”
Dean X broke in: “In light of the mitigating circumstances, we have lifted the alcohol ban on campus, at least for faculty, and we hardly need the meeting minuted. The website is permanently non-functional, so it will not be posted there, and everyone who is not here has no doubt gone elsewhere on a more permanent basis.”
“That’s very generous of the administration.”
“Generous would be providing us booze, Malcolm. But look, I’ll make up for all my cruelty. Have a glass?”
“I never liked you.” Green lightning sliced through the gash in the skylight, leaving runic marks in the center of the table where a pitcher of faintly brackish water had sat before. Malcolm blanched.
Christi laughed. “Drink with me anyway?”
He shrugged. She poured a few fingers into a glass that had survived the mini-inferno.
A screeching creature, its skin all blistered and burnt, burst into the room and made a run at Dean X who calmly beheaded it with her machete. “Let us return to the matter at hand. We know our course outcomes match up with our program outcomes, but—”
“Wait,” said Genevieve, “wasn’t that . . . I mean the body, under the scars, it looks like . . . from education . . .”
“I think you’re right,” said Christi. “I was wondering why they weren’t here. Usually education loves this kind of shit.”
Malcolm set down his glass. “That’s because they’ve studied—“
“Don’t say it,” said Christi.
They both drank.
Dean Y said it might be wise to avoid speculating on the state of colleagues who were not there.
“Not here?” said Christi. “You know, I’ve been a good girl and tried to work within the system, but that’s about the limit of my tolerance for bureaucratic doublespeak. The body’s right there! She’s right here! How about this for a learning outcome? Understand that the world’s ending and there’s nothing we can do, but carry on as if anything we do will have meaning when all of this is through.”
“I think,” said Dean X, “that might be a little complicated for a single learning outcome.”
“Ignore what’s in front of your face! Literally! Literally literally! Keep doing what you’ve been doing despite its total fucking irrelevance because if you don’t you’ll despair utterly. Explain why despair should be avoided during an apocalypse. Redefine meaning for the end of the world. Understand that meaning can be goddamn anything because it’s fucking nothing now.”
“Those are good ideas,” said Dean Y, “if we take out the profanity, of course.”
“We will have to work out what it means to meet these objectives at the beginning, adequate, developing, and excellent levels,” said Dean X.
“And categories,” said Dean Y, “for its rubric. You know the process. Those come first.”
“Of course,” said Dean X.
“Perseveres,” said Malcolm, “that could be the first category.”
Dean Y smiled. “In the face of—”
“Fuck. This. Shit. I’m going back to my office and burning those student files I was supposed to shred before the rain of blood corroded the shredder. At least when I die, I’ll be FERPA-compliant, right?” Christi took her alcohol with her.
“Aren’t you going to go after her, Kevin?” asked Genevieve.
“I think she wants to be alone.”
“No one wants to be alone at the end of the world,” said Dean X.
“I think understanding that should be one of our learning outcomes,” said Dean Y.
“I’m afraid,” said Kevin.
“We all are,” whispered Genevieve.
“He means of her,” said Malcolm, finishing his whiskey.
“So did I.”
“She’s just a lot . . .” Kevin swallowed. “I think I can contribute something here. She was . . . Christi is really better at it than I am, but she showed me how to build spaces inside the . . . language for resist . . . I guess I shouldn’t say . . .”
“Don’t worry,” said Malcolm, “I’ve got liberation covered.”
“That’s what I’m worried about. That’s what she would be worried about if she weren’t . . . distracted.”
“Kevin,” said Dean X, “there’s nothing you can do here. Not that matters. Not that makes a difference.”
“Is that because none of this matters or because I’m no good at it?”
Genevieve smiled. “You know the answer to that.”
Kevin pulled the corners of his lips back; it wasn’t quite a smile. He rose and walked across the room, taking his mug with him, but he stopped at the door. “None of you have to stay here.”
“Have to?” Genevieve’s palm brushed her face. “No, that’s true.”
“But for those of us in this room,” said Dean Y, “this is the most important thing we have to do right now.”
“Until,” said Dean X, “Until . . .”
“I understand,” said Kevin. He bowed slightly and left.
“Now,” said Dean Y, smiling beatifically, “let us get on with this rubric . . .”