Queen’s Journal: Professors: priceless (1 April 2010)

By Jane Switzer, Queen’s Journal, 1 April 2010:

Last week, one of my professors took the first five minutes of class to gauge students’ opinions on the proposed changes to the English department’s curriculum. An hour later the class was still talking, and had opened up to a larger discussion about Queen’s academic future.

The University’s latest round of academic planning got me thinking about the changing role of professors at post-secondary institutions. Yes, professors. Remember them? They’re the people with PhDs who arguably have the biggest effect on students’ university educations. And in case you haven’t noticed, larger classes, diminishing course options and the mounting pressure to publish has, in some cases, restricted professors’ ability to actually teach students.

Admittedly, I’m a jaded fourth-year student in the last two weeks of my undergraduate education. However, one thing I can say without hesitation is that when it comes to higher learning, having good professors was one of the things that kept me from dropping out of this somewhat stodgy institution.

I spent a lot of time during my first two years at Queen’s asleep in the back of lecture halls barely listening to certain professors mechanically pump out lectures for an hour and 20 minutes before disappearing into a sea of 200-plus students. I’ve also been incredibly lucky over my last two years at Queen’s to have thoughtful, interesting professors who have salvaged my faith in academia.

This doesn’t necessarily have to do with age or experience. I’ve had classes taught by older-than-water tenured professors that lacked any discernable interesting structure, and classes taught by PhD candidates with zero teaching experience that I’ve loved—and vice versa.

Whether it’s a first-year course with more than 300 people or a smaller niche seminar course where only 10 people routinely show up, a good professor makes the difference between robotically going to a class and actually caring about—or, dare I say, engaging with—the course material.

Amidst the other complex issues Principal Daniel Woolf and his constituents have to consider, I urge them to take a step back and remember the professors who do the academic grunt work day in and day out.

Mega-gyms and impressive student centres are great, but not necessarily at the expense of forsaking the resources of the people Queen’s relies on to disseminate information. Remember, the first classes at Queen’s were held with 13 students and two professors. I’m not suggesting we go back to 1842, but taking the time to remember Queen’s was established as a place for people to teach other people might help to reign academic values back towards where they should be.

The possibilities of virtualization, interdisciplinary study and alternative modes of learning are important avenues to explore to protect Queen’s academic future, but investing in professors who still genuinely enjoy teaching is priceless. Woolf should understand—after all, he’s a professor too. When it comes to keeping Queen’s securely at the top of the academic ladder, you only get out what you put in.

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