Why I am a professor

A friend of mine challenged me recently to explain why I am a university professor.

“Why did you choose this path?” she asked me, over a glass of pinot grigio and nibblies on the terrace of the Bad Dog Café on trendy Locke Street in Hamilton, Ontario. “You’ve sacrificed a lot of your private life to build this career. Was it all worth it?” It was too heavy a topic for a sunny, breezy day, so I promised I would write her a reply on my blog.

I did not begin this path knowing where it would lead me. I remember being an undergraduate student at York University, and terribly impressed on the first day of my first class – The Classical Experience, taught by Dr Paul Swarney. It was a blustery, freezing January day and I was a few days shy of my 17th birthday. I had accelerated through high school because of a gifted program called PACE and, not wanting to waste any time, had enrolled in York’s winter-summer admission program. In some ways it was a back-door entry into the university system, and it meant that I missed out on all the festivities associated with frosh week and the pageantry of the beginning of a new academic year. In fact, I was done my last exam at Sacred Heart Catholic High School in mid-January and by the end of the month I was in my first university lecture. I loved what I heard and experienced. I loved wandering around York’s suburban snow-blanketed campus. I loved going to the Scott Library and reading under one of the skylights or listening to my walkman and drinking a coffee, watching the world go by. Although I was very social, I didn’t make many real friends. That has always been a challenge for me – I am very independent and have always taken a long time to trust others. I did enjoy many conversations though, attended a lot of club meetings, cultural events and the like. It was during my B.A. that I developed a lifelong love for watching dance: modern and ballet, ballroom and freestyle. My first term of university life opened up a world of possibilities for me, possibilities that are still unfolding in my life today.

And that is the central mission of the university for me – opening windows to a new understanding of the world in students’ minds.

I strongly believe that wisdom is born of lovingly applying reason to one’s experiences. Compassion and empathy are born of this practice. So is depth of feeling and caring. Why are these things important? Because they are at the core of the good life. I have met many people in my various travels who have told me that the good life comes of material possessions. This is false. Material possessions are wonderful and can adorn one’s life in the manner of a beautiful watch or bracelet, or make it easier in the manner of a blender or a four-wheel drive car. What they cannot do is bring you closer to the good.

Universities should strive to build in students a yearning for the good life. They should be accessible, open places, and a professor should be both a guide and a companion on that journey. I grow with my students. Sometimes through discussion over coffee or a beer in The Phoenix, our McMaster University pub. Sometimes through in-class interaction – answering questions, fostering discussion, sometimes even through the silent nonverbal feedback I get when I am lecturing. Sometimes during quiet, emotional moments in my office when young people who are faltering at meeting the challenges that life or the university has dealt them, open up to me and relate to me their dreams, their sadnesses, their frustrations and their aspirations.

Take the example of a student who, a few years back, faced great challenges because her father had suffered a heart attack which caused huge financial strain on her household. She was a bright, cheerful young lady who enjoyed socialising with her girlfriends in the student centre, going to football games to cheer on our McMaster Marauders, and studied very hard. Her world was rocked when she was suddenly flung into adulthood – having to take three jobs to pay her tuition – and thereby feeling that she was missing out on her youth and her university experience. Her grades suffered. She was struggling. We spoke for an hour – and she told me the tale of her troubles. She wept openly, and hid her face in her hands several times. We spoke of philosophy, of striving toward a goal, of personal honour and virtue. We talked of heroes of yore and those who have overcome great challenges. We talked of faith – in oneself, in others, in the future. We talked of prayer and meditation. And as our conversation flowed along, her heart was eased. Not by me – but by the connection to the tales of the alternation of light and darkness that are our history, both national and personal. By the firm belief that when one overcomes darkness and steps into the light, the glories of one’s life shine brighter than before. She left consoled.

A few weeks later, she sent me a note saying that it was conversations like the one she had had with me, with other professors and with thoughtful friends that keep her going. That lift her spirit and allow her to break the petty bonds of the sadness of the everyday. To strive, unflinchingly, for a brighter future.

That is the role of the university. To clear a path through the dark and forbidding forest that is fraught with fear and frustration. To give to students the space to develop the questioning spirit and the hopeful will to improve themselves and push forward and clear the path for themselves and then lead others to a better tomorrow.

