Report on the Academic Writing Team’s “Town Hall” (20 September 2010)

By Susan Lord

On the 15th of September, “Academic Writing Team” (AWT) members Jill Scott, Tim Bryant, and Yolande Chan responded to about 30 people in attendance at the first of this semester’s “Town Halls” on the Academic Plan. Principal Woolf introduced and moderated the session.

The session began with introductions and an overview of the Academic Planning process, including the AWT’s work of “listening” to the “wider community” over the summer. They did not say how they found a “wider community” at Queen’s in the summer, when most students and many faculty members are absent. But the Principal reported that, in response to criticisms, the timeline for gathering the community’s feedback on the Report has been extended. Also, as he reported in June, Senate has been given a greater role as “the theatre” for ongoing discussions. The Report will be formally submitted to Senate the week of September 20th. The Principal lauded the work of the AWT and the Report they produced: “Imagining the Future: Towards an Academic Plan for Queen’s University.”

Each of the AWT members spoke briefly about the interesting challenges the work posed for them, including the challenge of encouraging “creative thought but framed by the resources we have.”

The floor opened with a comment by Jim Lee, academic integrity advisor to the Vice-Principal (Academic) and acting associate dean in the Faculty of Arts & Science. He complimented the Team and then presented a critique of AWT’s Report based on its failure to mention the “fundamental value” of academic integrity. He argued that a degree has no value without academic integrity and that “integrity” should be the fifth “I” word structuring the response to the Principal’s Where Next? Jill Scott responded that the word “integrity” “fell on the cutting room floor” but that the Report does stress integration. She agreed that “integrity” needs to be more explicit. Yolande Chan added that the document reflects submissions, and that recommendation 5.2 speaks to “openness and transparency” if not to “academic integrity.”

Prof. Egnatoff (Faculty of Education) argued that the Report suffers from two serious flaws: superlatives and norms-based values. This led to a discussion by the Team about the need to be able to “measure success” and the search for “common values.”

The AMS executive spoke next. They said they would save a number of their concerns for a different forum. For this occasion, they spoke to three issues: the question of follow-through on the Report’s recommendations, the Report’s failure to consider a high-level administrative position (with authority and resources) tasked with Equity or Diversity, and its conflation of internationalism and diversity. Responding to the issue of follow-through, the Principal said Senate would have to guide us from the “70,000-foot view” to one closer to ground-level. He also spoke of the lack of “integrated planning” and systems of “measurement and self-measurement” at Queen’s. On the matter of an Equity or Diversity position, Yolande Chan said it was due to “constraints” that the Report does not recommend a V-P Equity or Diversity. Principal Woolf said that Irène Bujara, in her dual role as University Advisor on Equity and Director of the Human Rights Office, attends all the diversity/equity-related meetings and reports back to the Administration. The AMS V-P for University Affairs noted that Ms. Bujara’s position is without the authority and resources given a Vice-Principal.

AMS President Safiah Chowdhury then spoke to the issue of the Senate Educational Equity Committee (SEEC) recommendations and the work by the University Diversity & Equity Task Force (DET). She submitted that the AWT’s focus on internationalization disregards the issues facing domestic minority students. The AWT replied that Queen’s needs to “integrate” different “university cultures” and not isolate “diversity.” It would like to see “internationalization at home integrated with inclusivity and diversity.” The Principal’s response focused solely on internationalization, specifically on the Council of Ontario Universities’ work with the provincial government to increase the numbers of international students and improve their support. The AWT’s discussion of diversity was rather confusing. Though one member attributed the Report’s failure to highlight this issue to the nature of the submissions to the AWT, the AWT has had access both to SEEC recommendations and to documents from the DET (which has numerous representatives from across campus). The serious and ongoing problems of racism suffered by students, faculty, and staff at Queen’s appear to have been slighted because they did not have “majority” support in the submissions to the AWT.

Drawing upon material in the “real academic planning” documents, I spoke to the Report’s failure to address writing, its role in a university, and its integration in academic planning. I argued that the Report gives no attention to the discipline-specific resources needed by units to teach their students to write effectively. I submitted that the imagination in this Academic Plan has been constrained by fiscal directives; that an Academic Plan ought to be an opportunity to present and develop bold and convincing arguments for what makes a university education meaningful. Responding to these points, the AWT confirmed that fiscal constraints drove their Report’s omission of resources for writing. The Principal suggested, without evidence or detail, that the “liberal arts” colleges in the U.S. are “way ahead” of us on writing. He asserted that the 15-page paper might not be the best way to learn how to write. The AWT and the Principal defended the document’s imagination for academic concerns.

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