Sunday, May 10, 2015

May 10: Our universities are in deep, financial trouble...

.....and that isn't the worst of it.

Almost all university teachers have no training in teaching. None whatever. That not only means they don't know to teach a class. They also don't have much idea of WHAT to teach a class. Courses, particularly at the introductory level (but all the way to the PhD) usually emphasize feeding the students information to be memorized. Such information is largely useless because it is forgotten soon after the exam. Professors answer that it is not possible to have an intelligent discussion about an issue in, say, Canadian history, unless one has taken a course that covers all Canadian history. And that is nonsense.

1. There is no such thing as a course that covers all Canadian history because we don't yet know All Canadian history - and never will.
2. Canada is a part of the world. It is profoundly affected by that. If it is true that one must know all of Canadian history to discuss any issue in it, then it is equally true that one most really know all world history to discuss any issue about the Canadian part of it. (I have never even met a person of such broad knowledge..)
3. History is not about memorizing information. If it were, we wouldn't need universities. It could just be put on videos.  (And some universities  do that). But history, like other fields of study, is not about memorizing 'facts'. It's about thinking, about understanding, really understanding. what one reads. It's about making judgements. It's about knowing which questions to ask. Students might (and usually will) forget most of the information. But the training in understanding and thinking will last a lifetime.

Most professors don't understand that. And they don't want to.

Here, we take a break to talk about me because that has a bearing on my criticism of universities.

I was a working class boy. I still am. That meant expectations of me were not high. When I got kicked out of high school in grade 11, I was already a success in our community for getting so far. My first job was as a factory hand. And I can still remember standing at a loading door, looking out through the rain at the very shabby district I lived in, and thinking - "This is it. This is the rest of my life."

But then I got a job as mail boy in an office, and that made me something of a local celebrity.

I talked my way into a YMCA college to do a degree at night. (I got terrible grades, but passed.).On the way, I went to teachers' college because it was cheap, and I got a certificate. It turned out that I loved teaching - but realized I didn't know anything. So I went back to school for an MA studied this time and got straight As. And that got me into a prestigious school for the PhD.

But, oh, this was a different world. At the PhD level I met, for the first time, students from families with money who, from birth, took going to university as simply a normal thing - like getting braces. Some were the sons and daughters of professors. Most had grown up in that social atmosphere.They knew what was socially and intellectually correct. In "free discussion seminars", they knew enough to say what the professor wanted to hear. I didn't know any of that stuff. Still don't.

And we were doing it all for different reasons. I was a teacher. I wanted to teach at a university level. It paid better.

Most of the others had no interest in teaching. There was no prestige in teaching. Most of them were born to privilege - and they wanted more of it. Social background had often created egos that needed constant stroking. It was a strange world to me - and it remains so.

It took me some years in teaching before I realized that, for a great many, ego was the motive for being professors and, at the university level, there was no prestige in teaching. The prestige was in research. Students were an impediment - a necessary one - but an impediment. Professors didn't know how to teach, and didn't want to know. Of many professional conferences I attended, I can't remember one that dealt with teaching. Indeed, the highest status of all was to teach only one course (with a small class) for a couple of hours each week.

In fact, when I was chairman, I had to deal with a professor who refused to teach at all. While he collected the highest salary in the department, he intended to live some 700 miles away while he did his terribly, terribly important research.  (Which produced nothing of note.) And the university let him get away with it.

I was chairman for six or seven years. In that time, I was responsible for the committee that assigned promotions in rank and salary raises.  Almost everybody got a small raise for teaching quality - though the committee had no definition of what that meant, and no information to go on, and never saw anybody teach. Publication, though, meant a sure promotion and a large salary raise.

(Years later, I learned there was a confidential teacher rating system in which I was rated best in the department almost every year. But it never counted.)

