Archive for Todd Pettigrew
Todd Pettigrew, PhD, is Associate Professor English at Cape Breton University. He blogs for Maclean's OnCampus on university issues. Follow him on Facebook (Pettigrew On Campus) and on Twitter (@toddpettigrew).
On whether an Alberta art teacher went too far
Lately there has been, it seems, a rash of incidents where professors have been accused of crossing the line of decent instruction, with ensuing finger pointing and outrage. The most recent, and perhaps most bizarre, is the firing of instructor Gord Ferguson following an incident in which a student slaughtered a chicken in the cafeteria of the Alberta College of Art and Design.
But there have been plenty of other dust-ups in the not-too-distant past, including the brouhaha over Tom Flanagan’s comments about child pornography. This kind of anger is always fuelled, in part, by the fact that the person in question is a professor. Professors, highly paid and usually well-regarded, are supposed to be beyond such outrageous word and deed.
But outrage is a tricky thing. Many ordinary aspects of modern university life—the admission of women for instance—were once unthinkable, while other things that seem ridiculous to us now—it is not that long since professors smoked in the classroom—were at one time thought of as normal.
Even today what is outrageous to one may be unremarkable to another; your perceived abuse of a position may be just good teaching to me. Indeed, isn’t one of the jobs of a professor to challenge people, to expand their ways of thinking, perhaps, even, in some cases, to outrage them? Once in a while I leave a classroom wondering if I’m going to get a call asking if I really said this or that.
And yet, we must acknowledge that not everything can be justified under the heading of innovative teaching. Where is the line? No one has ever spelled it out to me in my years as a professor. So, in my tireless journey to better higher education, allow me to propose a set of guidelines that, refined and reasonably applied, would allow professors to be challenging and innovative and yet not abuse their positions of authority and respect.
Stick to the course’s subject matter. Of course, disciplinary lines are not always easily identified, but if a course is to be offered in say, the area of Chemistry, it ought to be a course in Chemistry. At my own university, there has been controversy over whether a writing course was genuinely a writing course or whether it had become too much a class in contemporary politics—as you can imagine, this is a difficult and subjective matter. Former University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt got into trouble partly for this reason when a course he taught—Rancourt is a physicist—focused mainly on social activism and became know as “the activism course.” As to whether the approach of that course was valid (opinions differed dramatically) it still remains a solid principal that the course should be taught, more or less as it has been approved for offer by the university.
Keep it in your classroom. Or the lab, or other relevant teaching venues. This is where our art teacher, ran, ahem, afoul of what his university seemed to think was good academic sense. While the precise details of the case are still sketchy, as a matter of principle, student projects, particularly when they are likely to shock and offend, should not be foisted upon strangers who are not prepared for them and did not choose to participate in them. Here again my own university once provided an example when a professor sent her students into other ongoing classes, unexpected and unannounced, to read a politically-charged statement about feminism. While pushing the boundaries is laudable, you can’t push them right into someone else’s lecture. By the same token, people have the right to enjoy lunch without fear of getting raw chicken blood sprayed on them.
Advance radical positions in good faith. University of Rochester professor Stephen Landsburg recently ended up in hot water after putting forward a thought experiment in which he suggested that if a man raped an unconscious woman and the woman was not physically harmed, and never found out about it, was it really a crime? In the broad sense, raising questions, even radical ones, about sensitive topics like rape is entirely justified, if potentially distressing. But this particular question was so easily refuted—because violating the integrity of another person’s body is itself a harm, among other reasons—one suspects that the professor may have been advancing a position merely to be seen as or controversial. This case is complicated further by the fact that the ideas were proposed on his personal blog, not in class, but the basic point remains the same: professors should be able to advance controversial claims and questions provided that they genuinely believe, and can demonstrate, that such claims and questions have value to the intellectual debate at hand.
A little to my surprise, no administrator has ever called me on anything controversial I’ve said or written. Perhaps that is to the credit of my institution. Perhaps its to my own credit for knowing where the lines are. It sure as heck never occurred to me to let a student kill a chicken in the university.
Todd Pettigrew is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.
Prof. Pettigrew: UBC’s skatepark is an embarrassment
The University of British Columbia is awfully excited about their half-million dollar skatepark.
They should be embarrassed. It’s hard enough to get people to take higher education seriously. Crowing about being the first campus in North America with an “angled slappy bank” doesn’t help.
For one thing, there are few activities that invoke juvenile sensibilities as skateboarding. It is, quite literally, child’s play, and, as such, right off the bat, it seems unsuited for a university campus. Is a bouncy castle next on the list?
But that in itself is hardly grounds for making too much of a fuss. Universities build needless, expensive, inappropriate things all the time. Business schools, for instance.
