Mark Jones, Toward a Response to “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres” (19 September 2012)

Emailed to Provost Alan Harrison on 19 September 2012, in response to his call for submissions. Slightly revised for posting.

Dear Provost Harrison:

Thank you for your invitation for input on the Ministry’s discussion paper, “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres…” (SOC).  Like many of my colleagues, I have difficulty taking at face value the Ministry’s stance that SOC is just a “discussion paper” or that the Ministry is genuinely receptive to critical response.  What I have seen of the Minister’s own response to critical comments (at Fanshawe College last July) ranged from defensive to dismissive.  The paper itself is vague where it should be specific, were it truly designed to advance discussion.  Given this situation, I write an abbreviated response and trust that others will address what I do not.

SOC is both a scary and a poorly constructed document, and I urge the University to respond as critically as is diplomatically possible.  Aside from specific problems noted below, the government’s proposed approach to “innovation” is to impose it downward in a broad and sweeping fashion.  Such an approach will not only  alienate those whose cooperation is essential to success; it will impose “innovations” where they are not needed and miss them where they are.  Universities are intrinsically complex; what works in one class or discipline will not necessarily work in another.  They are also full of students and faculty who do know what works and what is needed locally.  Rather than seek to lead or manage the Universities from the top-down, then, government should facilitate case-specific innovations initiated below.  The fact is that much of what SOC envisions is already being developed in those parts of the universities where it is appropriate.

I address select points here, rather than seek to say everything.  Please do not take this as implying assent to any part of SOC that I do not address.

“Labour Market Needs” vs. “Critical Thinking.” SOC places much emphasis on the need for colleges and universities alike to increase output of “credentials” “to meet labour market needs.”  Universities need to remind the Ministry of the distinction between “training” and “education” and of the universities’ special responsibility for the latter.  SOC barely acknowledges “the importance of critical thinking and wisdom.”  But the development of critical thinking is bound to suffer if “labour market needs” are allowed to drive the design and management of universities.

Technology-Enabled Learning.  This is something that already develops from the ground up, and that needs to develop that way.  Online course-delivery may be  fine for some situations but is not for others.  Caricaturing existing teaching practices as “faculty ‘transmitting’ lecture data to students” or as “the sage on a stage” may serve the rhetoric of “innovation” but does not advance the argument.  To the contrary, it blinds us to the diverse reality of specific local practices that have developed and continue to develop in adaptation to specific local needs and contexts.  It is, after all,  in connection with the reality of these diverse existing teaching needs and practices that any genuine technological improvements will need to develop.  That will not occur by dictate from the top down.

Credit Transfer, Credential Compatibility, and Student Mobility.  Especially as Queen’s Advancement launches its new fund-raising campaign, we need to be wary about supporting government policies that would undermine the distinctiveness of Queen’s courses and degree programs.  From Queen’s perspective, there are at least two good academic arguments against making 100 and 200-level courses interchangeable across Ontario:  first, leveling these credits out across the system will generally mean leveling them down for Queen’s.  Second, and even more seriously, it will raise havoc with the disciplinary architecture of curricula.  Constructing an efficient disciplinary curriculum using only ten course-equivalents (or as few as seven for a medial) is already challenging  in many (probably all) fields.  Departmental control over the content of early courses is especially critical, since they are foundational in relation to the rest.  If students can transfer-in with any 100 or 200 level Ontario credits, one of three things must occur.  Departments must lose control of their curricula, or they must accept that some students transferring-in will be ill prepared for them, or the province must impose standard provincial curricula.  Such standardization would not just undermine Queen’s distinctness, but would be intellectually impoverishing.  For in education as in biology, strength lies in diversity, and monoculture (however tempting from an efficiency standpoint) is sterilizing.

Year-Round Learning.  Year-round learning already occurs (a) in that students learn academic subjects in the school-year and other non-academic things (such as workplace skills) in the summer; and (b) in that students wishing to continue their studies in summer can already do so with summer extension courses.

Those who wish to shorten the post-secondary educational experience to three years should bear a few cautions in mind.  The social and political world is smaller, more complex, and far faster-changing than it used to be.  This means that students need more, not less, time to learn about their world.  But the educational time we give our students has already been abridged by several factors:  (1) Ontario has already gotten rid of grade 13. (2) Queen’s already has a short academic year of 24 weeks. (3) Queen’s has already begun lightening academic loads in some areas (e.g., History) by re-weighting certain courses to earn more credits than they used to. (4) Expanding class sizes, faculty attrition, and the recent development of “blended” courses also mean that students are getting less contact time with instructors than was the norm even ten years ago.

The present system in which academic studies are intermittent with summer  activities (work, travel, reading, recreation) allows fallow time that is crucial for reflection and growth.  Students are not hot-house plants.  We should not overestimate the advantages for the learning process of their not studying academic subjects 24/7.

I am tempted to go on, but have already spoken longer than I intended.  I have also responded elsewhere to provincial proposals for online learning and “differentiation,” and that response remains relevant as a response to SOC.  So if that should interest you, please see also:

Thank you again for inviting responses; I hope some of this may be helpful and wish you the best in representing the interests of Queen’s and its future students to the Ministry.



Mark Jones
Department of English
Queen’s University
This entry was posted in "Strengthening Ontario's Centres of Creativity" (SOC), Three-year degrees. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mark Jones, Toward a Response to “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres” (19 September 2012)

  1. Anon. says:

    I wonder how many people did not reply to the provost because of the lack of any guarantee of anonymity? To comment one has to leave one’s name and e-mail. As an assistant professor without tenure I am reluctant to offer frank opinions without anonymity.
    Meanwhile, this is interesting:

  2. Pingback: What Does a University Education Mean? | Jake Pringle

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