Senate Discussion of Draft Academic Plan (27 September 2011)

Excerpt from the Queen’s Senate Minutes for 27 September 2011 (pp. 3-7), as released in mid-October (posted here on 24 October 2011):

Academic Planning Task Force (Appendix G, page 23)

a)      Presentation of Academic Plan http://www.queensu.ca/saptf/

Task Force Chair, P. Taylor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, made some introductory comments, noting that the Academic Planning Task Force (APTF) had consulted widely, and then had engaged in a review of ideas to produce the current document. He noted that the APTF was counting on the discussion and comments on the website over the next several weeks to help identify omissions and aspects to revisit, with a view to bringing back a more complete plan to the Senate in the next month or so.

The objective of the APTF was to identify Queen’s strengths and vulnerabilities, provide priorities and directions in which to move as an institution, while leaving it to individual units and disciplines to decide on the extent and nature of implementation.

The APTF focus was mainly on the student learning experience because it believed that this was where the greatest attention was needed and where the most significant challenges lie. Everyone is facing difficult economic times. The APTF did not specifically address these in the plan, but were nevertheless mindful of the need for faculty, students and staff, to work together to make sure that students continue to have the exceptional student experience for which Queen’s is known.

One of the main objectives was to achieve a more seamless connection between student learning to faculty research and back again. From that comes the emphasis on inquiry, communication, writing and the task-centred curriculum.

P. Taylor responded to two comments received by the APTF since the draft plan appeared.

1.      Faculty student time: the time teacher and student spend together is highly valued both by students and faculty. The present Queen’s configuration with a fixed number of faculty and students translates into a certain number of faculty teaching hours per student. This is a fixed ratio. Nothing recommended in the plan seeks to change that. The recommendations are focused on making that time count in two different ways: what faculty do and what students do, and when they do it – first, second, third or fourth year. One of the conclusions reached is that first and fourth year are two of the most critical points in the student trajectory and time allocation to those years requires careful consideration.

2.      APTF member M. Jones circulated a personal comment about the plan and others had made comments over the past week. Situations will vary from discipline to discipline and it is fair to say that the plan needs to acknowledge this more explicitly. One example is the role of senior undergraduates in teaching. The approach may be very different in Engineering, Math and Psychology from History, Political Science and English. The second example is the teaching, or facilitation, of inquiry. P. Taylor spoke of his own interest to find ways to incorporate inquiry more effectively into the Mathematics and Engineering classroom experience. This is a very active area of pedagogical development in those disciplines as shown by current work by Eric Nasser at Harvard and Carl Wieman at UBC in Physics. However, disciplines such as English, History and Political Science already use an inquiry-based approach with fewer lectures and as many seminars as they can afford to run. Having said that, it is likely true that there remain ways to change and improve how things are done. The discussion in the plan has to be set at a high enough level to accommodate these differences.

Senator MacLean, Dean of Arts and Science, inquired about the expectations if Senate were to pass the plan document in its current form. In principle, the proposal contained interesting ideas, many of which would need further examination before implementation. While he could support the general principles embodied in the plan, particularly the four pillars, the 89 separate recommendations seemed highly prescriptive and at an operational level that needs to be informed with further information and data. It was at this level that it became difficult to whole-heartedly support the plan in its present form. He went on to speak to examples.

  • The integration of teaching and research has been contained in the mission statement of the Faculty of Arts and Science for many years as a stated commitment to integrating excellence in research with exceptional teaching. More can certainly be done, but it is an intention that has been present for some time.
  • With respect to the style of teaching and learning prescribed, the Dean strongly supported the view that faculty members should examine alternative, innovative and creative modes of teaching and adopt them where possible or indeed reassert the worth of their current approach. However it was also important to recognize the fundamental principle of academic freedom that faculty members have to determine what is best for their own courses.
  • In a number of cases, Arts and Science and other faculties, are already doing some of the things that are suggested in the report. For example, Arts and Science has close partnerships with the Libraries, the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Information Technology Services in the development of new approaches to teaching. Also, for some time the Faculty has actively encouraged the development of continuing and distance studies. Blended learning initiatives are implemented, or about to be implemented, in a several departments.
  • A number of the issues that are identified in the Where Next and Imagining the Future documents do not seem to be reflected in the plan. Its strong focus on the Faculty of Arts and Science skews a broader view

Senator MacLean asked whether the plan was to be adopted in detail or would it be seen as a package with Where Next and Imaging the Future, as a set of documents which in broad strokes leads to consideration of new and creative opportunities for faculty, staff and students. He suggested that Senate might want to consider embracing this broader view rather than adopting a plan that supplies a lot of operational details which remain open to scrutiny and possible amendment.

