This university ain't for teachin'

Despite stated desire, university fails to put premium on teaching

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The University of Calgary is continuing its tradition of missing the mark on improving the quality of teaching, despite setting itself a goal of being a so-called "learning-centred university."

Provost Dr. Alan Harrison presented the U of C's Academic and Strategic Research Plans at Tuesday's Student Legislative Council. In the plans, he reviewed the principles of the four-year academic plan presented in 2002 and then outlined the core principles of the university's plans heading forward. The plan highlighted "learning-centred university" as one of its four core principles. The presentation then continued without addressing this in a meaningful way.

Coincidentally, the Calgary Herald's weekly magazine insert, Swerve, published a feature written by English associate professor Harry Vandervlist titled "The Naked Professor" last Friday, where he described the problems facing profs who are hired almost entirely based on their research credentials. Vandervlist outlined the three masters profs serve: the students, who are ultimately temporary bosses, internal university committees and published research. The latter two factor heavily when it comes time to look at promotions or tenure. Because students only temporarily exist in a professor's world, Vandervlist argued, whether or not any effort is put into teaching is completely a personal matter.

A "learning-centred university" needs to have a strong emphasis on the quality of teaching and this is where the U of C and other universities' administrations have to play a role. Without some sort of outside monitoring or emphasis placed on a professor's teaching skills, it is possible that they will be forfeited in favour of a larger catalogue of published papers. Though there are systems in place at the U of C, the USRIs and the Students' Union's teaching excellence awards, they are incomplete and useless without an importance placed on them by administration.

In the feature, Vandervlist described a young post-doctoral researcher who is looking for his first job as a professor. This researcher follows the advice of his own teachers and intentionally hides any effort he's placed into learning how to teach better on certain applications, without specifying which universities he's applying to.

"Having been around universities for 20 years, I can tell you that this advice is both well-meaning and accurate," wrote Vandervlist.

This kind of policy at any university is shortsighted. Ignoring the financial value of undergraduate tuition to the overall university budget, alumni largely form the outside perception of a university. When students graduate with their bachelor's degree after having a crop of largely disinterested teachers, they are unlikely to recommend the university to their friends or speak highly of their university experience. By lessening the importance of teaching skills, the U of C's administration is severely damaging a reputation they hold so dear. In this year's Maclean's university rankings, the U of C was at or near the bottom for the percentage of students who would "definitely" attend the same university if they were allowed to start over and the percentage of students who thought their entire educational experience at the institution was "excellent."

If the U of C was making an effort to follow through on their own principle of being a "learning-centred university," they would be instituting more teaching courses for professors and seriously including teaching skills as part of the evaluation for promotions and tenure. For most university students, this is likely more important than shiny new buildings and spaces.