Mark Jones, Now is the Time to Speak Out about the Draft Academic Plan (30 September 2011)

Posted 30 September 2011; updated 27 October 2011.

A draft academic plan was submitted to Faculty Board in Arts and Science on September 17 and to Senate on September 27.  Since the Academic Planning Task Force (APTF) as a whole never had a chance to approve this draft before it was presented (and the fact that it had been presented took me and at least one other member of the task force by surprise) I published a dissenting view on the morning of Senate.  In Senate, several members including the Dean of Arts and Science voiced serious reservations.  But the Principal welcomed it in his address to Senate as an “excellent document,” and he has declared (even before the APTF had half-completed its drafting), that he hopes to see it approved by Senate by December.

How important is the academic plan?  How much power will it have within the university?  Will it determine funding and curricula?  How important is it to get it right?

The official answer is that Queen’s academic planning will have influence over financial decisions because it is supposed to setthe priorities.  Thus, the Principal noted in his Financial Update of 2009 that:

The academic planning process that we will be embarking on in the new year will help us prioritize what we do and how we do it. I think it’s very important that our academic values drive our financial decisions, including capital planning, budgets and human resources strategies.

In Where Next? the Principal writes: “My hope is that the Academic Planning exercise, which I am initiating with this document, will guide not only our curriculum, research focus, and teaching and learning goals, but also our decision-making regarding financial strategies, our size, capital development, human resources and fundraising” (p. 2).  The Principal reiterated these assurances in Senate on 27 September 2011.  And former Provost Silverman has affirmed that “The academic planning process’ purpose is to guide the University with academic considerations that, in turn, will help to guide financial decision-making. It will guide revitalization, identify areas for collaboration and highlight Queen’s strengths” (see p. 3).

But in fact there are too many variables to give these questions any very direct answer. The Plan will certainly be a rhetorical tool that can be invoked to lend authority to policies that people (in Administration or elsewhere) wish to support.  If it endorses budget-cutting initiatives such as reducing class hours or the use of virtual courses, blended learning, and undergraduate TAs, one might guess that the Board and Administration will invoke it to justify instituting such measures.  But that doesn’t mean that the Plan can stop such measures by opposing them, for it won’t have a constitutional authority—it can’t mandate, but only recommend.  Still, having sensible academic recommendations in the plan would obviously help to promote sensible academic measures.  If we can approve a plan with recommendations for improving the teaching of writing, for instance, that would at least put some pressure on the Administration to devote some resources to initiating that.

But here’s the key point:  the fact that the Plan will have no constitutional authority—that it can only recommend and can’t mandate—is hugely important for assessing its contents.  For this advisory status means it will lend itself to selective applications:  it will be cherry-picked.  For this reason it is far more important to keep recommendations that may be destructive of our teaching and learning environment OUT of the plan, than it is to get more constructive recommendations included.  This consideration may in fact be why the present draft plan, for all of its messiness and self-contradiction, is being endorsed by the Principal as an “excellent document.”  For an Administration that is bent on reconstructing the university to do “less with less,” it doesn’t matter if the document includes recommendations that would cost more:  the Administration will be able to  overlook or defer these (“they just aren’t affordable in the present climate”) while invoking those measures that would save money (“we wish to go forward with the academic plan’s worthy recommendation for use of blended learning and undergraduate TAs in all units.”)

The present draft of the plan includes enough of these cost-cutting recommendations to be attractive to a Board and Administration that have long worried more about cutting costs than about maintaining or improving education at Queen’s:

  • it endorses “blended learning” “to enrich the student experience,” but says nothing about how Queen’s version of blended learning always entails significant increases in the student-faculty ratio; nor does it distinguish appropriate from inappropriate contexts or applications;
  • it appears to be agnostic and therefore neutral about “distance” learning (see Pillar I, p. 16–but then see recommendation #21), but neglects to mention that that “distance learning” is a euphemism for on-campus online courses (since 85% of our “distance” enrolments are by on-campus students), or that “Continuing and Distance Studies” is already aggressively increasing its “distance” / online offerings (for more on this, see here);
  • it recommends widespread, systematic use of undergraduates (even in third year) as tutors and TAs, treating them as a “resource” to make up for the shortfall in faculty numbers, and even contemplates paying such TAs with academic credits rather than money;
  • it proposes, repeatedly, that university courses cover less in content (which it usually encloses in quotation marks, as though content were a dubious concept) in order to promote “inquiry” (as though most students did not already learn to inquire) and “depth” (which it does not define).  It even claims that that “most” of our students “will not need much of the particular knowledge they have acquired.”
  • in pretending that university students can best teach themselves or each other, or be taught by online resources, it grossly underplays the importance of teaching by faculty (who of course must be paid in dollars rather than academic credits), and in fact claims that “the most important thing we can give” to our students “is enough time.”
  • even in recommending greater development of “academic literacy,” its main provisions for this are that “design and delivery” of such instruction be by extra-departmental staff (e.g., in the Centre for Teaching and Learning), since these capacities “lie outside of the usual faculty domain of expertise”; or, that “academic literacy” be taught by “senior undergraduates” on “summer placements” in four-week remedial pre-admissions summer schools (on these last points, see Introduction, p. 5, and Pillar I, p. 21).

Again, since the plan will lend itself to selective application, it is less important what positive recommendations this draft includes, than it is how its other contentions and recommendations may support cost-cutting agendas.

Since the draft plan is now before Senate, now is the time for all members of the Queen’s community—not just Senators, but students, staff, faculty, and alumni as well—to read, consider, and speak out about what it contains.  Here are a few suggestions for speaking out:

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

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