I also had to deal with complaints about a teacher who was quite terrible.. So I sat in on a class. The professor began by writing something on the chalk board. He then spent the next fifteen minutes with his back to the class, and mumbling unintelligibly  at the board. It was even worse when he turned to speak to the class. He should never have been allowed in a classroom. But he got promoted for publishing a couple of articles.

Then there was the professor who failed a student in Quebec history - a professor who had the biggest ego I ever saw in a forest of giant egos. (He used to announce, quite seriously, in the opening class that the girls would all fall in love with him. But he had to tell them he was happily married.(His wife would, wisely, divorce him.)  In the exam, for no reason I could determine, he had a question - "List the major historians of Quebec history." When I asked why the student had failed when he had answered most of the questions correctly, the professor said, I'm not kidding now, he said, "The student forgot to include my name on the list of major Quebec historians".

Teaching means constant interaction with the class. It means catching the mood of the class. It means getting to understand every person in the class It means knowing what to teach, and how to teach it. it means taking the time to understand the problems they may be having.
1. You can't do that in an oversized class of a hundred (and, sometimes, of a thousand.) And you certainly can't do it, as some universities try to, with just a video.
2. And it won't even happen until universities take teaching seriously and give it some status.  (And first, someone will have to teach university administrators what teaching is.)

What does this have to do with university deficits?

1. It's expensive to run a school when teaching has low status, and the teachers teach only 8 or 9 hours a week. Research is important. Rather, some of it is important. A great deal of it, while prestigious, is a waste of time and money.
2. Universities commonly hire markers to mark papers, leaving those terribly overloaded teachers with a little more spare time. However, the markers have, at best, only minimal training in marking. But marking, like teaching, requires skill. Besides, marking the papers is an interaction with the class that the professor needs. Markers are an unnecessary cost.
3. Libraries are expensive not only for the cost of books but for the cost of simply keeping them on the shelves. But university libraries have a very high proportion of books purchased to meet the needs of individual professors - who will read them once.

In sum, universities have never recognized that they are teaching institutions as well as research institutions.. Generally, they know nothing about teaching. And they don't want to know. And they really don't want to teach. And that means very high fees for students who get little in return.

What universities need is a fundamental review of the nature of their courses, much more emphasis on the quality of teaching and of the role of teachers, of the nature of teaching using videos and how they can be used successfully at huge savings to supplement professors rather than replacing them. They should seriously reconsider the use of school sports. The reason for school teams comes from the social snobbery of British schools in the nineteenth century - which gave rise to the myth that certain sports built the type of character essential for people of the upper class. It wasn't true then, and it isn't true now.

We should also be studying what other countries are doing. Tiny Cuba, poor by nature and made worse by American sanctions has had great success in providing free university education for all who qualify. And it's a good education. We should also look at The Netherlands which, when I was teaching there, was able to provide free university plus a monthly allowance.

As things are, we face a future in which university education will mean decades, and even a lifetime, in debt. Even in my time, it took me fifteen years to pay my debt. Considering the rise in public school teaching salaries after I left, and the years of almost no income, I actually lost money by going for a Ph.D.

The universities can be run more cheaply. But there are big egos in the way.

Oh, on a closing note, pay no attention whatever to the MacLean's universities editions. The quality of teaching in all Canadian  (and most American) universities is uniformly bad. And that includes the ones with the biggest names. The staff at MacLean's don't know what they're talking about.

In all my years as a university student, I can recall only one, good teacher. He was a man at Queen's who published very little but was the outstanding authority on the Canada of Mackenzie-King. He was very attentive to each of us, and unfailingly helpful. Fred Gibson was a superb teacher because he was a superb human.

1 comment:

  1. I agree: 'F' for universities. There are too many in Canada, too many 'teachers' with bloated salaries and too many that have yet to face the upcoming harsh reality of MOOCs (Massive Organized Online Courses) offered by much more 'prestigious' institutions.
    Unfortunately, it's also a mug's game and everyone (students, politicians, campus leaders, professors) still play it because they're terrified about facing the alternatives.