This letter was sent to the Chairman of the Department of Physics and the Dean of Science at the University of Ottawa by Phillip Vinten, a Master’s student at the school and a former student of Denis Rancourt. In this letter, he outlines some of his problems with Rancourt’s teaching style and various conflicts that students had with the professor.
[Dr. Joos and Dr. Lalonde]
In the first class Dr. Rancourt told us directly that everyone in the class would be receiving an A+. He went on to describe his teaching method and that his theory, or rather the teaching method he uses, that by removing the grades there will be less stress on us to learn. He said he does not believe in grades. He said that in no way can we be harmed by this system of giving everyone an A+ as this was a contract between the students and the teacher, and that he was guaranteeing us this mark, and there was nothing that the university could do to take it away.
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Dr. Rancourt went on the say that there would be a final exam and midterm test that would be used for us to communicate to him what we have learned in the course. The midterm, when it came around consisted of three questions, the first two were valid physics questions, but due to the slow pace of the class we had not discussed some aspects of them in the classroom. The third question was an open question where we could tell him about what we learned in his class, by ourselves as part of the class or what we had learned about ourselves or others from the pedagogical method that he uses. We were allowed to answer as much of the midterm as we wanted, but at least one question and it was required that we write the midterm. It was also required that we attend class and he took attendance every class by passing around a sheet for us to sign. Until the point that I dropped the course, I attended every class.
There was no assigned textbook, but there was a recommended textbook, and a textbook used in the prerequisite course (PHY 4382) that we mostly all had. He said “everything in this course is negotiable”. If we didn’t want to come to class we could discuss it with him. If we did not want to learn a specific part of the material we were free to read something else by ourselves. He encouraged us to learn what we were interested in, and to present what we had learned to the class.
In the first class Dr. Rancourt asked us what we had learned in our previous solid state course and what we wanted to learn. A basic course outline was generated from this, but was not to be strictly adhered to. He has assigned several reasonable homework questions for us to work on (but not submit) that were to be discussed in class. The classroom discussions were generally supposed to be about these questions, but in reality the discussion became off-topic very quickly. Frequently there were long discussions about trivial matters that one or two students didn’t understand and this held back everyone else because their concerns were addressed in class instead of afterwards or during offices hours (which Dr. Rancourt does indeed have) so that the rest of the class can move on to the next point.
On another occasion, a student in the class, decided to stand up in front of the class and tell us what he/she (I say this to protect this person’s identity) had learned about magnetism. This is something that had Dr. Rancourt’s full support and he grabbed a seat in the class and watched. The student was presenting to the class when someone asked a question about stainless steel. This question was not totally off-topic as we were talking about what are examples of various kinds of magnetic materials. Dr. Rancourt started to answer the question, when a student asked “exactly what is stainless steel?”. Dr. Rancourt began to explain, but did not give a direct answer and instead asked the class if anyone knew. Then someone asked why it does not rust. From here Dr. Rancourt began talking about rust, and then about the world trade centers and a conspiracy involving the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that the only reason they collapsed was because of faulty construction. At This point 40 minutes had elapsed since the original question, and I put my hand up and said something like “This is way off topic, can we please get back to magnetism?”. Someone else said that what we had done to the student who was originally in front of the class was wrong by effectively stealing the spotlight from him/her. The discussion got back on topic and the student got back in front of the class for the remaining ~15 minutes of class time.
In another class a student asked if we could vote on having a more traditional style class and Dr. Rancourt didn’t really answer his/her question and instead went on to talk about democracy and what it is. What he described as democracy was clearly the definition of anarchy. He mentioned that our current political system in Canada was not a real democracy. This is definitely not Solid State Physics material. In this class someone else spoke up and asked for Dr. Rancourt to adopt a more traditional teaching method, even if just in the classroom that he lead the discussion and actually teach the material instead of having open discussions. Dr. Rancourt said we had become “Brainwashed Peons” of the institution of the university, and that we were all being told how we learn best (the traditional way a class is taught) when in reality we learn best the way he is teaching the course.
In one class Dr. Rancourt invited a documentary film maker to come in and record the class, as it was being taught in a non-traditional manner. We were told in advance about his and Dr. Rancourt said he had the authority to invite any member of the community into the classroom. We did not question this. Some students voiced concerns about this, but nobody wanted to or tried to stop it (indeed I decided to let it go on because I did not want to stifel anyone’s enthusiasm). We were told that if we did not want to be filmed to tell the film maker. On the day he showed up we had waivers to sign giving permission to the film maker to use our image in his work. I believe 4 students (myself included) did not sign these and said “do not film us”. I assume he did not film us, but I don’t know for sure. I wasn’t watching the camera the whole time. There was also a man operating a boom microphone in the classroom. The film was titled “Activists and Anarchists”, which does not strike me as a film that is really about alternative teaching methods at all. They did not disturb the class, and in fact this was probably the most productive class we have had so far (possibly something to do with the fact that Dr. Rancourt was being watched). Dr. Rancourt actually taught the class in a more traditional (though still in his unique discussion driven style), and he kept the conversation on topic.
The TA for the class…was not chosen until a week or two into the semester. It seems as though the TA was either in the class or auditing the class before he was the TA. I am not sure of this, but he was in the classroom for each class before he was the TA. Furthermore, Dr. Rancourt was having the TA teach the class. These were perhaps the most unproductive classes we have had so far. The TA is not particularly easy to understand in the first place. To make matters worse Dr. Rancourt repeatedly interrupted him and cause off-topic discussion on many occasions. When Dr. Rancourt was told that this was making matters worse, he did nothing, except tell us that he and [the TA] agreed to work like this. One student told Dr. Rancourt (by talking to him in his office) that he/she did not want [the TA] to teach anymore classes as he is very hard to understand, but Dr. Rancourt took no action.
And finally, Dr. Rancourt, on several occasions told us we just had to get used to his teaching style because it was not what we were used to. This was frequently what he said when someone asked him to make a change to the way the class was going, as he said everything was negotiable.