All Posts Tagged With: "Tenure"
Doctorates aren’t what they used to be
Two decades ago, if you sat at a dinner party next to someone with a Ph.D., chances were, those letters made an impact. You’d try to sound your smartest, asking about the person’s field of study, nodding sagely at the Coles Notes version he saved for such occasions. By dessert, you might have run out of $5 words, but you’d have done your best to keep up—a show of respect due to someone with a decade of university education.
These days, a doctorate is as likely to inspire pity as veneration. Universities are cutting back on tenure-track jobs. The federal government is laying off scientists. The economy, meanwhile, is skewing ever harder toward resource extraction, where the demand for highly specialized knowledge is limited. This confluence of forces is starting to show in the numbers: At last count, Ph.D. grads were more likely to be unemployed than master’s degree holders, while those with jobs enjoyed a median income only eight per cent higher than their master’s counterparts, at $65,000 per year. A good many of those were working in less-than-promising circumstances. One in three doctorate holders have jobs that didn’t require a Ph.D., while a 2007 survey of Ph.D.s working at Canadian universities found that only 12 per cent of those under the age of 35 held tenure or tenure-track positions, compared to 35 per cent in 1981.
Alberta art college divided by controversial performance art
Art critic Lucy Lippard said that performance art was “the most… immediate art form… for it means getting down to the bare of aesthetic communication–art/self confronting audience/society.”
Think Chris Burden, who in 1971 convinced a friend to shoot him in the arm from a distance of 15 feet. “It was an inquiry into what it feels like to be shot,” he said after the performance piece. “Two or three thousand people get shot every night on TV, and it has always been something to be avoided. So I took the flip side and asked, ‘What if you face this head on?’”
That was more than 40 years ago.
Three weeks ago in the Alberta College of Art and Design’s cafeteria–reminiscent of a scene out of an Alice Cooper concert–student Miguel Suarez slit a live chicken’s throat, stuffed it into a pot and called it art, later telling a local CTV affiliate that he hoped the gruesome performance would help his classmates think about where their food comes from.
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.
On the legacy of race researcher Philippe Rushton
Over the past couple of weeks, academics were discussing the death of Western University’s Phillipe Rushton, a professor perhaps not familiar to many of today’s students, but who was, for a little while, among the most hated men in Canada.
Until the late 1980s Rushton had been a reasonably well-respected psychologist whose work on altruism was frequently cited. But then, he published a series of papers claiming that the three main human racial groups—whites, blacks, and Asians—could be grouped according to a wide range of racial traits, including intelligence and various sexual characteristics, with whites typically falling between blacks and Asians.
Not surprisingly, many took Rushton’s theories as thinly-veiled, or, indeed, not-at-all-veiled racism. They saw his essential claim as being that blacks were inherently inferior to whites, and many called for the psychologist’s resignation. At one point, Rushton was required to teach his courses by video to prevent on-campus unrest.
Esteemed law professor Mary Eberts thinks so
Mary Eberts was a junior law professor at the University of Toronto in 1974 when she told her colleagues she planned to miss the July 8 faculty meeting to help get out the vote for Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Their reaction was bewilderment. Professors weren’t often politically involved.
Eberts got her day off and then left U of T in 1980 to join a Bay Street Firm. She remained an activist, giving her time to organizations like the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
Now she’s back in the academy as the Ariel Sallows Chair in Human Rights at the University of Saskatchewan. Three decades after her first academic job, she says it’s just as difficult for professors to get involved in civil society and speak out about their political beliefs. She argues Canadians are losing their expertise as a result.
I sat in on her talk at Congress 2012, Canada’s largest gathering of Humanities and Social Sciences, in Waterloo, Ont. (click to see a recording) and then I interviewed her in her house in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. Here’s what she said about why professors so often stay silent, why she believes they shouldn’t, and how to square civic activism with their roles as teachers.
Should professors step up and engage more in civic life, even when it’s politically controversial?
Runaway compensation is hurting students
When students across the country united for the Canadian Federation of Students’ National Day of Action to protest tuition fees on Feb. 1, tiny Brandon University’s student union did their part.
They gathered students, foisted placards and yelled into a megaphone. The message was clear.
Drop fees. Drop fees. Drop fees.
It seems strange then, that last fall when the Brandon University Faculty Association went on strike for the second time in three years, the student union wasn’t so bothered about being asked to pay more for their professors— who make up most of the university’s costs.
It may be more than you guessed. Click to see where your school stands.
What does your professor make? Assuming he or she is a full (tenured) professor, it’s probably more than you guessed. The median pay among full professors at 31 Canadian schools is $128,480, according to a recent study.
