All Posts Tagged With: "students"
Prof. Pettigrew on why remedial courses aren’t the answer
Ask any university professor if their students come to university well prepared and you are likely to hear some laughter. And then more laughter. And then the word “no” spoken with emphasis. English students who don’t know what a semi-colon is, biology students who know nothing about evolution—none of this is a secret.
So it was hardly news to me that the students of Memorial University’s Judith Adler don’t know basic geography.
Despite its ubiquity, this lack of basic knowledge among high school graduates is frustrating because those students don’t make up for their lack of basic skills with an abundance of advanced skills. If they knew few facts but were, let’s say, excellent critical thinkers or writers, that might be okay—one can’t expect everything.
Sadly, however, most students arrive with neither basic factual knowledge nor critical thinking nor writing skills to speak of. How exactly they have spent their time in secondary school is actually a bit of a mystery to those of us in higher education.
Prof. Pettigrew on why we really shouldn’t worry
Ever since the Canadian government decided it was going to put the kibosh on foreign workers coming to this country to fulfill their dreams of taking off their clothes for money, the Canadian press has been abuzz with dark fears that strip club owners will turn their prurient gazes at Canada’s innocent home-grown youth.
Things really took off this week when the BC government issued a memo warning universities that adult entertainment recruiters might be preying on young west coast women. Breathless headlines followed, like this gem from The Globe and Mail about recruiters on the “prowl.”
The whole thing, is of course, a tempest in D cup, but these days our national pastime seems to be tut-tutting at the perceived imperfections of others. Our Victorian founders would have been proud.
These things annoy Prof. Pettigrew far more
Last week I wrote that banning bottled water from universities was environmentally sensitivity gone too far. I hinted that there were other things much worse, and if we are going to start banning things, water should be way down on our list. Just to show that I am not entirely a spoil-sport when it comes to forbidding things, I offer 10 other things that I would rather see disappear.
1. Cheap cologne. While cheap perfume for women seems to be on the decline, cheap cologne for men seems to be making a comeback. Bottom line: I don’t want to smell you. Period.
2. Asking a professor where another professor is or when another professor will be back. It’s always the same: student arrives at Professor Hallcross’s door and knocks. No answer. Knocks again. No answer. Comes to my door: “do you know where Professor Hallcross is?” No. How would I know? Do you think we professors have some kind of universal academic GPS? Do you think I have a magic map showing his footprints moving through the Hufflepuff common room?
3. Non-specific email help requests. EG: “I don’t understand the assignment you gave us. Can you explain it?” No, because I don’t know what course you are in, which assignment you mean, or what part of it you don’t understand.
4. Pretending you didn’t know plagiarism was wrong. You cheated. You got caught. At least own up to it.
5. Walking in large groups slowly down the hall. Some of us have places to be. And for that matter, don’t you have somewhere to be? The library? Class?
6. Doing homework from one class in another class. You’re missing my thoughtful comments on Oscar Wilde, and I’m distracting you from memorizing brain anatomy. Why bother?
7. Asking what you need to do to pass the course after the course is more than half over. Think back to the beginning of class and you’ll recall that I told you what to do to pass the course…
8. Asking for a higher grade so that you can keep your scholarship or get into a program you want to get into. Those scholarship and admissions committees rely on me to let them know how you’ve done. If I raise your grade to the line they have set, it defeats the purpose of the line.
9. Bird courses. If there’s no way a student can try hard and still fail, then it’s not a serious course. This is mostly the fault of professors, but hey students, don’t feed the birds! Challenge yourselves.
10. Asking your course adviser which profs are the “good” ones. I don’t know what you think a good prof is. Do you mean funny? Conscientious? Easy grader? And even if I did know what you were looking for, I don’t see other professors in the classroom. Most times I don’t know if they’re what you’re looking for. Even if I did, I’m not going to bad mouth my colleagues. Well, except one.
Once we’ve gotten rid of all these things, then you can talk to me about water.
Schools everywhere are stripping away the freedom of students and parents to make their own lunchtime decisions
What’s the difference between school and prison? Not much, if you listen to your kids.
Lately, however, it seems adults have been going out of their way to reinforce this grim connection. In the name of fighting obesity, schools everywhere are taking away the freedom of students, and parents, to make their own lunchtime decisions.
Last week, the Chicago Tribune documented the peculiar and controversial food policy of the Little Village Academy on Chicago’s west side. Bagged lunches have been banned: every student is required to eat lunch in the cafeteria. The reason? Principal Elsa Carmona doesn’t trust parents to pack a proper lunch. “Nutrition-wise, it is better for the children to eat at school,” she told the newspaper sternly. Exceptions are only made for allergies or similar medical reasons. Other Chicago-area schools apparently inspect their students’ lunches and confiscate food deemed unhealthy.
