All Posts Tagged With: "Academic Affairs"
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: 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?
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.
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 prof first made comments to student paper
Former Stephen Harper strategist Tom Flanagan has been widely and swiftly condemned for suggesting that people looking at child pornography shouldn’t be jailed.
Flanagan made the controversial remark during a lecture Wednesday night in southern Alberta. His words were recorded on a cellphone and quickly posted on YouTube.
It didn’t take long for people to start cutting ties.
By noon Thursday, the CBC dumped Flanagan as a panellist on its “Power and Politics” program. The University of Calgary, where he is a political science professor, issued a statement distancing itself from his views.
The university also mentioned he would be retiring, but made clear that decision had been announced prior to this week’s controversy.
He is currently on a research leave, and that will now be extended until his retirement.
In a statement attributed to him on the CBC website, Flanagan was apologetic to anyone he offended. He said he absolutely condemns child sex abuse.
“In an academic setting, I raised a theoretical question about how far criminalization should extend toward the consumption of pornography,” reads the statement posted on the blog of Kady O’Malley, also a panellist on “Power and Politics.”
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 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.
Small school in Squamish, B.C. may make you jealous
Quest University, six-years old and growing, is unique in Canadian education. It offers students courses in 3.5-week blocks allowing them to focus all day on a single subject. The school is also set apart in that students explore a single question in the latter half of their four-year Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degrees. And the serene campus setting in the Coast Mountains near Vancouver would make just about any student jealous. There is a catch: it’s $40,000 when room, board and fees are added. Maclean’s has explored Quest before. Here’s an update from Ivy League astronomer turned Quest president David Helfand.
What’s new at Quest?
We have a new residence building going up so we can accommodate our ever-increasing enrollment. We currently have 425 students and we’ll have over 500 next year so we’ll run out of beds. We’ll build another one next year as we expect to continue the expansion.
We are busy recruiting a number of new faculty for next year. Our student applications are up 65 per cent over last year which suggests we’re going to need a lot more faculty.
We have a few interesting courses this summer that are going to be field courses. The ancient world [course] will be in Greece and Turkey with one of our ancient philosophy faculty. The visual anthropology course will be in the Himalayas in India with William Thompson, a well-known National Geographic photographer who has a PhD in anthropology.
Quest doesn’t have typical majors or minors, but instead has a two-year foundation program followed by two years focused on a single question. Why do it this way?
We really divide the education into two pieces and the first piece is the foundation program. We say these are perspectives on how to ask questions and how to answer them that everyone should have. Everyone should have mathematics and science as well as humanities and arts and social science. That way students have been exposed to all these different ways of looking at the world.
Then it’s time for them to focus on what they’re passionate about and go into something in real depth. It’s not that they’re not taking courses, because they’ve designed a set of courses around that question. They also design an experiential learning course off campus so they can see how the real world works with that question and then they produce quite a large Keystone project.
So it’s really the contrast of the breadth of the first two years with the depth of the last two years.
The experiential learning blocks. What’s the benefit of that?
Our classrooms often have students out in the real world doing things, but they’re still classes by the hour, so the experiential learning is trying to get them where the action is.
I have a student now whose question is framed cutely as “What is the perfect meal?” It sounds like it could be silly, but it’s not because it has four components: a bionutritional component, a neuroscience component, a cultural component and a food production distribution [component].
The student just completed an experiential learning block imbedded with a company that runs all kinds of restaurants in Whistler following the production and distribution system and shadowing people in their restaurants and food distribution. The student is going to compare this to a book which has a single and political point of view [for] a much richer understanding of the question.
What’s an example?
We had a student recently whose question was, “What’s the best way to educate a child?” She’s interested obviously in doing K-12 education so she spent a month in a Montessori School and read Maria Montessori’s theory of education, spent a month in a Waldorf School and read Rudolph Steiner’s theory of education and spent a month in a public school and read John Dewey. She collected her experiences from those three environments and theories into a long paper. She’s now going to graduate school in education.
Tell me more about the block system.
Having taught 35 years in the Ivy League in semesters I can tell you I was skeptical about it. But neither I nor any of the other 32 faculty members who are here right now will ever go back to teaching any other way because it’s vastly more effective and more enjoyable for the faculty member and the student. It’s hard. It’s intense. But having no distractions for a month and focus….
And being able to attract people who have real lives. People can’t get time off teach a four-month university course, but they can teach a one-month long university course. So people from arts, and government can take short breaks off and avail our students of their expertise in the real world.
For the faculty the lack of time limits is liberating because if you want to go on a field trip for six or eight hours it’s not a problem because no one has a chemistry lab that afternoon.
In fact, our volcanology course, after working in the field here with dormant volcanoes, went to the Hawaii Volcano National Observatory for 10 days. Our students can do that because they have no other classes they’re completing with. Being able to focus on one thing at a time is a revelation for people growing up in a world where multitasking is celebrated.
