Friday, March 25, 2011

march 25: a good day for The Moncton Times

The Moncton Times is today on one of its good days. It has, as usual, some good commentaries. But this time also has no really stinking ones. Even the editorial makes a bit of sense. The rest of the paper is pretty bland and trivial stuff. But at least it's not lying. For The Moncton Times this is a day to remember.

So, instead of being nasty to it, let's take a look at another Canadian publication. MacLean's magazine.

For well over a dozen years, MacLean's has put out a yearly edition which rates Canadian universities. It's a complete and utter fraud whose only purpose is to sell MacLean's to people who don't know any better. It has also been a major force in distinctly lowering the quality of Canadian universities.

What it does is to rank universities from the best to the worst. Sounds reasonable?

Consumer Reports says the best car of the year is the Volkswagen Golf with diesel engine. It's reliable, handles well, seats four... Unbeatable----unless you have a  family or five and also need lots of luggage space for holidays.

There is no such thing as a best car. There is no such thing as a best university.

If you want a bachelor's degree with international social status, go to McGill. If you want it for status in Canada, then Queen's or U of T would be good. If you want it because it's anti-gay, go to Crandall College. That university fires any professor it discovers to be gay. If you want to live at home, pick whatever university is nearest. The only difference between all those universities so far as an undergraduate is concerned is that Crandall has an atmosphere of self-rightousness, McGill is full of itself, etc. Otherwise, teaching and learning at any one of them is the same as teaching and learning at any other.

All, or most, of them have staffs made up largely of PhDs. Almost all of those PhDs come from quite reputable universities.

All offer pretty much the same courses, and in the same way.

All professors have pretty much the same training in teaching. That is, they have none at all. Imagine that? You need several years, at least, of training to teach kindergarten. But none at all to teach in a university. (That's why kindergarten teachers are the best teachers you will ever see. Quality holds up right through the public school years. Then it plunges.)

In fact, I have never heard a useful definition of what "good teacher" means. Nor is there such a thing as a universal and reliable method of testing teaching. MacLean's makes up for it by inventing categories which it claims indicate teaching quality. For example, it looks for small classes as a guide to what is good. Small class =good course. The reality is that if the teacher is bad, then the small class will still be a stinker. When I was teaching, a colleague had a class of twenty that nineteen dropped out of on the first day. The remaining one found it so bad, he dropped out in the following week.

Then they rank them according to how much research money the university attracts. If it attracts a lot of money, then it must be good. But there is no connection between research and quality of teaching. In many years of universities, I have seen good teachers who were weak on research, and good researchers who were appallingly bad, even destructive, teachers. And if you put all the weak researchers together with the strong researchers, they're the majority of all university faculties.

Universities have never made any sustained attempt to learn how to teach. Even in casual conversation with faculty, you will hear all the blame laid on the students: (they aren't prepared; they're not up to my standards, etc.) And while they say that, the grades keeping going up every year as universities scramble for funding -mostly to support research - which is why the academic world is flooded with subsidized journals full of articles that nobody reads.

Here's a case where bad and profit-motivated journalism has actually caused damage. Instead of making up for lost time in learning how to teach, the universities have allowed magazine editors to define what a university should do.

The result has been a scramble to reach goals set by magazine editors who know little about either teaching or research because a kind word from MacLean's means more students and more revenue. Besides, most professors and university administrators know so little about education, even they don't understand that the MacLean's rankings are nonsense. And, at the end of the line, students and their potential are being squandered.

As a footnote, they have a category of "Five most popular teachers' at each university. I was in that category some five or six times. At no time did any MacLean's researcher speak to me or to my students. No researcher came to any of my classes. No questionnaires were circulated among students. They couln't have checked my student ratings because those are confidential. And the rating of most popular professor would require an army of counsellors to rate a university of over 15,000 students.

And if I was rated among the most popular, it could be for nothing to do with teaching. It could be because I told jokes, gave easy marks, or was stunningly attractive. (Hey. We all get older.)

There is no such thing as a best university. For the average, undergraduate student, there is no difference between any two universities in Canada. All are good as world universities go. (Alas! Universities around the world don't go nearly as good as they claim to.)

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