All Posts Tagged With: "David Helfand"
Investigating why so many Quest students seek counselling
It’s 8:35 a.m. on January 24th. I have 25 minutes before class starts, but I already know this day will be a struggle. My eyes are worn out and my hair is greasy and unkempt. I haven’t slept right in nearly three days and I’m stressed. The lingering question reappears in my head. Is Quest University’s block program right for me?
Quest is a private, not-for-profit, liberal arts and sciences university located in Squamish, British Columbia and it is the only university in Canada entirely on a block program. That means classes are capped at 20 students and only one subject is taught at a time, every weekday for three hours over a three-and-a-half week period. Students are expected to complete around five hours of homework or research every day outside of class for a total of eight hours of work daily. Although many students are able to excel under the block plan’s intensity, others—like me—are thrown into a mental war of attrition, struggling to survive. This made me wonder: Is the mental toll worse at Quest than at traditional universities without block plans?
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.
From dirt and dreams to student favourite: what’s different about Quest University is pretty much everything
When Celeta Cook of Deseronto, Ont., applied five years ago as a 17-year-old to Quest University, the hilltop site in the coastal mountain community of Squamish, B.C., was little more than dirt and dreams. “I did my preview day in a hard hat and a reflective vest,” says Cook, now part of Quest’s first grad class this April 30. The library will be finished, she was promised, “it just hasn’t been built yet.” Far from being put off, she was excited. “All right,” she said, “I’ll see you guys in September.” She was one of 73 students in 2007. There are now about 300, as it builds toward its capacity of 650—still smaller than most of the high schools the students came from.
For Cook, it was a good fit. Quest, a private, not-for-profit undergraduate liberal arts and sciences university, is not for the faint of heart. Its promotional literature welcomes “iconoclasts, convention-challengers, pioneers, risktakers, edge seekers, creators . . . ” The same criteria apply to its faculty, and certainly its outgoing president, David J. Helfand, who divides his time between two coasts. He’s a teacher and administrator at Quest, and he chairs the astronomy department at New York’s Ivy League Columbia University.
The new university that wants to change everything
This is definitely not your typical first-year course. Instead of being packed into a lecture hall along with several hundred strangers, these 20 students are lounging around an oval table in a brand-new classroom and laughing almost hysterically. It’s still September, but their familiarity is already apparent. The room quiets as a generously bearded, scholarly-looking man introduces today’s topic: the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of lecturing on the finer points of the seminal document himself, David Helfand, a visiting professor from Columbia University, directs the students to present their assigned discussion points, intervening from time to time to keep the conversation moving forward with the occasional question or gentle correction.
The conversation doesn’t need much prodding. Soon the students are jumping in with questions of their own, most of which are surprisingly thoughtful and relevant for a group only three weeks into their academic careers. “What’s the point of all those countries ratifying it if it’s not legally binding?” one young woman asks. Another student: “If we’re all supposedly equal, why give special privileges to disabled or First Nations people?” Another, unembarrassed by her youthful ignorance, admits, “Man, I never even knew what ‘whereas’ meant before yesterday!”
Helfand is a leading astrophysicist and chair of the department of astronomy at Columbia, and yet here he is, teaching a first-year class on human rights at Quest University, a little-known school up a mountain in Squamish, B.C. This class—and everything else at the barely year-old university—is far from ordinary. The student body is tiny. The focus is entirely on undergraduates. Tuition is $24,500 a year. Professors teach exclusively, and do not do research. To emphasize the point, they aren’t even called professors but rather “tutors.” And students don’t take individual courses as at other universities, but instead study in intense, 3½-week-long interdisciplinary modules known as “blocks.” Today’s class is part of the year’s first block, focused on the relationship between humans and nature, covering topics as varied as Jared Diamond’s Collapse, the philosopher Rousseau and the science of rivers. Although Helfand admits that he was initially skeptical of the unorthodox approach, he says it’s been a remarkable success. “So far, every subject works just brilliantly. The level of engagement is something I’ve never witnessed in 30 years of teaching university.”
Quest is Canada’s first non-profit, secular, private university—and its approach is arguably the most radical experiment in Canadian higher education since the great university expansion and transformation of the 1960s. And yet despite the promise in evidence in the classroom, this is an experiment that is not going well. Students aren’t flocking to the place. Enrolment is far below expectations. The university’s leadership has been a revolving door, its mission at times confused. The school’s financial health may be shaky. What does such a rocky start for Canada’s most ambitious and publicized higher education revolution say about the state of undergraduate education in Canada?
Quest is the brainchild of David Strangway, one of Canada’s most experienced academic administrators and a former president of the University of British Columbia. When Strangway retired from UBC in 1997, after 12 years at the helm, he had no intention of settling down to a quiet life in his hometown, the retirement haven of Kelowna. Then aged 62, he had bigger plans. He would build a university according to his idea of what undergraduate education should be: it would avoid graduate studies and research, and it would be private. The model would be the liberal arts colleges of the U.S. northeast, such as Vermont’s Middlebury College. In Strangway’s view, most Canadian universities no longer focus on undergraduates, but have instead become graduate research establishments that also teach undergraduate students.