That is how society progresses. We are all uplifted by a subtle but perceptible measure when a heart is turned from despair to hope. When a destructive influence is thwarted and an easy sunlit path is opened before someone. We all step a little more lightly when someone among us has experienced the freedom to feel joy. We are all enriched when two souls meet and find a sharing, generous love.

We live in a cynical age. In the 19th and 20th centuries, we put our faith in the machine, but the machine has failed us. Materialism has reduced our sensitivity to one another, to nature, and to the future. We have been numbed by the machine. People are not machines. We are far more complex than the most intricate of computers or space stations. The least among us is an astonishing blend of knowledge, and feelings and experiences.

Universities are one of the last bastions resisting against the onslaught of the machine. Although much diminished by materialism, closed mindedness and instrumentalism, they remain places where a citizen may find quiet. Where professors are allowed to exist in monastic autonomy and organize themselves. Where the ideas of the world meet to be debated, examined and pondered. Where people from all social classes, walks of life and backgrounds can gather in safety to discover one another and, in the process, perhaps discover something about themselves.

Universities are places where the classes mix – where we learn one another’s mores and cultures and ways of speaking and interacting. This knowledge is invaluable – without it there can be little success, since such a big part of being successful is knowing how to communicate with others in words that they understand; in appropriate words that make them comfortable. That is why universities must be accessible and professors must have the time to be available. Students must have the time to interact with one another too – in quiet ways, not just in the frenzied and often frantic hot house environment of the night club or the disco, but in the sweet moments of a crisp winter’s day walking from building to building; or on a park bench in the shade with a sandwich and some mineral water, a breeze caressing the skin and not a care in the world.

Our students live with a lot of stress. I see it in their faces. They are surrounded by machines. A laptop in front of them. Ear buds blocking out the world. A smartphone buzzing with always urgent messages. Email. Electronic learning systems that encourage them to communicate with other students online. Televisions flickering ghostly representations of how things ought to be, everywhere they go. Techno music blaring in clubs thumping to the beat of the heart, the beat of sex. Drugs, which are really just biological technologies, for improving their memory, keeping them awake longer, improving their mood, giving them access to a momentary feeling of freedom and bliss.

I find that technologies create a false sense of urgency, of expectatation that you’ll miss something if you log off, even for a moment. They reduce the way we think of our lives to inputs and output. One techonology causes you to feel stressed, so you find another technology to relieve that stress. Inputs and outputs. Machines – both mechanical and digital – impoverish our lives in that way. They distract us from seeking the good life – which is a shared, thoughtful, caring and human experience.

This saddens me. Not because I hate technology – anyone who knows me personally can attest to the fact that I am surrounded by it! But I live my life mostly in my mind, and I stubbornly refuse to allow the machines that I work with and that surround me to determine my actions. I try and grow a garden. I cook for myself a lot. I use a fountain pen and I wear a hand-made mechanical watch. I like the fact that it doesn’t keep absolutely precise time. My research may one day help to build intelligent digital machines, but I am quite happy to sequester myself away from them.

Universities should offer respite from that machine intelligence. They should be peaceful places. They should allow the people in them to move at their own pace – within reason, of course.

I became a professor because I love learning. I love reading and thinking. I love debate. I am addicted to the sweet intoxication of writing a good sentence.

I continue as a professor because I am profoundly moved every time I see a door of possibility open in a student or colleague’s mind. I am filled with joy every time a person around me shifts from confusion to understanding. I feel an upwelling of tears of hope and strength and relief when I hear a tale of someone overcoming personal darkness, insecurity and nihilism to take those blessed strides toward peace and freedom and confidence.

Do all of my colleagues think as I do? Certainly not. Some would call me a pollyanna. Others would promote the reduction and mechanization of the place. Some would take exception to my references to faith or classical heroes. Others may question my vision of the good life, of virtue and honour. But that is part of the richness of the place. It is a place where diverse ideas are put to the test of public controversy.  I would have it no other way.

For me the university means peace. It means freedom. It means inclusion and respect. It means sometimes holding back the curtain of darkness to let someone run through to light.

I firmly believe that these things are good things and I will struggle to protect them. I invite you to join me. For there is much more at stake than my job description, should our universities be transformed into training centres. At stake is one of the last remaining oases of freedom and civility and progress.

That is why I am a professor.


Measuring up for tenure and promotion at McMaster

Today we had an interesting discussion in our tenure and promotion committee meeting around documentation.

For those of you who know about how secretive universities tend to be, and how much word of mouth tends to rule the roost, you’ll be surprised to learn that universities are moving to a system where less is done verbally and more is done in writing.

