Why I side with students who won’t wear the red poppy
Students at the University of Ottawa came under fire this week for supporting the white poppy campaign, a drive to get people to wear a white poppy rather than the traditional red one, on the grounds that the red poppy can be seen as a tacit support of war itself. Since white is traditionally associated with peace, the white poppy is meant to meant to support remembrance but with an emphasis on peace rather than war itself.
This piece in The Toronto Sun sneers at students for “hopping aboard” a “left wing” bandwagon. The Minister of Veterans Affairs jumped in too, calling the campaign “totally disrespectful.” Meanwhile, over at the National Post, Matt Gurney claims that the “very existence” of the campaign “is insulting by its implication that the red poppy glorifies war.”
Too bad. The red poppy does glorify war. And it has been so successful in doing so that it seems as though its supporters don’t even realize they are doing it. Celyn Dufay, the Ottawa student at the centre of this imbroglio is quite right in explaining, simply enough, “we want to work for peace.”
Prof. Pettigrew considers Rate My Professors
One of the things that professors frequently discuss when students are not around is the whole set of difficulties faced by female professors in an academy, and indeed a world, that has historically been dominated by men.
So I was very interested to see this piece by student Easha Acharya, who argues that female professors have a harder time of it because students are biased against them. The idea here is that students are accustomed to the idea of a male professor, and are thus less comfortable with female profs. As a result, she argues, students see the authoritative male professor as normal and right while efforts to be authoritative by women are perceived as overly aggressive.
I was intrigued by this piece because my own intuitive sense on the matter was nearly the reverse. My sense has been that female professors are viewed by students are friendlier, more approachable, and more helpful than males who are seen as aloof, difficult, and arrogant.
Curious, I gathered some quick data and did some rough and dirty analysis. Drawing on the scores from Rate My Professors (which is already problematic, but provides accessible public data), I calculated the average rating for English professors in my department based on gender. I only considered tenure and tenure-track faculty (which fortunately gives about an even split). This admittedly small and local sample did nothing to support Acharya and only a little to support me. The average score out of five for men was 3.54. The average for women: 3.86. So students seem to prefer the female English profs in my department, but only by a small margin.
But gender, of course, is not the only characteristic against which one might be biased, so I tried breaking down the same numbers along a different line, age. Here the distinction was a bit greater. Professors under 50 scored, on average, 3.96 out of five, while profs over 50 scored 3.4. This might seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t older, more experienced professors be better teachers? Or are they increasingly tired and jaded? Do students tend to prefer professors closer to their own age (or at least their parents’ age)?
To complicate matters further, these two variables may play off each other. I have heard it said among professors that older women are more subject to bias than their equally aged male counterparts. Where an older man might seem like a wise sage, the older woman is interpreted more and more like an elderly lady whose day is long past.
All of this raises troubling questions for universities. Where precisely are the biases? Do they apply equally in all disciplines? How can they be combated? And most of all, as this piece cited by Acharya points out, is it not another reason to call into question the value of student evaluations of university professors?
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.
Prof. Pettigrew on the Collegiate Learning Assessment
When I was in high school, my favourite teacher was an old-fashioned English instructor I will call Mr. Hunter. One day, we wrote a test in class. I can’t recall the precise format for the test, but whatever it was it wasn’t the sort we were used to. When we were done, each our tests was graded by a fellow student. Then, to our surprise, Mr. Hunter had us say aloud what grade we got on the test so he could record it in his grade book.
I doubt teachers could get away with that today—privacy or self-esteem or whatever—but as the numbers were read, it became clear that the students we all knew to be good students had scored well, and lesser students, not so well. At the end, Mr. Hunter looked up and smiled and asked, “It doesn’t really matter what kind of test it is does it?”
I think about that class from time to time when I am pondering my own testing procedures, and I thought about it again recently when I was sent this little polemic about the new Collegiate Learning Assessment in the USA. If you haven’t heard, the CLA is a test that will be taken by graduating students to show just how much they have learned while at university.
