21 October 2011

Class Size, Funding and Sessional Instructors: Universities in Transition

Today's Globe and Mail includes an article by Jeffrey Simpson about the problems with universities these days. Simpson rehashes three common complaints about the university experience and then uses selective quotations from Robert Campbell, the president of the well-known research-intensive Mt A, and Harvey Weingarten to claim that universities are finally admitting to the problem.

Simpson's three problems with the university experience are:
  1. Class sizes are up, which directly correlates to decreased learning.
  2. Universities are driven by the bottom line, which means they pursue every dollar possible for faculty research and student admissions.
  3. Professors are so busy doing research that classes are taught by graduate students and sessional instructors - students suffer.
All of these problems have a foundation in truth, which is what makes them appealing, but that doesn't make the narrative true. Enrollment is up, funding is hard to come by, and faculty teaching is down. This, however, does not mean that the quality of education is decreasing.

Take, for instance, class sizes. A good history teacher is a good story teller. He or she weaves a compelling narrative based on solid evidence. The size of the audience has little, if any, influence on a good historian's ability to tell a story. What changes between a good story teller talking to a small group of listeners and a packed lecture hall is his or her ability to absorb feedback from the audience. With groups of 30 or less it's easy to tell when more than 20% of the eyes in the room have glazed over or nodded off; it's easy to adjust tactics, to try a new explanation, without even really asking the students where they lost the thread of the story. In a 300-person lecture theatre it's nearly impossible to tell which students are checking their iDevices because they are bored, or because they simply never cared ... or at least, it's impossible to tell without interacting with the students directly. Good lecturers adapt to different environments. They stop at critical junctures to make sure the audience follows. They ask questions of the students to make sure that the message they attempted to deliver was received; they let students ask questions for clarification or to demonstrate that they've grasped the core of the problem and they wonder how it can be applied in some other situation, or how it applies to other things they've learned. In other words, good teachers interact with their students regardless of class size, they don't float through a blackboard and drone on for hours about goblins and trolls while their students play with joke wands.

 Even though class size need not have an impact on learning experience, more than a few students and instructors believe that it does. For the professors it's a self-fulfilling passive-aggressive cycle. A professor who believes a large lecture is not conducive to learning won't try to interact with students; he or she will plow through the material and leave questions and comprehension to tutorials. When the comments from students are collected at the end of the term the professor will see the comments as proof that large lectures just don't work and wonder how long it will take administration to shape up. Administration will see the comments as an indication that the professor, who might have glowing reviews for smaller upper-year seminars, doesn't seem to be able to adapt to larger lectures. He or she will eventually be replaced by a steady stream of contract lecturers.

The problem isn't that large classes are impersonal and non-interactive, the problem is that some professors don't attempt to engage their students in lectures.

Simpson's second and third problems contain the assumption, that has largely gone unchallenged by universities for a long time, that research and teaching are mutually exclusive. Perhaps universities think the assertion is so ludicrous that it need not be challenged.

The heart of university education is exploring the newest and best ideas. We lay the foundations for students in first and second years; we teach them the basic knowledge and skills required in the discipline, but in upper year and graduate courses we deal with the newest books and articles, with our own ideas that we haven't yet published. If we remove research from the university education equation, then we end up with a stagnant curriculum. We really and truly would be giving students the exact same education they could've received in 1970 when things were allegedly better, in spite of the countless discoveries that have occurred since then to change what we know. Research is what makes the university experience so much different than high school, it's also one of the things that influences changes to high school curricula.

However, the second half of the criticism of the increased quest for research money is that it takes the brightest minds out of classrooms and replaces them with what are perceived to be second rate options: graduate students and sessional instructors. In a sense, this is true. Faculty are teaching less, sessionals and graduate students are teaching more. It's also true that we know less than our elder colleagues. I study and teach post-war Canadian history. I've been living it for over 30 years and studying it for over 10; my committee members, however, have been studying it for over 40 years and living it for over 60. Of course they've had more time to absorb information, to reflect on events and the literature. I don't know everything, but neither do my esteemed committee members. I know enough of the content to deliver rich lectures, I'm passionate enough about teaching and teaching methodology to be effective in different environments, and I'm in the midst of enough cutting edge research to be able to run interesting upper year seminars. With experience I will get better, as long as I'm committed to interacting with students and continuing to research.

The problem, in short, isn't that we itinerant lecturers are drastically inferior, as Simpson infers, it's that we're itinerant. We don't have the same support behind us from departments, which is something that makes us feel inferior, and something that students certainly intuit or observe. Also, we might teach a course once or twice before moving on (or getting voted off the island). This removes the consistency in courses from year to year. In most cases temporary instructors are recruited for the undesirable survey courses (first and second year courses in large lecture halls). How we deliver these courses in terms of content and skill-building will have an impact on what can be accomplished in upper year courses by other instructors, usually tenured professors delivering their newest and best research.

The solutions that Weingarten offers and Simpson summarizes hold some promise, but for the most part they address symptoms and not the problem.

Creating tiers or streams of universities that focus on teaching or research is wrong-headed. Research is essential to teaching. We'd be better off finding ways to reduce the ridiculous amount of time academics spend jumping through hoops to obtain funding.

Creating a rewards system for teaching excellence holds a bit more promise, but it's probably not enough to change the culture that large lectures are seen as undesirable by tenured faculty and are relegated to graduate students or sessional lecturers. Universities are in a tough situation here. Granting tenure is problematic because it impacts long-term financial flexibility, and the process of obtaining tenure (and research funding) has a tendency to burn out professors. On the other hand, treating sessional instructors as second-class faculty has a detrimental effect on their morale and intradepartmental relations.

Simpson has some of the story right. Class sizes are up, funding is harder to get, and itinerant lecturers are doing more of the work, but there is a lot more to the narrative. The quality of the education is not declining as a direct result of these causes nor as drastically as Simpson lets on. What hinders the quality of education are attitudes towards sessional instructors and large lectures. There are attitudinal shifts that need to take place, and universities seem to be leaning towards getting rid of tenure as a way of striking a culture shift. We're living through the painful transition, and the new non-tenured universities, will doubtless present their own problems, most likely stemming from the quest to find funding and the instability of replaceable de-moralized instructors.

1 comment:

  1. Good points, Jon. But don't knock Professor Binns - he's my teaching idol! LOL