What do I mean?

Well, when I went up for tenure and promotion to associate professor in Fall of 2005, I faced a system that was very much based on my ability to guess what was required in terms of putting together a good dossier. This meant formatting my CV the right way, making sure my teaching philosophy statement was understandable and clear, and outlining my research statement and putting my best foot forward in terms of institutional and community service. This was then mulled over by various committees: the departmental (in my case two departments, since I was in a joint appointment at the time) committee, the Faculty of Humanities, the Senate and finally the Board of Governors. In the department, the committee deliberated as a group of equals; at the Faculty of Humanities committee my case was presented by my chair and a companion; at the Senate it was the Dean of Humanities who presented the case. The process was a game of rhetoric and persuasion – very much a case of having good, well-briefed rhetoricians (my chair and my Dean), acting on my behalf. Very little of what I had actually done was written down on paper, other than my statements and the letters from my external referees. Everythings was discussed.

Now things are changing. The process is about to become a lot more paper-driven.

We are instituting a mentor-system, where once a year, a junior or mid-career faculty member, seeking tenure and promotion to associate professor, or simply seeking promotion to full professor, has an interview with his or her chair and assigned mentor. The result of this meeting is a memo outlining the chair and your mentor’s opinions on your progress, as well as suggestions about things you might focus on and others you might de-emphasise.

As well, we are now meant to write up and maintain a teaching portfolio, in which we outline our innovations as educators, discuss our strengths and the way in which we engage students in our research. This is meant to be kept updated yearly and subject to discussion and commentary.

On the surface, these seem like two very good activities to do: being mentored, and keeping a record of teaching approach, both mean that records are kept, best practices can be noted and disseminated.

But there is a transformation underway in the Academy: a move away from collegial trust – the sort of trust you see in a law firm or a public relations firm among the principals, for example. The idea in the liberal professions is that once you become a “member”, that means tenure and promotion to associate professor in Academia, in law or PR firms it means becoming partner, you are a trusted member of a community of equals. In the Academy, it means that you share responsibility for the university’s governance, for its finances, for its image and reputation and for its physical beauty (grounds, buildings, works of art, etc.).

When we move away from the “college of equals” model toward a more bureaucratic one, we diminish the identity of the professoriate. We turn professors into civil servants and highly paid staff of the university. That means reducing the status of the profession, as well as making it less of an “oasis of calm” in a paper-pushing, key-performance-indicator measuring world.

Does this mean that documenting excellence in teaching and guiding junior professors toward productivity in research is wrong? Not at all. I think that official memos and continual mentorship are actually a modern means to promote a healthy exchange of wisdom from an older generation to a younger one. We live in a crazy busy world, and making mentorship and teaching portfolios an “official responsibility” are probably an effective way of making sure that the age-old college of equals is preserved and maintained.

It is however, important to remain vigilant about measurement and reporting. Whenever you leave a completely oral culture where everything is done verbally and informally, and start to adopt “written standards”, you risk having those “written-down standards” starting to count as precedent for things like refusing to grant tenure and promotion. “Sorry, Dr. Jones, we couldn’t grant you tenure and promotion to associate professor because you didn’t listen to our mentorship memos and you didn’t live up to your high-falutin’ teaching portfolio statements.” Taking advantage of the fact that there is documentary evidence of collegial, private mentorship so as to hit someone over the head with it is taking that documentation and turning it into bureaucratic process.

And what makes being a professor in the Academy such a great job is that there is an enormous amount of trust invested in professors. Trust from the parents who send us their children, trust from the tax payer who pay for a portion of our operating budgets, trust from one another to behave in a decent, caring and upstanding way. Trust from our students that we teach them with goodwill, honesty and open hearts – to create an oasis of learning and contemplation for them, that they might grow as people in a secure and peaceful environment.

There are so few secure and peaceful environments in our grasping, loud world. Let’s make sure that any changes we make to the Academy protect what’s great about our universities.

This means reinterpreting old traditions of collegiality, democracy and mutual trust – not replacing them with modern bureaucratic systems that diminish the university for all those who have placed their trust and hopes in it.

What’s wrong with Canadian universities – part 2: How to reform them?