Why even the Oslo bomber deserves an education
Once, I had a killer in my class. Well, to be precise, he was enrolled in one of my distance education courses. And, as I gathered, he didn’t actually kill anyone, but he assisted in a crime where people were killed, and that got him sent to the Kingston Penitentiary where he was preparing for his eventual release by taking university courses.
In a way, I admired that student. He had, of course, made some terrible choices, but he had accepted the consequences and was, slowly, trying to position himself for a future where he could contribute in a positive way. That was over 15 years ago. I hope he’s out now. I hope he’s using his education.
I thought about that student recently, when I learned that a much more terrible criminal, convicted mass murderer and all-around wacko Anders Breivik , was not allowed to enroll in courses at the University of Oslo, despite the fact that prison officials were willing to allow the convicted killer to study in his cell.
Prof. Pettigrew on students ditching STEM
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal seems awfully disappointed in America’s science students, zinging would-be science grads for switching majors when they learn that science and math are hard.
The Journal cites a new paper that looks at data from Berea College which does, indeed, find that science disciplines tend to be the ones that university students switch out of, not into. Their results accord with my own anecdotal sense: many students start in science but find that it’s not for them and change to the arts or what have you. Moreover, in my experience, few arts students have much academic interest in science per se—and many of them actively fear mathematics—so few students switch into science. This, more or less, is borne out by the numbers in this particular study, for, as the authors conclude:
We find that students enter college as open to a major in science as to any other major, but that relatively few students finish school with science as their outcome. This occurs because, relative to other majors, students are both more likely to leave science (if they started in science) and are less likely to change into science (if they started in a major other than science).
Prof. Pettigrew on how the genius truly viewed education
If there is one thing the internet loves, it’s an inspirational quotation from a famous person. In all manner of fonts, with all degrees of accuracy in punctuation, and with all manner of colourful photography, we are exhorted to improve ourselves, to accept ourselves for who we are, to be kind and compassionate to all, and to never take crap from a world full of idiots.
Well, it’s the internet—you can’t expect consistency.
The quotation-based memes often touch on education and intelligence, and among the most ubiquitous is the following remark attributed to Albert Einstein:
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Universities shouldn’t fire scholars just for being mean
Dear obese PhD applicants: If you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth.
As you might imagine, cyberspace went nuts, calling Miller lots of nasty names, calling for his resignation, and hinting darkly at the possibility of legal action. Many outlets then took a closer look at some of Miller’s other public statements including the time he wondered whether women might be wise to schedule job interviews while they are ovulating because, he said, they are more sexually attractive then. There are also renewed questions about his ideas and involvement in Chinese eugenics—as in this article which seems to equate wealth with intelligence, and ends with an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—Miller seems unaware of the fact that the novel actually condemns biological manipulation for social benefit.
Doctorates aren’t what they used to be
Two decades ago, if you sat at a dinner party next to someone with a Ph.D., chances were, those letters made an impact. You’d try to sound your smartest, asking about the person’s field of study, nodding sagely at the Coles Notes version he saved for such occasions. By dessert, you might have run out of $5 words, but you’d have done your best to keep up—a show of respect due to someone with a decade of university education.
These days, a doctorate is as likely to inspire pity as veneration. Universities are cutting back on tenure-track jobs. The federal government is laying off scientists. The economy, meanwhile, is skewing ever harder toward resource extraction, where the demand for highly specialized knowledge is limited. This confluence of forces is starting to show in the numbers: At last count, Ph.D. grads were more likely to be unemployed than master’s degree holders, while those with jobs enjoyed a median income only eight per cent higher than their master’s counterparts, at $65,000 per year. A good many of those were working in less-than-promising circumstances. One in three doctorate holders have jobs that didn’t require a Ph.D., while a 2007 survey of Ph.D.s working at Canadian universities found that only 12 per cent of those under the age of 35 held tenure or tenure-track positions, compared to 35 per cent in 1981.