We often hear people defend the liberal arts. Others say university should prepare better for jobs. It seems there are components of each at Quest.
I’m a strong defender of liberal arts for the sake of liberal arts and the education it provides one for life. There’s a distinction in my mind between education and training and both of them are really valuable. I had my hip replaced recently and I wanted that doctor really well trained.
But I think training is distinct from undergraduate education which is all of the communication skills, analytical reasoning skills and collaborative skills necessary to succeed in any sort of occupation.
The point is that university graduates will have five or six different careers in their lifetime. Not just companies but completely different careers. And half of those careers don’t exist today. Half of the careers we had in 1965 when I went to university don’t exist today. That doesn’t mean it needs to be, as it was in the Middle Ages, completely divorced from the real world. That can be unhealthy too. So what we try to do is balance this rigorous training in the liberal arts with some kind of experience in the real world.
Now that it’s a bit more established, what type of student are you seeing apply?
Perhaps the most dramatic change is that through our first five years of existence, unlike most universities, we had almost exactly the same number of men and women whereas in most universities it’s close to 60/40 women to men. In this year’s applicant pool it’s 60/40 [women to men].
The quality of the applicants and range of schools and geographic areas is increasing. We have 36 countries represented now and we’re very happy about that. Since all of our classes have small seminars, having the perspectives of people from outside north America is really important. We’re getting more students from the Eastern U.S. and Canada. The breadth of the pool is expanding.
Quest is quite expensive. How do you react to people who balk at the price or say it’s elitist?
Elitist to me is not a bad word when we’re talking about intellectual matters. It’s not a good word when we’re talking about access, so we have a very large needs-based scholarship program. We assess each family’s need, which takes into account not just family income but we know that if you have three kids in university that’s a lot more expensive than having one kid in university.
We try to make up the difference between the tuition and what the family can afford to pay. I believe as many as seventy per cent of our students are on financial aid. So we’re very conscious of this access issue and we work very hard to make sure all the students who are well-qualified and who will really contribute to the campus community can come independent of their ability to pay.
What makes a student jump out on their application?
A student who has been very active in their school or their community.
We want students who are really excited about the education they’re going to get, not about getting the degree as quickly as possible. So the students who jump out are those who understand we’re a very different environment and not for everybody.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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.
Prof. Pettigrew: You’ll just need to trust us.
The most attractive and least practical idea in the world of Canadian universities is the notion that universities should be accountable for what students are actually learning.
After all, if taxpayers are funding universities, shouldn’t they have some assurances that students are actually learning what they are supposed to be learning? For that matter, if parents are footing a big part of the bill, shouldn’t they have some assurances too? And what about students? If they are trying to build a future based on a university degree, why can’t they guarantee a potential employer that they have some real skills?
When it comes to learning, are we just supposed to take professors’ words for it?
I encounter such arguments frequently, most recently in this piece by Maureen Mancuso. Mancuso quite rightly notes that it is silly and reductive to see university education merely as an investment, but wonders, nevertheless, why we can’t seek some changes to make us more accountable.
Prof. Pettigrew: We neglect our great truths at our peril.
Another day, another attack on the liberal arts.
This time it’s the great state of Florida, where governor Rick Scott’s task force suggests that university students enrolling in so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) should pay less tuition than those enrolling in arts programs. That arts programs cost less to offer, is, apparently, besides the point. That not everyone is interested in or has the aptitude for science (never mind math!) seems irrelevant too.
But worst of all is the facile presumption, stated once again by influential government advisers, that the main function of a degree is to qualify the graduate for a job in the knowledge economy.
Prof. Pettigrew: It’s nice work, if you can stand getting it.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.
Have you ever looked at the front of your lecture hall or into a professor’s office and thought, “That looks like a pretty good gig”? Probably not. But if you have, you may have wondered how you get from where you are to where your professor is. As you might imagine, it’s neither easy to get there nor always as much fun as it looks. Still, if you’re interested, here’s what it looks like.
Before judging, please consider what professors actually do
A lot is being written about universities these days and much of it paints a rather troubling picture. Some of the more popular arguments were put forward by Margaret Wente—who seems to write the same column about post-secondary education every few months—this weekend: the system is in crisis, it doesn’t sufficiently prepare students for the job market, the quality of teaching has continuously declined, and overpaid, lazy professors are sitting in their ivory towers denying that anything is wrong.
Universities are facing real and significant challenges, and I agree that anyone who thinks the only problem is underfunding is deluding themselves (that said, let’s not dismiss funding as an issue: across Canada, government funding as a proportion of university revenues has gone from 80.9 per cent in 1989 to 58.3 per cent in 2009. In Ontario, it is down 49.5 per cent! This trend poses myriad issues, including shifting the funding burden to students and creating incentives for universities to boost funding by adding more students.)