Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Times and MacLean's Dumb Meets Dumber

The is no such thing as a "best university". There is not even such thing as a test to determine the quality of a university. The MacLean's survey of Canadian universities is a crock, a sales trick run by magazine editors who know nothing about education. In fact, the interference of MacLean's has actually done serious damage to any hope of improving Canadian universities.

The editorial in Saturday's Nov. 13 issue of The Moncton Times and Transcript congratulates Mount Allison for its MacLean's ranking of being the best undergraduate school in Canada. Of course. The editors of both MacLean's and The Moncton Times have a long record of solemn pronouncements on things they know nothing about.

Is a good university one that has good teachers? If that's the case, all universities in Canada are the same because almost all professors have the same training in education. That is, they have none at all. I spent nine years of training in history in universities. I was never required to take a single course in university teaching. Nor was there one available if I had wished to take it. No university teacher from my freshman year to PhD ever told me a word about teaching. (I realize now that none had a word about teaching to tell me, anyway.)

I taught for forty years at four universities in Canada, two in The Netherlands, and one in Hong Kong. All the discussion I ever heard about the purpose and methods of teaching in university could be summed up in a couple of trivial paragraphs.

A university's teachers get awards for teaching? Big deal. First, there is no test for quality of teaching. There's not even general agreement about what quality of teaching means. And the awards, almost all of them, mean nothing. I was nominated for one, but backed out when I realized it was simply an advertising gimmick for a company that hadn't the faintest idea what teaching was about.

In short, there is no best or worst university in Canada for teaching. They're all bad.

Nor are there remarkable differences in discipline training among professors in the various universities. Most have PhDs from pretty much the same range of universities So far as knowing enough of the subject matter to teach it, all are pretty much identical. There are some differences. McGill has the most arrogant professors I have ever met. Queen's has the stodgiest. Too bad MacLean's didn't measure that category.

Research? Almost all professors are research oriented because that's the only part of university they understand. But there's no way to measure the quality of their research. The result is a rush to publish -anything, then count them all up to see who is champ. That's why libraries groan under the weight of scholarly journals that few people will ever read. Your tax dollars at work.

Do good researchers make good teachers? There's not the slightest evidence they do. The worst teacher I ever had in university was a man whose manner actually encouraged a hatred for the subject. He was also the most distinguished Canadian historian of his time. The most arrogant, most destested by students, and most publicly belittling of them in my teaching experience was one of the universty's outstanding researchers, and has been much honoured in the academic world. But MacLean's thinks research (measured by weight, I guess)  is a key factor in defining a "best university".

Small classes make a "best" university? Sorry. A small class taught by an inept teacher is still a stinker. I have been a student in classes of as few as five that were a complete waste of time. To sat that small classes are better simply because they're small is like saying it's better to have a heart operation from a person with no training than to be one of two being operated on by an expert surgeon.

Meanwhile, MacLean's does damage. The universities are all in a rush to score well in rankings that are scientficially childish - and they're too gutless to go public, too scared to say this is all nonsense. As a result, they are pricing themselves out of reach for the sake of mounds of research. And they are paying almost no attention, as usual, to the quality of their teaching. The result?  I looked over my undergraduate record recently. I was amazed at how I had not only forgotten almost all I crammed into my head to pass, but had forgotten even what the courses were about.

The universities need basic rethinking of what they're all about. Instead, we're getting marketing games and magazine editors who don't know what they're talking about being praised by newspaper editors who don't know what they're taking about.

Meanwhile, New Brunswick is going through the early stages in the biggest change in education in centuries. Have you heard anything about it from the professors of education? I haven't. In fact, what has always been the most striking feature of all the unveristies of New Brunswick (and most other places) is their failure to have any intellectual impact on the society around them. I think we're supposed to just clap hands and pay taxes for them because that's the way they like it.

Hint for Mount A. Do you have a New Brunswick history course that explains the historical connection between big business and government in this province? One that might shed some light on why we're in financial trouble? And might explain why there's something farcical about a business summit to find a solution?

You could teach the course, then offer speakers for the many communities surrounding Sackville - you know, ordinary people - some of whom might be interested to learn what they can never learn from The Moncton Times and Tribune. You could actually bring your knowledge to the service of everybody who pays taxes,and wake the province out of its passivity.

No comments:

Post a Comment