Report on the 2nd Consultation by the “Academic Writing Team” (19 August 2010)

Summary by Roberta Lamb

Forty-three people, evenly divided among faculty and staff but including very few students, showed up in Wallace Hall on the 17th of August for the “Academic Writing Team”’s second consultative meeting of the summer.   The team (less Prof. John Smol, away in South Africa) announced that its final Report is due to the Principal at the end of August and will be publicly posted then.  The Principal will meet with his senior administration to discuss the Report on Sept. 1.

The team invited questions and comments concerning what appears to have been overlooked in the process so far.  Steve Iscoe asked if it had been decided what the “academic” in “academic planning” meant.  He asked if “academic” planning implied intentions to purge things considered “unacademic” (e.g., programming languages as opposed to modern languages) from university programs.  The team responded that this was not among the kinds of recommendations it was supposed to make.

Peter Taylor spoke for the need to keep things simple, and suggested that what students principally need are good resources, less feedback (directed only to their best work), and more informal time with faculty members.

John Fisher in Physiology spoke of the need for ancillary services such as informational technology.  He invoked Where Next? and its affirmation that Queen’s needs to be known for its ability to administer itself well.

Victoria Pleavin (student) asked about how courses are taught and evaluated, and whether the Team will include recommendations about these in its Report. There was some inconclusive discussion of “metrics” in various contexts, but especially focused on evaluating courses. Though the academic planning schedule has been extended, it was obvious to all that the Team has little time to process further suggestions.

Kim Nossal asked those present to specify in short phrases what they thought distinctive about Queen’s and how the university might plan with reference to it.  Among the “distinctive” qualities mentioned were community, tradition, and the excellence of the students.  Roberta Lamb (Music) responded that while Queen’s used to be well-regarded for its undergraduate educational experience, this reputation is now damaged.  She told of undergraduates who complain of being betrayed by the publicity, disappointed by the reality of their experience at Queen’s in contrast with Queen’s promises.  This decline is connected, she said, with the administration’s refusal to listen to faculty and students about the needs of their academic units.  Music, for instance, had been promised faculty positions if it met certain conditions, has met these conditions repeatedly, and has been refused the positions.  The university has failed to renew its faculty complement to the point that the department will not exist once the professors now in their 50s retire.  Queen’s has prioritized building new spaces for Music over supporting the discipline itself, and if it continues as it has done we will see Music buildings without the corresponding academic departments.  Asked what remedy she would suggest in the face of financial constraints, she said she would begin by stepping up the university’s lobbying of the province for appropriate funding through a concerted and cooperative effort by administration, faculty, staff, and students.

Kelly Smith (staff) spoke of the need to consult with staff more effectively. She suggested staff give much to the university and have good ideas to offer about supporting academic programs.

AMS President Safiah Chowdhury noted that one of Queen’s distinctive qualities is the agency and engagement of its students, which was woefully lacking in the Team’s town hall meetings because they were scheduled in the summer when students generally are not on campus. Safiah requested that the Team hold additional meetings for when students are back on campus. She asked about the reasons for Queen’s reducing its medial programs given that the medial has provided such an excellent academic experience for Queen’s students in the past. Medials are one way of implementing personalized interdisciplinarity and allowing students to follow their interests. Another person suggested that the obstacle for students getting into necessary courses was not the requirement for specific courses but was that as student enrolments increased and professorial numbers fell, departments have had to limit enrolment to their own majors; many courses are no longer available to medials or as electives simply because they are filled once the majors have enrolled. The Team responded, invoking Peter Taylor’s insistence on simplicity, that the huge number of possible degree combinations at Queen’s has produced a level of complexity that is inefficient to administer, but it did not answer the question.

Mark Jones suggested that such arguments against complexity appear to be covering for other issues.  You never heard the complaints about “complexity” ten years ago, he said.  But at that time, his unit (English) could offer something like 52 sections each year, making it possible to satisfy the requirements of a “complex” (a.k.a. rich) academic program.  Now its offerings had been whittled down to something like 35 larger sections, and this was what made it difficult to satisfy complex curriculum requirements, particularly as the student numbers increased.  He conceded that simplicity can be a virtue, all other things being equal, but insisted that there are places in an academic institution where complexity is also necessary, and that in a day of computerized registration the complexity of our programs was not itself the issue.  The real issue here was the impoverishment of our academic resources (as illustrated by a diminishment of course sections in English from 52 to 35).   He added that the medial was indeed a valuable degree, and one respected by graduate programs in other institutions.