That said, if your professor is at the University of Northern British Columbia, she likely makes a far less than if she’s with the University of British Columbia. A report by Culture, Tourism and the Centre for Education Studies shows that salaries in the 2009-10 school year followed no apparent pattern. Some highly-ranked schools pay less than not-so-prestigious schools. A few smaller schools — Trent for example — pay profs much better than bigger neighbours. The report presented data from 31 schools. That’s fewer than half of the 81 schools profiled in the Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities, meaning this list is far from comprehensive.
It’s worth reiterating that these figures are for full professors only. Assistant professors, associate professors and contract faculty make much less and many academics work for more than a decade before getting full status, if they ever do. Still, these numbers show that professorship is a lucrative career from coast to coast.
Trent – 158,876
Calgary – 154,008
British Columbia – 151,145
Alberta – 145,585
Athabasca – 144,689
McMaster – 144,366
Lethbridge – 144,255
York – 143,091
Wilfrid Laurier – 142,905
Windsor – 141,831
Ottawa – 141,417
Guelph – 139,934
Lakehead – 137,827
Manitoba – 137,765
Brock – 137,666
UOIT – 135,000
St. Mary’s – 129,603
Victoria – 128,122
UPEI – 126,903
Memorial – 126,623
Nipissing – 123,754
New Brunswick – 123,546
St. Thomas – 123,307
Brandon – 117,494
Acadia – 110,000
UNBC – 103,796
Cape Breton – 102,622
Mount Royal – 101,974
OCAD – 101,086
Kwantlen – 84,896
Trinity Western – 78,778
Another reason to prefer small universities is the access to full-time profs.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the disappearance of the tenured professor. We now regularly hear that most of the undergraduate teaching these days is done not by the experienced, expert, tenured professor, but rather by the “ill-paid, overworked lecturer.” When statistics are given, they are for the country as a whole, but those numbers, I suspect, paper over vast differences among different kinds of schools.
In my department, for instance, there are seventeen teaching positions in total. Of those, thirteen are full time and eleven of those are tenured or tenure-track. Of the four who teach part time, one works at the university in another capacity, another is a professional writer married to a tenure-track member. The third is employed elsewhere, and the last is a woman who has just finished her MA and is teaching part time while she applies for her PhD. They each teach the equivalent of one full course per year, generally in areas where the course offerings and enrollments cannot justify full-time positions. Overall, our under-paid part-timers teach about ten percent of our course offerings. Even if you include the full-time sessionals (who are paid using the same grids as tenure-track people, and who have similar benefits), around three-quarters of our courses are taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty.
To be sure, our part-time faculty members are not paid as much as full-time members, but, by the same token, they do not have non-teaching responsibilities either. They are not expected to maintain a research program, for instance, nor do they have to sit on the various committees, boards, and task forces that the rest of us do.
In other words, no “roads scholars” here.
The reason a university like mine does not employ an army of sessional instructors is not because we are superior in terms of virtue. It’s practical. We simply can’t. In Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, there is a veritable sea of PhDs looking for work, and universities take advantage. In Cape Breton we only have the sea, not the PhDs, and to attract scholars we need to offer tenure-track — or at least full time — work. I suspect much the same situation obtains in Antigonish, and Brandon, and other small places removed from major centres.
So while at many universities, students can get through much of their degree without ever meeting a tenured faculty member, at a small school like mine, you can easily meet five of them the first week. There are some disadvantages to a small-town school, but laments about the state of “today’s university” ignore some of the real advantages.
The backbone of today’s university is the ill-paid, overworked lecturer
In 2000, 36-year-old Leslie Jermyn went to teach her first course as a sessional lecturer at the University of Toronto. For $4,550, she taught 100 students a two-month first-year anthropology course. Though Jermyn would go on to teach courses every summer for the next 11 years, the job was never guaranteed, and every year she experienced “gut-wrenching tension” waiting to ﬁnd out whether she’d won a new contract. “Often I was hired within two weeks of the start time of the course,” she says. For years she had no benefits and worked out of a shared office, furnished with one desk and one telephone. In 2007, after she had been teaching upwards of 800 students a year for three years straight, she argued to the dean that the department needed a regular teaching position. That didn’t work, and Jermyn says she knows why: “I’m cheaper without benefits.”
Jermyn’s lot is similar to that of many North American university undergraduate teachers today. A November 2010 report titled “Employees in Postsecondary Institutions” released by the U.S. Department of Education concludes that the proportion of university instructors who have tenure or are on the tenure track fell below 30 per cent in 2009—a big drop from 1971, when 57 per cent were on the tenure track or had tenure already.
