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Jessica Ridell is a professor at Bishop's University.
Jessica Ridell is a professor at Bishop's University.

Education

There is a crisis in universities: It's in teaching undergrads Add to ...

A recent study published by Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) has started a debate about whether professors spend enough of their time teaching. Of the professors polled, a fifth were not active researchers, contrary to the claims of faculty everywhere that they cannot teach more courses because they are busy advancing knowledge in their fields.

There is no question that if there is a crisis in higher education in Canada it is in the quality of undergraduate teaching. Many universities – in response to cutbacks in funding, debt crises, and mounting costs – have grown their undergraduate enrollment rapidly and focused their resources on graduate programs and research. The funding model currently in place puts pressure on universities to grow class sizes, especially in undergraduate programs, which in turn dilutes the quality of faculty-student interactions both inside and outside the classroom.

At universities that look like the dominant university model, research-intensive institutions with large undergraduate classes, students are learning less, professors are being asked to do more, parents are upset with rising tuition costs, taxpayers are frustrated, and no one is happy.

However, these types of universities are not the only model available to students in Canada. There are a handful of primarily undergraduate universities that are dedicated to the undergraduate experience.

I am a professor at Bishop’s University, a small, undergraduate university with 2400 students, located in Sherbrooke, Que. Professors teach 5 classes per year ( a number quite different than the 1.8 course average ), and are expected to balance teaching, research, and service but without the “publish or perish” paradigm so prevalent at larger, research-intensive universities. Average class sizes are 25 students (the Canadian average is 226 students) and 80 per cent of courses are taught by full-time professors (compared to the national average of 26 per cent). There is no hiding in the back of the classroom when there are six people in the seminar room.

The majority of my colleagues are active researchers; they strive to engage their students in their particular research fields through lectures, field trips, debates, and conferences. Research can take many forms and be extended into the community through public scholarship, community outreach, the scholarship of teaching and learning, experiential learning, or the celebration of undergraduate research (for example, I help co-ordinate an annual undergraduate conference that attracts students from across Canada and the U.S.). These contributions are harder to measure in terms of “output” or “productivity” – they are not captured by research grants from federal councils or journal articles. However, the value these kinds of activities have on our students’ development is significant and arguably, more important than traditional ways of measuring research productivity.

Is every professor cut out to make teaching their primary focus? The demands on our time and energy are extraordinary. Sometimes our research portfolios suffer with a heavy teaching load and an expectation of service born out of our commitment to extend learning outside the classroom. Our desire to put the undergraduate experience first means that we have to be passionate about teaching and learning. We have to believe in this model to justify devoting our evenings and weekends to all kinds of interaction with students from art shows to sporting events. This is not the ideal model for everyone, and is certainly not the norm in Canada, but at universities like Mount Allison, Acadia, St. Francis Xavier, and Bishop’s, this is our way of life.

The oft cited ratio of how a professor’s job is divided – 40 per cent teaching, 40 per cent research, 20 per cent service – is nowhere to be found in our collective agreement, and feels to me like a counter-intuitive paradigm: Separating these three areas suggests they are mutually exclusive.

We need to start a conversation about how to create universities that look at these three aspects as pillars that support undergraduate education. If our current generation is going to have a competitive advantage in the workforce or in graduate school, they must have our undivided attention and unparalleled commitment to their development.

Dr. Jessica Riddell is an Associate Professor of English at Bishop’s University.

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