All Posts Tagged With: "Academic Affairs"
Prof. Pettigrew on the reaction to an email that went viral
Once, when I was just a young professor, I dashed off an angry email to a colleague regarding a certain administrator who, in my judgement, had not lived up to his promises when it came to funding a project I was working on. But after I sent the email, a troubling thought struck me. What if the person I sent it to forwarded the message to someone else, who ended up copying the administrator in question, and so on. And if he were to scroll down…
Fortunately, nothing came of it, but I made a rule for myself that I try to follow to this day in my professional life: never email something that you wouldn’t be willing to have everyone read. Because you never know—everyone might.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Rachel Slocum devises a similar rule for herself in the future. Slocum is the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor whose email blaming right wing Republicans for the fact that her students couldn’t access course material—all owing to the partial government shut down caused by Washington gridlock over the budget—caused outrage after it was widely circulated on the internet.
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 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).
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.
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!
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.
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.