Tuesday, March 26, 2019

a news service

The New Pedagogy

***

Canada’s
college professors ought to fire their union leadership, or at the very least
send them a tersely worded letter. After all, they allowed their membership to
suffer the indignity of being transferred, en masse, to the service industry. It’s
understandable that they wouldn’t notice this change, since the units of
compensation and rank haven’t changed considerably, or at least considerably enough to
attract attention. But make no mistake, those thousands of professors who work
in Canada’s colleges now work in the service industry, and their job
performance is evaluated not in terms of course taught or work published but rather
in students served and needs met. It won’t be long before students are leaving
tips for their teachers the way they used to leave apples.

This shift in the culture of the college,
an important part of our post-secondary infrastructure, is a direct, if
unexpected, consequence of the budget cuts that were the result of the game of
inter-jurisdictional hot-potato that the federal and provincial governments
played in the early 1990s as a means of combating budget deficits. Faced with
falling or frozen budgets, universities across the country had to raise tuition
fees, and had to provide reasons for so doing. Rather than justifying the raises
by arguing that they were essential public institutions that created public
wealth and welfare and so needed to balance their budget and pay their bills,
university administrators across the country instead seized the zeitgeist of
the mid 1990s and declared themselves an investment vehicle. The often
exorbitant rise in tuition fees wasn’t a financial burden or an example of the
shameful attitude of government towards education, but merely a reasonably
priced investment in a successful future.

To allay the concerns of particularly
skeptical students and parents, universities even performed the helpful
calculations demonstrating the long-term return on that investment in a
university degree in the same way that a financial adviser would for an
individual’s personal portfolio. Degrees were no longer achievements but
assets, as much a part of an investment portfolio as bonds and equities if not
more important. Similarly, professors transformed into product, and
universities would tout the skills and qualifications of their latest
high-profile faculty acquisition the same way a mutual fund prospectus would
the record of its manager and his or her investment strategy. Outwardly, the
logic was nearly flawless.

Inwardly, however, that logic would prove
to be destructive. If post-secondary institutions were no longer hallowed
grounds of learning and research but instead an intellectual trading floor,
then the students expected a return on their investment. Grade inflation was the first and most
obvious sign of this shift, as students expected to be compensated for their
time and money. Similarly, it has become nearly impossible to fail students,
who now expect something for the hundreds of dollars they pay for each course.
A professor failing a student for anything short of rank incompetence,
plagiarism, or criminal activity in the classroom requires a mountain of
paperwork to justify the grade when the inevitable complaint arrives in the
department administrator’s inbox.

This kind of unreasonable accommodation extends
to the classroom environment, where only the most senior and respected
professors are allowed to teach their class as they like. For the rest, the
classroom has become a site of compromise, where the concern of students vastly
outweighs the preferences of the professor, and students can request extensions
and delays not just for major surgeries and family crises but bad breakups,
hangovers, and the mental stress breakdowns associated with second year history
classes. Professors and administrators who object to such silliness are
reminded, perhaps not in the same terms but certainly in the same spirit, that
the customer is always right.

Professors and administrators at
universities have gotten off comparatively lightly, mostly because of the
relatively high valuation the public placed on a university degree compared to
its college equivalent. Additionally, many university professors are armed with
tenure and so don’t need to respond as acutely to these changes, if at all. But
college teachers enjoy no such luxuries, and have been subjected to the fullest
brunt of these changes. College administrators are expected to demonstrate the
return on their government’s investment, as though the education and
intellectual enrichment of their young people isn’t enough of a self-evident
return. As a result, colleges shunt through trade and skill programs in order
to augment their supposedly underperforming liberal arts divisions, trying to
catch the labour market lightning of the day, be it the film industry or internet
technology or environmental entrepreneurialism, in their bottle.

The rapid technological changes of the past
fifteen year have exacerbated this shift in the culture of post-secondary
institutions, accelerating their transition from sites of learning to sources
of customer satisfaction. The most important development has been email and the
internet, which allows students to harass their professors, and expect a
response to their harassment, at any time of the day. In the last few years,
students have come to expect their professors to post all the content of the
day’s lecture or seminar on the internet. More galling still, they expect them
not to deviate from said material, since doing so would constitute an unfair
advantage for those who actually bothered to show up to class. Google,
meanwhile, has replaced the study of books as the source of information and
knowledge, and professors who object to this new orthodoxy by requiring actual
primary source material are either dismissed as curmudgeons or malingering
luddites.

Meanwhile, students are now able to
evaluate their professors, not in the private ways of old, be it the ruler in
the library or the more mundane evaluation forms that are passed out at the end
of each semester, but in much more personal and public ways on the internet.
Ratemyprofessor.com has become the most popular of a genre of professor ranking
resources for students, who can scan the hundreds of reviews of prospective
professors and read about their personal style, their physical appearance, and,
occasionally, their teaching abilities, before selecting their courses. Only
the wisest, most experienced, or technologically stubborn professors could fail
to respond, if only subconsciously or unintentionally, to these online
recriminations. Satisfaction of the customer, meanwhile, continues to eclipse
good teaching and a high standard of education as the ends towards which
college instructors and administrators work.

Don’t blame the students for this, by the
way, because it’s not their fault. They were presented with a new set of rules,
ones that simultaneously empowered and deprived them, and they adapted
accordingly. If they were going to be overcharged and underserved and treated
like intellectual consumers rather than students, then they would inhabit their
new roles as best they could. If a post-secondary education was now a thing to
have rather than a thing to do, then they were going to try to get the best
deal possible. The problem is that these adaptations have shrunk the outcomes
of both students and instructors, with students receiving less thorough and
comprehensive educations and instructors forced into modes of servitude and
co-operation. Students and their instructors aren’t playing a zero sum game but
a negative sum one instead in which everyone loses.

Those who have the power to fix this mess,
the federal and provincial governments, are still criminally uninterested in
funding post-secondary education at anything above basic subsistence levels.
That our future prosperity as Canadians, if there is to be any, lies in a well
educated and knowledgeable workforce, itself the direct result of a robust
post-secondary education system, has yet to loosen those taut purse strings. There’s
always the possibility that students and their instructors will come together
and force the provincial government and their federal money lenders to address
the problem, but the very nature of their relationship, not as colleagues with
a mutual interest but rather as two sides of a business arrangement, makes that
depressingly unlikely.

Toronto, April 2nd – 1,315 w.

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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