Mandatory cafeteria meals. Confiscation of tasty contraband. Throw up a guard tower and some searchlights and the prison motif would be complete.
Of course this sort of nutritional tough love is not confined to Chicago. In September, Ontario will enforce a strict new food policy in all of its schools—fried food of any kind will be forbidden, meaning cafeterias will no longer be able to sell hamburgers or french fries. Eighty per cent of all meals must consist of fruits, vegetables, whole grains or other healthy options; only 20 per cent of the menu can include processed or higher-fat items such as bagels or cheese.
Quebec already has a strict food policy in place. Other provinces, including British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick, have similar school food guidelines. All this lunchtime dirigisme is driven by concerns about observed rates of obesity among North American children. But will these new rules really produce healthier students? Remember, these are teenagers we’re talking about.
However much we may wish for teenagers to make healthier choices at lunchtime, bans on french fries and other lunch staples seem unlikely to produce a massive increase in fruit and vegetable consumption. Such rules are far more likely to add to the daily exodus of students already fleeing school at lunchtime.
Anecdotal evidence abounds that students eat at nearby fast-food outlets and convenience stores when denied their choice of food in school cafeterias. In New Brunswick and British Columbia, school food sales dropped noticeably following the imposition of new lunch guidelines. These kids do not go hungry. They find ways to escape their food prisons. Regardless of official pronouncements or good intentions, the demands of teenage stomachs will not be placated by whole wheat bean sprout tofu wraps.
Groups advocating strict school food rules are starting to recognize the unintended consequences of these policies. But their proposed solutions are equally impractical and draconian. Last year, for example, the Alberta Policy Coalition for Cancer Prevention demanded that municipal governments use their zoning powers to “protect student health by limiting the availability and accessibility of unhealthy food and beverages in areas surrounding new schools.”
The revised strategy is thus: outlaw favoured foods at school, then outlaw those same foods within walking distance of school. This desire among lobby groups for absolute control over all aspects of food choice should be considered a worrisome trend by students and adults alike. Eating remains a personal responsibility, not a government mandate.
It also bears mention that unhealthy weight gain—in teenagers or anyone else—is the unhappy combination of too much eating and too little exercise. And high school students are getting noticeably less physical activity in school. According to a 2007 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the percentage of Ontario high school students enrolled in phys. ed. fell from 70 per cent to 60 per cent between 1999 and 2005. Focusing solely on food choice ignores the direct role schools have played in other aspects of fitness.
To be successful, any efforts to improve the eating habits of schoolchildren must recognize the practical implications of the policies themselves. Frightening kids away with food bans is no solution. Neither is forcing them to eat in cafeterias against their will. Schools should find ways to convince students to choose cafeteria food based on taste and convenience—and health benefits—but not through coercion.
It is also important to acknowledge—and emphasize—the role parents must play in helping their children make healthy choices. Ensuring all kids benefit from a proper diet is a matter for the family, not the authorities.
At this new competition, high-schoolers will compete for $10,000 in prizes
Lily MacLeod is an A student who loves fashion, has recorded her own songs, written a screenplay, acted in school dramas, and is eyeing the Olympics as a provincially ranked beach volleyball athlete. But these days what gets her really stoked is reciting dead poets. She’s especially fond of a 1922 sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially the last wistful Twitter-length couplet, which she rhymes off by heart with a sigh: ” ‘A ghost in marble of a girl you knew / Who would have loved you in a day or two.’ I know I’m only 17, but every time I say that, it gives me shivers.”
Forget the urban scenesters who spar at poetry slams with volleys of self-styled spoken word. MacLeod belongs to a new breed of dead poets society, a group of teens who will compete for serious cash by reciting literary classics. A student at Toronto’s Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute, she is one of a dozen finalists drawn from contests at 12 Ontario secondary schools who will compete in the inaugural Poetry In Voice recitation contest on April 12 at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. They’ve each selected three poems to perform from an online list of 200 titles, and they’ll be vying for a total purse of $10,000, with $5,000 going to the winner.
Poetry In Voice was created by philanthropist Scott Griffin, founder of the annual Griffin Poetry Prize, the world’s richest English-language poetry award, which splits $130,000 between a Canadian and international contender. Poetry In Voice, says Griffin, is designed to spread the love of poetry to a wider audience and reintroduce oral skills to schools. “It’s really caught the imagination of students,” he says. The contest is due to expand to Quebec next year, and go nationwide by 2013—like Poetry Out Loud, its U.S. equivalent, which began in 2006 and last year involved 325,000 students across America.