On April 15, I wrote a blog post about why I think Margaret Wente is wrong to say that universities are sitting ducks for reform because the system is overly focused on professors and research. She said that professors, because of a sense of entitlement and because of tenure, think that they are above the citizenry. In my last blog post, I took this idea apart. In this post, I hope to start a conversation about how post-secondary education should be reformed. Not to reduce the system in the thoughtless way Ms. Wente advocates, but to truly position Canada’s citizens to be leaders in the Information Society that is upon us.

I want to emphasize that these are personal musings and shouldn’t be taken as a manifesto. They are born of my experiences and life path. I hope they are meaningful to you.

Education means to bring something out of someone, or to help someone reach personal potential. To do this requires sustained human contact. The professor-student relationship is exactly that – a relationship. And human relationships need time, and kindness and patience to develop. To bloom, relationships between people need space, and quiet as well as the opportunity to make mistakes and be forgiven.

Human contact doesn’t develop well in a constantly stressful and overcrowded environment. Being jostled, constantly waiting in endless line-ups, habitually not being able to enroll in the courses you want, not having a spare moment between waking and sleep. All of this leads to distraction, anxiety and a lack of focus in both faculty and students. It leads to a feeling of personal insecurity, of always feeling winded. Of running forward in breathless anxiety. But running where? There is no time to think about this and find out.

Downtime and quiet time is essential. Structure is necessary, of course. Structure provides order and predictability – stability, in a word. However, there must be a large place for unstructured living. I have heard the argument that giving students more leisure will lead to bad behaviour – drunken excess, drug-riddled partying, etc. I disagree. I think that these phenomena are the result of too much stress and busyness coupled with only tiny windows for leisurely contemplation.  Too many options, too many requirements, and heavy expectations for “productivity” are to blame for this situation. All of that structure and process infantilizes the students and transforms professors into service providers. There is no room for wisdom. No room for mastery of a craft. No room for theoretical and philosophical contemplation.

How can this situation change? Allow me to speak a little of my personal experience.

I have been a part of the McMaster community since 2001, when I was hired as the first professor in the brand new communication studies program. Because the program was new, I was able to play a huge part in building it from the ground up. Because the program was small and limited to a couple of hallways in Togo Salmon Hall, I got to know all of the students, and had a role to play in building our faculty team. I watched as our program grew and matured and developed around me. I watched our first cohorts of students mature and we changed the program to match their experiences. I kept live connections with our alumni through the new social media available to me: Facebook, Twitter and, of course, through my website. It all felt very familiar and familial – and continues to feel like that today. Our communications program merged with McMaster’s multimedia program in 2005 to form a new department. This year, our department had the largest number of undergraduate majors in the faculty of humanities. I am convinced that the smallness of our numbers and the intimacy of our space contributed to the special sense of community that we enjoy. It has been a whirlwind journey through almost ten years of growth and building. I have loved every minute (even the tough, low ones).

What did I learn from this unique set of professional circumstances?

I learned that a university education is born of the balanced interaction of five things:

  • Learning and mastering practical, professional skills. If you don’t know how to make things, it will be very hard for you to identify the good in things. There is a limit to armchair criticism.
  • Gaining an understanding of what those skills can do in the broader context of society, ethics, culture, economics, politics and, yes, perhaps even faith. All skills have value and have impact on the country. Gaining the theoretical frameworks to understand how your profession can have impact on your country is fundamental to being able to make ethical choices.
  • Mastering a discipline and thereby gaining a lens through which to understand your experiences in the world. There is a wisdom that comes of having intimate and profound knowledge of your craft, discipline or trade. It is solid. It becomes your way of understanding the world around you. If you are a communications person, you understand the world in terms of relationships between people and institutions and story-telling. If you are an engineer, you see a world organized around and by machines, rationality and buildings. Enlightened democracy comes of the conversation between people speaking credibly through these established “lenses.”
  • A sense of community with all other members of the university: faculty, students, staffers and service-people. The Academy should be a community devoted to learning, contemplation, character development, and discovery.
  • An open walking-bridge between the university and the other sectors of the country-at-large: government, industry and not-for-profits. Professors, industry people and civil servants should have greater mobility between among the three sectors. Right now, there is no flexibility and very little movement between these sectors. This is specialization and “sector atrophy” is leading to a “fragmented democracy,” where experts rule over tiny fiefs with closed minds and exclusive power.

In a knowledge society, the way we categorize knowledge in the school system will be mirrored in government and commerce. A society based on this kind of specialization can easily become a closed, stagnant technocracy. That is to say, a society governed by its experts instead of by the breadth of its own people. Openness, balance and flexibility are the keys to success for universities and colleges in 21st Century. Not expert rule.

