SPECIAL REPORT

TEACHING CLASS

Some universities are placing new emphasis on their professors' work in the classroom

TOM FENNELL November 9 1992
SPECIAL REPORT

TEACHING CLASS

Some universities are placing new emphasis on their professors' work in the classroom

TOM FENNELL November 9 1992

TEACHING CLASS

SPECIAL REPORT

Some universities are placing new emphasis on their professors' work in the classroom

When he confronts his first-year class, Professor Shane O’Dea uses the tools of the stage. His hands theatrically chop the air while his voice rises and falls for emphasis. Pacing the room, book in hand, he brings energetic life to the poetry of Leonard Cohen and Sylvia Plath. In fact, O’Dea becomes so caught up in his work that he occasionally forgets where he is. It is a luxury his students cannot afford. O’Dea, the acting head of the English department at Memorial University in St. John’s, regularly interrupts his dramatic monologues to call on a student for an opinion. His approach to teaching has brought him national acclaim: in 1988, he was named Canada’s professor of the year by the prestigious Washington-based Council For Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Still, he constantly tries to improve, asking his students to assess his performance at the end of each term. Says O’Dea: “I try to find out how they feel about the course and themselves.” But according to some critics, O’Dea’s dedication may be the exception and not the rule. In October, 1991, the Commission of Inquiry On Canadian University Education concluded that the country’s universities had an overriding commitment to research, overshadowing the value of teaching.

In a recent interview, commission chairman Stuart Smith told Maclean ’s that little had changed in the past year. Although many university administrators have announced a renewed commitment to teaching, Smith dismisses those pronouncements as empty rhetoric designed to

deflect criticism. “It is now politically correct to speak favorably of teaching,” says Smith. “But a researcher who can barely express an idea outside of the laboratory can still make it to the top.” In fact, administrators at many major universities acknowledge that research remains the prime criterion for career advancement. But a number of schools did make significant efforts to improve their teaching skills as well. Many institutions have established centres dedicated to instructing even the most introverted professor. And in spite of Smith’s charges, some administrators have declared that teaching skills must be a factor in determining tenure. Said Howard Clark, president of Dalhousie University in Halifax: “I will not consider any case for promotion and tenure without written evidence of teaching ability.”

Dalhousie is among those universities with established teaching centres. Alan Wright, director of the school’s Office of Instructional Development, says that a growing number of tenured professors, including members of the dental faculty, are taking credit courses to improve their teaching. Christopher Knapper, director of the Instructional Development Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., also reports increased interest. As well, Queen’s is considering a mandatory training course for graduate teaching assistants. “For a long time, research was the god,” says Knapper. “But we may soon see regular teaching programs for all new faculty.”

Students at Queen’s have played an active role in the debate over teaching. In a referendum in November, 1989, the student body voted to create a special fund by seeking a $45 contribution per student, a major share of which goes to fund Knapper’s centre. To date, they have raised $400,000 of a planned $775,000. According to Jonathan Baillie, president of the Queen’s students’ society, students felt that they had no choice but to act: funding constraints have led to larger classes and the increased use of untrained teaching assistants.

Adds Baillie, “Tuition fees are going up by eight per cent a year, but students showed their commitment to the importance of teaching by giving their $45.”

In general, students report a remarkably high level of satisfaction with the quality of teaching. In the current Maclean ’s/Decima poll of 500 university students across Canada, fully 83 per cent rated the teaching that they had received as good or excellent. A 1991 survey conducted by the Carleton University Survey Centre reflected similar satisfaction. In that poll of 656 students at 10 Canadian universities, 80.1 per cent said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of teaching at their schools. As well, 91.4 per cent said that teaching effectiveness, rather than research articles, should be the primary criterion for promotion. “I’m paying $1,000 a term so that I can learn,” said Sebastian Lippa, a second-year geography and biology major at Memorial University. “I’m bothered by professors who can’t get their point across. Something in me just turns off.”