Prof. Pettigrew: It’s not just the anti-gay agenda.
Canada’s Christian post-secondary institutions just can’t stay away from controversy. It seems like only yesterday, everyone (including this guy) was talking about the CAUT’s reports condemning various institutions for their lack of academic freedom.
More recently, the law community has had its briefs in a knot over Trinity Western’s push to get a law school. Can a school that requires adherence to a rigid code of belief really educate good lawyers whose very stock in trade is free and open discussion? A lot of people think not.
And now New Brunswick’s Crandall University has raised eyebrows for getting millions in federal funding. In fact, religious universities in Canada received some $20 million from the Harper Government’s 2009 Knowledge Infrastructure scheme.
Prof. Pettigrew says he doesn’t want to know
One day, when I was a PhD student there was a gossipy buzz that went around the halls about a fellow grad student who had arrived to teach a class, found that none of the students had done the assigned reading, and then immediately and angrily sent them all home. We all admired the audacity of the move, and I was a bit disappointed to learn that he had been called to the Chair’s office and told never to do it again.
It was his responsibility, he was supposedly told, to conduct the class whether the students had done the reading or not.
Those events have always stuck with me, and I’ve thought of them often when I find myself in front of a room full of students who clearly have no idea what happens in the play I’m trying to help them analyze. And I thought about it again recently when my attention was drawn to yet another computer-based teaching innovation: e-textbooks that tell your prof whether you’ve read them or not.
According to this New York Times report, new technology from a company called CourseSmart allows instructors to keep track of a wide range of student reading habits. Has a student opened the book? Has she highlighted key passages? If not, according to at least one instructor in a pilot project, the professor can “reach out” to the student and discuss his study habits.
Prof. Pettigrew: grading is best left to real people
News broke last week of new software for grading essays that will, one supposes, revolutionize the way students are evaluated.
Let’s hope not.
The details so far are scant, but the idea is not new and typically machine grading involves algorithms that guess at the quality of the essay based on whether the essay looks like a good essay, not whether it really is or not. This is an enormous problem, of course, because it is quite common to see essays that are superficially strong — good grammar, rich vocabulary — but lack any real insight (this is common among first year students who, presumably, sailed through high school by bamboozling their teachers). Similarly some very strong essays—with striking originality and deep insight—have a surprising number of technical errors that would likely lead a computer algorithm to conclude it was bad.
A machine cannot recognize the more subtle aspects of writing well. Can the software recognize wit or daring? Can it tell when phrasing is especially apt or clever?
Prof. Pettigrew reacts to study on white male academics
When I was an undergraduate, I was, as we all were back in arts programs in those days, told repeatedly about the notion of “privilege.”
It was explained to me that as a man, and a white man at that, I carried with me an “invisible backpack” filled with resources others did not have. It wasn’t that others had it bad—I had it too good.
It would be nice if this term had faded, as such faddish academic terms often do. These days, sad to say, this troubling notion of privilege is even more entrenched than ever.
The problem I have long had with the notion of “privilege” in this sense is that it suggests that those who are treated justly should feel bad for their lack of abuse or oppression. But this is backwards. The problem with oppression is that the oppressed are being treated unfairly, not that others are being treated decently.
The word privilege implies a special favour or status that one does not necessarily deserve. But the right to compete for a job without being judged by one’s race, the right not to be spurned by one’s neighbours because of one’s race—these things are not privileges – they are rights deserved by all.
‘Hot for Teacher’ lawsuit shows risk of journal assignments
If there was ever a university story made for internet buzz, it’s this one about Oakland University student Joseph Corlett who was kicked out of his school after writing suggestive assignments about his English instructor, Pamela Mitzelfeld.
Not only does this story have the classic element of sexual tension between teacher and student, it also raises difficult questions about feminist sensitivities, free expression, and even public safety since, it turns out, Corlett is a second-amendment advocate, and his teacher was reportedly worried he might turn up with a gun.
Corlett, according to reports, wrote, as part of an assignment, a provocative journal entry called “Hot for Teacher,” riffing on the Van Halen song of the same title and speaking in detail about what he deemed Mitzelfeld’s distracting physical charms. Teacher was not so hot for the writing, though, and complained to her administration, saying that either Corlett had to go or she would.
Prof. Pettigrew says it isn’t a lack of skills training
Earlier this month, student Mercedes Mueller caught my eye with this provocative open letter to Canadian university presidents, accusing them of having failed students by not paying enough attention to their “career ambitions.”
