Friday, April 06, 2007

One for the Record Books, One from the Archives

Yesterday I delivered the last lecture of my first year as a tenure-track professor in Renaissance Poetry and Prose at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

My metaphor for teaching the past couple of weeks has been the Wolfe Island ferry, the vessel that takes passengers and vehicles from Kingston to Wolfe Island, one of the many residential islets in the Thousand Island region. Every day -- indeed the highlight of my day, every day -- I drive over the Rideau Canal across the Lasalle Causeway, the low-lying bridge connecting the "east side" of Kingston, the rural district on the St. Lawrence where I live, to the city's historic downtown. As Kingston Harbor lies next to the Causeway, I frequently witness the ferry making its way into the docks.

Heading into the final weeks of the course, I knew my job was to bring the ferry in, both squarely (i.e., coherently) and on time (i.e., having effectively covered Paradise Lost). Loading the single passengers (all those lyric poems and individual prose texts spanning the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries), the passenger vehicles (e.g., the sonnet sequences, epyllia), and the heavy-lifting equipment (the epics, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost) on to the vessel -- the syllabus -- is relatively easy compared to the day-to-day work of navigating the craft.

As I told Jim Lang at the Chronicle at the end of fall term, I fell behind schedule often enough to worry about my credibility when it came to the syllabus, even though I felt we typically fell behind for good reason -- that is, to pursue ideas that helped advance and fulfill the intellectual objectives of the course. This term (my courses are year-long), I knew I had to stay on schedule and help students hunt down those ideas ("since in a net I seek to hold the wind" -- Thomas Wyatt), and captain the ship a little more firmly.

I delivered, as best I could; a little shaky, but we pulled in. There was one more point I wanted to make about Adam, but come 12:50 yesterday, I knew where we had to be, with Adam and Eve, exiting Paradise:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through EDEN took thir solitarie way.

At the end, I thanked the students for their attention, for their hard work, and, most of all, for their ideas. They applauded -- loudly, vehemently, for some time.

I confess I felt unworthy, even embarrassed.

At this point, it's true that all I can see now are ideas for classroom activities that I didn't follow through on; the fact that I didn't stay up-to-date on my course website, as I'd hoped (and promised); the points I should have made in class, and didn't, or feel I didn't make well enough. Sure, I'm writing it all down, so as to revise for next year -- and yes, I am now wedded to the idea of syllabus as thesis, not contract.

And I'm also trying my best to take in my students' appreciation and acclaim, which was genuine and heartfelt, and which I would be a fool to disrespect. Queen's students are Canada's brightest, and they work damn hard, harder than I ever worked as an undergrad.

Rising this morning -- after little sleep tending to my feverish daughter all night -- I nonetheless had the leisure to spend a little more time reading the headlines than I usually would. Plugging through my "news and mags" bookmarks, I usually skip over the link to Harper's, which, until recently, has been a mere shell of a site, barely an ad for the current issue on newsstands.

Digital shell no more: the new online Harper's is fantastic, with links and archives going back to 1850, and I've been whiling away the morning hopping back and forth arbitrarily on the absurdly complete and user-friendly time line.

One of my first finds? The following piece, from February 1965, from the editor's column -- "The Editor's Easy Chair"; John Fischer then seated -- titled "Is there a teacher on the faculty?" As it speaks not only to the assessment of teaching in higher education (what I've been musing on for the past day, if not the past twenty-four weeks in my classroom), but also to concepts of academic labor and measures of our work (related to the academic blog discussion, recently reprised), I present an excerpt from Fischer's column here. . .

. . .

First, however, it may be useful to take a look at the reasons why so much college teaching is so poor.

The main reason, I am persuaded, is that we do not now have any objective, impersonal method to measure the quality of teaching. It is true that nearly everybody on the campus knows who are the good teachers and who the bad ones; but this information is acquired by a process of hearsay, student gossip, and osmosis. There is no solid, safe yardstick that a dean or department head can use to justify raising the pay of a good instructor, or firing a poor one. He dares not depend on his personal judgment, however sound it may be. That way lie recriminations, accusations of favoritism and injustice, and probably a fight with the American Association of University Professors, one of the most powerful of trade unions.

Consequently, in doling out rewards and punishments the administrator falls back on something that can be measured: research and publication. The number of column inches in learned journals, the pounds of books published, the foundation grants awarded, the prizes won -- Nobel, Bancroft, Guggenheim, or a dozen others -- these are tangible, indisputable tokens of some kind of academic achievement. (The quality of the research is hardly relevant. After all, an administrator isn't expected to be able to judge whether a finding in biochemistry is really significant, or whether yet another critical evaluation of Henry James adds anything to those already on the shelf.)

Now everybody will agree that research ought to be an important part of academic life. Ideally, we are told, research and teaching go hand-in-hand; the good professor adds to the store of knowledge at the same time he is dispensing it. In practice, alas, things seldom work out that way. So long as research alone pays off, in cash and fame, the temptation to scamp on teaching is almost irresistible. Hence the lectures delivered year after year from notes compiled a generation ago . . . the section men who conduct their classes with unconcealed distaste, begrudging every minute stolen from the lab. . . the perfunctory seminar, the brushed-off questions, the impatient stifling of a student's bothersome zeal. Indeed, human nature being what it is, we should be amazed that so many academics do sweat to teach the very best they can, ignoring self-interest for the sake of the young and their own sense of mission. These rare souls are the saving leaven which can make the college experience worthwhile (sometimes) in spite of everything. But they are bound to dwindle like the whooping crane if (in Dr. Logan Wilson's words) "the faculty itself regards relief from teaching as the chief reward for accomplishment, or as the highest status symbol."

It is idle, however, to rail against the publish-or-perish syndrome, with all its baleful effects, so long as publication itself is the only acceptable measure of achievement. A healthy balance between scholarship and teaching probably can never be restored until a reasonably objective yardstick is devised for testing -- and rewarding -- performance as a teacher. The difficulties are obvious; but, as we shall see, they may not be insuperable.

. . .

February 1965. . . plus ça change?

1 comment:

Amanda Bonner said...

The "end of the year applause" is a long-standing Queen's tradition (so I've been told by those older and wiser). The students don't do it unless they really mean it. Good on you, G.

The ex-diva in me is itching to coach you in the taking of bows ... You've got many more rounds of applause coming, methinks.