P. Taylor thanked Senator MacLean. While he concurred with the broader view, he noted that the APTF deliberately did not repeat some of the things that were well laid out in the two former documents. There are a lot of recommendations because of a desire to describe examples of what the APTF had in mind.

M. Jones responded to the suggestion that Queen’s take Imagining the Future and Where Next in addition to whatever is produced by the task force as its Plan. He objected because Where Next was written before any consultation occurred, and Imagining the Future was written before much of the consultation was finished. The Academic Plan, as the Task Force set out to execute it, started with extensive consultation on specific issues, many of which had been voiced in objection to early stages of the planning process. The historical process is important. There are certain things in Where Next and Imagining the Future that may require reconsideration.

Senator Reznick commented that the four pillars are consonant with the strategic directions in the Faculty of Health Sciences. However, in general the document is undergraduate-centric and could be improved by more of a focus on graduate education as well as professional education. He believed that the Faculty of Health Sciences could support the directions that the plan takes.

P. Taylor acknowledged that the Plan document is Arts and Science oriented in many ways. However, the ideas about fundamental academic literacy apply to graduate school as well as to professional faculties; although in many ways these groups are less diverse and seem to have more internal control. The Task Force will look at that balance.

Senator Remenda, APTF member, said the Task Force believed that some pilot projects should be launched to explore certain of the recommendations and further study of particular recommendations will be necessary. The intention was not to ask Senate to embrace 89 recommendations as the answer. However, the recommendations were also framed following consultation with many people.

Senator Morelli thanked all members of the task force for their long and hard work on a very difficult project that must have consumed a lot of extra time that could have been devoted elsewhere. He encouraged every senator to read the document very carefully and be prepared to discuss it because it goes to the heart of the mission of the Senate.

He noted the positive aspect of the extensive consultations but that the feedback seems to have disappeared from the website and questioned whether it had been archived so that it will remain accessible.

Associate Secretary C. Russell explained that the content of the interactive consultation period was no longer a live feed on the website. It is, however, contained as references in the individual pillar documents.

P. Taylor added that because many of the comments applied to early drafts, and the APTF wanted to avoid any confusion between the final document and its earlier drafts. Given the comment, however, the APTF will review how it can achieve both ends.

M. Jones said that when the APTF started drafting, the website divided into two, so there was one page that had the drafts for the various sections and then there was still the old page that had the four pillars and all the community feedback that all went with them. There was also a page that was basically a schedule of activities and consultations. A lot of those were clickable because the takeaways were there. It is very important that that be made available again on the website because the whole point of that is so the whole community at any time can go on and say who said what, what was actually demanded in what ways this plan actually reflect the process. It is true that some sections of the plan have used that material in footnotes and documentation but those are just footnotes that often contain links that go back to those documents so people can actually check and see who said that and in what context. Not many people are going to want to do that, it is technically possible to make the materials available, and keep it available. There is nothing to be gained by deleting it from the website. It is one of the strongest things about the planning process.

In his view, this is the only academic plan process that has been conducted in such an open transparent and interactive basis. He thinks that we are stumbling now as we try to reach a comprehensive sort of global plan for the University. With an interactive website such as this, you can actually do one offs; you can do one year and you could plan for teaching of writing another year you can plan for what are we going to do with internet or online learning. Keeping the website, as it was, is critical.

L. Long (Undergraduate Trustee and Senate Observer) commented on the recommendations dealing with academic literacy. She expressed her appreciation for how much focus the plan has devoted to the topic because it is such a critical issue. Students are not coming to university well prepared to learn. She spoke in support of a UNIV100 first year course that would encompass an interdisciplinarity curriculum, be seminar focused, with a pass and fail grading system. Another successful example is VIC1 program at Victoria College, at U of T, an elite program for high- school applicants that has thought-provoking seminar style courses. If Queen’s could offer that opportunity to all first-year students it would really set the University apart. One concern would be assessing student progress in terms of academic literacy at the end of the first year; and, if they fail, to hold students back for a summer course for four weeks. This could potentially place some financial strain on students and prevent someone from getting summer employment.

