Monthly Archives: November 2014

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By the time this blog is posted I will have returned from almost a week in Beijing. I am writing this while still there, attending, among other events, the annual PhD (recruitment) Workshop sponsored in part by the Canadian Embassy. The images above are taken from my hotel room on the 16th floor of the massive Swiss Hotel. Can you guess which one was taken on a weekday, when there are more cars on the road than people in Newfoundland? That’s not fog you see in the image on the left. It’s smog–thick, smelly, ugly, dirty smog. It blankets everything and coats your lungs. You can smell it as soon as you land. The air is so thick with it you can’t see the tarmac as you are coming down. Then you smell it as soon as you leave the plane–an acrid chemical smell, unnatural and unpleasant.

Living in Newfoundland we understand fog and know it when we see it. This is different. Fog is practically pure and sweet by comparison. Any sensible resident of Beijing wears a medical mask. People walk around breathing through those masks while texting on their cell phones. What is natural to Chinese youngsters looks like a tableau of science fiction to an older westerner. It’s a pretty disturbing image of the future, except it’s all happening right in the here and now. No wonder the Chinese recently agreed to reduce coal-burning emissions, the biggest source of grey air. We’ll see how sincere they are, sure, but it must be difficult to accept such daily dangerous smog levels as normal. All the Chinese we’ve met here joke about how blue the skies were just a short while ago during the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings, dubbing the effect ‘APEC blue.’ A friend advised me to download an app indicating local air quality.

Everyday the levels worsened during the week until Friday they registered in the severe/extreme category. On the weekend, as you can see from the image on the right, the levels suddenly turned to ‘excellent.’ For the first time in a week I could see the stretch of the city and the surrounding hills where the Great Wall winds around the country. Traffic was reduced, manufacturing ceased, and the medical masks disappeared. I wonder if the Chinese have a phrase equivalent to TGIF. The expression would take on special significance here, to be sure.

This is my fifth trip to China and I have never seen anything like it. If you don’t have asthma before coming here you’ll need a puffer by the end of it.

But, still, I love coming here. Observing the astonishing urban growth is a lesson in human potential. The people are warm and welcoming and the food is fabulous. And I love having my Western assumptions shaken to the core each and every time. The meetings I attend with university officials underscore the extreme value the Chinese place in education. It’s no accident they are a superpower. Participating in the PhD Workshop is humbling. Almost all of the hundreds of students we interview are brilliant, fluent, hip, ambitious and accomplished. Of course, we are looking at the cream of the crop, the stars of anise. The young women are dressed to kill, with the coolest gear. I stare in awe, if not envy.

The other night our delegation hosted our annual alumni dinner for graduates of Memorial who are now in the Beijing workplace, transferring their skills over into industry and start-ups. They miss Newfoundland, of course. They miss the people, friends they made, the ease of traffic, local dialect, and especially the air quality. During the course of the meal, I discovered they had almost all watched my favourite HBO and specialty series: Homeland, The Newsroom, House of Cards, and so on. How was this possible? I can’t tweet or access Facebook here. Not surprisingly, they know how to get around all the firewalls and can watch anything they want–under and over the table. Talking to them about the perils of CIA operative Carrie Mathison was a bit surreal. They were more up to date than most of my friends.

We interviewed students interested in pursuing education, business, engineering, linguistics, computer sciences, ecology, environmental policy and sciences, and ethnomusicology. I would have accepted each and every one of them on the spot. I have always believed in fully diversifying our student body–and our programs. But all we could do is encourage the hopefuls, by processing their applications and in turn passing these along to the relevant units where they will be further assessed. On paper they might all just look Chinese. But there’s way more to them than that. My special plea, therefore, is to take the applications seriously. We can all learn from these students. And if we don’t accept them you can bet the University of Alberta or Waterloo will, and that would be our loss.

Besides, it would be an act of charity just to liberate them from the life-reducing skies of Beijing, a truly noble gesture.

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I have put my ambivalence about teaching evaluations on the record more than once. We all know how vulnerable evaluations are to charges of ineffectiveness. Far from an exact science, the process relies to a large degree on quantitative measures, but teaching is such a personal, dynamic activity for which no single perfect evaluation form could reasonably exist. Even free-ranging student comments provide uneven data, often revealing more about the student and his/her mood in the moment, say, than they do about so-called effectiveness. Much literature is devoted to this subject, and much of it concludes with heavily qualified endorsement of formal evaluations of the survey kind.

We all know Churchill’s famous dictum about democracy being “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I feel a little like that about teaching evaluations. It’s the worst form of measuring effectiveness but we haven’t come up with any other forms that do the job better. Many instructors use teaching evaluation results along with other evidence of effectiveness—personal letters, student success stories, awards, peer assessment–to make a more rounded, richer, if still imperfect, case. When teaching and not administering full-time, I used to bundle the evaluation form results together with whatever I had going—cards from students, letters of gratitude, citation in the almost universally unreliable Maclean’s magazine–whatever added to the evidence of effectiveness. I always felt these were somewhat inadequate gestures but, again, it’s all I had to work with. One thing I have benefited from in almost every single course example is the totally unexpected feedback, the kind that underscored some less-than-flattering take on my pedagogical approach. Even the highest rated profs get negative feedback from time to time. No matter how singular or isolated, it’s hard not to take such feedback seriously. It bruises, but it also snaps one to attention. A wise instructor pays attention and continually works on improving one’s style and effectiveness. That’s the whole point of evaluations, surely.