To accomplish these five things, you need a post-secondary education that makes room for students (and professors) to gain knowledge, life experience, wisdom and caring.

Our universities and colleges should be re-organized to make this happen. Is it an impossible dream? Certainly not.

Building these institutions requires a basic material investment, of course. It means proper buildings, better grounds and more shared public spaces in which students, professors and community members can interact. Public spaces that also act as portals for the university to the other sectors. Public spaces which are easily accessible, open and welcoming. Places where people come together to observe, to share, to lounge, to eat and drink, to listen and to perform.

More importantly, this mission for universities and colleges requires a major cultural shift – away from the notion of a one-size-fits-all and one-speed-fits-all education. This means breaking down the walls between colleges and universities – and not just by tacking on a “College Year” at the end of a four-year Bachelor’s degree at university. It means finding a way of integrating college and university curricula in a thoughtful way that makes passing from one system to the other seamless. It means a thoughtful consideration of what colleges and universities contribute to the life of the mind and to the life of the hands. How do skills and theory come together to forge people and citizens who are better equipped to seek the good life?

A few years ago, Dr Geoffrey Rockwell and Dr Terry Flynn led a team that I worked on to develop a project like this for McMaster. We were going to build an integrated college-university learning community in Burlington as a new campus for McMaster University. This community would blend “applied skills”, theory, ethics, commerce and socio-cultural awareness in a small, urban, community-oriented campus environment. Students would graduate from a 5-year program with a college diploma, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree – while working on multi-year projects driven by socio-cultural, commercial or not-for-profit needs. It was splendid. And it would have worked. Administrative priorities changed, and the “Burlington Project” ended up being a graduate education centre for our business school – a great project, but very different from the original, radical concept.

Our students are leading the way forward by adopting social media and choosing personal growth and development, rather than seeking the trappings of conventional success. They are building Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village. They communicate quickly, learn fast and value emotional depth. They are also profoundly lonely, often overwhelmed by choices and stressed out by what appears to be a society where order has been replaced by “trends” and “information flows.” Business and politics are becoming much more Athenian in this way – rhetoric and persuasion are growing in importance and influence. Rules are becoming norms. Society is becoming symbolic. Information is everywhere – no longer is information confined to libraries and professors’ seminars.

Universities and colleges must adapt to this new reality. Not by paring down to the “bare bones” or by superficially rebranding themselves. Rather, they must become what they always should have been – open communities that serve society by permitting it to explore itself on campus. They should be cosmopolitan and flexible. The place of the professor is to help students and citizens (through public scholarship) navigate the ebb and flow of information. To be a trusted mentor and guide. To be an agent for change and a caring critic. To be a participant in community life and a trusted friend to the learner.

There are as many ways of feeling the world, knowing it and navigating it, as there are individuals in Canada. Each of us is born with a rich inner mental world. Each of us has dreams and fears, inspirations and anxieties. Each of us has a path to chart in our lives. Our technologies have suddenly and very abruptly shattered the dams that held back information in the past. We are flooded with ideas, images and feelings.

Universities and colleges should be safe and quiet places for us to explore ourselves. Explore knowledge, and explore how the world works.

They should be open places. People should be able go through their programs at different times during their lives. They should be open places where seminars and lectures invite the public learn and debate the pressing issues of our times. They should offer a constellation of diplomas, degrees, mini-courses, seminars, skill-building workshops, community learning, and distance-education programs.

Building this system will require a lot of thought. The system needs to be restructured to respond honestly to the changes that the information society and new communication technologies are bringing in the way we live, do business, relate to each other and govern ourselves. This sort of restructuring means new resources and a new investment. But more crucially, it means collaboration – collaboration between policy makers, professors, students, parents, industry people, civil servants and media types.

To properly and honestly adapt the post-secondary education system is a gargantuan, multi-year endeavour. But the 21st Century is the Century of Information and Communication. And the post-secondary system is the key to success and leadership in the 21st Century.

It’s time to wake up and re-build post-secondary education in an intelligent, caring and thoughtful manner.

The politician who leads the process of reform of post-secondary education for the 21st Century will join the pantheon of Canadian heroes.

NEXT TIME – What does it feel like to be a professor or a student these days?

