Mark Jones, Queen’s Draft Academic Plan as of September 2011: A Dissent (27 September 2011)

As emailed to the Academic Planning Task Force, Senate, and campus lists on 27 September 2011:

As an active member of the Academic Planning Task Force from January to July (when I left on sabbatical), I herewith express my dissent with regard to the draft Plan as submitted to Arts and Science Faculty Board on 17 September 2011 and to Senate for its meeting of 27 September. While the draft includes sections that had been carefully prepared, approved by the task force, and duly posted on the APTF website for community feedback by July, [1] the whole as I now find it includes over 50% new material by page-count and these additions have transformed the Plan as I understood it into something quite different: a preparation for doing “less with less.”  My concerns include the following:

1. Virtualization: There was strenuous opposition among both students and faculty to proposals made for greater “virtualization” in earlier stages of the planning process. [2] This is obviously a critical issue for the modern university, and requires careful treatment. In July, I submitted to the Task Force a 45-page draft section on this subject, taking both campus and provincial contexts into account and offering specific recommendations for Queen’s. This draft has been entirely omitted; instead, the plan has a one-page statement that merely endorses the use of “blended learning” and acknowledges the existence of questions concerning distance learning (p. 26).

2. Doing “less with less”: While the present draft includes much to which I assent, the new additions have made it into a proposal for a “task-based” curriculum in which there will be a “reduction in formal class hours” (p. 19) and in which “less material will be ‘taught’ and formally examined” (p. 4; see also pp. 10, 75). The trade-off is said to be “graduates who can do more” (pp. 4, 19), or “more depth” in learning (p. 75). But trading off “knowing less” for “doing more” (p. 4) suggests to me a retrograde movement from education toward training, and I am not at all confident that less in content implies “more depth.” Furthermore, the institution envisioned here is “student-centred” (p. 67) not just in emphasizing inquiry but also in displacing faculty teaching time with “technology” or “blended learning” (pp. 24, 26, 75) and with a systematic use of third and fourth-year undergraduates as TAs or tutors (pp. 5, 18, 21, 27). They are even called “a tremendous resource” (p. 5), notwithstanding that one of the plan’s basic principles, which were approved by the task force as a whole, is to “consider all students [. . .] first and foremost as students, putting their individual learning needs ahead of their potential contributions to the University as TAs” (Principle 8, p. 2).[3] In emphasizing the roles of students, the current draft also radically de-emphasizes the teaching role of faculty: it repeatedly claims, for instance, that “the most important thing we can give” our students “is enough time” (pp. 4, 15, 19). It claims (untruly) that early “discussions of the task force [. . .] settled on the recommendation that senior undergraduate courses, perhaps even starting in the 2nd year, should have only 2 hours of scheduled class time per week” (p. 19). And even in rightly emphasizing that our students should be better trained in “learning capacities, such as writing and inquiry,” it claims that these cornerstones of the new curriculum “are specialized and lie outside of the usual faculty domain of expertise” (p. 5). This is a matter on which many professors, in the humanities and social sciences certainly, would be likely to disagree. In short, the plan as it is now presented appears to me to be more immediately concerned with rationalizing a practice for coping with restricted resources (especially fewer faculty members per student) and with “our drive to use our resources more effectively” (p. 72), than with simply recommending the best academic practices for our students. I am especially concerned with the pretense that reducing or further mediating faculty-student contact time is a win-win.

3. Consultation and evidence vs. impressions and hunches. While the sections formerly approved by the APTF and posted on its website extensively source their contentions and recommendations (with reference especially to unit responses, consultative “takeaways,” university documents, and recent scholarship), the new sections (constituting over half of the draft as it now stands) are almost entirely lacking in this respect. Where contentions and recommendations are not sourced or supported by evidence, it is impossible to assess their correspondence with the realities of the university and the felt needs of its community. For instance, on what basis is it claimed that students “are happy with fewer lectures” (p. 19), or that “most” of our students “will not need much of the particular knowledge they have acquired” (p. 18), or that “senior faculty [. . .] often have a broader point of view” (p. 72)? On what grounds, with what rationale, is it claimed that “Queen’s should strive to simplify bureaucratic processes, to flatten the university hierarchy and to restrain hiring at the top administrative levels” (p. 73)? The latter are claims with which I personally agree, but if they are presented in an Academic Plan they need to be connected with evidence and with reasoned consideration of the facts of the case.