Jenn Stephenson (Drama) spoke in favour of reducing the number of requirements for degrees in order to increase flexibility for students. She suggested there could be good ways to implement such changes without losing richness. One way would be to define core skills and competencies that are transferable among disciplines and fields. This would take a lot of time and effort, but it would be possible. Others added that throwing lots of information at students is not a good way to learn.

One person suggested that those areas of the university that are reasonably well-off, such as the School of Business, could contribute to those areas of the university that are suffering. He also stressed the need for supporting information technology that supports academic programs.

Noting that this was only the second consultative meeting the “Academic Writing Team” had held over the summer, Roberta Lamb asked what other means the Team had used for consulting with the community. Yolande Chan said the Team’s mandate was to listen and they listened by receiving emails and submissions on their website. They also met with groups and individuals who would meet with them.  Jill Scott spoke of the huge expense in total person-hours of holding a consultative meeting, and the problem of not factoring people’s time into the costs of a university.  She said that time is something the Team hears about over and over.  However, no one on the Team provided specifics regarding who, what, or how many submissions they had received, and they gave no indication of any documentation to be represented in their report.

Roger Healy asked about the role of staff in the academic plan, especially since such a large proportion of the attendees are members of general staff and contribute fundamentally to the running and support of academic programs. Pressures are increasing on staff as more and more tasks are downloaded from the administration. The Team acknowledged the want of a staff member on the Team but did not really reply to Healy’s concerns.

Ken Rose suggested the Team be sure to include ideas about implementation because this is what is so lacking in reports like this. The Team responded that implementation was not their mandate, but will be up to others, most notably the Senate. They said their mandate is to provide goals.

Mark Jones observed that meetings such as the present one were superior to email communications in that everyone attending could listen to and develop one another’s suggestions, whereas the Team’s and the Administration’s use of email makes it impossible for members of the community to know what others are saying; only the Team and the Administration are privy to the whole range of suggestions.  While granting Jill Scott’s observation that such meetings are costly in terms of person-hours, he observed that blog-style media can achieve a similar openness with all the convenience and low cost of email.  He reminded the Team that Queen’s Students and Employees for Real Academic Planning have repeatedly asked the Team to employ a blog-style site for its canvassing, and that QSERAP itself has even created such a blog, which he invited others to use (https://realacademicplanning.wordpress.com/).  He asked two questions:  why did the Team resist using the open style of a blog, which would have enabled all members to see what others had suggested and to offer refinements and arguments, and how did the Team expect the community to assess its Report as an interpretation of a body of suggestions to which only the Team had access?   The team responded that it did not have the resources to use a blog and had not wanted to get into responding to suggestions, since its mandate was instead to create a single Report embodying its suggestions.

The town hall meeting was still going strong at 1:30 p.m. Some people left, but the final two questions were allowed after 1:30.  The meeting adjourned at 1:35 p.m. Many people remained in the room to chat.

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2 Responses to Report on the 2nd Consultation by the “Academic Writing Team” (19 August 2010)

  1. Jacqueline Davies says:

    I am very troubled by the suggestion (attributed to Peter Taylor) that students need less feedback. What evidence is there for this as a sound pedagogical strategy? What do students think about this? Do they really want less feedback? Also, how is more informal contact to be achieved given the increase in class size? Is it only upper year students who are to get the benefit of this? Are we to meet individually with students in all our classes (more often)? What is meant by informal here? Does this mean having more beer with profs nights? I think more contact with students at lower student-prof ratios is a great idea (whether formal or informal) but don’t see how this is to be achieved given the number of students whose education we are responsible for. What is the objective of more informal contact (assuming that it can’t be about providing feedback since we are supposed to provide less of that) ?

  2. Leda Raptis says:

    Having few academic programs is nothing “new” or progressive. A hundred-fifty years ago there was no eg Microbiology, because everybody believed in automatic generation. Science has advanced enormously since then, hence the complexity of programs. More seriously, how are students going to be able to do graduate work, ie research, without an undergraduate degree where they have learned the basics of their discipline?

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