In academic circles, teaching awards are a major incentive, and the numbers have increased in recent years. The most prestigious of all is the annual CASE award. All of the CASE winners interviewed by Maclean ’s stressed the importance of good scholarship to the role of teaching. Says Mary Frances Richardson, a professor of chemistry at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and the 1992 CASE winner: “I’m excited about the subject, and I try to convey the sense of exploration and thrill.”

In Richardson’s case, her commitment to her students has extended beyond teaching. In the early 1980s, she helped design a special lift for students confined to wheelchairs, enabling them to work at regular laboratory tables. Still, both Richardson and O’Dea believe that their personal contact with their students remains the critical element in teaching. “They still like to be able to talk to me about a problem,” says Richardson. “When I’m in the classroom, I want to get to know my students. And that is the thing that they seem to value year after year.”

As class sizes increase, that sense of intimacy can break down. Still, some award-winning teachers argue that they can still get their message across—even with more than 1,000 students crammed into a lecture hall. J.

Barnard Gilmore, a University of To-

ronto psychology professor and 1987 CASE winner, wears a small microphone when he teaches his 1,100 students in introductory psychology. That enables him to speak in a normal, conversational voice, giving the impression of individual dialogue. As well, he says he attempts to make students feel confident, treating each of their questions with respect.

And critics claim that awards and teaching centres will have little effect on the quality of instruction without a fundamental change in the relationship between research and teaching. Dalhousie’s Wright, for one, notes that even the language used by professors reflects the lower status given to teaching. Professors refer to their teaching assignments as a “course load.” By contrast, research is often defined by “grants”—in other words, an opportunity to do something exciting. Adds Wright: “There

is a mental set that says, ‘Gee, I have a research grant that would allow me to do exciting research in my field—if only I didn’t have these damn students beating down my door looking for help.’ ”

To change that attitude, Jaap Tuinman, vice-president, academic, at Memorial University, says that universities will have to reassess their priorities. Most institutions, he points out, have forgotten that teaching should always be of paramount importance. Instead, too many professors are far more interested in their own research. “We owe the students the best teaching possible,” says Tuinman. “But some professors have the attitude that the research comes first—and the university just happens to be a nice place to do it.”

In his report last year, Smith made several recommendations, intending to raise the prestige of teaching. For one, he suggested that professors be judged on their teaching as long as they maintain a competent level of research. And while the academic world has not moved wholeheartedly in that direction, many universities, including Memorial and Dalhousie, have made concessions. Wright notes that top researchers can easily establish their credentials by listing their pub-

lished work. Administrations are now demanding that professors who prefer to be judged on their teaching skills document their achievements. Such a dossier should contain highlights of a professor’s teaching accomplishments and assessments of his work by peers, students and independent observers. “It is rather hard to make a case that you are a great teacher,” says Wright. “The difference is not easily seen. You don’t see articles in the papers about how happy students are with their English 100 teacher.” Some educators have argued that students’ assessments tend to be unreliable. Too often, those critics say, students judge professors on personality and grading. But Harry Murray, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario and one of North America’s top authorities on student appraisals, says that those are “surprisingly reliable and valid.” After sending trained observers into classrooms, Murray says they usually come to the same conclusions as the students.

BIG MARKS FOR SMALL CLASSES A ranking of schools reporting the highest proportion of classes with 25 students and under:

First and second-year courses Upper-year courses 1. Trent 1. Lethbridge 2. McGill 2. Bishop’s 3. Laurentian 3. Brandon 4. Bishop’s 4. Winnipeg 5. Regina 5. Regina 6. Moncton 6. Acadia 7. Lethbridge 7. St. Thomas 8. Mount Saint Vincent 8. Laurentian 9. Mount Allison 9. Saint Mary’s 10. Sherbrooke 10. Trent

Still, many university administrators acknowledge that their preference remains slanted towards research—no matter how solid a professor’s teaching. Peter Frost, associate dean of the faculty of commerce and business administration at the University of British Columbia, says that it is extremely difficult to judge a professor on teaching ability alone. Frost, winner of the 1989 CASE, says that he believes that in a competition for tenure, the strong researcher has the advantage. “We expect people to be outstanding in one of the two areas and competent in both,” says Frost. “But the bias is towards research because it is the research that keeps things moving forward.”

