Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Damn, I spilled my sherry on my research …

Oh, Margaret Wente …

Yup, she’s yet again taking aim at the contemporary Canadian academy, and applying the trademarked Wente rhetorical strategy—namely, cherry-picking one or two anecdotal incidents or observations and expounding from them to a broad generalization of outrage.

In this case, it’s the fact that professors, apparently, don’t teach. She cites the fact that today’s undergraduate experience tends to involve large, if not massive classes, often “taught by itinerant graduate students” rather than professors. “Classes are held in giant amphitheatres,” she continues, “with multiple-choice tests instead of essay questions.” She goes on to observe that the dropout rate of undergraduates it at an “all-time high,” with 30 percent bailing after the first year and only 56 percent finishing after six years.

This much is undeniably, and unfortunately, true. I could go further and point to the fact that the balance of teaching, especially crucial introductory courses, is now done not by full-time professors (or even itinerant graduate students) but by part-time and contractual faculty who have few benefits, no job security, and often don’t know what or how much they’ll be teaching—and hence how they’ll support themselves financially—until mere weeks before classes start. The ratio of courses taught by sessional faculty to full-time is usually around two to one, sometimes three to one. This is a situation that has been worsening for many years now as budgets get cut and departments are increasingly told to do more with less, with predictable ripple effects within among our student populations.

This has, indeed, become one of the Gordian knots of the academy both here and in the U.S., much puzzled and fretted over at all levels of the university. There are a host of reasons why we have arrived at this impasse, none of them reducible to a simple set of causes. However, never one to let complexity or nuance dissuade her from an outraged generalization, Ms. Wente sums up the site and source of the problems as follows:

“The universities say the problem is money. If only they had more of it, they could do a better job of educating undergraduates. There's just one catch. Educating undergraduates is just about the last thing most professors want to do.”

Huh. As it happens, I’m writing this on a break from preparing the three classes I’m teaching tomorrow, which all together total about one hundred and thirty students. Two of them are first year classes, one the standard first-year English that every student at MUN has to take, and the other an advanced composition course. I’m also teaching my usual twentieth-century U.S. fiction class, which this year is necessitating a lot more work because I decided to teach all novels I’ve never taught before, in an effort to keep the material fresh.

And however much I might complain about aspects of teaching, this is to my mind the best part of my job. I love teaching undergraduate courses. Now, of course, that’s just me—but honestly, I have met very few professors, either here at Memorial or at my time at Western, or in the larger peer circle of Canadian academia, who have not taken undergraduate teaching seriously and devoted much time and energy to providing their students with the best instruction they can. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but they are just that—exceptions. And I take exception to Ms. Wente’s attempt to invert the ratio of this rule. To hear her speak, we all would rather bury ourselves in our research and ignore the undergraduate populations of our campuses entirely.

In true cherry-picking fashion, she supports her claims with a quotation from a U of Manitoba professor: “‘My colleagues do everything they can to get out of teaching,’ says Rod Clifton, who works in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba. ‘They'd rather not have the students around, because they'd rather do research and stand around and sip sherry.’” Ah, the indolence of research, which apparently occurs during booze-soaked mixers in the faculty lounge. The fact that neither I nor my colleagues drink sherry notwithstanding, I’m not sure whether Dr. Clifton’s comment is meant to be facetious or intellectually dishonest; either way, it doesn’t bode well, in the absence of other evidence, for Ms. Wente’s argument.*

If professors’ reluctance to teach is the principal stumbling-block to a quality undergraduate education, its partner in crime is the research that preoccupies them and takes them away from the classroom: “Professors are rewarded not for turning out high-quality graduates, but for turning out books and papers – even if they are unread. This perverse system stubbornly persists, despite the fact that everyone knows it's absurd.” While generously granting that “some research,” useful, specifically in science and medicine, Ms. Wente effectively dismisses everything produced in the humanities. “Nobody,” she states, is “clamouring for another book on Moby-Dick.” I suppose this is true enough, as far as it goes; and it is hard to deny that the research requirements now leveled on professors are far more onerous than back in the halcyon days when Ms. Wente was an undergrad, when “classes were small and many of our professors were creative and enthusiastic,” to the point where “some of them were happy to hang around with us drinking coffee, smoking dope and arguing about Blake and life.”**

What this dismissal of research in the humanities misses is something crucial to the nature of the university itself. If teaching the Great Books and chewing the fat about Blake and Life, the Universe, and Everything were all that were involved, it hardly seems necessary to demand of professors the accreditation of a PhD. What research is largely about, whether the articles and books produced are read or not, is demonstration of an engaged and enthusiastic mind that didn’t freeze at the moment of the thesis’ defense. Part of the philosophy behind the university as a whole is that individual professors’ research make them better and more relevant teachers to both the undergraduate and graduate students.

