Mark Jones, The New Draft Academic Plan: Texts, Problems, and a Solution (19 October 2011)

The APTF has just posted yet another new draft, or rather two new drafts, of its Academic Plan. The new draft first appeared on the morning of 18 October 2011. It was then removed for most of the day, and a copy with further revisions was posted in the evening.

At the same time, the APTF deleted from its website the links to the former draft of September 2011 (though it is still accessible on the present blog). Since it’s the purpose of this blog to keep academic planning at Queen’s as open and transparent as possible and to make all relevant public documents and drafts available, I post both of the October drafts here:

Queen’s Academic Plan, Draft 2A (as posted a.m., 18 October 2011)

Queen’s Academic Plan, Draft 2B (as posted p.m., 18 Oct 2011)

(But for most purposes, please refer to the latter.)

The new draft has also been submitted to Queen’s Senate with a notice of motion: on Tuesday, 22 November 2011, the APTF will move for Senate approval of this draft as Queen’s new Academic Plan.

Until then, it is to be hoped that Draft 2B remains the final draft of reference so that the community can print, discuss, and comment on it in consideration of the upcoming motion. [1]

Problems:
At 53 pages rather than 83, excluding appendices, the new draft plan is shorter than Draft 1 and makes fewer recommendations. But on this point there is already confusion.

The whole document is titled “Queen’s University Academic Plan 2011.” But the “Contents” page reads:

The  Academic  Plan  … Page  1

Pillar  l.  The  Student  Learning  Experience … Page 13

Pillar  ll.  Disciplinarity  and  Interdisciplinarity … Page  26

Pillar  lll.  Reaching  Beyond:  Globalism,  Diversity,  and Inclusion  at  Queen’s … Page  32

Pillar  lV.  Health,  Wellness,  and  Community … Page  47

So is the whole document the “Academic Plan,” as the title suggests, or is the “Plan” only the first section (pp. 1-12), as the “Contents” page suggests? On the APTF website, the whole is referred to as “The Academic plan plus the four supporting pillars.”

To compound this confusion, the first part, titled “The Academic Plan,” or elsewhere “Queen’s University Academic Plan” (p. 2), offers 20 “Key Recommendations,” which are repeated from the “Four Pillars” sections, but in these sections there are not 20 but 36 recommendations (4+4+13+15).  Moreover, in Pillars I-II, these are also labeled “Key Recommendations” and are identical to those in the summary, but in Pillar III the recommendations are more numerous, and those that overlap with the “Key Recommendations” summary are phrased differently (left out of the “Key Recommendations,” for instance, is Pillar III’s important recommendation “That Queen’s promote [. . .] foreign-language learning as [. . .] a relevant academic and employment skill”).  Pillar IV makes 15 recommendations, as opposed to the six “Key Recommendations” (some of which are entirely different) in the corresponding summary section.

These inconsistencies in titling and presentation are apt to produce confusion when people want to appeal to what is “in” or “recommended in” the “Academic Plan.”  To put it bluntly, this draft is still a mess in organization and presentation.

And despite its weeding-out of some recommendations and passages that were objected to in the September draft, the October draft is essentially unchanged in its thrust and in its weaknesses.  Like the September draft, as previously criticized in this blog,

(1) it still entirely ignores both the detailed report on virtualization submitted to the APTF and Senate in July and the strong statements of opposition to increased virtualization signed by over 1100 community members last year, then goes on blandly to endorse both “blended” and “distance” learning (pp. 18-19).

(2) It still promotes doing “less with less,” not just by promoting virtualization, the use of undergraduate TAs, and so on, but also by urging “restraint in curriculum design at all levels” (p. 15) such that “less material will be ‘taught’ and formally examined” (p. 7), etc.

(3) In the sections that have been added since late July 2011 (i.e., roughly pp. 1-21 [which includes all of what the “Contents” page describes as “The Academic Plan”] and 47-50), but particularly in the introductory parts, the new draft still bases recommendations on “impressions and hunches” rather than on the consultations. The idea, for instance, that science education at Queen’s suffers from “thicker books and more material, particularly in introductory courses” (p. 15) may be valid in certain cases–but where is the basis for this claim? Even if it is sometimes true how broadly is it applicable? The assertion that “the real learning” of students is “the result of time spent individually or with a small group of peers” (p. 5), i.e., that “real learning” doesn’t occur in lecture courses–on what evidence or consultation is this (surely overgeneralized) truism based?

And (4) the overgeneralization that is evident in the foregoing examples occurs even where the new parts of the draft cite scholarship. Thus: “Summerlee and Murray (2010) have demonstrated that students engaged in inquiry early in their university careers out perform their peers” (p. 14). The study by Summerlee and Murray that is cited here traces 17 students at Guelph who took a very specific kind of “enquiry based learning” course in their first year, and contends that on average their grades for the following three years were higher than their peers’. Whatever critique one might make of this kind of study (and many are possible), one such study can hardly be generalized to have “demonstrated that students engaged in inquiry early in their university careers out perform their peers.” More simply, one must ask of this formulation: who and where are the students who do not engage in inquiry early in their university careers? The claim is not only overgeneralized but is so imprecise in the phrasing as to be essentially incoherent.

The pity of it all is that this Task Force was mandated by Senate to consult broadly on “specific key issues” and to use its consultations to “inform the drafting of the corresponding section[s] of the plan” (Senate Minutes, 25 Nov. 2010, p. 8).  Moreover, that is what the Task Force set out to do last winter and spring, and it did produce at least four respectable draft segments that are carefully based on consultation, university data, and recent scholarship, and are carefully written:

Three of these are now included among the “Pillars” of the present draft, but the draft as a whole is badly compromised by the more recently introduced introductory and connective materials (especially pp. 1-21).  And if the first section (pp. 2-12) be considered as “the Academic Plan,” the parts that were carefully formulated have, in effect, been exiled from the Plan into its appendices.

A Solution:
But the existence of these carefully prepared drafts suggests a viable option.  Queen’s could very well admit that it is too much to expect a small committee to draft a global academic plan for the whole institution in one year.  It could shift to a system whereby Senate determines a pressing academic issue each year and appoints a task force to consult broadly and draft a planning paper on that issue, based on its consultation. It could begin by approving the four reports listed above, and speak not of Queen’s Academic Plan but of Queen’s Academic Planning.  Something like this more positive alternative approach for planning with real consultation and rigour will in fact be proposed in a Motion to Senate by Senator Morelli in November.  Those who care should write their Senators and Administrators to urge its passage.

Note.

[1] On October 19, Peter Taylor replied to a query about the APTF’s final text:  “A new draft can be found on the website now. We expect that comments received over the next couple of weeks will lead to minor changes from time to time, but the draft that we post for the November meeting will of course be final.” This appears to mean that the APTF will not stand by a final draft until it has to be sent out for the November agenda (Senate meets on 22 November; the agenda usually appears less than a week beforehand). If so, this is disappointing; the community needs at least a month to consider and respond to a final draft before approval, and that cannot easily be done if the draft keeps changing.

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