Senator D. Moore, Graduate Student Senator, agreed that some more thought should be put into the UNIV100 course. He agreed with the comments that many of the principles described in the plan apply to the undergraduate experience. He felt that the integration of teaching and research could be better handled. More attention should be devoted to how graduate students combine those two aspects right now. He noted that Principle A [i.e., “Guiding Principle” no. 8] suggests that graduate students, despite their research and their teaching, should be thought of as students only. He asked if the APTF had considered how their recommendation for more undergraduate tutors and TAs could potentially have an impact on graduate student funding and teaching employment at current enrolment levels.

P. Taylor commented that, in the sciences, there is no shortage of work for graduate students. Graduate students all have full TAs but more are needed. Undergraduate students are a wonderful resource, but one has to be careful. M. Jones made this point during APTF discussions. To put undergraduate students in positions of teaching has to contribute notably to their learning. Whether there is a problem in some disciplines about undergraduate TAs taking TAships away from graduate students should be explored.

Senator Brouwer, Vice-Provost and Dean, SGS, responded that there could be problems if that were to occur. Also, some of the recommendations and ideas that have been put forward are very specific and do not necessarily hold true university-wide. Several people have commented about the undergraduate focus; however, there is a lot of scope within the framework presented on the four pillars to merge undergraduate and graduate strengths, and, in so doing, enhance the balanced academy at Queen’s: Teaching and research working together.

Senator Remenda noted that Principle A [i.e., “Guiding Principle” no. 8] was intended to protect graduate students from being viewed as a source of cheap labour. A better phrasing should be developed to avoid any confusion.

Senator Morelli referred to the dissenting opinion circulated by APTF member M. Jones and encouraged senators to read it. He then asked about proceeding forward at Senate and how the APTF saw their document coming back to Senate for eventual action. He also asked whether there would be a continuing role for the task force. He said it was his understanding that some members of the task force are no longer on Senate or at the University.

P. Taylor said the APTF would meet after Senate to review the comments, rewrite, and return with a revised document for Senate‘s consideration. The APTF will cease to exist once the plan is approved by Senate. The implementation of recommendations will become the responsibility of the leadership and members of the academic community in their individual units.

Senator Morelli asked about the membership of the APTF going forward. For example, M. Jones is not Senate this fall and there may be others who have moved on.

I. Reeve, former Graduate Student Senator and APTF member, said that if it became an issue and that Senate wished to replace him, he would understand. However, he also believed that the conclusion was close and he remained interested and was willing to finish the job. Apart from M. Jones, who had begun his sabbatical as planned in July, the only original member now absent was the undergraduate student C. Rudnicki who graduated and moved to another institution for further study. He participated during the summer. The AMS Vice-President, University Affairs, K. Slobodin attended the remaining meetings as an observer to ensure that the undergraduate student perspective is not lost.

Senator Reid, Queen’s School of Business, asked two questions:

1.      Did the committee obtain advice from any outside consultants of any kind?

2.      Was any portion of the writing at all done by anybody who is not a member of the APTF?

In response to the first question, P. Taylor said that no advice had been sought from an outside consultant. As explained on the website during the process, the APTF sought out as many views as possible both passively by receiving posted comments and other submissions, and actively by attending faculty boards, holding town-halls, etc. All writing was done by members of the APTF who volunteered to take responsibility for various sections of the plan. Literature had been consulted throughout the process.

M. Jones spoke to his dissenting view, saying that his sense was that the plan was not ready to come forward yet. He did not think that any individual was at fault: the APTF is very small task force. Over the summer, membership became reduced. After he had left, about half the writing was done in a couple of months. In his view, this was just too short a time to put together something that would be worthy of being called the academic plan for Queen’s University. He urged Senate to give more time to the project and maybe to replace members with others interested in these issues, capable of writing and who want to participate. He would have continued, but he had his other research to do. Senate should really think seriously about staffing the committee, giving it the resources it needs, and giving it the time it needs to do this right.

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