All Posts Tagged With: "Rancourt"
Former student comes to fired prof’s defense; says he encouraged thinking, hard work
As a former student of Denis’ and as a former science student, I really appreciated the teaching methods that Denis brought to his class and to the university. Challenging students on their beliefs, making general science relevant to realities of today instead of purely theoretical. Those are things that I value in a classroom.
Related: School to A+ professor: you’re fired
Contrary to what a lot of people have been saying, Denis has never been about giving anyone a free pass. Denis has constantly encouraged students to follow through on their own interests, to explore things, to work hard and to make it relevant in their daily lives. By constantly challenging a students beliefs he helps them develop their ideas, argumentation and research skills. In this context, given that examination isn’t a stress factor in Denis’ classes, students aren’t expected to think like him to answer correctly on an exam in order to get good grades. This changes enormously the interactions between teacher and student and liberates many constraints to genuine and wholesome learning.
In today’s classroom too much is based on memorizing and learning theory, not enough on ethics, on how it applies in our daily lives, the impact research or scientific knowledge can have on society, politics, war, etc.
Grade based evaluation is mostly based on if you remember what a teacher thought you in the classroom, on reading what the teacher told you to read and on what the teachers perception of a student understanding concepts and remembering facts. From personal experience and common say, students will forget most of the facts they remembered for a given examination the hour after the exam. Techniques and formulas will remain imprinted, but the practical aspects of a given topic often won’t be remembered because of the external pressures that are exams and grades. Students are pressed with time and pressed to obtain high grades. Therefore they aim to perform well on exams as efficiently as possible. This kind of behaviour is definitely not conducive to learning.
To those that say that you need grades to maintain a standard, I say not so. In my opinion and experience you retain and learn much more, technical and practical knowledge, than you do in most other types of classes. And if someone doesn’t want to learn? They won’t retain much in the current system either.
Denis’ methods aren’t all that revolutionary. Major universities around the world have many classes where no grades are given. Many classes, even at the University of Ottawa, turn away from conventional evaluation and teaching methods to either more project based, to taking away grades, to group discussions. Many classes at the University of Ottawa have up to 30% or more of a mark attributed to class participation to try and increase the participation and interest because it is something that is lacking in a lot of classrooms. University of Ottawa Medical school moves away from standard evaluation and teaching methods, yet it still manages to achieve very high standards, by more practical and problem-based approaches. Hampshire college in the U.S. is completely gradeless.
Fired professor tells OnCampus what he plans to do next
Notice: This interview was recently updated to include parts of our interview with Denis Rancourt that were previously omitted.
Professor Denis Rancourt was recently fired by the University of Ottawa for giving every student in his fourth-year physics class an A+. Maclean’s OnCampus spoke with him Monday morning to find out what he’ll do next.
When did you find out that you had been fired?
I found out the day after they made the decision. The Executive Committee of the Board of Governors made the decision on March 31, and a couriered letter was sent to my house April 1.
Were you surprised when you got that letter?
“They [the school’s administration] had to violate the rules to have the meeting on that day. And they did explicitly say that they did not consider key documents, which they were obliged to consider. Even they admit that they violated the rules. That in and of itself was surprising, because normally they would have seven months to study this very complicated case, with hundreds of pages of documents and everything. Instead the administration sent the committee members some of the documents only days before the meeting, or made them aware that they existed and could come and see them, or something like that, literally just a few days before their meeting. Some of those documents they saw only at the meeting. And the documents I was entitled to submit by that day’s deadline? They explicitly said they didn’t look at them.
Do you think they intentionally ignored the initial legal brief that you sent them?
Yes, and I’ve got in writing. Of course they’re not allowed to do that. The lawyer of the faculty association has called it a “fatal procedural error.” No, no, no. It’s unheard of to have committee meeting on the day of my deadline to submit the brief. Depending on what lawyer you talk to, the deadline is either the end of the workday or midnight. You don’t schedule the decision day on the same day as the deadline. Normally they take weeks, months, so they never rush it like this. This was steamroller-style pushing it through as fast as they could.
How did you react? The last time we spoke, you seemed pretty convinced that you wouldn’t be fired.
My association lawyers are the most conservative legal people I know, and they are saying that this is a violation of natural justice principals, that this was a fatal procedural flaw, and that you cannot go there. I’ve never seen them say anything like that before. They normally pick up the pieces after it’s done, but this was preemptively their position. It was clear. If anyone reads the collective agreement, you really need to wonder what [the administration] is doing. It really gives the impression of a gang of thugs pushing someone out. I was surprised that they would be that bold.