In Canada, the numbers tell a similar story. A 2010 Statistics Canada survey of full-time teaching staff in universities shows that there were 20,685 tenured professors in 2009, down from 26,487 in 1999. Meanwhile, over the same period the number of sessional staff rose from 2,865 to 3,135. Estimates from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), a 65,000-strong academic staff union, say that between 40 and 60 per cent of undergraduate teaching is done by sessional lecturers who often cobble together a living earning between $5,000 and $7,000 for a four-month course, sometimes travelling between two or three universities in one term. The joke in academic circles is they’re “roads scholars.”
Related: Small town universities and tenure
But for undergraduate students, who paid 15 per cent more in tuition last year than in 2006, and whose debt has risen 20 per cent over the past decade, it’s no laughing matter. Many in the nation’s academic community say the cheap labour is shortchanging students who are being taught by overworked, underpaid lecturers, who, though often excellent teachers, aren’t the cutting-edge researchers universities would have you believe are instructing kids.
“When you’re substituting full-time professors with teachers with longer hours, and higher workloads, it basically undermines the whole profession,” says James Turk, executive director of CAUT. “They earn half to a third of what a regular faculty member will earn, and have to teach ridiculous amounts to earn a modest living. They’re not paid nor expected to do research, [which] limits their ability to have a career as an academic.”
Take Teressa Fedorak, 39, who, since 2003, has worked as a lecturer at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. She teaches 80 to 100 students a semester and estimates she spends 60 hours a week teaching. The rest she spends at her other two jobs: as an elementary school teacher and gym trainer. She says it’s the only way she can earn enough to pay her mortgage and keep her academic career on track. “I’m trying to achieve the tenure track position—you can’t let it slip,” says Fedorak. But, she says, it may be a fruitless quest. “You’re working, working, working just to pay your bills,” she says. “You have no access to professional development or the time to do that.” And she says the university “likes to hold us in this pattern because it’s such a money-making device.”
For tenured profs, it’s equally frustrating. Thanks to a drop in government funding and a rise in corporate partnerships, says James Compton, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario and president of the faculty association, “there’s increasing pressure on tenured faculty to look for those sources of money, and to do more research to get that money.” Along with the pressure to hunt down lucrative research grants, profs are burdened with a disproportionate amount of administrative work, because sessional lecturers exclusively teach.
The idea of tenure is a relatively recent one. Fifty years ago, says Michiel Horn, professor emeritus at York University and author of Academic Freedom in Canada: A History, CAUT became concerned about codifying secure tenure and the separate but related issue of academic freedom. “Professors started to insist that there be documents outlining terms of their appointment, and terms at which they could be dismissed,” says Horn. Universities acquiesced because it made them more attractive to job-hunting academics, then in short supply. “It was important for institutions to show that if you took a job at fill-in-the-blank you weren’t in danger of being sacked because the departmental chairman didn’t like your suit,” says Horn.
My best argument for tenure? This awesome blog.
The recent faculty unrest at Western and Carleton has turned in large measure around disagreements over the tenure system at those universities, and whenever tenure comes up, the comments from some corners are predictable. Why, people ask, should professors, unlike any other group of employees, get unbreakable contracts for life?
Leaving aside the fact that firing people at the drop of a hat is probably rarer in the non-academic world than people let on, and ignoring the fact that tenure is not an absolute guarantee of infinite employment, there are at least a couple of very good reasons to justify tenure, and they have been well-rehearsed elsewhere. Unlike most workers, university faculty members have to spend at least nine, usually many more years training for their job, and so tenure provides a counterbalance to all that lost income and pension earnings. Some professors don’t land a tenure-track gig til they are in their forties, while high school teachers of a similar age are already planning for retirement.
But the most important and compelling reason is that tenure is part of the academy’s guarantee of academic freedom. This might sound strange to you if your job is, more or less, completing the tasks that you are given, and either liking it or pretending to. But scholarship demands that professors be free to explore ideas where ever they may lead. Good research cannot be done if the researcher’s first concern is for justifying her position. Moreover, scholars must be confident that pursuing a particular line of research will not result in threats of dismissal because the boss, or the CEO, or the clients, or the government find it offensive, or awkward, or out of line with the thinking of whoever’s feelings they care about.
Though my own research is not especially controversial, my status as a tenured professor allows me to do things that I would not otherwise do. A while back it occurred to me that it would be interesting to write a book about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, to try to get to the bottom of many of the things that had long troubled me about the play. But then, I thought, what if I do all the work and there is no book to be written? Well, I replied to myself, that’s what tenure is for. As it turns out, it seems like there is a book to be written, and I’m writing it. If I were not tenured, I probably wouldn’t be.