For many academics, research is the fuel that powers universities. Dalhousie’s Wright says that by employing professors who are doing advanced research, a university wins from both a public relations and financial standpoint. Cutting-edge research captures headlines and also attracts outside funds. In fact, $47.2 million of Dalhousie’s estimated 1992 budget of $123 million flows from private sector and government research grants. And the University of Toronto’s Gilmore added that in an era of government cutbacks, such grants have become vitally important. Says Gilmore: “Without the grants, we wouldn’t be able to attract graduate students.”

William Leggett, vice-president, academic, at Montreal’s McGill University, says that Stuart Smith underestimated the connection between research and teaching at the university level. In virtually every field, Leggett points out, information is being updated at an unprecedented rate. Unless a professor is at the forefront of his discipline, he will be reduced to lecturing from a textbook. Candidates applying for full

professorship at McGill not only have to teach well, but also be leading international scholars in their field. Leggett adds that the Smith report underestimated the high level of teaching that exists at Canadian universities— and overlooked the fact that the best teachers appear capable of balancing both functions. Says Leggett: “The individuals who are winning the teaching awards are also doing very high quality research.”

In fact, William Mackness, dean of the University of Manitoba’s faculty of management, says that a number of professors have left since 1989, the result of a major overhaul of the faculty. Since becoming dean in 1988, Mackness has hired 28 new professors—and each one has had to demonstrate a solid research background as well as competent teaching skills. To ensure that potential candidates understand the importance of teaching, each candidate has to give a trial lecture open to both students and faculty. Declares Mackness: “This gets the point across that we’re serious about teaching.”

But that emphasis on both teaching and research has left many younger professors in an impossible situation. Not only do they have to learn how to teach on the job, but they must also produce volumes of research in order to fight for one of a few positions. “It’s a demanding road to make your way as a researcher,” says Frost. “As each decade goes by, the standards go up.” As a result, younger professors and graduate students intent on academic careers often neglect their teaching skills. Memorial’s Tuinman says that the situation must change. “Graduate students should be told that teaching is part of their life,” he declares. “If they don’t like it, perhaps they should go in another direction.” In an increasingly competitive world, beset by serious underfunding, that message may have a tough time getting through.

TOM FENNELL

AVERAGE ENTERING GRADE PRIMARILY UNDERGRADUATE Mount Allison 81.2% MEDICAL/DOCTORAL COMPREHENSIVE Wilfrid Laurier 81.0% Acadia 79.0% Queen’s 86.3% Simon Fraser 83.0% Trent 78.5% McGill 84.4% Victoria 82.5% *Brock 77.0% UBC 83.0% Waterloo 81.1% *St. Francis Xavier 77.0% Toronto 81.0% Guelph 80.1% Mount Saint Vincent 76.1% McMaster 80.7% York 78.5% Bishop’s 76.0% Western 80.1% Regina 77.3% Lethbridge 75.8% Dalhousie 79.8% Memorial 75.8% Saint Mary’s 75.7% Alberta 79.7% ^Concordia 75.5% St. Thomas 75.2% * Ottawa 79.0% ^Windsor 75.5% Winnipeg 75.0% *Calgary 79.0% New Brunswick 74.7% Cape Breton (UCCB) 74.1% Sherbrooke 78.9% Carleton 72.4% Lakehead 72.6% Montréal 78.6% Québec n/a Laurentian 71.0% Laval 75.6% Brandon n/a Saskatchewan 75.3% Moncton n/a Manitoba 73.7% ^Indicates a tie P.E.I. n/a