Next week six judges, including award-winning poets Dennis Lee and Karen Solie, will evaluate the Ontario finalists, using criteria as complex as those for figure skating. Students will be marked for accuracy, body language, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding and “appropriateness of dramatization.” The last point is tricky. Guidelines warn that recitation is not theatre, and marks will be docked for “affected character voices and accents… singing, distracting and excessive gestures, or unnecessary emoting.”
Recitation “is not like anything else,” says MacLeod, who will also read Yeats and Apollinaire. “I love being onstage, but it’s not acting. It’s a mix. Even when it’s not my poem, the way I translate it into my life feels really personal.” MacLeod’s favorite poet, Margaret Atwood, is not on the list. (Until permissions are arranged, contemporary authors are not included.) But Atwood, one of the Griffin trustees, is keen on the contest. “Memorizing a poem is an intimate way of getting to know it inside out,” she told Maclean’s. “It reconnects the poem with the speaking voice, which is where it came from. And it will get students interested in form. They’ll no longer say, ‘Why couldn’t they just spit it out—war is hell, love is great—why does it have to be stretched out into four stanzas?’ They will understand a lot more about language and its sensual elements.”
Like public speaking, recitation can also build a student’s confidence. For Spencer Slaney, a 15-year-old finalist who stands six foot seven, “this was a challenge that came along at the right time,” says Gary McKinny, his French teacher at Sudbury’s Lockerby Composite School. Slaney performed Baudelaire’s Spleen in French, “a classic poem with some very obscure words,” says McKinny. “It was amazing to see how it jelled with his personality. Almost as if the poet was in the room.” Some of Slaney’s friends scoffed at his new poetry kick, but he was unfazed. “This,” he says, “could take me places.”
Noting that poetry recitation was once all the rage, Atwood cites the episode in Anne of Green Gables in which Anne competes with a professional reciter, wowing Gilbert with her passion. When Lily MacLeod performed Apollinaire in French at her school, there were some hoots and whistles from the boys. Poets, even dead ones, still have the power to turn young heads.
Oxford study tracks university participation for those born in 1970
Teenagers who play video games regularly are less likely to attend university, according to an Oxford University study. Researcher Mark Taylor tracked 17,000 people born in 1970 and found that university participation rates for males dropped from 24 per cent to 19 per cent if they were avid computer gamers, and from 20 per centto 14 per cent for females. Taylor also found that those who read at least one book a month, accounting for parental income and school attended, raised the chances that a student would go on to hold a managerial or professional position by the time they were 33, from 25 per cent to 39 per cent for females and from 48 per cent to 58 per cent for males. Taylor acknowledged that while reading may improve intellect, there could be little causal link as those headed for managerial careers may simply be predisposed towards reading. He also acknowledged that the video game industry has changed significantly since the mid 1980s when the cohort being studied would have been in their teens.
Scam making the rounds at U of Waterloo
Earlier this week the Waterloo Regional Police issued a warning to students who are trying to sublet or rent off-campus housing, according to an article in The Record, after the fraud branch received reports of a scam that could rob students of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
The fraud branch in Waterloo warns that the scam involved targeting students who posted rooms for rent on the University of Waterloo off-campus housing website, but the scam is apparently a common one, and police caution students to be suspicious of advanced payments in the form of a cheque which are larger than the agreed upon amount as it’s part of the scam. The cheques are fake, which means you will also lose any cash you’ve advanced them, thinking you’re ‘repaying’ them the difference.
“The bad guys come up with cheques that have some legitimate account numbers on it, though they’re not their numbers,” said Staff Sgt. Dale Roe of the Waterloo Regional Police fraud branch in The Record article. “That just takes more time for it to be caught in the banking system.”
The fraud branch in Waterloo can be reached at: 519-653-7700, ext. 8380.
Going without technology for 24 hours prompts withdrawal symptoms among youth
Students show signs of addiction when they are unplugged from their cell phones, MP3 players, computers and televisions, according to a study from the International Center for Media at the University of Maryland. Researchers surveyed 1,000 university students from 10 countries around the world, including, China, the United Kingdom, the United States and Chile. The study concluded that a “clear majority” of participants were unable to remove themselves from technology for 24 hours. Susan Moeller, who led the project, said the students exhibited symptoms clearly resembling withdrawal. “They expected the frustration. But they didn’t expect to have the psychological effects, to be lonely, to be panicked, the anxiety, literally heart palpitations,” she said. Students taking part in the study completed an online questionnaire before and after attempting to go media free. Some students, Moeller noted, recognized that their reliance on technology “actually inhibited their ability to manage their lives as fully as they hoped.”
Provincial budget geared at keeping students in the province
Nova Scotia’s budget does some amazing things for students. It reduces tuition by more than $1,000 per year. It institutes a debt cap, making sure that nobody gets in too deep. It even adds to textbook credits and improves the earning allowance.
