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Simon Bradshaw

Magida El-Kassis

Simon Bradshaw, a University of Ottawa graduate, didn't get much out of his first undergraduate degree in English and theatre. He admittedly spent too much of his time socializing at the expense of his studies. After graduating and then trying—largely unsuccessfully—to break into the Ottawa acting scene, he returned to Ottawa U determined to make a fresh start. This time around he enrolled in psychology—and his experience couldn't have been more different. For this, he credits his professors, some of whom challenged him in ways no one had before. But a change in his attitude also played a role. He read assignments with a more critical eye, asked questions, participated in class discussions and sought out professors after class. It was difficult at first. "I felt intimidated," he says. "It took a bit of courage to go and strike up a conversation and feel that the questions and thoughts I had were not useless." Yet, he found most professors welcomed the exchange. "So often I had their complete and undivided attention," he says. The knowledge he acquired pursuing his second degree surprisingly led him back to the theatre. "Ironically, a lot of ideas that I learned in psychology came to apply to the arts and theatre, which I thought I was leaving behind," says the actor, now 30 years old.

Universities have come under a seemingly endless stream of criticism in recent years: Students complain about rising tuition fees and overcrowded classrooms. Professors gripe about the lack of student preparedness and declining academic standards. Ken Robinson, an internationally renowned author and advocate of educational reform, chastises educational systems that shun the arts and stifle student creativity. And one notable U.S. study found that when it comes to teaching students how to think critically, universities fail miserably.

Arshad Ahmad, a business professor at Concordia University and president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, is among the first to admit that all is not well in the world of postsecondary education, and he has plenty of ideas to fix what ails it: smaller first-year classes to start; introducing more co-operative, community-service and problem-based learning; encouraging more student-faculty interaction; and getting undergraduates involved in research. But, he adds, the situation is far from the doomsday scenario that some critics would have you believe. Universities, he notes, are more accessible now than they have ever been. Despite its drawbacks, he says, a university education can be a "game-changer" for young people, and not solely because it can help them land a good job. "I would say the glass is definitely half full," he says.

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Eli Cwinn, a master's student at the University of Guelph agrees. "University can be either as big as you want or as small as you let it," he says. Over the course of his undergraduate career, he encountered the odd professor too busy or uninterested to talk to students. But by and large most of them seemed thrilled when a curious student showed up at their office door. "They will share their expertise quite willingly," he says.

Fellow students can be another source of inspiration. Making connections can be difficult in the early years when the classes are big but by the time students reach third and fourth year, there are opportunities for collaboration. "You start to see the world from their perspective and that fuels your growth," he says. "In every university regardless of how downtrodden it is or how low it scores in the rankings, you can find a spring or well of inspired thinking," adds Ron Marken, professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan. The trouble is, it may not be at the forefront of the curriculum. "But you can find places if that's indeed what you want," he says.

Claude Lamontagne, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa and the recipient of numerous teaching awards, is a strong critic of a postsecondary system that, in his view, emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking. Even so, he concedes, it is still the best place for critical self-discovery. Students, he says, "are capable of incredible insight" but are hampered by a system that all too often doesn't allow them to express their ideas. Education should be an "awakening," he says. His advice to students: Take advantage of opportunities like directed-reading courses that allow for independent study and one-on-one interaction with faculty; opt for classes with low student-to-faculty ratios; and don't fall into the trap of believing that the sole purpose of a university degree is to get a good job.

"When used creatively, I think university is the best thing that can happen to anyone," says Roger Moore, professor emeritus at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. As he sees it, one of its many benefits is that it can help young people discover hidden talents and interests. Moore, a former professor of Spanish, recalls one student asking his permission to create a painting instead of writing an essay as the course required. It was an unorthodox request. Reluctantly, he agreed to it on the condition that she should present it to the class in Spanish. The painting was an intricate and stylized depiction of the 16th century conquest of Mexico at the hands of the Spanish. It took him aback. After many lengthy discussions with the student, he advised her to pursue a degree in the arts rather than try to master the proper technique of essay-writing. The student went on to study architecture; the painting still hangs in his home.

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