Teaching under the microscope
What will the future bring?
By Dr. Evan Simpson
The fundamental business of a university is the education of its students. This premise was the basis of a lively panel on teaching and learning on April 12. On that occasion four of Memorial’s leaders in higher education met with some 65 colleagues who accepted their invitation to explore the future of teaching at the university. Some persons’ nerves were touched. Others were encouraged. The level of interest was high.
The general background of the discussion includes predicted demographic changes in Canadian universities that could make it very difficult to replace retiring faculty in numbers permitting academic business as usual. Unless the university makes some basic decisions about responsibilities for its courses and programs, the integrity and quality of the curriculum could be lost.
The particular origins of the forum go back to Memorial University’s Strategic Framework and several of the commitments stated there. In particular, Memorial pledged to promote and recognize excellence in teaching, give full weight to teaching in matters of tenure and promotion and provide resources for the professional development of faculty.
The university’s 3M Teaching Fellows, all honoured for their successes with Memorial’s students and nationally recognized for leadership in education, suggested that these commitments have not been particularly well realized. The objectives deserve renewed emphasis in a rapidly changing environment where teaching has seemed to be eclipsed by research.
Shane O’Dea, English, Michael Collins, Biology and presently associate vice-president (academic), Alex Faseruk, Business Administration, and Andrea Rose, Music Education, defined several emerging issues. These include heavy reliance on per-course instructors, the balance between research and teaching, use of a lecture format whose usefulness can often be doubted and assistance to students in becoming more responsible for their own learning.
Panellists advanced several ways of responding: a stream of teaching professors co-equal in recognition and reward with publishing researchers; better institutionalizing the interdependence of teaching and research; applying studies showing that students have a variety of learning styles that require knowledge to be actively built rather than simply imparted; diminishing individual ownership of courses in favour of the reality that learning is a communal process.
If the ensuing discussion with the audience is to be believed, some matters have to rise to the university’s active agenda. Given the dependence now placed on sessional instructors, the university cannot sustain coherent academic offerings without integrating part-time staff within the academic units they serve. The senior administration must actively nourish instructional resources and improve teaching spaces and technologies. Faculty need to understand changes in the way students learn in the new millennium and students need to be part of the conversation about their own instructional roles, including their contribution to small-group tutorials.
Only one immediatec conclusion was possible on these complex matters. It was agreement about the need for a serious and deliberate institutional conversation about more effective and better-integrated means of deploying instructional expertise. The clear sense of the meeting was that the issues must form a central theme of the new round of strategic planning expected to begin in the fall.
Consistent with the desire for conversation, participants look forward to roundtable discussions this summer to clarify issues and develop practical options. About 20 members of the audience indicated an interest in helping plan future workshops and forums. New voices are certain to be welcome. Interested persons should contact the Instructional Development Office.
This report was compiled by Evan Simpson, professor of Philosophy and former vice-president (academic), who moderated a recent panel discussion on university teaching. Some of his own views are stated more explicitly in “The Faculty of the Future,” Journal of Academic Ethics 1 (2003), 49-58.