4. Overgeneralization. This is related to the problem with impressionistic claims. The report’s general brief for “task-based learning” seems to be framed with reference to units in which the status quo is an over-reliance on “traditional lectures” for the “transmission of information” and in which most students are, or are assumed to be, “passive learners” (p. 13). It is not clear exactly where these units are in the university, or even whether they exist, but it does appear that the Academic Plan needs to show greater respect for the basic disciplinary differences between units, and especially between the hard sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. Many who study or teach in the humanities, for instance, will wonder at the emphasis in this draft on the need to shift from “transmission of information” to “inquiry-based learning” (p. 13), for their work centers in interpretive and critical activity, which are forms of inquiry. Rather than transmitting information, their lectures typically involve the raising of interpretive, critical, philosophical, or methodological questions, and are often punctuated with student dialogue and with self-reflexive inquiry into the nature of interpretive and evaluative processes, competing viewpoints, the nature of evidence, etc. Their students, who are generally asked from the beginning to formulate their own persuasive arguments (or to challenge others’), take “task-based” learning for granted. Even their examinations tend toward this mode, setting questions to be answered with essays of interpretation and judgment written in situ. So for scholars in these areas, at least, it is not generally true to say that “inquiry-based learning” will require “a profound change in the way undergraduate teaching is structured” (p. 13). Likewise, these disciplines already combine or alternate lecture with seminar format, so far as their resources allow, and so many of their faculty already appreciate that “traditional lecture should not be the dominant mode of instruction” (ibid). Thus, the Plan may need to be less global in its recommendations and to take disciplinary conditions and the differences between them more into account. Or it may just need to avoid framing any of its recommendations in opposition to a straw-man of “traditional” (i.e., others’?) teaching methods. That is why consulting, listening to consultation, and citing one’s consultations are so important in an academic planning process: to ensure that our Plan specifies and addresses our real problems.

In sum, I hope that Senate will join me in rejecting the draft Plan as it presently stands. With the inevitable summer absences, the departure of its student members, and my own absence on sabbatical, the Task Force has been working with very reduced numbers over the summer. In the spring, when it had a full complement, the Task Force made a great beginning: it gained access to the unit reports, conducted extensive consultation, and began posting interim drafts on what was then an interactive website. I hope that Senate will re-fill the vacancies, restore the website’s interactivity, and give the Task Force the time that it now critically needs to complete this very important work in a manner that is worthy of Queen’s.

Notes

1. Specifically, the “Guiding Principles” (Introduction, pp. 2-3); “Developing Communication Skills” (Pillar I, pp. 19-23); “Disciplinarity and Interdisciplinarity” (Pillar II, pp. 1-7, minus the final paragraph); “Reaching Beyond” (Pillar III, pp. 1-17); “The importance of Non-Academic Staff” (“The Balanced Academy,” pp. 2-3).  Unfortunately, the section of the APTF website on which these drafts and the community feedback on them were posted has for some reason been taken down.

Note on pagination: As presented on 17 Sept., and again to Senate, the Draft Plan consists of 14 separately paginated files (see http://www.queensu.ca/saptf/?page_id=28). This is awkward for reference, so I have printed all of these out, double-sided, except for appendices I and II (Where Next? and Imagining the Future), stapled them together, and numbered them sequentially. The whole comes to 97 pages (with pages 34, 42, 60, and 66 as blanks). The page numbers given in the first part of this note are, thus, pp. 2-3, 29-33, 35-41, 43-59, 61-65, 68-69.

If Senate wishes for community response to this draft, it would do well to have it distributed as one file, continuously paginated.

2.  In April-May 2010, over 900 Queen’s students signed a petition to the Board of Trustees that read, in part:  “The ‘improvements’ so far proposed by Queen’s Administration include: larger class sizes, virtualized teaching, and less contact with professors during the first and second years of undergraduate degrees. We believe that these changes would cause irreparable injury to the quality of the University, and, more importantly, that they are not necessary” (Queen’s Students for Real Academic Planning, “Petition” to Queen’s University Board of Trustees, 1 May 2010, http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/queensstudentsforrealacademicplanning/).  A similar petition was presented with over 200 Queen’s employee (mostly faculty) signatures, bearing the text: “several specific proposals being presented at the administrative level as summaries of staff, student and faculty proposals—e.g. for increasing class sizes, expanding virtualization, diminishing student-faculty contact, and pursuing administrative centralization—do not reflect staff, student, and faculty wishes, and are not shaped by collectively determined scholarly principles and objectives, but reflect an administrative preoccupation with cost cutting” (Queen’s Employees for Real Academic Planning, Petition to the Queen’s University Board of Trustees, 1 May 2010, http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/queensemployeesforrealacademicplanning/).

3. The proposal for using undergraduates as TAs/tutors and reimbursing them with academic credits (see p. 18) is financially ingenious but raises ethical concerns (can Queen’s use the currency of academic credits as a device to have A teach B, while charging both A and B tuition in real dollars for this service?). Systemic and widespread use of undergraduate TAs/tutors might also send the wrong message to our graduate students, who might have justifiable concerns about policies that undermine the credentials required for their futures in teaching.

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This entry was posted in Academic Plan (Drafts), Academic Planning Task Force, TFs / TAs, Undergraduate TAs, Virtualization / Online learning. Bookmark the permalink.

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