Here’s the key bit:
Universities pride themselves on teaching students critical thinking and reasoning skills. Yet upon entering the workforce, many grads have little to offer employers in terms of “skills.” Skills, primarily associated with the hands-on learning done at colleges, are a severely lacking component of university curricula. When one considers that the majority of BA graduates would like to enter the workforce without having to obtain further degrees, learning a skill or two in undergrad isn’t asking a lot.
Students come to university to get a job, she explains, and thus deserve to have “degrees worth more than the paper they are printed on.”
This English professor begs to differ
Google “university” and “real world” and you’ll see what you probably already know: to most people, they are very different things.
It’s amazing to me how often and how easily this anti-intellectual smear is repeated in the media, and even by universities themselves—as in this piece from my own alma mater, the University of Waterloo. The implication is that, at best, education is an ethereal paradise where no one has challenges or stresses or the difficulties that one encounters in actual reality. Or, worse, that education is a waste of time—because nothing you learned in that cushy little classroom means anything out here where things get real.
Anyone who has ever been in university—or at least has been and has tried to be successful there—can attest to the falsehood of this notion. University life is full of both hard work and stress. It is very real. Deadlines are numerous and hard to change. Evaluation is rigorous and frequent and comes not just from one supervisor but by numerous instructors, and a whole new set of them the following year.
Students need to be able to test out university
The worst-kept secret in academia is that students come to university with inadequate intellectual preparation. They don’t know the basics. They don’t know how to write. They’re not prepared for how much work it’s going to be.
So when professors like me see studies like this one which suggests that one of the main reasons for students dropping out is a lack of preparedness, well, let’s just say we’re not shocked. It’s nice to have the hard data, but still.
The real question is: what can be done? One answer might be to get secondary schools to do a better job of preparing students for university in the first place. Many of my students regularly report that their high school English classes, for instance, are not just lacking in challenge—they’re a joke.
Prof. Pettigrew on the Ontario PC Party’s plan
The conservative Ontario PCs have released a new policy paper on higher education. Amid the usual boilerplate rhetoric that conservative politicians trot out on such occasions was this little gem regarding student loans:
Decisions about who should receive loans and how much money is to be awarded should involve assessments of future employability and reward good academic behaviour. Rewarding good behaviour means not only making the smart and efficient choice about where to go to school, but also keeping students accountable for how they choose to spend the money the government is lending them. To maintain aid, students must demonstrate a minimum level of academic success. Too often, our loans and grants programs reward mediocrity.
It takes a while for the magnitude of what is being proposed here to hit you. When it does, you realize that the PCs are proposing twisting the student loan system into a bureaucratic nightmare of nearly Orwellian proportions.
What’s wrong with well-educated coffee servers?
The easiest punchline for media commentators on higher education these days is that we have university graduates working as baristas in coffee houses. Sometimes the assumption is that it’s mainly the arts grads consigned to this humiliating fate, and even this piece by Leo Charboneau, which does a generally good job of pointing out the hysteria over youth underemployment, still concedes the bachelor’s-barista link.
It’s time to drop this trope. And not just because it’s too easy.
For one thing, it makes the same old mistake of thinking that the only reason to have a degree is to get a “good” job. We all know that there is more to life than earning a living, and just about every bit of research we have suggests that wealth does not correlate in a meaningful way with happiness—and yet writers go on pretending that the only thing a sane person would want in this world is a hefty pay packet.
As for a good job, why do we so blithely accept that good means high-paying. I’m not at all convinced that barista is a worse job than being, say, an accountant. Is preparing coffee is necessarily a worse job than preparing lay-off notices? Is it really “blind” as one particularly harsh commentator has said, to pursue your dreams even amid economic uncertainty?
Prof. Pettigrew on why some courses are better spread out
Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about block courses at Canadian universities. The idea is that instead of taking several courses over a semester or two, students take one course at a time over a matter of weeks. The system is already in place at Quest University and the University of Northern British Columbia is trying them out.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this kind of programming. Students get to focus on one subject at a time. Moreover, the final exam comes not long after the first class, so they have less time to forget material from earlier in the course. I’ve experienced these and other benefits myself while teaching spring and summer classes, so I can see the temptation.
But it seems to me that block courses have as many or more disadvantages, and we should be cautious before jumping on the block bandwagon.
Prof. Pettigrew says it’s worth considering
The idea of an exam for new teachers, similar to the bar exam for would-be lawyers, has been floated in the U.S. and we should consider it too.
As it stands now, teachers generally require only the requisite degrees in order to earn certification in their province. Shouldn’t that be enough?
No. There are simply too many ways to game the system—taking the easiest courses one can find, finding the easiest sections of mandatory courses, inventing dead relatives to get exemptions and extensions—everyone knows the tricks—though not everyone uses them. It would be nice to know which are which. Besides, there is a world of difference between the student who passes with fifties and the student who passes with nineties. And degree status itself doesn’t indicate that. Even among honours graduates there can be a large difference in abilities.