And the province had better keep up the good work, or they won’t have any students left to serve. More than 60 per cent of the province’s population is over 30 years old and post-secondary enrolment is dropping steadily from year to year.
Ask the province’s student organizations what the reason is and they point to one thing: Out-migration to escape debt.
The Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations wrote to provincial MLAs this year:
“A 2009 survey of over 1,500 students done by the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations suggested that students with over $26,000 in debt were 20 per cent more likely to leave the province after graduation.”
Studies have consistently said that students saddled with enormous debt loads at graduation are less likely to contribute to the wider economy by buying a house or a car.
Nova Scotia’s budget is wisely trying to stem the tide of students heading out of province to study and, afterward, work. In doing so, they’re trying to save their own economic future. Expect this to be the first salvo in a running war to convince students to not only study in Nova Scotia, but also build their lives there.
Though Liberals promise more help for students, accessibility may not be the biggest issue for PSE anymore
Yet as the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente pointed out in her column Thursday, considering Canada has one of the highest post secondary education rates in the world, accessibility may not be a problem anymore. In fact, Canadian universities may even be too accessible.
Wente argued that when tuition fees for most universities are a bargain and “virtually anyone who wants to can get in somewhere,” it lowers how much a university degree is worth. “The vast expansion of higher education hasn’t smartened up people. Instead, it’s dumbed down the standards,” Wente writes.
Ken Coates, dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo, and Bill Morrison, a former history professor from the University of Northern British Columbia, explored this issue in their book, Campus Confidential, in which they point out that too many students and parents have been falsely convinced that higher education holds all the answers. “They and their parents have bought the mantra: Go to university, get a degree, then get a white-collar career,” Coates told the Globe and Mail.
In their book, Coates and Morrision write that “the widespread perception is that fewer and fewer of them are participating beyond the bare minimum required for a degree.” That can’t be a positive sign for the value of higher education.
In spite of these concerns, student representatives and politicians alike continue to argue that the more students there are in university, and the less money they have to pay to be there, the better off we all will be. However, it seems as though there are often too many people in university who aren’t sure what they want from their degree at all. Further, though students typically spend four years plus working towards graduation, an undergraduate degree no longer carries the promise of a job. In many cases, it doesn’t even qualify you for one.
As a student, it’s easy to be branded as an elitist snob for pointing out that there are some people on campus that may not need to be there. But it’s not good for students or universities if everyone believes they are expected to be able to get a degree, and that doing so will always lead to success.
Why so many students dream of working for the government
It can be lonely for recruiters manning the booths for big banks or retailers at Ryerson University’s student job fairs. “The government agencies get a lot more attention,” says Ian Ingles, the organizer of the Toronto events.
That’s no surprise, considering the statistics. In a recent survey for Studentawards.com, 30 per cent of university students picked the government of Canada as their employer of choice. Then came Health Canada. Provincial governments did well too, beating out all of the banks and the video game developers. Even the trendiest private sector companies, Apple and Google, couldn’t beat the federal agencies.The results echo another recent survey of nearly 10,000 Canadian students by research firm Universum. In it, arts graduates, for example, gave the government of Canada, the provincial governments and Health Canada gold, silver and bronze respectively.
The recession explains some of the zeal for the civil service. During the rough days of 2009, students got the message that private companies were shedding employees while government workers were relatively unaffected: there was a record-setting 4,000 applications for 106 Ontario government internships in early 2009.
But how to explain the post-recession jump in applications for the same internship program? Last March, even with many private sector employers hiring graduates again, applications to the annual program grew by more than 20 per cent to just over 5,000 for 76 spots.
Demographics—and the altruistic goals of new graduates—best explain the march toward public service, says Sandra Botha, a campus recruiter for the government of British Columbia. Modern immigrants to Canada are proud to work for the government, she says. “Many students perceive a government job as having a lot of prestige, because it did in their parents’ country of origin,” she explains. “We have many more Chinese-Canadians applying in B.C., and if you come from China, working for the government is considered the job.”
The government would have been the only job available for Elias Samuel had he stayed in his native Ethiopia, he says. “You don’t really have any other options if you graduate from engineering,” says the 2010 graduate of Brandon University. Samuel fled his country as a refugee after he was threatened by police for demonstrating against the dictatorship. Still, he maintains a strong desire to work in the public sector. He’s even considering a master’s degree in statistics to improve his chances of landing a government gig.
Samuel says working for the government will teach him skills to help change the world. “Canada is a very democratic government and everything works smoothly,” he says. “Maybe if I worked for the government here, then I could one day go back to my country and implement change to the system,” he says.
