Personal guidance is key

Academic planning should focus on professors and students, not idle change

By Paul Hogan,

Excerpt from: Opinions in Queen’s Journal, Tuesday May 18, 2010

Full article at:

http://www.queensjournal.ca/story/2010-05-18/opinions/personal-guidance-key/

Principal Daniel Woolf released his academic vision statement “Where Next?” on Jan. 15

As a part-time student pursuing my undergrad degree at Queen’s, I have read and listened in earnest to the plans and directions for the future being put forth by Principal Woolf and the University’s governing bodies.

My age (at 55, I qualify as a mature student) gives me a different perspective on the university “experience” than my classmates.

Also, being a Political Science major, I often view the world from a critical perspective and in so doing find I have to voice my opinion on issues that raise a red flag for me.

In first year courses, the large number of students allows little time for the professor to interact with individual students.

And yet, I hear every semester from fellow students who were so impressed with a professor and his teaching style that they transferred into his faculty.

That, in my opinion, is the essence of a university. The ability of a professor to truly engage with his or her students and propel them toward a degree that they may or may not have ever envisioned themselves pursuing is, I am afraid, what Queen’s is at risk of losing.

Buildings and new facilities are all well and good but, it’s the professor in the classroom who ultimately piques a student’s interest in their chosen field and drives them toward their goals.

In the last two years, I have noticed a dramatic change in the way my faculty is run, and it concerns me.

The number of students in my third year courses has grown from a maximum of 55, to 80 or more.

Where there was once healthy debate and interaction between students and the professor during class, there is now ninety minutes of straight lecture with little or no time to ask questions or challenge the professor about the course material.

I have witnessed my peers morph from enthusiastic class participants to disengaged and distant students.

Why such a dramatic change? Quite obviously, it’s due to the increased demands on the professor’s time.

With lectures to prepare, essays to mark, and exams to develop, professors have little time to build a rapport with their students.

Publishing requirements for tenured professors and reductions to TA budgets have further exacerbated this problem.

Despite what I believe is a genuine desire by professors to engage with their students and ensure their intellectual well being, I fear we’re moving away from the kind of institution we want to have.

It appears as though the university administration has turned their focus toward quantity, not quality.

I cannot fathom the aims of the recent round of academic planning, or the means used to achieve them.

Regardless of the rhetoric of “changing with the times” and “new technology,” at the very heart of this debate is money.

The new Queen’s ARC is a beautiful building, and was probably desperately needed.

The problem is not the building itself or the justification for it, but rather the complications that plagued its construction.

When I look at the original estimates for the structure and the final costs associated with it, the numbers more than double.

I am not naïve enough to think that costs did not increase over the time span needed to construct it, but the cost overruns were unreasonable. I owned, operated and managed my own business for thirty years. New equipment and inputs were all part and parcel to my business, as they are to any business.

When the time came for me to consider any or all of the above, I researched my options, did a business model to ascertain the effects, positively or negatively, obtained quotes and sharpened my pencil over and over again before I ventured into any new expansion.

Once a decision was made, the price was fixed and written into the contract. I did my due diligence and if the supplier did not do his, that was his problem, not mine. Is that not the basis for a contract?

The issue is not whether the new facility was needed or not. But why are staff, students, and professors paying for someone else’s ineptitude?

Was there no onus of responsibility put on the firm or firms constructing the various projects on campus? If not, why?

We must realize that nothing can ever replace the face-to-face interaction between student and professor.

I realize this is the 21st century and that times have changed dramatically since I was doing calculus on a slide rule, but substituting a monitor for a human being will set this institution of higher learning up for a disastrous free fall.

Yes, some students may thrive in online courses, but, I seriously doubt that the majority of students, or their parents, see this as a prudent option for obtaining a university degree.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I would bet that in Principal Woolf’s academic career, there was at least one professor, perhaps more, whose personal guidance motivated him to pursue the career he has chosen.

I have seen dramatic change in my life, especially technological change, and I have embraced it.

But, I would offer a word of caution to the powers that manage this institution: not all change is beneficial, and change simply for the sake of change benefits no one.

Do not cut the legs out from under this institution. Professors and students are the very essence of this university.

I am quite aware that this process began long before Principal Woolf arrived here, and he has inherited a hornet’s nest to say the least, but one must be very mindful of the bridges that you choose to burn as you advance forward.

The need to retreat may leave one facing a gaping chasm.

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