Have you responded at all?
To the university? There’s nothing to respond to. The letter basically says, “We’re going to put your stuff in boxes and ship it to you” and “give us all your keys and identity cards immediately.”
What are your next steps, then?
The first thing I did was ask my faculty association to give their recommendations for the wording of the grievance where I would grieve wrongful dismissal. They just responded today, and I was just reading that. It is very, very clear that the professor’s union is going to fight this vigorously. They want to win this, and they want to do it in such a way that the least possible amount of harm comes to me. It’s very clear from their communication with me that that’s where they stand. I’m pleased about that.
Why students were so mad about Denis Rancourt
This letter was sent to Maclean’s OnCampus by Phillip Vinten, a Master’s student at the University of Ottawa and a former student of Denis Rancourt. He says the university did the right thing by firing the dissident professor.
I was a student in one of Denis Rancourt’s physics classes at the University of Ottawa. In particular this was the fourth year physics course that caused all of the commotion in the first place, and as far as I know, I was one of the first ones to complain to the university administration about this class. Dr. Rancourt actually had two classes that semester, and one the semester before in which he gave out all A+. In at least two of those classes, not only did he do that, he didn’t teach at all.
Related: School to A+ professor: you’re fired
Most media stories so far have almost portrayed him as a martyr who is fighting for the students, when in reality he is fighting for his own personal agenda and does not care at all about students, except those that have the same political ideals as he does. He considers that he “indoctrinates” them into the light… or something like that, where as everyone else is simply “brainwashed” by the university’s “corporation machine”. There hardly seems to be a difference.
He seems to forget that we are paying to be there and paying to have someone teach us physics. I acknowledge that we still have to put in the effort to learn, but if we wanted to do it all ourselves, why not just do it at home for fun? We are paying to have someone guide us and point out the important points and show us the tricks to solving problems the easy way. We are paying to have someone teach us what cannot be learned quickly from a textbook. We are paying to have someone share their years of expertise in the field with us.
Dr. Rancourt certainly has the experience and knowledge, and I don’t deny that he is a smart man. He is however a lazy hypocrite. He would stand in front of the class and we’d just discuss anything. Not even physics. When one of us tried to get the conversation back on track, he wouldn’t do anything, except smirk at us… probably because we has getting paid $50 an hour or more to sit there and do nothing and feeling confident that he would not get fired for it. It makes me mad to know that my tuition was paying this man.
More on why students were so mad about Denis Rancourt
This letter was sent to the Chairman of the Department of Physics and the Dean of Science at the University of Ottawa by Phillip Vinten, a Master’s student at the school and a former student of Denis Rancourt. In this letter, he outlines some of his problems with Rancourt’s teaching style and various conflicts that students had with the professor.
[Dr. Joos and Dr. Lalonde]
In the first class Dr. Rancourt told us directly that everyone in the class would be receiving an A+. He went on to describe his teaching method and that his theory, or rather the teaching method he uses, that by removing the grades there will be less stress on us to learn. He said he does not believe in grades. He said that in no way can we be harmed by this system of giving everyone an A+ as this was a contract between the students and the teacher, and that he was guaranteeing us this mark, and there was nothing that the university could do to take it away.
Related: School to A+ professor: you’re fired
Dr. Rancourt went on the say that there would be a final exam and midterm test that would be used for us to communicate to him what we have learned in the course. The midterm, when it came around consisted of three questions, the first two were valid physics questions, but due to the slow pace of the class we had not discussed some aspects of them in the classroom. The third question was an open question where we could tell him about what we learned in his class, by ourselves as part of the class or what we had learned about ourselves or others from the pedagogical method that he uses. We were allowed to answer as much of the midterm as we wanted, but at least one question and it was required that we write the midterm. It was also required that we attend class and he took attendance every class by passing around a sheet for us to sign. Until the point that I dropped the course, I attended every class.
There was no assigned textbook, but there was a recommended textbook, and a textbook used in the prerequisite course (PHY 4382) that we mostly all had. He said “everything in this course is negotiable”. If we didn’t want to come to class we could discuss it with him. If we did not want to learn a specific part of the material we were free to read something else by ourselves. He encouraged us to learn what we were interested in, and to present what we had learned to the class.