Botha has witnessed strong altruism among Canadian-born students too. “If we have an external position posted for anything environmental, we have huge numbers of people applying,” she says. “They all want to make a difference to climate change.”
That may explain the growing number of degree programs directed at students with big plans for the planet. Trent University recently accepted the first class of students into its new masters in sustainability studies program, which includes political science courses to prepare students for work in government ministries. The University of Guelph is currently training Canada’s first ever Ph.D.s in international development studies.
David Turpin, the president of the University of Victoria, says more students want to change the world than ever, but he has another explanation for the lure of the government gig: they are successfully fighting the stereotype that the public service is boring, he says. That’s something Ingles, the Ryerson career expert, says he’s noticed too.
Of course, pensions, perks, and job security are nothing to sneeze at. Manvi Kapoor, a soon-to-be human resources graduate of Ryerson University, says the high starting wage was why she applied to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services two summers ago. The benefits—including life insurance, guaranteed nine-to-five workdays, and plenty of vacation time—are the reasons she’ll go back. There’s no need to re-apply; even summer students have enviable job security.
Kapoor sees one potential snag in her future plans. “People of my generation are really restless to move up quickly,” she says. “But because of the good job security in government, people stay in their jobs 10 years or more before ever making a move.” That could slow things down. “If I want to move up, I’ll have to wait for people to literally die off one by one,” she says.
Potential federal election just a distraction from wider issues
The 2011 budget proposed by the Conservative government contained a bevy of good news for students, but due to the increasing likelihood of a federal election being called by the end of the month, or even the week, students won’t see these new initiatives come to life.
In the likely event that the budget is voted down, or a motion of non-confidence passes in the House of Commons, all bills that have not received royal assent die on the spot. That includes the budget and all its student-friendly gains.
The interest-free study-period for part-time students? Gone. The $40,000 tuition credit for doctors and nurses who work in rural Canada? Gone. The boost to Canada Student Loans? Gone.
This also includes the recently introduced private member’s bill proposing the creation of a post-secondary act, put forth by NDP MP Niki Ashton. It’s a bill that seeks to streamline post-secondary funding from the federal government to the provinces and add criteria and conditions to the funds.
The Conservatives could be found in contempt of parliament — a Canadian first. The Carlton Carson scandal is a smear on their leadership and the Oda scandal reeks of entitlement. But Ignatieff’s Liberals aren’t likely to make gains as much as 10 points, nor can spunky Jack Layton hope to unseat the Conservative power house.
Canadians are likely to elect another minority Conservative government because, to be honest, they don’t have much else to choose from: Conservative entitlement, Liberal flacidness or … the NDP. With such an outcome likely, the election is a stunt that is a mere distraction to wider issues. And it’s going to hurt students.
Elections are important aspects of democracy. But with so few options, and so little in the way of game-changers that are likely to oust a government, I can’t help but think how futile an exercise this is. When no major shift in power is likely, an election is little but an exercise in futility that hurts the average Canadian and, this time around, especially students.
A U.S. advocacy group has launched a civil rights challenge, claiming the software is unusable for blind students
Google is the wrong choice for university email, a U.S. advocacy group is charging.
But it’s more than that. They argue that by choosing to outsource university email services to Google, universities are violating the civil rights of vision-impaired students and faculty.
The U.S.-based National Federation of the Blind launched a civil rights challenge against two American universities this week, pointing out that while Google’s free software suite is attractive, it is nearly impossible to use by the blind.
Their position is pretty clear. President Marc Maurer writes:
“Given the many accessible options available, there is no good reason that these universities should choose a suite of applications, including critical email services, that is inaccessible to blind students.
“Worse yet, according to recent data more than half of the American higher education institutions that are outsourcing e-mail to third-party vendors plan to deploy this suite, even though they know that it cannot be used by blind students. Nor can these universities claim ignorance of their legal obligations, since the United States Department of Justice and the United States Department of Education have specifically warned all university presidents against the adoption of inaccessible technology.
“The National Federation of the Blind will not tolerate this unconscionable discrimination against blind students and faculty and callous indifference to the right of blind students to receive an equal education. We urge these higher education institutions to suspend their adoption of Google Apps for Education until it is accessible to all students and faculty, not just the sighted, or to reject Google Apps entirely.”
Canadian universities, though, are in a similar spot. Large schools like the University of Toronto, the University of Alberta and even smaller schools, like Lakehead University, have already signed over their email services to Google.
North of the border, most concerns related to this shift have been about privacy. How much control does a university have over the privacy of its students’ email accounts when they’re based out of servers on U.S. soil? It turns out, not very much.
But those concerns are theoretical. Concerns about accessibility are real, daily and serious for those whose disabilities prevent them from using core services.
Google told the Chronicle of Higher Education that they were meeting with the NFB to improve their product line, but no details or timelines were offered.
