Open Letter: Laura Murray to Principal Woolf and Dr. Susan Cole (2 November 2010)

2 November 2010

Daniel Woolf, Principal
and Susan Cole, Chair of SCAD
Queen’s University

Dear Drs. Woolf and Cole,

As a former Undergraduate Chair of the English Department (2007-2010), and a current instructor of our brand new first year course, Introduction to Literary Study, I have been concerned for some time with the lack of attention to teaching writing at Queen’s and in its emerging Academic Plan. That is the genesis of this letter, but I wish to frame the issue here more broadly and make a plea for an explicit statement about the value of tutorials or small classes in the first two years of the undergraduate program at Queen’s. I recognize and indeed applaud the emphasis on new technologies in the classroom, but that is something that all universities have to move towards: in order to find a niche for a “Queen’s experience” somewhere between the tiny universities (e.g. Acadia) and the larger research universities (e.g. Alberta), I think we would do well to emphasize both the efficiencies and pedagogical opportunities of new teaching technologies, and the ‘old-fashioned’ tutorial, workshop, or lab experience. Queen’s reputation is to a large extent based on its intimate undergraduate experience, and as we increase the level of virtuality and reduce the level of mentoring and access to instructors, I think this reputation is suffering. I would like to see a statement in the Academic Plan to the effect that a Queen’s student might expect to find some substantial small-group components in their courseload all the way through their undergraduate degree. Not all classes need to or can be small, of course: the idea is that some will be, across the university and across academic levels. The approach would have to be bolstered by budget support from the centre so that departments could pursue it without causing other elements of their programs to suffer.

A little bit of background: since the English department changed the format of its first year course 3 1/2 years ago, it has devoted significant TA resources to that course. In addition to 3 faculty members each teaching over 200 students, we employ 24 PhD students in that course, at 120 hours per term, to act as tutorial leaders to groups of up to 30 students. Essay-writing accounts for 50% of each student’s course mark; the tutorial leaders teach writing in groups, meet with students individually, and mark the writing. This year, 2010-11, we changed the content of the course for it to serve as the foundation of our new curriculum, but we have kept the format of lecture/tutorial the same because it has worked so well, especially for writing instruction. This year, we have approximately 700 students in the course, about 1/3 of whom may go on to sign up for a minor, medial, or major in English. The course thus forms an element of the university foundation for students in many other disciplines.

This course is expensive, and the expense is worth it. It’s not of course as expensive and may not be as valuable as a US Liberal Arts-style “freshman seminar,” because the students only get one hour of smaller group work per week, and the group is large. But in the combination of lecture and applied study, the students see models of how to analyse, and then they get to try it out. In our department, that involves discussion and writing instruction. In other departments, the small class experience could involve lab work, workshopping of creative work, or various sorts of case study, discussion, and debate. The August document “Imagining the Future” by the Principal’s writing team suggests that Queen’s move to “skills-based first-year courses” (20): to me this must mean courses with some small-class practical component. Otherwise we’re asking our students to play basketball without a coach.

The “small-group experience for senior students” (ibid. 15) is important too, but it doesn’t play the same role as small class experience in the first or second year. We can’t wait to the upper years for applied learning to happen. It takes a long time to be able to think with rigour, mobilize evidence, ask good questions. We have to start right away. The combination of humility and subtlety (the world is complex) and optimism and pragmatism (we’ll still try to figure it out or improve it) is what we expect from our students now and in the future. We need to place this kind of intellectual responsibility on their shoulders upon their arrival at university — it’s really the essence of the difference between high school and university — and a key way to help students feel they can live up to it is by having them work through examples in dialogue with instructors and peers. In small groups, we can help those who come with weaker backgrounds to catch up; we can model the ‘mind at work,’ making mistakes, making discoveries; we can encourage precision and amplitude of thought; we can respond to students’ curiosity and new ideas and make them feel like part of an ambitious and compelling project of knowledge building. Some of this can be done in online discussions, but those also cost money in that they require instructor or TA engagement, and in any case I do not feel that students come to Queen’s for online relationships with peers or instructors. “Imagining the Future” suggests that Queen’s “not dwell on class size as a specific end goal” (23). I agree, but as a means to an end goal, its alternatives remain to be clearly articulated.

Let me be clear that I am not a technophobe. I’m using moodle in my course and finding it hugely effective in keeping lines of communication open, clarifying expectations, supplementing core readings, etc. I expect to find new ways to use it in subsequent years. Nor am I afraid of large classes. I’m teaching 230 now, and would in fact be willing to teach double that, or make lectures available on-line, if the tutorials were kept in place. That’s the key: the students have to have a chance to talk back.

Thank you for considering my thoughts on this subject. I wish you the very best in the ongoing and daunting process of leading the development of an Academic Plan.


Laura J. Murray
Associate Professor, English
cc: Marta Straznicky, Head, Department of English; Chris Bongie, Undergraduate Chair, Department of English; Members of the Principal’s Writing Team; Alistair MacLean, Dean, Arts & Science; “Real Academic Planning” blog; TAs of ENGL100A.

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