In the first class Dr. Rancourt asked us what we had learned in our previous solid state course and what we wanted to learn. A basic course outline was generated from this, but was not to be strictly adhered to. He has assigned several reasonable homework questions for us to work on (but not submit) that were to be discussed in class. The classroom discussions were generally supposed to be about these questions, but in reality the discussion became off-topic very quickly. Frequently there were long discussions about trivial matters that one or two students didn’t understand and this held back everyone else because their concerns were addressed in class instead of afterwards or during offices hours (which Dr. Rancourt does indeed have) so that the rest of the class can move on to the next point.
On another occasion, a student in the class, decided to stand up in front of the class and tell us what he/she (I say this to protect this person’s identity) had learned about magnetism. This is something that had Dr. Rancourt’s full support and he grabbed a seat in the class and watched. The student was presenting to the class when someone asked a question about stainless steel. This question was not totally off-topic as we were talking about what are examples of various kinds of magnetic materials. Dr. Rancourt started to answer the question, when a student asked “exactly what is stainless steel?”. Dr. Rancourt began to explain, but did not give a direct answer and instead asked the class if anyone knew. Then someone asked why it does not rust. From here Dr. Rancourt began talking about rust, and then about the world trade centers and a conspiracy involving the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that the only reason they collapsed was because of faulty construction. At This point 40 minutes had elapsed since the original question, and I put my hand up and said something like “This is way off topic, can we please get back to magnetism?”. Someone else said that what we had done to the student who was originally in front of the class was wrong by effectively stealing the spotlight from him/her. The discussion got back on topic and the student got back in front of the class for the remaining ~15 minutes of class time.
University says he refused to do his job, student calls him “lazy hypocrite”
The University of Ottawa has fired controversial physics professor Denis Rancourt, who made national headlines late last year for refusing to grade his students and promising an A+ to everyone in his upper level physics course. The unanimous decision to terminate his employment was made March 31 at a meeting of the executive committee of the university’s board of governors. Rancourt was sent a couriered letter the next day.
In an interview with Maclean’s OnCampus, Rancourt says he plans to fight what he describes as a “steamroller-style” dismissal. “My firm position is that the university administration doesn’t have a case and that we will win,” he says. “It is very, very clear that the professor’s union is going to fight this vigorously… I am pleased about that.”
However, in the wake of the dismissal, at least one former student has come forward with a scathing take on a professor he calls a “lazy hypocrite.” Phillip Vinten, who was in the infamous fourth-year physics class in which Rancourt gave everyone an A+, says in a letter to Maclean’s that he was one of the first to complain to the university’s administration about the professor. Vinten says that the real problem with Rancourt class was not so much the refusal to grade, but the fact that the professor “didn’t teach at all.”
“Most media stories so far have almost portrayed him as a martyr who is fighting for the students,” wrote Vinten, “when in reality he is fighting for his own personal agenda and does not care at all about students, except those that have the same political ideals as he does.”
“He seems to forget that we are paying to be there and paying to have someone teach us physics,” said Vinten. “It makes me mad to know that my tuition was paying this man.” He writes that Rancourt would stand at the front of the class and let his students talk about anything they wanted. “When one of us tried to get the conversation back on track, he wouldn’t do anything except smirk at us. Probably because he was getting paid $50 an hour or more to sit there and do nothing.”
Vinten says at first he tried to keep an open mind about Rancourt’s pedagogical methods, but once he realized the futility of taking the course, he dropped it. “Had he actually made the effort to teach and we had actually learned what we were supposed to, I would not mind so much if he had just handed out an A+.” He says the media has been far too gentle in its treatment of Rancourt. “In reality, the students are the victims and the university is looking out for us and the value of our degrees by taking action against a professor who refuses to do his job.”
Last December, Rancourt was suspended and locked out of his laboratory and his graduate students were told to find new supervisors. (Three of those students are now suing the university for taking away a professor whom they say is the only person qualified to oversee their work.) The university administration also banned him from campus and, in an extremely rare move against a tenured professor, recommended his dismissal. Two weeks later, while hosting his monthly radical documentary film series at the school, Rancourt was arrested by police and charged with trespassing.
In a statement released Monday, the University of Ottawa said the professor had been invited to participate in the pivotal board of governors meeting and had been given the opportunity to set out his position, but that he chose not to attend. “Rancourt did purport to comply with a longstanding request to produce examination results and other grading materials,” reads the statement. “However, the materials supplied appear to be incomplete.”
Rancourt’s story is very different. He says that committee members were not given adequate access to the legal documents he submitted, and says that they were only told about the hundred-page documents a few days before the group’s meeting. “The documents I was entitled to submit by that day’s deadline? They explicitly said they didn’t look at them,” he says. “You don’t schedule the decision day on the same day as the deadline. Normally they take weeks, months.”