The NFB is right to challenge the use of inaccessible software as much as wheelchair-bound students are right to challenge the lack of ramps on campus. Canadian schools should be paying close attention, and working with their students and faculty to ensure that all services — especially critical core services — are available to all.
University Canada West closed its Victoria campus with students in the middle of classes
After the closure of its Victoria campus, University Canada West students have been left scrambling to transfer to other institutions. The private university, which is recognized and accredited by the B.C. government, closed the campus last month and informed students that they could directly transfer to the Vancouver campus.
Two students, Josey Reynolds and Ricki Petersen, who started their degree programs just last semester told CBC News how they received notice of the closure the day after the deadline for withdrawing from classes without financial penalty. “To me, its just totally unethical to sign up people for a two-year degree and not follow through,” Petersen said.
Both students were financing their studies through publicly funded government loans, and do not wish to move to Vancouver. Instead they would prefer to transfer to Camosum College, but there is concern over how much of their UCW credits they will be able to transfer.
CBC further reported that after they had made inquiries, a spokesman for Eminata, the company that owns UCW, confirmed that the school will aid the students in completing their programs. “We will do right by the students. We will do what it takes to support them in either their transferability of their credits — whatever we need to do to help them with that,” Royden Trainor said. Trainor also said that students will be credited for courses they did not complete due to the closure.
23 universities take part in national campaign to help fund youth shelters
Yesterday, business students at 23 universities across Canada began participating in Five Days for the Homeless, an annual event to raise money to support homeless youth. As part of the campaign, students will still attend classes but will spend their nights sleeping outside. They are not permitted to have cell phones, to shower, and can only eat food donated to them. At the University of Alberta, students are hoping to raise $25,000 for the local youth shelter. At Carleton, the goal is $15,000 and at the University of Regina students hope to raise $10,000. Since the campaign started seven years ago, approximately $520,000 has been raised, with a goal of bringing that number to $750,000 by the end of this week.
You can engage a room of 500 students: know the material cold, and know how to share it
In 1986, to recognize the importance of university teaching, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada created the 3M National Teaching Fellowships. Since 2006, Maclean’s has proudly been the program’s media sponsor. Over the next several weeks we will be profiling each of the 10 winners, starting here with English professor Nick Mount.
It is a rare warm day in what has proven to be a punishingly cold Toronto winter. It is a Friday afternoon—a Friday afternoon before a long weekend. In essence, it is the sort of afternoon for which the playing of hooky was invented. So why is Nick Mount standing on a stage before a sea of first-year students—hundreds of them, piled like waves up the sloping floor of a University of Toronto lecture theatre? “I’m actually,” admits Mount, “shocked you’re here.” He spends the next two hours reminding the class of 450 students why they are.
The topic today is the Chris Ware graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. The course is Literature for Our Time, a primer that encompasses all of Corrigan, Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness To the Lighthouse, and Toronto novelist Andrew Pyper’s literary noir The Killing Circle. Mount’s close reading of Corrigan, an anti-hero parable of fathers and sons that ends ambiguously with a Superman figure swooping angel like upon the protagonist and carrying him away, is as careful in its attentions as Mount had been with either Woolf or Vladimir Nabokov’s dense, disturbing Lolita.
Suddenly, Mount projects a garish image onto a large screen above him: it is the cover of another comic book, Smooth ’n’ Natural, a clever homage to the blaxploitation B movies of the 1970s. It is uproariously funny. Mount identifies its creator—he is a student, Brian McLachlan, sitting in the hall, totally surprised that Mount knows who he is or what he does. “Did I just embarrass the hell out of you?” asks Mount, who on the contrary, with a magician’s trick, has suddenly summoned the spirit of his theme—Literature for Our Time, the way poetry and fiction really do respond to the world—and housed that spirit in the shape of one of his own students.
“It’s something I learned from Northrop Frye,” says Mount, an expert in 19th-century Canadian romance novels, referring to Frye, the world-renowned U of T literary theorist. “Frye says that romance is the genre that’s best at revealing the wishes of a society—and its fears. An experimental avant-garde novel by some guy wearing a beanie in a café in Yorkville is about his anxieties. But if you read a popular novel, romance or genre fiction up against the culture of their time, they can have really interesting things to say about what that culture worried about, what it hoped for, what kind of heroes it wanted.”
Each Friday, Mount, who’s 47, favours grey stubble over full beard and pairs dark suits with wine-coloured, open-necked shirts, steps onto that stage and holds that mirror up to his 450 students. Somehow—through humour, knowing asides, but above all through a grasp of the material so complete and fluid that it tends to conceal the dozens of hours of prep he dedicates to each lecture—Mount makes the experience intimate. “It’s like I’m just talking to a friend about the book I’ve just finished,” says 18-year-old Alisa Lurie.
