Letter: “He didn’t teach at all”

Why students were so mad about Denis Rancourt

This letter was sent to Maclean’s OnCampus by Phillip Vinten, a Master’s student at the University of Ottawa and a former student of Denis Rancourt. He says the university did the right thing by firing the dissident professor.

I was a student in one of Denis Rancourt’s physics classes at the University of Ottawa. In particular this was the fourth year physics course that caused all of the commotion in the first place, and as far as I know, I was one of the first ones to complain to the university administration about this class. Dr. Rancourt actually had two classes that semester, and one the semester before in which he gave out all A+. In at least two of those classes, not only did he do that, he didn’t teach at all.

More: Letter: “Rancourt said we had become ‘brainwashed peons’”

Related: School to A+ professor: you’re fired

Q & A with former professor Denis Rancourt

Most media stories so far have almost portrayed him as a martyr who is fighting for the students, when in reality he is fighting for his own personal agenda and does not care at all about students, except those that have the same political ideals as he does. He considers that he “indoctrinates” them into the light… or something like that, where as everyone else is simply “brainwashed” by the university’s “corporation machine”. There hardly seems to be a difference.

He seems to forget that we are paying to be there and paying to have someone teach us physics. I acknowledge that we still have to put in the effort to learn, but if we wanted to do it all ourselves, why not just do it at home for fun? We are paying to have someone guide us and point out the important points and show us the tricks to solving problems the easy way. We are paying to have someone teach us what cannot be learned quickly from a textbook. We are paying to have someone share their years of expertise in the field with us.

Dr. Rancourt certainly has the experience and knowledge, and I don’t deny that he is a smart man. He is however a lazy hypocrite. He would stand in front of the class and we’d just discuss anything. Not even physics. When one of us tried to get the conversation back on track, he wouldn’t do anything, except smirk at us… probably because we has getting paid $50 an hour or more to sit there and do nothing and feeling confident that he would not get fired for it. It makes me mad to know that my tuition was paying this man.

In order for you to publish a complete picture of what is going on, I think it is a good idea for you to get some feedback from the students that actually took his course and find out exactly why he is getting fired. Sure, they cite “Assigning everyone in the class an A+”… but that is only because they cannot fire him for everything else that he is… or rather isn’t doing. It is like Al Capone. The couldn’t put him away for all of his crimes, so they finally got him on tax evasion charges. Same idea.

I would also like to point out, that once I realized the futility of this course I dropped it. At first I tried to keep an open mind and sincerely gave him a chance to demonstrate his pedagogical methods. He did not do that at all, so I dropped the class. A lot of my fellow students did not have the option because they needed that class to graduate and would not have another opportunity to take it without spending another year trying to get their degree. These students learned next to nothing in this very useless physics class. Had he actually have made the effort to teach and we had actually learned what we were supposed to, I would not mind so much if he had just handed out an A+.

Also to put this in perspective, there are usually about 10 people who take this course which is generally offered every other year. Due to last year’s fiasco, the university is offering it again this year (with a professor who does his job well, unlike Dr. Rancourt who didn’t do it at all). This year there are about 10 students in the class, as has historically been the case. When Dr. Rancourt taught it there were about 20 students. Some of these people were likely there just for the free A+. I don’t blame them. It is very hard to turn down an offer like that.

I believe that this is an important issue, and that it is important for people to see both sides of the story other than just what has been published so far, which makes Dr. Rancourt seem like an innocent victim of the university. In reality, the students are the victims and the university is looking out for us and the value of our degrees by taking action against a professor who refuses to do his job.




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Letter: “He didn’t teach at all”

  1. I’m in a 4th-year Mathematical Physics class right now. Vinten’s experience sort of reminds me of this class. The prof is pretty experienced, but we often get him off-topic. He once spent half a class talking about Napolean’s war tactics, because the math we were discussing was related to military tactics somehow. Another time he spent half a lecture telling us about meeting Heisenberg, and has given us free passes from lecture to go to other lectures. For the first time in a physics class, there is no formal structure, no test-style evaluations. Our mark is based on passing in a series of very difficult problem sets that we have weeks to do. As someone with test anxiety issues, I really like the style of the class.

    However, if my prof started talking about politics or espousing conspiracy theories in class, I would get pretty pissed. I’m paying money to learn physics, not the prof’s personal opinions. Also, I’d rather get a B and have earned it than have an A+ which meant nothing.

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