What’s wrong with Canadian universities – part 1

The university system is limping, that’s for sure. But it’s because of short-sighted decisions by policy-makers, not because of rebellious professors, as Margaret Wente would have us believe.

I have been a professor of communication studies and French at McMaster University since 2001. In July of that year, I joined McMaster as the first professor in the Communication Studies Program. We started the program on a shoestring and a prayer. We had many students, one faculty member and lots of enthusiasm. I was 27 years old. Those were heady times.

Since then, the program has grown and matured, developing into the program with the largest number of majors in the Faculty of Humanities. Our alumni are very successful, our research and the fine art our faculty members produce is internationally recognized. This year we started a graduate program – a Master of Communication and New Media. We have an internship program that places at least 15 students per term. Now here’s the kicker: we did all of this with 5 and a half full-time faculty members. We are lean and efficient.

We do not have a sense of entitlement.

In fact, I think that Ms. Wente would be hard pressed to find the professors who don’t understand that they work for the citizenry. My colleagues are exquisitely aware that their jobs, and tenure, create for them a very privileged place in society. A sacred privilege that bears with it a serious responsibility to act as critics and commentators: people who are given the freedom by society to criticize it freely. This is a fundamental part of our democracy. It’s important.

I sat on McMaster’s University Planning and Budget Committees for three years from 2005-2007. I had a first-hand look into the pains that Deans take to make sure that every penny counts. I watched them struggle valiantly to meet the no-deficit stipulation put forward by McMaster’s Board of Governors and enforced by us on the Budget Committee. They cut where they could, they spread more work over fewer faculty. They downloaded as many tasks as possible. The faculty took all of this on and worked with it. They asked their research assistants to do more with less. They took care of many more menial tasks than ever before. They shouldered the administrative tasks of retiring colleagues who were not replaced. They did their part. For the most part, they didn’t complain.

Let’s talk about salaries.

Most faculty don’t really earn much money before their early thirties.

Think about this for a second: a typical young person finishes her BA at 22 years old, then her Master’s degree two years later at 24. Her PhD will take her 4-5 years, so that puts her at 28 or 29. After that, she’ll probably take a postdoctoral fellowship to beef up her publication record. That’s at least another two years, if not four. So now she’s 31. That means that she’s been in school, living on survival wages until her early thirties.

Then she might find a tenure track job – if she’s really lucky. If she lands a tenure-track job, she’ll probably be hired at a salary of about 70k. 31 years old, with neglible income during her 20s, makes 70k at 31 not a great payoff. Then she has to get tenure. That means another 6 years of 10-12 hour days and constant worry about whether she’s meeting the bar for achieving tenure in research, teaching and administration.  That means that at 38 yrs of age, she’ll be granted tenure and promotion to the rank of associate professor. She might be making 100-110k. She might still be single, not having found the time to marry or have children. She might be divorced, the stress of the previous 20 years leading up to tenure being far greater than many relationships could bear.

Then, to earn her annual salary adjustment or merit increase, she will have to face constant criticism and peer review. Constant scrutiny on a level only certain lawyers and surgeons and parliamentarians ever have to face. Again, if she’s lucky, she might be promoted to Full Professor seven or ten years later, at 48 years old. At that moment, she might be making 120-130k.

All-the-while, her “media profile” is measured and reported to her Dean, who encourages her to increase it. She has to apply for grant money from government, private and not-for-profit sources. She has to write op-ed pieces. She has to publish, direct MA and PhD theses, and go to at least one or two conferences per year. She gives public lectures, she is involved in community service, political action or community education.

Does this sound like a gravy train to you?

I didn’t think so.

What the system needs is an injection of resources to be able to keep professors productive. It makes no sense to have professors who work with skeletal administrative support. It makes no sense to have professors teach classes of hundreds upon hundreds of students. That isn’t education. It isn’t even training. It is a simulation of education – it’s just going through the motions and saying “we have universities and we push a large percentage of the population through those universities.”

If you look at the amount of money that the Province of Ontario spends on post-secondary education, it looks like a large number. But bear in mind that this is a number that hasn’t grown since Mike Harris cut funding to post-secondary education in the 1990s. Funding was flat-lined. This means that universities have been limping along using 1990s dollars in a 2010 economy.