It’s not just that he’s passionate about the material (he’s been known to choke up describing how the poet Sylvia Plath placed mugs of milk in her children’s cribs before committing suicide), or that he knows the material cold. These are the basics. Mount recalls that one of his own profs—Patrick Grant, back at the University of Victoria—“broke every rule in the good teacher’s rule book. He read from dusty notes that were clearly 10 years old, he never made eye contact. And I learned more in that class than any other in undergraduate because the guy knew his stuff. And he knew how to share it.”
University inspired them to change the world. College gave them the tools to do it.
University graduates are tossing their mortarboards in the air, sliding their degrees into the filing cabinet—and then heading straight to college. In Ontario, applications for postgraduate diploma programs (which accept only university grads) have jumped 21 per cent since 2007. In Atlantic Canada and Western Canada, college programs that recruited high school grads a decade ago have become de facto postgrads with most applicants already holding degrees. Dianne Twombly, the manager of York University’s career centre, has noticed the trend on her campus, too, and she thinks she understands why. “As more and more students get bachelor’s degrees, postgrads are a way to distinguish yourself—a way to get an edge.” York has seen so much interest, it’s offering at least one postgrad workshop each month.
Aisling Nolan, a 27-year-old philosophy graduate of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., attended university and then college, rather than a master’s program. Her university degree helped her understand what she wants to do with her life—help people overseas. Once she knew that, she was ready for the one-year college certificate in international development from Humber College, because it promised practical skills and connections to put her plan into action.
Should schools be in the business of turning out employable grads?
Carlie Deneiko is from the tiny town of Watrous, Sask. (population 1,800), more than an hour’s drive southeast of Saskatoon. As a teen, she dreamed of travelling the world, but her priorities are shifting. “I’ve got a boyfriend, and I’m really settled,” says Deneiko, 20, a student in the faculty of education at the University of Regina. “It’s becoming more important to me to get a job.”
Deneiko’s not too worried: her education comes with a job guarantee. She’s one of 355 students enrolled in a new program at the University of Regina that promises students they’ll land a job—in their chosen field—within six months of graduation. If they don’t, the university gives them another year of tuition for free. The UR Guarantee has other bells and whistles (like internships and work programs), but for Deneiko, it’s that extra year of free tuition that pulled her in. “If I don’t get a job, I’m coming back to get my special education certificate,” she says.
Since it launched in September, the UR Guarantee has been incredibly popular. Enrolment in the program, which is open to all first-year students, has already jumped by 24 per cent, says president Vianne Timmons. “We looked at students’ motivation for attending university,” she says, “and realized they’re looking at a degree primarily as a launching pad for a career.”
Universities have long been seen as ivory towers, leaving job training to colleges and vocational programs, but that’s changing fast. “It’s not the old, green college on the hill anymore,” says Lloyd Axworthy, president of the University of Winnipeg. “The marketplace has changed,” adds Ronald Bordessa, president of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). “Some universities have moved quickly. Others haven’t, and are having greater difficulty attracting students.”
Regina isn’t the only university in the job guarantee business—tiny Sainte-Anne in Church Point, N.S., offers its education and business graduates free tuition if they haven’t found work after four months. It’s a radical approach—but some schools don’t even track how many graduates go on to get jobs in their field. Monitoring this is “absolutely critical,” says University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera. “If your students are not finding employment, it means that employers are not finding them competitive.” Even so, it’s hard to know which schools are turning out the most employable grads, which leaves some industry leaders shaking their heads. “Amazingly enough, [employability] is not the metric for success that universities follow,” says businessman Reza Satchu, who teaches the highly successful economics of entrepreneurship course at the University of Toronto.
Study that shows students learn little misses the point
It seems Canadian universities are paying closer attention to a study that came out of New York University a few weeks ago. The study argues that students aren’t going to university to learn anymore; they’re going there to socialize.
According to the report, students can spend less than half as many hours studying as they do socializing. The study seems to be making a statement that youth of today are unreliable and unruly, that they are less then the university graduates of a generation ago.
Todd Pettigrew has already pointed out that there is little reason to panic that the study’s finding would ring true in Canada. Recent comments from the vice-provost at the University of Western Ontario would back that statement up.
“For most things in life, you get out of something what you put into it,” John Doerksen said in Feb 3 press release. “It’s possible for students to find the easiest route to a diploma at the end of the day, but on the whole universities are serving populations well.”
Whenever you paint an entire population with the same brush, you risk painting some students the wrong colour. It’s a dangerous game to play. While the study found that “45 per cent of students made no significant improvement in critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years, and 36 per cent showed no improvement after four years of schooling” more than half of students did make critical progress.
