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The Agony, the Ecstasy and an Epiphany

Undergraduate teaching is in bad shape


 

I just got back from Europe, where I spent my reading week visiting NATO, various organs of the EU in Brussels, the International Criminal Court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, and United Nations University in Bruges. My entire Global Governance class was lucky enough to have received full funding from the University of Toronto’s Internationalized Course Module, a fund dedicated to providing opportunities for students to complement their studies with international travel.

Such are the kind of benefits of attending university, where programs and funds seem to exist for every imaginable purpose and great opportunities abound. The Ecstasy lies therein.

Last semester I took a course with a professor who very fundamentally affected the way in which I view myself and the world around me. Almost every student I’ve encountered who has also had this professor has had similar experiences with his incredibly passionate and challenging teaching style. He teaches six courses and has taught here for 15 years.  He produces leading research in his field. Yet the university has hitherto refused to provide him with any form of job security beyond sessional lectureship positions. As a result, he is seeking employment elsewhere, much to the dismay of the 300+ students who have signed a petition pressuring the university to retain him.

By the same token, I have tenured professors whose clear lack of passion and talent for teaching has left me completely turned off their subjects and rather disillusioned by the entire process of formal education itself. Undergraduate teaching at large universities is in bad shape, and solutions are in short supply. One idea I’ve heard is to encourage younger professors to focus on their research and on teaching graduate students who can benefit from the cutting-edge perspective of a researcher while letting the older, more experienced and proven professors neglect research in order to focus on teaching their subjects to undergraduates.

In the absence of such sweeping reforms, the reality of bad teaching seems here to stay. This annoyingly persistent failure of “teaching institutions” at recognizing value for their students (wherein lies the Agony) seems to be but one manifestation of a larger societal trend.

Consider this:

The question that most occupies my thoughts of what I am going to do with my life has reached great conclusion! An epiphany has finally stuck me, narrowing down the myriad of life and career choices ahead into a simple dichotomy, an easy two-way fork in the road that shall now be easy to navigate in light of the multifarious squid of options I have just overcome.

It is simply this: I shall either go into politics or I shall take Voltaire’s advice and cultivate a garden. My reasoning, which I judge important enough to my point to expound, is as follows: To achieve success in either pursuit, one must possess the same skills. One must first be able to sow. This in itself is easy enough. One then must provide the right quantity and quality of care for the seedling: providing enough nourishment and encouragement, maybe singing to it a little (apparently Mozart helps plants grow . . . ).

Once the thing has sprouted, one must protect it from the lecherous weeds that will threaten its progress, and continue to procure the resources necessary to ensure its lasting growth and health. If successful, after long months of labour and with perhaps a little luck, one is finally free to reap the fruits of success and revel, as Grandpa Joad so enjoyed, in the sweet juices of a peach (or a passed Bill) trickling down one’s chin.

A successful legislator must thus possess the same skills as a gardener. I believe these skills are actually fundamental to a host of careers, if not for all, and yet they are not those we learn in school. We are taught information in an age where an iPhone can in seconds download more information than you could learn, let alone produce, over the course of six PhDs. We are taught hard skills in a world where increasing interconnectedness demands the soft skills of a gardener. On a grander level, we value status and appearance (the two go hand in hand, of course) over substance and real power to affect real change.

This is why my dichotomy appears so ludicrous: in response to the question of the 21st century (“What do you do?”), “I plant trees” will elicit far less affect than “I plant laws.”

The irony is that politics, which is thought of in terms so much grander than gardening, often requires the successful practitioner to decorate himself with irrelevant degrees, qualifications, and other tinsel, when a gardener with a briefing could do his job just as well. We shouldn’t think of someone as more valuable simply because he has a degree, nor should we think of a degree as indicative of anything valuable in itself. At least not until degree-granting institutions begin to realize value in teaching.


 
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The Agony, the Ecstasy and an Epiphany

  1. Wonderful piece!

    I like all the pieces today. Thank goodness Macleans is getting off the stupidly opinionated pieces and dealing with real issues.

    I actually like the idea of letting younger profs deal with research while the older ones deal with teaching and research but I wonder, how do we know that the younger ones can teach if they don’t start of doing so.

    Or are you suggesting that experienced researchers are generally good teachers because I know more than a few who aren’t

  2. What a wonderful article.

    Technically, a professor’s job is 33% service to the university, 33% research and 33% teaching. All too often, teaching is pushed to the side for the “glory” of research.

    However, I disagree with the proposed solution. Why not let the professors decide what they prefer? One of my professors told me that she was “chained to teaching”. Why not set them free?

  3. Fantastic piece! And I hadn’t thought of gardening as an alternative to politics, certainly very tempting now.

    I definitely agree with Allen, professors need to have a greater say in what they do and then those with a real passion for teaching could pursue that and those with research could do that. It really seems to me that the university administration is what undermines the potential for real and meaningful learning.

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