The potential benefits of such an exam are numerous.
Prof. Pettigrew on why remedial courses aren’t the answer
Ask any university professor if their students come to university well prepared and you are likely to hear some laughter. And then more laughter. And then the word “no” spoken with emphasis. English students who don’t know what a semi-colon is, biology students who know nothing about evolution—none of this is a secret.
So it was hardly news to me that the students of Memorial University’s Judith Adler don’t know basic geography.
Despite its ubiquity, this lack of basic knowledge among high school graduates is frustrating because those students don’t make up for their lack of basic skills with an abundance of advanced skills. If they knew few facts but were, let’s say, excellent critical thinkers or writers, that might be okay—one can’t expect everything.
Sadly, however, most students arrive with neither basic factual knowledge nor critical thinking nor writing skills to speak of. How exactly they have spent their time in secondary school is actually a bit of a mystery to those of us in higher education.
Prof. Pettigrew: Children are a choice after all.
As a progressive man, I see the value in diversity in the academic workforce. I also understand that reasonable employers should take reasonable steps to accommodate the particular needs of those employees. And sometimes that means taking a person’s family situation into account. But more and more, women in academia have lost sight of what’s reasonable when it comes to those kinds of allowances.
A recent article in University Affairs, for instance, reports on a study by Shelley Adamo who argues that women are underrepresented as biologists because they tend to be seeking jobs when they “are in their late 20s and early 30s and more likely to have a partner and young children. ‘That sort of handicaps them,’” according to Dr. Adamo.
Prof. Pettigrew on why universities can’t divest
Here, Cape Breton University Professor Todd Pettigrew argues that divesting from “unethical” companies isn’t as easy as activists make it sound. After reading his commentary, check out Torrance Coste’s argument in favour of divestment.
I served, for a brief time, on the Board of Governors of Cape Breton University, and one thing I did during that period was speak in favour of looking into ethical investments. After all, we know from the proverbs that money talks. So if we are talking with our money, why not have it say something important?
Ethical investing, I argued at the time, seemed all the more urgent in the context of university education. If we are trying to teach our students to think critically, shouldn’t we ask tough questions about scholarship endowments and pension funds? Should we give scholarship funds to a student studying, let’s say, social justice, and then tell that student not to worry where that money came from?
Prof. Pettigrew rejects calls to be “more like California”
Every once in a while we hear calls for more emphasis on teaching among university faculty.
If we accept that some universities have, or should have, undergraduate teaching as their main function, why shouldn’t professors, or at least some professors, at those school be asked to focus mainly on teaching?
After all, if they are there to teach, why should we be paying them to pursue their own research interests, especially if that research is not paying off in tangible ways?
Something like this argument was made recently by Ian Clark writing in the National Post, who argues that more specialization among faculty would mean more research “productivity”—that is more output per public dollar spent. He argues, in this vein, that California does something like that and gets “more value for its money” that way.
Prof. Pettigrew: student evaluations won’t help
A recent report from the Ontario Auditor General Jim McCarter has got people talking about student teaching evaluations again. Hoo boy.
McCarter is concerned that evidence of teaching ability is not being taken into account when it comes to granting tenure and promotion to faculty. It’s a legitimate concern in theory. The problem is that this report takes student evaluations as a key method by which quality teaching should be measured. That’s trouble.
As the report rightly points out, the research on the usefulness of student evaluations is a subject of much disagreement. In fact, it’s actually even more hotly contested than the AG’s report admits. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) insists, for instance, that such surveys cannot be taken as a measure of teaching effectiveness.
CAUT may be trying to protect the jobs of its members. Still, student evaluations, from the outset suffer from a basic flaw which is that they often fail to meet a very basic standard for any evaluation. That is, an evaluator should be qualified to evaluate. More specifically, the evaluator should be an expert on the subject, should be motivated to take the evaluation seriously, and should be a disinterested third party.
Dogs are great, but a poodle won’t tutor you in French
I’ve been trying to figure out what it is exactly that bugs me about this trend towards creating puppy rooms at Canadian universities. It’s not that I dislike dogs. I like dogs. I had a dog growing up. And who doesn’t like puppies?
If you haven’t been following university news lately, the gist is this: universities have taken to setting up special rooms with friendly dogs as a way to help students cope with stress, especially around exam time. The idea has been around for a while, but Dalhousie University’s new Puppy Room got picked up by the national and international media and suddenly everybody and his dog has one.
But like I say, there’s something about this cuddly craze that isn’t sitting well with me.