Friday, January 18, 2013

When the Arts are Not So Liberal

It has been an interesting hour on twitter.  First, Jon Western posts a great piece on how teaching at a Liberal Arts college is different from that at a research university.  While I think he underestimates the time-sucks at research universities (we fall behind on the current lit, too), it is a strong piece about how teaching at a small, teaching-focused place is different.  Funny that he starts it with the "If you went to a place Oberlin ...., you would want to end up at a liberal arts college...."  As that is exactly what I thought about 25 years ago.  I wanted to go to grad school and then teach at a liberal arts college.  The job market had other plans.  I did interview at a couple but over my career I had many more interviews at research schools.  Oh well.

Anyhow, the second tweet referred to this article at the Montreal Gazette.  My old place, McGill, is cutting 100 courses in the Faculty of Arts (that would be the equivalent of an American school's College of Arts and Sciences minus those pesky sciences).  So, the Dean in the story, Chris Manfredi was my dean, and, before that, my department chair.  So, the tale is this:
Manfredi said the decision was taken in order to respond to student interest in having more courses taught by full-time instructors.
“We’ve always believed that the quality of teaching programs is better when they’re taught by full-time, permanent teaching staff, as opposed to part-time, temporary teachers – that’s well documented in the literature on the university pedagogy,” Manfredi said.
Um, sure.  The funny thing is that before I left, the poli sci department, and others, were cutting the the number of courses taught by non-tenured/tenure-track profs due to budget cuts, not because of a renewed interest in being a better teaching environment.  That this cut comes at a time where Quebec is cutting its funding of the universities quite drastically in the wake of backtracking on the previous provincial government's efforts to increase tuition is probably not an accident. 

I tweeted "you get what you pay for."  That if tuition remains very, very low, and if the province cuts back on its financing of universities, the universities have to make hard choices.  Ditching the temporary profs is an "easy" choice since they do not have much of a voice, that their contracts are usually year to year, and it does not hurt very much other folks on campus--professors and administrators. 

The story says that the aim is to cut the smallest classes, which sounds fine.  The idea of keeping every classroom full at all hours was something in motion before I left.  But the students I knew already had a hard time meeting their graduation requirements because they could not get into crowded classes.  It was not my popularity that made my classes full every year (perhaps my rep as an easy grader?), but that the big intro class of 612 students was a prerequisite, and the senior level classes I taught always maxed out at the 80 student limit because we offered so few of them.  Indeed, I had banked enough "credits" that I could have taught one less class my last year, but I chose not to, knowing that there was a decent chance I would never use them, because I felt guilty about how little we offered our undergrads. 

For a variety of reasons, I only taught undergraduate classes my last few years at McGill, and had no regrets doing so--I was filling a need and they were a heap of fun.  It sucks that the province and the politics means that they will have fewer and fewer options down the road.  I don't blame the McG students since they didn't protest like those elsewhere.  While I joked here that the McG students sucked at math, they got it, and they understood that less money means something.  And that there would not be a magical source of more money that would compensate. 

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