As almost all universities have been doing lately, Memorial recently switched from in-class to online CEQ forms. Most instructors use these forms. Again, they aren’t perfect, but what is? As expected, and as is the pattern elsewhere, the response rate took a deep dive when we switched to online. Obviously, students have to be motivated to go online after hours and fill out the form. Most don’t think about it once they leave the classroom, or just can’t be bothered. It would take only five or so minutes to fill it all out but that’s five or ten minutes away from texting or gaming or whatever else one might be doing with one’s device. I get that.

But response rates matter. Low response rates do not mean bad teaching, but they make it impossible to generalize results reliably to the whole class. An instructor can’t learn anything from too small a sample size. The whole point of evaluations is to provide a feedback loop with as much integrity as possible. We all know that students love to share complaints and praise and everything in between about their professors with their peers, but they might not realize how important it is to take their views to the next level—turning gossip into meaningful observation. We have to let them know that. But how?

MUN has been working hard to ensure awareness of the CEQs. Despite these efforts, the participation rates haven’t budged. I am pleased to say that student groups are working tightly with us to get the word out, especially to communicate the value of feedback. Students might be helped in seeing the value of letting their instructors know what works—or doesn’t–in the classroom, or online, or however the course is delivered. We also know that faculty members who take an active interest in getting their students to complete CEQs seem to have much better completion rates. And so the challenge is to get more faculty engaged in encouraging their students to fill out the forms. I know many probably have a bit of a yucky feeling about this.  It’s all so personal. But teaching is a fundamental duty and one should want to know how well one is doing, however imperfect or uneasy the process.

Would a mobile app help? We are working on this. Possibly, it would allow instructors to devote some in-class time to the process. But does each and every student come to class with a mobile device? I guess I am an idiot if I think otherwise.

Be heard: that’s the message to students. Let’s make those response rates more meaningful. Without them, it’s just hard to know.

 

 

 

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That’s His Excellency Governor General David Johnston at the podium. I am sure you recognize him. He was wrapping up two days of a Conference Board of Canada Summit on skills and post-secondary education in Toronto. He’s a pretty remarkable guy, with the stamina of a racehorse. He never fails to remind his audience that he played hockey at Harvard. He’s not a tall man, but he strides into the room like a jock, ready to take you out in the corner if he has to. He’s all energy and gusto.

I have heard him speak a number of times and he is almost always charming, sharp, and witty. I say almost, because during the Q&A I asked him a question to which he responded somewhat weakly. I am not in the habit of playing Stump the GG, but I was curious about what he would say to my query about the liberal arts. The Summit, this year as it did last, is tackling the vexing question of whether our graduates are finding suitable jobs. Suitable, we know, means not flipping burgers or driving a cab. The discussion usually focuses on the STEM disciplines. In other words, are our science and engineering grads being trained appropriately for industry and the labour force? Are we teaching them the right skills for today’s economy? No one ever worries about whether English or philosophy grads are gainfully, richly, employed. In other words, the liberal arts are normally left out of the conversation, the assumption being that you can’t really speak meaningfully about the arts and the economy in the same sentence.

And so it was that I asked His Excellency whether he had any tips on how to ensure the liberal arts were included in the so-called skills debate. I was sitting right up front and I could clearly see his face pinched a bit, his eyes darted upwards in search of a pithy answer. I knew he wasn’t thrilled. Rising to his feet, he wound up by asserting the value of a liberal arts education—the cornerstone of Western Civilization yada yada—and then offered the example of Waterloo, where he had been president since 1999, before assuming the Vice Regal post in Ottawa. Waterloo, he argued, not only had a strong co-op program, bringing students directly into the workplace, but it had long been offering arts courses with a business component. I know one of those observations to be true, anyway.

I have a lot of time for David Johnston. You might wish the monarchy–with the possible exception of the young Royals who are always trending and with whom I am shamelessly preoccupied—would vanish altogether from our parliamentary democracy. That’s another conversation. Whatever, we are pretty fortunate to have our Vice Regal representative so dedicated to the cause of education. It’s been obvious that the GG has been unfailing in his support of the post-secondary experience and in our public system, in particular. But his somewhat lame response revealed that he hadn’t really thought that hard about the liberal arts or how to ensure their health and sustainability in a time of financial restraint. That’s all right. He’s no more perfect than anyone. The debate needs to be broadened, however, and the real and appealing earning potential of arts graduates should be reaching into our recurring narratives about the value of education.

The Conference Board of Canada is doing some good work on this whole higher ed file. Like a lot of academics, I was sceptical, at first, because they tend to churn out report after report with a bottom-line focus, not exactly the best or only lens through which to eyeball the landscape of higher education. But in the absence of a national, political platform for such discussions they are providing a valuable space in which to take up some important questions. Perhaps even more to the point, they have been impressively consultative. The vast convention centre space in Toronto—as bland and unimaginative an environment as a North Korean town hall—was filled with over 350 participants from across the country: members of universities, colleges, business and government people, CEOs of corporate Canada, a wide spectrum of interested parties. There’s no other forum like this in the country, and, surely, it’s better to be part of that conversation than to ignore it. Memorial University is invested—literally—in the project, along with many other groups and institutions who are keen to engage in and help dispel some of the myths about skills, jobs, and the future of this country.

Generally, I found it to be an enriching couple of days of candid conversation that, if anything, reinforced the critical role education plays in a democratic society. One can’t hear that enough. I didn’t always agree with the way some of the discussion veered, at times, but, then, as Aristotle famously said, it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. Amen