A for effort
February 6, 2009 § 8 Comments
Today, the Globe and Mail reported that Denis Rancourt, a tenured physics professor at the University of Ottawa, was fired for using “radical” teaching methods in a fourth-year undergraduate seminar and subsequently arrested for entering the grounds of his university. Of course, this is a more complicated story than it first appears and one that has everything to do with Rancourt’s political activism, but the fact remains that the reason the university has cited for his dismissal is his refusal to evaluate his students’ learning with letter grades.
In an earlier interview with rabble.ca, Rancourt explained his position:
With grades students learn to guess the professor’s mind and to obey. It is a very sophisticated machinery, whereby the natural desire to learn, the intrinsic motivation to want to learn something because you are interested in the thing itself, is destroyed. Grades are the carrot and stick that shape obedient employees and that prepare students for the higher level indoctrinations of graduate and professional schools. The only way to develop independent thinking in the classroom is to give freedom, to break the power relationship by removing the instrument of power.
In place of letter grades, Rancourt proposed a simple pass/fail evaluation for his course, a common enough practice but one which university administrators nevertheless denied. Undaunted, Rancourt announced to his students on the first day of class that they would all receive A-pluses; soon afterward, he was suspended from teaching, locked out of his laboratory, and recommended for dismissal.
Jesse Freeston describes Rancourt’s approach to teaching as “critical pedagogy,” which “is all about democratizing the classroom. Students are given input over the curriculum, they are encouraged to take classroom discussion wherever it may lead, and there are no grades.” I have personally benefitted from all three of these practices, which were part of the learning environment at my high school and rubber-stamped by the Toronto Board of Education, and it astonishes me that what was considered perfectly acceptable for students at a public secondary school is deemed to be just cause for overriding the tenure of a university professor.
When asked why non-academics should care about academic freedom, Rancourt responded:
They shouldn’t. Such caring would imply the elitist notion that only university professors should have freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry and job security. Citizens should instead fight for these principles in their own lives, in their work and at school. All such fights create and strengthen political freedom for all.
Which I suppose is a far more dangerous idea than getting rid of grades.