Small universities are different -

Small universities are different

Look east to see that all universities are not the same.


I am getting really tired of people protesting too much the state of Canada’s universities in general but describing big, central and western Canadian research universities in particular.

Oil executive Gwyn Morgan gives us the latest salvo, blasting today’s universities. At our modern universities, he contends:

1. Little attention is given to the teaching abilities of faculty when it comes to hiring and promotion.

2. Faculty hate undergraduate teaching and get their grad students to do it if they can.

3. Students, at least in first year, sit silently, listening to dry recitations of  material that could easily be found in the textbook or online.

4. Students only attend classes because they are coerced by pop quizzes and other underhanded methods.

I’m not entirely certain this is broadly true at any university in Canada, and I can say with confidence that it is generally not the case at other small eastern Canadian universities. Indeed, I can say with certainty that none of the above matches very well with the reality at my own august institution. To wit:

1. At my university, teaching is taken just as seriously as research when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions.

2. Small universities like mine don’t have grad students for the most part so teaching is not foisted upon them. In any case, I can’t think of a single colleague of mine who hates teaching. Perhaps there are one or two who would do only research if they were allowed to, but those are, by far, in the minority. Based on my interactions with faculty at places like Acadia and UPEI, the same seems to hold true at other small maritime institutions. If  you are a faculty member at a small east coast Canadian school and you despise teaching, let me know.

3. Unlike classes at the big research schools that Morgan seems to have in mind, classes at my university are small, even at the first year level. In my department, first year classes are capped at 30-45 students and upper-year classes rarely have more than 20 students in them. But even in my first year class (enrollment of about 40), the emphasis is on learning to read literature as a set of skills and as a habit of mind. Most students are reluctant to talk in first year, but even so, the class is not simply a monody of cold facts; I help my students understand what it is to read creatively and to think critically. It’s a year-long dialogue.

4. Some professors may reward attendance with grades, but I certainly don’t. To my mind, the benefit of attending classes should be obvious to students: you learn interesting things and take part in interesting discussions.

Indeed, it’s amazing to me that Morgan concludes his essay by wishing for something that already exists:

What if formal lectures were eliminated altogether, in favour of informal, smaller group discussions with those talented scholars? Think of how much richer the teaching and learning experience could be.

Could be? Nay, Morgan, it is. You just have to know where to look for it.

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Small universities are different

  1. By the way, a formal lecture given by a top-notch scholar even to large groups is valuable and important. When I think of some of the best moments at the three universities I attended (in three countries), some of the very best moments were in the large lecture. Amazing, stimulating, intellectually challenging, with a sense of occasion, etc etc. So, let us not write off a format that has worked well and can continue to work well. The touchy-feely approach of asking students what they think (and then rephrasing to make it sound like it sort of, kind of, in a way may right or useful) is sometimes fine, but what would an undergraduate student really know in many cases. Many of these kinds of classes are intellectually condescending.

  2. Small universities don’t exist only in the east. They are everywhere, including where I am right now. I’m currently going to a small school in British Columbia, and I must say that it’s the most wonderful place to study. All the professors and students are always engaging in small class discussions. Class size never exceeds 20 people. It’s true that you must know where to look for it, and it could be somewhere that you least expect.