According to the study, students spent about 85 hours a week socializing or participating in extracurricular activities. Less than 40 hours per week were devoted to academics.
“This surprises me,” Doerksen continues. “From my own experience I would say that students are spending very significant amounts of time on their academic pursuits.”
Doerksen believes Canada’s post-secondary system is well-equipped to prepare students for the rest of their lives. “If a student wants to learn, there is an appropriate environment for that here,” he adds.
Taking away too much from a study that focuses on less than half of the students surveyed is a bad idea. Those students are perhaps not the best hiring choices for new companies, but the remaining 55 per cent of the student body are eager, learning and increasingly critically-minded people who will be the leaders of tomorrow.
By not showcasing the 55 per cent who are making a difference, the paper fails. If 45 per cent of students are not valuing lessons and skills learned in the classroom, they’ll hit their proverbial brick wall at some point. But lets not lose sight of the majority of students who are benefiting from post-secondary education.
Starting school an hour later sounds crazy but it might help students perform in the classroom
“The difference is like night and day.” So, perhaps with tongue slightly in cheek, says retired principal Wayne Erdman of Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute’s experiment in late high school start times. Eastern Commerce C.I., located just off Danforth Avenue east of Toronto’s Greektown, is in the middle of its second year of starting classes at 10 a.m. That’s a shockingly late hour by contemporary North American standards, and some traditionalists will never learn to like the idea. The working world that Eastern’s students are about to enter, they say, doesn’t compromise with late sleepers; it fires them. The sooner the kids learn the harsh truth, the better.
But Erdman tells the Toronto Star that the late-start concept, though not yet subject to its first full scientific analysis, looks like a hit when it comes to educational outcomes—and parents and students seem to agree. Local trustee Cathy Dandy is an aggressive advocate of research showing that there are good reasons to give adolescents a break that neither children nor adults may need; if she had gotten her way, Eastern classes would be starting as late as 11:30 a.m.
That sounds crazy, but it might be less crazy than the old way of doing things. It is starting to look as though a forward shift in sleep patterns is a natural accompaniment to sexual maturation—not just in humans, but in mammals generally; rats and monkeys, it seems, engage in their own version of what parents witness in their recalcitrant 16-year-olds. Teenagers have an ability to stay up late and sleep in that a 2004 Dutch-German study characterized as “unsaturable,” and even proposed it as a defining feature of adolescence. You’re officially an adult when you can’t stay up all night anymore.
This appears to be a feature rooted in biology, not just social arrangements. It has been confirmed in studies using “actigraphs”—wristwatch-like devices that measure tossing and turning in bed—and the sampling of melatonin, the hormone that serves as the mammalian body’s clock. Practical research into school start times, meanwhile, suggests that teenage behaviour and attitudes can worsen when the day begins earlier, and improve when it kicks off later. Academic impacts are harder to confirm, but in 2009, a study of 3,000 Houston children aged 11 to 17 found that students getting less than six hours of sleep a night were twice as likely to report poor grades upon follow-up a year later. And the benefits of late starting, if they exist, will not be confined to the classroom and the home. In a 2008 study conducted in Fayette County, Ky., a one-hour forward shift in the start times at public schools was associated with longer reported hours of sleep—and a 17 per cent reduction in accident rates among teen drivers, during a period when rates for all other drivers increased eight per cent.
Innate skepticism of research claims like these is always warranted, and educational research, in particular, is notorious for half-hearted compliance with good scientific practices. What stands out in the late-start issue, though, is that many lines of evidence—biological, pedagogical, social—appear to be pointing in the same direction. The general phenomenon of sleep is still poorly understood, but it seems clear that treating teenagers as if they were adults cannot be appropriate.
Still, the traditionalists might have a point. School is not just about trowelling the maximum volume of information into the heads of children. It’s also about encouraging good habits, about teaching responsibility and productivity. The verdict will not truly be in on the Eastern Commerce C.I. experiment until several cohorts of its students have entered post-secondary education or the workforce, and their outcomes in those settings have been checked.
But in the meantime, God be praised, a little more diversity is being introduced into an education system that badly needs it. The homogenizing factory model that our schools have followed for the last century isn’t even all that popular in factories anymore. Eastern Commerce’s unusual school day may be bad or good in itself, but most likely it’s very good for some particular students who, biologically, just aren’t early-morning people. And let’s face it: most of the graduates of Eastern won’t be entering a simple world of classic nine-to-five work governed by a steam whistle. Even if they wanted single-career lives, punching the same clock every day for the same company for 40 years, they would have a hell of a time finding them. It’s one thing to emphasize enduring traditional values; it’s quite another to insist on obsolete ones.
From the editors