Jeffrey Simpson at the Globe and Mail is no dummy. I have a lot of respect for his work. But I don’t understand his rant about universities this week. I’d be interested in your views, especially those of my students here at York.
Simpson complains that professors today teach too few classes and that undergraduate students are therefore herded into “monster classes of hundreds and hundreds of fellow students.” He bemoans that the absence of “face to face” time with real live professors is a “poor way to learn”.
He acknowledges that universities are being told to accept way more students and that they are not receiving adequate funding to deal with this crush of new students. But then he brushes that concern aside as a mere detail and argues that the “more fundamental problem … is that governments fundamentally don’t care about the quality of undergraduate education, so they don’t design policies to improve it.”
If you define a problem as failure of government policy, the solution you will come up with is government legislation. And so Simpson looks to law. Here is what he proposes:
what if the government required university administrations to include in every collective bargaining agreement incentives and penalties for professors related to the amount of time they teach. Teach more, get more; teach less, get less; teach the same; get the same.
I assume he means a law would impose this provision in a collective agreement, since otherwise the universities would need to bargain it into the collective agreements. Good luck with that.
My take on this is that Simpson is wrong on a number of his premises. Firstly, he is making extreme generalizations about how much professors teach. For example, my regular course load each year is 5 undergraduate courses and two Masters’ level courses, plus I am director of an LLM program. On top of that I have to do research and writing and serve on a variety of private and university committees. I feel like I am teaching, grading, and dealing with student issues all the time. I suspect most of my colleagues feel the same way.
Secondly, while it may be that class sizes are larger today, he is romanticizing the past. I started my undergraduate degree at U of T 25 years ago now, and my classes back then were just as large as those I see today at York, if not larger. More importantly, it really makes little difference if a class has 100 or 300 students. In either case, the students aren’t getting “face to face” time with their professors. If Simpson is envisioning classes of 30 in first and second year undergraduate, like a high school, he needs to return to planet Earth.
Thirdly, Simpson assumes that full-time professors are inherently better teachers than Ph.D students or practitioners that teach the odd course in their area of expertise. A professor who is the smartest scientist on the planet may be a terrible teacher. A graduate student or Ph.D hired as a sessional instructor who is struggling to find a job and desperate for positive teaching evaluations may be a fantastic and inspirational teacher who goes the extra mile to win over the students. Why does Simpson assume that replacing the latter with the former will lead inevitably to a better education for undergrads? Is there some great inherent value in having a full-time professor teaching an introductory (read: very basic) course in the field to hundreds of first year students, many of whom will not continue in the field or in university at all? Perhaps the professors’ time is better served teaching small seminars to advanced level students, or doing research that advances their discipline.
Fourthly, I’m not sure that teaching loads have declined, as Simpson suggests. Universities made a decision over the past 20 years, fuelled in part by reduced budgets, to hire fewer full-time professors and instead hire contract faculty who have to scrape a living teaching individual courses at little pay and hardly any job security. That is what the York University strike was about recently. There are more students, but fewer full-time faculty. So the solution would be for the government to fund, and insist upon, the hiring of many more full-time professors, rather than a new law requiring existing professors to spend more of their working day in the class room.
Fifthly if you incentivize classroom time over other contributions, other contributions will suffer. Professors receive “course releases” to teach fewer courses in exchange for performing important services for the university, such as being program directors. If you set up a system such as proposed by Simpson that links pay to teaching classes, professors will stop doing the service and teach classes instead. This may or may not improve the teaching quality (see point three) in first and second year courses, but it will surely decrease the amount of service professors perform. Someone else will have to do those service jobs. Who will pay for the new hires to perform those jobs?
Sixthly, I doubt the premise that “face to face” time with professors is a necessary condition of a good undergraduate education. I don’t recall speaking to any of my undergraduate professors in the four years I was at U of T beyond the odd hello in the hallways. I’ve done alright without the “face to face” time Simpson seems to think is necessary, thank you very much. Nor do I think the students think that face to face time with profs is important to academic success. I have fixed office hours all term, and virtually no one comes, beyond the odd student who wants a reference letter. They have the choice of a face to face with me, but they don’t exercise that option. Today’s students get their face to face time by email. In fact, email gives students far more direct access to professors than I or Jeffrey Simpson ever had during undergraduate studies. If you give todays’ undergrads a choice of coming to speak to a professor in person, or zinging off an email with a question, guess which one they will choose?
In fact, I would say that almost uniformly the top students in my undergraduate courses are people I have never spoken with outside the classroom. They are smart, motivated, hard-working students who prepare for class, and ask questions in class if they don’t understand something. They don’t need, and they don’t want, the professor to hold their hand. That has always been the case, and it still is.
But that’s just me.
What do you think about Simpson’s argument? Should the state mandate a teaching load that requires professors to teach more first year undergrad courses (and therefore leaves them with less time to devote to research, writing, supervising graduate students, and serving the academic and broader community on any number of initiatives and committees)?