Report on the Consultative Meeting with Queen’s “Academic Writing Team” (12 July 2010)

By Mark Jones

I attended the consultative meeting with the “Academic Writing Team” (Kim Nossal, John Smol, Jill Scott, Michael Adams, Yolande Chan, and Tim Bryant), 10 to 11:30 a.m. on July 12. These notes are not comprehensive but represent all that I got down on paper or otherwise recall.

The “Academic Writing Team” wrote its web address (http://www.queensu.ca/awt/index.html) and email (academic.writing.team@queensu.ca) on the board. QSERAP has asked that the group create an interactive and transparent (blog-style) site for input and discussion, but so far email is the only way to get in touch with them.

The meeting was relocated to MacCorry B201. I counted 35 in attendance (in addition to the “team”) at the outset, and then a few more came in–maybe 45 at the peak. Late in the session one student asked for a show of hands by students, and about 10 were there. Of those, he asked how many were not there in their functions as AMS reps, etc., and it appeared that no one was there simply as a student at large. This student called for more effective announcements of such consultative meetings and for scheduling them at a time when working students might be able to attend.

Jill Scott and Yolande Chan made opening statements praising the quantity and quality of input they’ve had to date and asking for more. They also announced that this meeting would focus on the Principal’s “Where Next?” (this focus was not announced in the invitations), of which they distributed a few paper copies.

I asked for clarification of the team’s new terms of reference in view of the Principal’s message of June 30, in which he extends the time-line and refers to Senate’s “enhanced role in the development of the proposals from the Academic Writing Team into a full plan over the fall and winter term.” The response to this was that the team would specify “emphases” and “points of resonance” rather than drafting the plan. (Query: should they still call themselves the “Academic Writing Team”?)

A third-year student expressed concern that Queen’s appeals to incoming and 1st-year students more than it takes care of existing students; he noted that Queen’s is unusual among Canadian universities in that its student-satisfaction ratings decline after year 1.

Another student expressed concern that resources are being channeled away from Arts students, who are taught largely by TAs and in increasingly large sections and have seen serious reductions in programs and in course-choice within programs.

A student speaking for an alliance of AMS and graduate students pointed out that students care less about professors having extensive research backgrounds than about their teaching abilities. Kim Nossal took this up by asking about student interest in the “teaching professor.” He said that “teaching professors” would be much cheaper for the university than it is to pay research professors $160k [N.B. this is not what all professors make] to teach 4 half-courses per year, and that using “teaching professors” might thus facilitate a larger number of small sections for students. The student recognized this as a “loaded” question and treated it circumspectly but did ultimately suggest that students might like to have “teaching professors” for years 1-2 and “research professors” for years 3-4.

Jonathan Rose noted that if class-sizes continue to increase Queen’s will require more large class-rooms. He spoke of the need for seminars to be protected and for more appropriate spaces for them. In connection with curriculum reform he cautiously endorsed the options of virtualization and a cross-disciplinary first-year course.

Kim Nossal responded to the latter point with comments on the problem of “academic protectionism,” i.e., the way that under our existing organization academic units feel the need to protect their own resources, and the ways in which this has discouraged interaction between discrete units.

John Smol warned that resources for developing interdisciplinary programs would draw from resources for sustaining disciplinary programs, and suggested that the latter need to be protected.

A student spoke of the need for ways to evaluate teaching; another student expressed a wish that all professors be required to take training with the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

Mark Green (Civil Engineering) spoke of the need for Queen’s to remain small, or to get smaller again, to do fewer things and do them better, to have more hands-on, interactive learning opportunities, and to promote aboriginal initiatives.

Clarke Mackey (Film and Media) observed that the “elephant in the room” was the limitation of financial resources. He lamented the way in which asking for academic planning input on a unit-by-unit basis under a cost-cutting rubric has encouraged competition for limited spoils. He called for the team to facilitate more cooperative discussion among groups of cognate units.

A student spoke of the dangers of virtualization: given contemporary students’ familiarity with online resources and their penchant for multi-tasking, she suggested that offering courses in the medium of the “filmed lecture” will make the course contents more vulnerable to interruption and distraction. Jill Scott responded that virtualization needs to be understood better, and especially as a supplement to rather than as a substitute for classroom teaching.

Michael White (Libraries) noted that virtualization needs to be introduced primarily as a means for enhancing the quality of teaching and learning rather than as a cost-cutting initiative.

I endorsed Clarke Mackey’s call for encouraging cooperative discussion among related academic units. In relation to his call for honesty about the financial underpinnings of the current exercise, I suggested that we should not be called to do “less with less”–to consider what courses, programs, or positions can be cut–but to do “more with less,” to figure out how inefficient processes might be re-ordered to better support what we have. For instance, faculty workloads are said to comprise teaching, research, and service. But evaluation is a fourth function that goes unmentioned though it can consume vast amounts of faculty time and energy and be pedagogically counter-productive. In literature departments, where student evaluation is primarily through writing, the requirement that students write term essays for every course can result in their having three or four essays due simultaneously at the end of term. This facilitates evaluation but is not optimal for learning; meanwhile, the essay-marking function becomes a bottleneck limiting how many courses and students a professor can teach. I asked that the committee initiate some thinking about how greater efficiencies can be found in our processes as a way to save and enhance rather than reduce or virtualize our programs.

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One Response to Report on the Consultative Meeting with Queen’s “Academic Writing Team” (12 July 2010)

  1. Andrew Stevens says:

    Many thanks to those who initiated this blog. I am wondering if there were any concrete examples of “virtualization” provided by the academic writing team. In the numerous presentations given by the Principal, notably at the University Council sessions in the spring, I have yet to see any specifics about what a virtual curriculum might look like. Is it connected to existing distant learning programs? Does it involve recordings of supplemental or core lectures available on WebCT and other on-line spaces? Will tutorials be help on-line? (This is what Uni Councilors spoke of when they were asked to think about virtual classrooms.) As it stands, it seems that virtualization will mean MORE work and require a higher cost, especially if the University needs to expand its IT infrastructure and provide the support faculty and students need to use this to instruction. From what I can see nothing is really being added that isn’t available already in a lecture — in other words, the most basic and least-capital intensive form of instruction.

    The only positive example I have seen came from the School of Rehabilitation, I believe, in which several faculty members were developing a program on artificial limbs that could be taken by specialists in Bosnia. But, this was extension of what the School already offers, only an international scale. There is nothing new about virtual programming or distant learning, so I’m wondering why the author of “Where Next?” has not been able to provide a tangible example of what he has in mind. It should be as easy as saying, “Department X at Y University has used a particular virtual method, here are the results and here is what students thought about it”. If we don’t understand what virtualization actually means, as Jill Scott suggested, why is it even being proposed? Was it thrown in because it sounded innovative?

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