A proper post-secondary education costs money. It is not cheap. Rather than bullying professors and threatening to take away tenure – neither of which will do anything to reduce the cost of delivering world-class higher education in Canada – Government should be finding ways of injecting much-needed resources into the system. That means choosing between a few options:

  • greater investment of taxpayer money,
  • multi-tiered system of universities,
  • privatization of several universities,
  • deregulation of tuition fees.

America has colleges that deliver spectacular results, both in terms of research and educating well-rounded, thoughtful citizens. But American student-professor ratios of 10 to 1 are very costly. Tuition fees often hover between 25-40k, and we’re not talking about ivy-league schools here. Just typical, small, liberal-arts colleges.

The great American institutions, such as Dartmouth and Princeton are small and spectacularly well-funded. Princeton has fewer than 7,000 students. Yale has fewer than 12,000. Those are small institutions compared to Canada’s giant schools (McMaster has approximately 22,000 students, U of Toronto has over 60,000, York more than 50,000).

So, in a word – Margaret Wente should understand what she is talking about before she speaks.

The Canadian university system need fixing. But let’s get our facts straight: the professors aren’t the problem – the funding model is.

Canada needs a powerful, national vision for post-secondary education. And it needs it now. Post-secondary education is the key to prosperity from today until the year 2100.

The policy-maker who comes up with a serious plan for post-secondary education will be remembered as one of this century’s great visionaries.

TOMORROW – why education matters.

Some advice for college and university students

[This piece was originally posted as a note on Facebook on Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 15:24 and republished on the Talent Egg Career Incubator on September 15, 2009]

The three or four years you will spend at college or university should be some of the best years of your life. You have a rare privilege: a few years to devote most of your time to learning about yourself, your culture, your society and your areas of interest. Understand that your real purpose here is not only knowledge but also to develop a life guided by wisdom and reason.

You have moved out of your parents’ home. You are meeting new people and starting to make your own decisions, your own life. You are now pretty much your own boss. But you are also on your own and that can be unnerving, lonely and a little scary.

This is your opportunity to struggle with your new environment, to understand your challenges through reflection, insight and the help of others. Use the support systems at the university. You are never alone, and the very act of seeking help or advice, of opening up to others, may become a vital part of your education – of your experience of learning about yourself through others.

Speaking of dialogue, I recently met a woman at an alumni dinner, a graduate of my department. She had graduated with high B average and now works in a public affairs agency. I’ll call her Simone.

It was a beautiful night – a fancy dinner, elegant surroundings and quiet, meaningful conversations among alumni and professors who shared the bond of having been members of the McMaster community. I was seated beside Simone and we chatted for much of the evening, mostly sharing memories: people we knew in common from her grad year, observations that she and classmates had made about faculty quirks of dress or mannerism, little things. We laughed a lot and reminisced. At the end of the evening, as we got up to say goodnight, she looked at me fixedly and said:

“Alex, I want you to tell your students something from me. Do you know what I really gained from my years at Mac?”

I shook my head, surprised by her suddenly intense expression.

“I gained understanding. Understanding that the world is complicated and profound, even when it is trying to be simple and ridiculous. Understanding about how to learn and how to know. Above all, I understood that although the world is sometimes sad, it is never boring and that I should love it, and try to improve it, even though it sometimes seems to betray me.”

I was surprised by her comments. She had obviously thought about this very deeply.

“Alex, I didn’t understand until maybe the middle of third year. I finally understood that education is about storytelling – the stories of art and science, society and engineering, health and commerce and how they all weave together into the grand story of our lives together.”

Heed Simone’s advice. It is wise. Learn to catch the storyline of the courses and conversations and relationships and solitary epiphanies you will experience at college or university. It isn’t easy. It requires a lot of hard work. It requires a personal sense of purpose. It requires an open heart and a seeking mind. But the payoff is amazing: a life that is transformed from mere existence to living. From shades of gray to millions of colours.

A life in which every experience becomes a possibility for adventure, growth and love.

Ontario must invest in higher education.

When I began teaching at McMaster University on July 1, 2001, I had a pretty unique experience as a new professor.

I was the first person hired into the Communication Studies Program at McMaster University. The program was so new that it didn’t even exist. In fact, the program only officially took existence with our first enrolled program students who all had to have taken the two first year courses in 2001 to be able to enroll in 2002! I taught the Introduction to Communication, and we were joined by Dr. Laurence Mussio, a successful communications consultant in Toronto, who taught the other first year course in the History of Communication.That was it. We were the program.

