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.
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.
ELA shuttered by Conservatives to save cash
The Harper government is refusing to permit fully funded freshwater research to take place this summer at the remote Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario.
A group of researchers from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., was told this week they are barred from the site, despite starting their work last summer and spending thousands of dollars on an approved trip to one of the ELA lakes as recently as last month.
Ottawa is currently negotiating with the Ontario government and others to take over the Experimental Lakes Area, which has been conducting world-class science since 1968 into everything from acid rain and climate change to mercury exposure.
The federal government says the decision to close the facility, part of last year’s budget cuts, will save it about $2 million a year — although sources say the actual operating cost of the facility is about $600,000 annually, of which a third comes back in user fees.
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.
Why Meric Gertler and Suzanne Fortier matter
Between them, the University of Toronto and McGill University have 100,000 students, $596 million in total accumulated funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, one Charles Taylor and a perhaps disproportionate amount of the spotlight on higher education in Canada’s two largest provinces. They also have two new presidents: Meric Gertler at UofT and Suzanne Fortier at McGill. Together the two changes are probably more significant than most federal cabinet shuffles.
(This blog post will be lousy with Laurentian Consensus nostalgia; sorry. Perhaps only for today though, the less said about the University of Calgary, the better.)
In hiring close to home, both universities can be taken to be demonstrating either quiet confidence in the maturity of Canadian academe, or a chastened realization that in a time of limited resources, even the biggest schools are wise to stick to their knitting. Both schools instituted global searches and wound up bypassing candidates from afar in favour of local produce. Gertler was Toronto’s dean of Arts and Science. Fortier is president of the National Science and Engineering Research Council — indeed her start as principal of McGill will be delayed so she can cool off from that job for six months before taking a position with a major NSERC grant recipient — but her BSc and PhD were from McGill.
Calgary professor explains his recent remarks
A former high-level political strategist criticized for his comments on child pornography says he was led into a trap.
Tom Flanagan, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, says in a guest column in the National Post that the question that prompted his controversial remarks came out of left field and had nothing to do with the native issues forum where he was speaking.
“In 45 years of university teaching, I have tried to deal with every question my students have asked, so I forged ahead here, unaware that this was a trap, not a bona fide question — a dumb mistake for someone of my age and experience,” Flanagan wrote Monday in the column.
Shelagh Crooks earns a 3M National Teaching Fellowship
Shelagh Crooks, who teaches philosophy and education at Saint Mary’s University, is a 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient for 2013. Maclean’s On Campus is profiling all 10.
When Shelagh Crooks started teaching first-year philosophy students, she’d give them something to read and then ask, “what did you think?” She was expecting them to defend the author’s position, refute it, or identify passages that confused them. Instead she got mostly blank stares.
“They didn’t know how to read critically and ask, ‘What is this person’s position? What evidence has he put forward for that position? Is that evidence sufficient to justify what he’s saying?’,” she explains. “They [didn't] really know how to read.”
Simon Ellis earns a 3M National Teaching Fellowship
Simon Ellis, a wood science professor and director of the Wood Products Processing program at the University of British Columbia, is a 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient for 2013. Maclean’s On Campus is profiling all 10 recipients.
Simon Ellis says the esoteric discipline of wood science “chose him.” As a teenager in England, he liked the idea of predicting the world through science, so he planned to be a meteorologist. That was, of course, until he learned about forensic sciences. When he realized he couldn’t stomach handling dead bodies, he turned to horticulture. That morphed to forestry after he realized that trees are the biggest plants of all.
With his mind made up, he applied to Bangor University in Wales. “I went for an interview and a lot of people up there said, ‘they’re going to try and get you to do this wood science course. Not enough people are on that course.’” The interviewer did just that and Ellis discovered his passion.
Wood science is “a range of sciences applied to one beautiful material,” he says. Now, as a professor and administrator of the Wood Products Processing program, he passes down his appreciation for wood. The program, a fusion of science, engineering and business, is about marketing wood products, which he believes is best done by those who truly appreciate trees.
Getting people excited about wood isn’t easy, but it’s something Ellis enjoys. “I’m very energetic,” he says. “I think most students would agree that enthusiasm is contagious,” he adds. “When I give some of the examples of the wonderful structures of wood, students get engaged.”
One way he achieves this is with visual aids. They include a bunch of drinking straws wrapped together with tape, which illustrates the basic structure of wood. He also brings in little pieces of wood that appear identical to students until they perform an experiment. They’re asked to try and break both pieces with a hammer. One is regular wood and the other is compression wood, a material the tree quickly produces to push itself back up straight when it’s leaning.
“What’s surprising to [students] is that the regular wood usually doesn’t break,” he says, “but the compression wood fails easily.” The demonstration helps students see compression wood is too brittle for building and that wood is “very good for doing what the tree wants it to do,” but is not always great for human purposes.
To Ellis, it’s beautiful to behold. “If you look at some of this intricate cell wall architecture with an electron microscope, they’re just works of art as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “I have a couple textbooks on my shelf that are really just photographs of wood and they’re as good a coffee table book as anyone could have.”
June Larkin earns 3M National Teaching Fellowship
June Larkin, a lecturer in Women and Gender Studies and Equity Studies and vice-principal of New College at the University of Toronto, is a 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient for 2013. Maclean’s On Campus is profiling all 10.
Before June Larkin ever attended a university class, she was engrossed in the intricacies of social justice as a primary-school teacher.
As a “mature student” balancing her undergraduate studies in psychology, feminist studies and education with her teaching job, she saw firsthand the interplay between gender and social equality on the playground as the children fought, played and formed peer groups. When she went on to do her PhD, she used her background as a teacher to write her doctorate about sexual harassment in high schools. “Working as a teacher was one of the things that attracted me to equity studies,” she says, “Now, as a professor, I have always tried to bridge theoretical concepts with practical, community-based application.”
Darren Dahl earns a 3M National Teaching Fellowship
Darren Dahl, a professor and associate dean of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, is a 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient for 2013. Maclean’s On Campus is profiling all 10 in the coming weeks.
“I don’t use technology,” says University of British Columbia professor Darren Dahl of his creativity course. “Technology is great for some topics, but I can engage at a much higher level without it.”
To show he’s serious, any student who opens his or her computer or whose phone rings during class must donate $100 to charity. His own phone once went off. “Boom. $100 in the pot,” he says.
It keeps students focused on discussions that Dahl referees. It also leaves time for plenty of games. His focus on keeping students engaged is one of the reasons he was awarded one of 10 prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowships for 2013.
Kim Fordham Misfeldt earns 3M Teaching Fellowship
Kim Fordham Misfeldt, a professor of German and the Humanities Chair at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, is a 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient for 2013. Maclean’s On Campus is profiling all 10 recipients.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Saskatchewan, Kim Fordham Misfeldt dabbled in French, German and Norwegian. But is wasn’t until she taught her first German class as a master’s student that she witnessed the transformative effect learning a foreign language could have on a student. She has not stopped teaching since.
“A new language can be an invaluable tool,” she says, “but language is also a physical experience, and an emotional experience, and I try to incorporate that into my classes.”