Would you like another instance of what the world would be lacking without tenure? You’re reading it right now. This blog would not exist were I not tenured because it would be too much hassle and too little fun if I had to make sure that nothing in it was going to get me called onto the carpet the next day. In the time I’ve been writing in this space, I have attacked my own professional association, called the sanctity of military service into question, raised concerns about the dominant approach to Native Canadians at universities (including a critique of what goes on at my own university), spoken out against the value of traditional religion, and admitted to laughing at students. This has earned me a fair bit of opprobrium from the public, but no administrator has ever written to me asking me to apologize or “clarify” my position. No one at my august institution has ever suggested I look elsewhere for a job.
They wouldn’t even try. I have tenure.
At least 43 staff and faculty to be shown the door
The University of Alberta is cutting its staff roster while student enrolment is projected to remain the same. Yesterday, the university announced that so far 43 people have been laid off involuntarily. That number is expected to rise to between 50 and 75, depending on budget calculations from departments and faculties. It is unclear how many contract professors will be hired in the fall.
Additionally, 181 employees took advantage of an early retirement buyout package. Some of those positions will be replaced with younger, and more affordable, faculty and staff while others will be eliminated altogether. Canwest has reported that 171 other employees have accepted other alternative retirement packages. (Update: We have been informed by the University of Alberta that some information in the Canwest story is erroneous. In particular, according to the university, 171 employees were not given alternative retirement packages. Rather, there are 63 regular retirees, and 181 who accepted the early retirement buyout.)
The staff cuts are part of a plan to reduce expenditures by five per cent across all units in order to address a $14.1 million deficit. Much of the cuts were precipitated by a reduction in provincial operating grants, that were not apparent until the university had accepted a majority of students for the fall. Enlarged class sizes are expected to be one of the consequences.
CAUT alleges medicine prof fired without ‘just cause’
The University of Manitoba faces an academic boycott after the Canadian Association of University Teachers threatened to censure the school over allegations former family medicine professor, Larry Reynolds, was dismissed “without just cause or due process.” The decision to pursue censure of the U of M came from delegates to the national council who, coincidently, lifted censure against another institution, Firsts Nations University, on Friday.
If a formal censure is imposed, academics would be encouraged to decline academic positions and from participating in conferences and other academic events.
The decision, which also includes a threat of censure against the Winnipeg Health Regional Authority, was made after an ad-hoc committee of inquiry filed its report on the case. The CAUT is giving the U of M until November to reinstate Reynolds. “Our objective is to ensure that Dr. Reynolds is treated appropriately and in our view that means being restored to the position he held before these inappropriate actions were taken — that of a tenured, geographically full time, full professor of medicine,” executive director James Turk said in a release.
Reynolds, who previously taught at the University of Western Ontario, was recruited by the U of M to head the department of family medicine in 2001. His five year term was not renewed, and in 2008 he was dismissed from the department altogether.
According to the CAUT report Reynolds “was dismissed from the University of Manitoba’s Department of Family Medicine without formal notice and with no hearing regarding dismissal for cause, contrary to his contract and the policies of the University of Manitoba.”
U of M director of public affairs John Danakas told the Winnipeg Free Press that the university will not comment on specific personnel issues. “The university is prepared to stand behind its position. The university does not believe the story, as related by CAUT, represents a fair and accurate account of the situation,” He said, adding, “[b]ias was present from the beginning of the CAUT investigation.”
The last time CAUT formally censured a major research institution was 31 years ago, against Memorial University.
Students issued at least three complaints against accused campus killer
Students said they signed a petition and complained to no avail about the classroom conduct of a University of Alabama professor accused of killing three colleagues and wounding three others in a shooting rampage at a faculty meeting.
Related: Shooting rampage in Alabama
The students upset with biology professor Amy Bishop told The Associated Press they went to administrators at the University of Alabama in Huntsville at least three times a year ago, complaining that she was ineffective in the classroom and had odd, unsettling ways. The students said Bishop never made eye contact during conversations, taught by reading out of a textbook and made frequent references to Harvard University, her beloved alma mater. “We could tell something was off, that she was not like other teachers,” said nursing student Caitlin Phillips.
Bishop is charged with one count of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder in the shootings Friday in a campus conference room where members of the biology department were meeting. She is being held without bond and does not yet have an attorney. Police have not revealed a motive, but colleagues say she was vocal in her displeasure about being denied tenure in March of last year. Her appeal was denied in November.