The newness of our program made my experience as a newly-minted tenure-track faculty member completely atypical. Graham Knight and I built the program from the ground up. I have had the opportunity to sit on every hiring committee since the program’s inception. I remember the lean days, when we truly offering the program on a shoe string. It was exciting. We had hundreds of students, starting in our first year. Our first graduating class was in 2004. It was composed of 17 students – all of whom had already begun in other programs and transferred into communication studies. The next year we graduated over 60. Now we graduate a steady state of about 125 students in our honours and combined honours BA programs. We have about 5 tenured and tenure-track faculty in communication studies. This year, we began our Master of Arts in Communication and New Media. We’ve been growing constantly.

The ride up to now has been exciting. It’s been a story of constant change and growth. But our situation is stabilising. We are now beginning to face the challenges of a mature department.

What this has meant for me personally is that I am now getting a sense of what faculty and students in other mature departments have been feeling all along during the last 10 years. We aren’t atypical anymore.

Faculty and students feel frustration at the fact that classes are so big. This is not a case of fat cat professors complaining because they have to mark a few more papers. Rather, this frustration is born of the fact that professors see the future of Canada through a lens that many Canadians don’t get to peer through.

Professors see that students – especially those who don’t come from families where parents are not university-educated – need the mentorship of committed, permanent faculty to help them make sense of the university system, the job market and the confusing world of media, politics and money that they are stepping into. Large classes put up huge barriers to building these mentorship relationships.

Let me take a moment to talk about the larger institutional context.

The Faculty of Humanities at McMaster has been very intelligently managed. Starting in the late 90s, the faculty has completely revisioned and redefined itself. It has become very lean, fiscally. All faculty teach their share of classes. Research productivity is higher than it has ever been. Almost every department has reflected deeply on its mandate and mission. Many have completely re-defined themselves: the French department (to which I am proudly jointly appointed) adopted “Francophonie and Diversity” as its theme, English added “Cultural Studies and Critical Theory” to its program offerings, music and linguistics have redefined themselves along cognitive science lines, and, of course, a new department – Communication Studies and Multimedia – was formed. At the same time, all the fat was cut.

I sat on the McMaster University Planning and Budget Committees for three years (2006-08) and I can say that, from what I saw and read, there is nothing non-essential to cut in Humanities. There is no fat. There are no frills. There are simply basic needs that are being met: base operating costs, the cost of maintaining a basically safe physical plant and the basic cost of supporting faculty research costs. No more food at meetings. No free lunches.

Any budgetary issues in Humanities now are – quite simply – problems of basic income. That income, however, is not market-based. We don’t charge students the full cost of their education. We rely on government.

Since the Harrris government, there has been a chronic underfunding of higher education. No subsequent government has restored funding to higher education. And the underfunding is reaching crisis proportions. Ontario is 10th among Canadian provinces in its per student investment in higher education. Roger Martin reports in, “Who killed Canada’s Education Advantage?”, in the November edition of The Walrus, that faculty-student ratios have risen from 18.8 students per permanent faculty member in 1993 to 24.4 students per faculty member in 2005.

The greatest education is when students spend some quality time discussing ideas with faculty that were touched upon in class. When they feel comfortable enough with ideas to chat about them over coffee with one another in spaces that are conducive to such conversations. The problem is that unless you come from a family background in which such conversations about ideas, culture, science and future plans are common and normal – chances are excellent that you don’t know how to have them. They are outside of your ken. Learning how to converse about your life in a considered way is one of the greatest pleasures and benefits of post-secondary education.

The problem is that this requires time and opportunity. The opportunity to make the personal contact. The time to have the conversation. Both time and opportunity are becoming scarce commodities in the current higher education system.

In our Faculty of Humanities, the one I know best, any cuts now will mean dropping successful programs with high enrollments. Cuts will mean even bigger classes. Cuts will mean fewer meaningful conversations between faculty and students. There are no more “savings” to be had.

At risk is our future as a Canadian civil society that encourages social mobility through education.

In fact, we may be graduating young people who are not as well-equipped as previous generations to understand the complicated world they will step into and eventually be in charge of. This is a terrifying and disheartening prospect that will affect our productivity, our international competitiveness and – most importantly – the health of our democracy and the strength of our social cohesion.

A society that doesn’t allow its citizens the time or opportunity to reflect upon itself will crumble under the weight of individual self-interest and short-term thinking.

Governments must invest in higher education. Ontario parents and students should demand it. Our future depends on it.