Sensitivity only reinforces stereotype of Muslims as violent
An event that has become all too common in our benighted century is the suppressing of anti-Muslim sentiment over fears of retribution. Canadians will recall it happening, for instance, at the University of Prince Edward Island in 2006.
More recently, the Australian National University made international headlines, when the student newspaper there was barred from running a satirical graphic about Islam.
The Woroni had already skewered other religions, but when it got to Islam, university officials stepped in, saying that the piece might gain “traction” in social media and could spark violent protests. The university’s vice-Chancellor called the graphic “offensive and discriminatory” and hinted that the Koran should be off-limits because of “very unfortunate side effects.” Even Civil Liberties Australia defended the Uni. Crikey!
We must engage the past even when it’s uncomfortable
Remember the end of the film Dead Poets Society? When the students all stand up on their desks and cry “O Captain, My Captain!” as a tribute to the wronged and noble teacher Mr. Keating?
The reference is, of course, to a famous poem by the American writer Walt Whitman. Whitman is one of the giants of American literature, and the poem is usually interpreted as an elegy to the recently assassinated president Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, of course, was, much-hated in the South for, among other things, his opposition to slavery.
So it might have come as a surprise that the man who so eloquently eulogized the Great Emancipator is now at the centre of a controversy over racism. A graduate student at Northwestern University is, according to reports, willing to fail a class rather than perform a piece of music based on a Whitman work. The student insists that Whitman was an “historically racist” man, who denigrated African Americans and opposed their voting rights.
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.
Alberta art college divided by controversial performance art
Art critic Lucy Lippard said that performance art was “the most… immediate art form… for it means getting down to the bare of aesthetic communication–art/self confronting audience/society.”
Think Chris Burden, who in 1971 convinced a friend to shoot him in the arm from a distance of 15 feet. “It was an inquiry into what it feels like to be shot,” he said after the performance piece. “Two or three thousand people get shot every night on TV, and it has always been something to be avoided. So I took the flip side and asked, ‘What if you face this head on?’”
That was more than 40 years ago.
Three weeks ago in the Alberta College of Art and Design’s cafeteria–reminiscent of a scene out of an Alice Cooper concert–student Miguel Suarez slit a live chicken’s throat, stuffed it into a pot and called it art, later telling a local CTV affiliate that he hoped the gruesome performance would help his classmates think about where their food comes from.
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.
As more students ask for extensions, profs ask: is this real?
I met Anna Drake, a University of Waterloo assistant professor, at recent event in Toronto and asked: what are professors talking about these days? She said they’re discussing how many students are presenting with notes from counsellors or doctors saying they’ve been mentally unwell or extremely stressed and are in need of extensions or exam deferrals.
Drake, a political scientist, doesn’t recall this being an issue when she was an undergraduate or when she started teaching as a master’s student in 2001. But a few years ago, a professor warned her and other teaching assistants at Queen’s University that, “it seemed to be fairly easy for students to get notes of this kind.” Too easy, perhaps.
Later, teaching her own course at the University of Victoria, she was surprised when four students out of roughly 40 presented with notes near the end of the term asking to defer their semesters.
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?
Accused killer participated in sex worker survey
Researchers from the University of Ottawa are trying to prevent the Crown from getting their hands on a six-year-old interview with Luka Rocco Magnotta.
Lawyers representing the academics argued in Quebec Superior Court on Wednesday the interview with a subject known under the pseudonym “Jimmy” should be kept confidential.
The lawyers say Magnotta participated in the study as part of a survey of sex workers under the condition his interview would remain confidential. Magnotta’s lawyers, who have supported the researchers’ motion, filed an affidavit confirming that later Wednesday.
Montreal police want a copy of the interview for evidence they’re still gathering against Magnotta.
The 30-year-old is charged with first-degree murder in the slaying and dismemberment of Chinese engineering student Jun Lin.
Police came to know about the interview after a research assistant, Adam McLeod, told them about it following Magnotta’s arrest last year. McLeod told authorities “Jimmy” was in fact Magnotta.
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.