Incidentally, this point was made today much more eloquently in the Globe and Mail by Clifford Orwin, a political science professor at U of T. He writes, “my teaching depends on that research. To teach is to communicate enthusiasm for learning, and what sustains that enthusiasm is continuing to learn yourself. It's also to set an example of progress to nourish in your students the hope that they too can contribute to progress. No, not all research done at universities is valuable. The surprise is how much of it is.”

I’ll end this post by observing that I’ve come to the conclusion that every time Margaret Wente is at a loss for something to whinge about, she pens an anti-university column. It seems to happen two or three times a year, and I’d really like her to make up her mind. Are we ivory-tower mandarins locked into cultural irrelevance? Or are we providers of pop-culture dreck who siphon off unwarranted federal research funds in our ongoing quest to bury the Great Books under layers of obfuscatory “theory”? Are we cheating our students of the great lessons of civilization by denying them those Great Books? Or are we cheating our students futures by not steering them into math and science and away from the irrelevant humanities? All these are variations on themes I have read in her columns, and taken together it becomes something of an inchoate but intense dislike that, I think, makes a little more sense if you read the opening paragraph of yesterday’s column. I’ve already quoted part of it, but here it is in its entirety:

“I went to university back in the golden age. Our classes were small and many of our professors were creative and enthusiastic. They even marked our papers themselves. There was lots of scope for what is now known as ‘engagement,’ which means that although we were undergraduates, some of them were happy to hang around with us drinking coffee, smoking dope and arguing about Blake and life.”

Nostalgia is a treacherous thing, for it distorts not only our memory of the past but our perception of the present. It makes me wonder if Ms. Wente so dislikes what she sees in the present academy because she resents that contemporary students don’t get this sort of experience … or because they do, but in her mind it could never rival that “golden age” (itself a deeply problematic concept that I would challenge her on, were she my student). What she describes in this passage is not at all a relic, but still something that many, many undergraduate students experience today (pot-smoking professors and all). Perhaps instead of Blake, they’re talking about Foucault, or Kathy Acker, or Quentin Tarantino. Or maybe even Blake, why not? Whatever she may believe, her idyllic university experience has not yet passed from this earth.

*Incidentally, were she to submit this column as an essay in my advanced composition class, I would grant it a C+ largely on the strength of being reasonably well written and possessing a clearly stated thesis; this recourse to a single piece of anecdotal evidence however fails utterly to make the connection to the statistics cited earlier in the piece or to persuasively account for them. I would call this a fallacy of insufficient inductive reasoning.

**Given the general capriciousness of Margaret Wente’s antipathy to the academy, I would lay bets that if there were a sudden rash of socializing dope-smoking profs hanging out in coffee shops with impressionable students, we’d be seeing a column on (a) inappropriate professorial behaviour, (b) evidence that professors are lazy and not earning their salaries, or (c) “THIS is where students’ tuition dollars are getting them?” Take your pick.


John said...

Hey Chris,
Great post. I teach English at UPEI and am equally amused/outraged at Wente's frequent ill thought out diatribes. My wife and I have a theory that Wente had a rival in undergraduate who has since gone on to a gut-wrenchingly enviable career in the humanities. And, almost as likely, said rival once slept with Wente's boyfriend.

PS Fowler said...

Pot smoking profs. I call shenanigans.

Anonymous said...

No offense PS Fowler, but I would suggest that a great many professors enjoy marijuana.

Anonymous said...

"Sipping sherry" is a metaphor

PS Fowler said...

No offence taken.
In fact, my own independent research has found that several times in the course of my undergratuade degree I have been higher than holy hell with lots of profs.