October 21st, 2011
A Higher Education report about Ontario was issued today. “Teaching-Stream Faculty in Ontario Universities” calls for a radical change to the traditional workload model, whereby teaching, research, and, to a much lesser degree, service, are the expected activities of any tenured professor. The report calls for a teaching-dedicated faculty complement, one that will shake up expectations and, ostensibly, meet the needs of an increasingly disgruntled student body—not to mention the students’ disgruntled parents.
At least in Ontario, where there are many universities competing for a share of the provincial education budget, a demand for more attention to higher quality undergraduate teaching has been percolating for some time. In a freshly written column, noted Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson gives universities ‘an F for failing undergrads.’ The University of Toronto comes in for particularly punishing treatment, its large classes and contractual instructor pool marked as evidence of low quality delivery.
The paradox here is that universities like the UoT have been boasting about their high global rankings for years, these rankings all tied up with research activity (i.e. funding), of course. Teaching has nothing to do with it. Of course, government, as Simpson points out, was responsible for pushing universities to develop enhanced research profiles in the first place. Without a compensatory scheme for teaching, it is easy to see how universities devoted their resources to generating external grants and big ticket science and tech-based projects at the expense of a solid and progressive teaching focus. The report also points out that there is not necessarily a correlation between a strong research record and strong teaching. Indeed, the exact opposite is often deemed to be true. Those who are valued as the universities’ best researchers are often the lousiest communicators.
I have certainly heard enough complaining about oversized classes at UoT for years. I also taught some pretty large classes when I was a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario. Size matters in the worst ways in these examples: it takes an extraordinarily hard-working and imaginative teacher to get and sustain the attention at once of 300 students. The commonplace among us is that if you can keep the attention of 3 or 4 out of that many then you are probably doing all right. But, as simple logic will tell you, that can’t be good enough.
You can see, then, why the Higher Ed Quality Council of Ontario would have moved in the direction of a two-tiered system, although that’s not the language they would be advocating. In fact, the challenge they acknowledge is precisely how to avoid setting up such a hierarchy, with research being more valued every time. More incentives for good teaching is one suggestion, but the report is really talking about a massive attitudinal shift that could take generations to realize.
Personally, I am not inclined to favour a move in this direction. I don’t think it would be healthy for Memorial, for example. You could argue we are in an it-ain’t-broke situation here, anyway. We are not Ontario. We are a fairly large institution without even the physical capacity for classes as large as those in other places, and so our students generally do not feel like the ants in a crowded field. I also don’t think we would ever shake the sense of a two-tiered structure, with researchers occupying an elitist class, always superior to (mere) teachers. It’s very hard to shake that attitude and the more separate the two activities are streamed the harder the hierarchy will become.
If that’s the way Ontario wishes to go then fine. Let them. The problem is that Ontario, because of the sheer number of universities in play and the dominance the education system has in Canada as a whole, tends to set the trends for the rest of us.
Let us resist.