There have been revelations since the shooting that she killed her brother with a shotgun in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1986 but was never charged because police said it was an accident, and that she and her husband were scrutinized in 1993 after someone sent pipe bombs to a Harvard professor she worked with. The bombs did not go off and no one was ever charged in that case either.
Bishop’s students said they first wrote a letter to biology department chairman Gopi K. Podila–one of the victims of Friday’s shooting–then met with him and finally submitted a petition that dozens of them had signed. “Podila just sort of blew us off,” said Phillips, who was among a group of five students who met with him in fall 2008 or early 2009 to air their concerns.
After students met privately with Podila, Phillips said, Bishop seemingly made a point in class to use some of the same phrases they had so they would know she knew about it. “It was like she was parroting what we had said,” Phillips said.
University President David B. Williams said Tuesday that student evaluations were one of many factors in the tenure evaluation process, but he was unaware of any student petition against Bishop. While other tenured professors in the department made the decision not to grant her what would have amounted to a job for life, Williams said the votes of the tenure committee are not made public. Podila was supportive of her, Williams noted.
Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, said Wednesday the “vast majority” of students were happy with her. He said his wife taught the “cut course” for nursing students, who would either go on toward a degree or quit the program based on how they did in her class. “If they didn’t make it through, they didn’t make it,” he said. “So it’s natural for some to be unhappy.” He said classroom performance was not an issue in her tenure file, which has not been made public.
The Canadian Press.
Stress, isolation, anti-social problems not confined to students
The latest set of campus murders involves an assistant professor of biology at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. She is accused in the deaths of three of her colleagues, with three more reported injured. Reports and details are still coming in or being confirmed, but there are strong suggestions that her actions had something to do with her tenure review and the likelihood she had not passed it.
There are layers to this story that will no doubt receive a lot of attention. There’s the relative rarity of a female mass shooter, for instance. And there’s the reported incident in her past where her brother was killed in a shotgun accident. And then there’s America’s strange fascination with Harvard — seriously, a lot of the comments go along the lines of “why would someone who went to Harvard throw away her life…?” As if attending that one institution somehow guarantees lifelong emotional and psychological stability. But the real story, for me, is in the tenure issue.
The University of Alabama-Huntsville is a tier three undergraduate college in the U.S. (read: not that good) that is already on the margins of professional success for a career academic. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a good gig, especially considering the state of the job market out there. But people who are bounced from the tenure track at an institution like that don’t land on their feet. Someone out on the job market again, in her mid-40′s, Harvard-educated or not, is in a bad place. People who are looking at this from the outside may not get that, but if the details regarding tenure denial are accurate, then this woman was indeed facing the probable end of her career.
I do not for an instant want to excuse this woman’s actions or to paint them as understandable. Most of us, in life, absorb blows to our egos and to our ambitions and respond with varying degrees of resiliency but under no circumstances do we react with violence. I would never excuse that. But when we talk about your “typical” campus shooter — some over-stressed kid who was just kicked out and can’t face up to the failure — we do address the subject with some degree of comprehension. We know, at least, why he snapped. And in that same sense, I think it’s important to know why this woman snapped.
Academia is vicious. Harvard or not, there are unemployed academics all over the place. I mean “unemployed” in the sense that they are utterly unable to secure the sorts of jobs their training and expectations revolve around. Of course they can work at Starbucks just as foreign-trained doctors can drive taxi cabs. Call them terminally marginalized as employees, if you prefer. But by any definition their situation sucks. And as we relate to students and the pressures they face — as explanation if not as excuse for their actions — I think we need to extend the same to academics.
People are describing this woman as odd, anti-social, and in similar terms. I’m sure it all seems obvious in hindsight — just like that quiet guy next door who kept to himself but never seemed to have any friends. Many academics are odd, so I can’t imagine how you’d work up a profile on that basis. I am not even in favour of profiling, necessarily. I remember in the wake of Columbine that any kid in a trenchcoat was suddenly suspect. How is that useful?
In any event, the fact remains that when you put people under enough stress and incubate the sense (sometimes justified) that they are being isolated then someone, eventually, is going to snap. The stress and isolation associated with students and their education is well-recognized. The stress and isolation associated with professional academia, and especially the large numbers of underemployed and marginalized academics operating at the fringes of the profession, is less well recognized.
I truly hope this never happens again, and certainly not any time soon. But I also have to admit that I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
Questions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.
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.”
Last week, the Los Angeles Times ran a five-day series of debates between the Skeptic‘s Michael Shermer and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education‘s Greg Lukianoff regarding academic freedom.