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.

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§ 8 Responses to A for effort

  • profacero says:

    He’s right, of course, but what he proposes re grades would only work if students were in school voluntarily, and were taking the class in question voluntarily … and if, given that they were there voluntarily, their purpose in being there voluntarily were to learn.

    Many of my students are not in school voluntarily, and the courses they take are required. They acquiesce to this because they recognize that they will at least earn grades, which will lead to graduation, which will lead to a white collar job with health insurance.

    They want these things and they want to take the shortest road possible to them – which ideally should not involve the deeper difficulty of learning, but only the superficial one of earning points, then grades, then a degree.

    Of course one can change this mentality but it is not easy if large parts of the university validate and reinforce it.

    I of course agree that a job that isn’t terribly dangerous and carcinogenic, and that offers health insurance to boot, is desirable – but I think that is a RIGHT and not something only the college “educated” deserve.

  • rada says:

    I’ve taken 2 graduate seminars/classes where the professor used the same grading as Rancourt, pass/fail. It was a more collective discussion of weekly subjects, and critiquing of each other, prof included. It was such a refreshing environment to learn in.

  • Vila H. says:

    Profacero: Thanks for your comment. I realize that most students don’t feel this way, but university attendance is, in fact, voluntary. Certainly, no one is required by law to be there, and no constitution that I am aware of enshrines access to post-secondary education as a human right. That said, Rancourt’s dismissal raises an interesting question: is it possible to eke out spaces within the university that are about “the deeper difficulty of learning” rather than mere job training? Or does each function so gravely threaten the other that co-existence is impossible?

    Rada: Interestingly enough, most graduate-level work (e.g. comps, thesis proposals, dissertations) is evaluated by means other than letter grades. I suspect that it’s just a matter of numbers: the standard grading system is more efficient and therefore better suited to large classes, while other approaches require a degree of individualized attention that is not generally afforded to undergraduate students. In other words, it’s a structural problem which isn’t going to go away anytime soon, regardless of Rancourt’s efforts. And so it goes…

  • husk says:

    I went to high school.

  • Vila H. says:

    Sorry; shop talk.

  • slow as my frozen grandpa blogger says:

    The problem with pass/fail is that it encourages students to do just enough to get the pass, i.e., pass/fail rewards mediocrity. The students who get the A grades tend to be the ones who excel and who are really into the material; and they are the ones who have the greatest chance of carrying on in the university environment and spending their lives broke for the sake of pure education anyhow. So really, taking away their potential A and basically telling them that their extra brains and extra studying and all that left them in the same place as the person who flipped through the book the night before the test and read a few definitions between bong hits and then kind of scrapped by is going to be pretty demoralizing.

    And anyhow, the pass/fail is simply a dumbed down version of the usual grading system anyhow in the sense that the nuance of different levels of achievement may be gone but the concept that you either get it or you don’t is still there. It is still a matter of have and have not. Why should there be any system at all?

    If the idea of free ranging discussion about important issues shouldn’t be controlled or given direction by the professor, but rather should be allowed to go wherever the students take it; such things being more democratic and all, then why bother with the university setting at all?

    This professor should try to offer his students the widest range of voices into their public sphere by locating places of assemblage free of the constrictions of tuition and all the social barriers that accompany tuition and attendance in a university in the first place. It just seems to me like he is arbitrarily picking and choosing what battles to fight and ignoring a lot of other factors in the process.

    The other thing is, that, like it or not, most people are not in university to learn anything and so exposing them to an environment where free thought is encouraged and people are not given the proper Foucauldian carrot and stick reward/punishment training that comes from grade allotments is going to send them forth from the gates of the academy ill prepared to take up their cubicle in the big hive of life and commence their drone-like, occasionally facebook interrupted, march unto the grave.

  • s says:

    i took a class like this in college; it was taught by a Rogerian professor. he gave us a list of 20 books and told us to read what we liked. of course, being an undergraduate, i did practically nothing til the end of the semester. then i read the 3 books that actually interested me and learned more than i did in my 10 other psych classes – because i was actually interested in the material.

    no teaching method guarantees results but this style (its really quote old hat, having been used for probably 100 years) works at least as well as the usual beat-and-repeat.

  • Vila H. says:

    Slow: I like how we simultaneously agree and disagree. Admittedly, I tend to vacillate between optimism and pessimism on these issues, but since I know from experience that Rancourt’s approach can work, I’m inclined to dig my heels in on this one.

    I also know from experience that the grading system can be a complete mind-fuck for engaged students, so I’m not sure that being showered with As is always a good thing. Sometimes, we need to conduct experiments that fail, even if we are ultimately destined for the cubicle.

    S: You’re right about the lack of guarantees, which makes the UofOs response to the situation seem even more excessive. Do you really have to run a prof out of town because he’s doing things a little bit differently? More to the point, wouldn’t it be a far more effective strategy to simply contain him–i.e., give him a couple of pass/fail courses and then ignore him? At least that way, they won’t be writing about him in the bloody New York Times!

    Anyway, the G&M printed a great letter from a student’s mother today. It’ll go premium in a couple of days so I’m reprinting it here:

    JULIA DEBONO
    February 9, 2009

    In 2006, while shadowing my daughter, then a student at the University of Ottawa, I attended one of Denis Rancourt’s classes. Prof. Rancourt, clearly a dedicated, principled teacher, moderated a spirited, engaging, intellectually provocative discussion in which about 50 students eagerly participated.

    Other undergraduate classes that I attended consisted of the professor lecturing while students chatted, surfed the Net or took verbatim notes. Few asked questions and there were no discussions, even when the professor asked for some.

    Prof. Rancourt’s class resembled classes I had at the University of Michigan’s Residential College in the mid-1970s, right down to the use of narrative summaries instead of grades to evaluate learning.

    His class was an example of the kind of educational experience I sent my daughter to university to be a part of.

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