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PEI prof says universities are lost in the woods, intellectually. Are they?

Just before the winter break, on Canada’s east coast, Ron Srigley had his Howard Beale moment. “It is about time we all said ‘enough,’” Srigley wrote in his essay for the LA Review of Books, the last exasperated fist-slamming moment, the end of a marathon checklist of Everything Wrong with Higher Education.

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By Michael Scoular (The Cascade) – Email

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Just before the winter break, on Canada’s east coast, Ron Srigley had his Howard Beale moment. “It is about time we all said ‘enough,’” Srigley wrote in his essay for the LA Review of Books, the last exasperated fist-slamming moment, the end of a marathon checklist of Everything Wrong with Higher Education.

Though Srigley writes like he’s the first to have the epiphany, he is not the first to voice these complaints: slipping grading standards in the classroom; a product-driven spotlight swing from the humanities to professional training; the rise of the administrative, corporate-run institution; and the death, or side-lining, of the professor’s ability to teach advanced material due to the erosion of the K-12 student’s pre-university education, pathetic reaches for relevancy over timeless ideas (“the Disneyfication of course offerings”), or both. Sure, some of these are more prominent now, but some of them show up in the mostly 1930s-set classic campus novel Stoner: students are pushed through despite not completing coursework, administrative grudges create animosity among faculty, and first-year students, somehow, just aren’t thrilled to take an English requirement that a professor uses to lecture on subjects unrelated to basic essay writing.

But what caught my eye is that Srigley is very specific in his complaints: though a lot of his argument comes with the air of the crank dusting off a manuscript that contains within it the lost golden age of an ideal life-changing education, Srigley also knows a fair amount about the landscape of Canadian education.

“A word about which universities I have in mind, because not all universities are the same,” he writes. “I wish to speak about third- and fourth-tier Canadian schools that are primarily undergraduate institutions. Historically, these schools have had few graduate programs and have focused their curriculum on the liberal arts and sciences. Today they are abandoning this tradition at an alarming rate in favor of professional programs like engineering, nursing, education, and business.”

Srigley speaks generally, so he doesn’t know the history of UFV, which is that it has included professional programs for decades (though the recent emphasis on trades funding linked to specific jobs by the provincial government is undeniable). UFV began as a regional college, built to serve its community, and agriculture, among other subjects, was a large part of that. It has since transitioned to a university, but is very young, lacking a large number of programs beyond the undergraduate level, and so while it has a good reputation in some circles, is not often a young student’s first choice, so long as they’re dreaming about where their good grades might take them. UFV is also fragmented, with multiple campuses, a very small residence, and schedule-limiting course offerings for some majors — all factors that insulate students from being part of a broader atmosphere of study. In other words, UFV is almost exactly the kind of place Srigley is describing as deeply flawed, on the wrong track.

Srigley’s essay is remarkably ungracious and condescending. He throws his colleagues under the bus, suggests that students are too stupid to possibly know what they’re missing out on, and obviously loathes any intrusion by administrators into academic matters. One episode he recounts has him wheeling around his classroom, admonishing his phone-staring students before delivering a speech that is both despairing and just a little grandiose: “You’re not here to read books! You know as well as I do that that is not the point, not the reason you’re here. You’re here to have fun, to have lots of cool social and personal experiences, to ‘get a degree’ and perhaps acquire a couple of employable skills along the way. But you are not here to learn or to become more intelligent. What’s worse, no one cares if you do or don’t! So why the hell am I wasting my time? Why are you?”

Still, if you can look past the hurt, frustrated-genius style of the whole thing, there’s some points in the essay that are, in a way, valuable and true. Students often don’t read assigned texts; or at least they don’t do so completely and on schedule. Many people care if a student fails or is held back; very few care if they personally develop and mature as a result of a university education, something not even an extra-curricular list can prove happens. And, in a way, the whole essay is a result, a sign, of what happens when a professor feels they can’t communicate within a university community.

On the first two notes, I don’t think a tirade quoting Camus and Sophocles will convince students otherwise that a run through the canon is important. Sean Michael Morris, director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, responded online, saying that, Srigley’s disillusionment and chagrin aside, the difference between a professor who reaches students and one who can’t is entirely based on the nature of their relationship, not the force of their points or even their freedom from YouTube and PowerPoint and Prezi (though in some cases it might help): “It is when we don’t make learners into colleagues that we falsify the educative process for them and for ourselves. We fail to be Professors and become instead merchants peddling our wares to buyers who have better things to do.” Morris isn’t suggesting that students should, as some have interpreted it, direct the classroom, but that they and the professor are people with equal capacity as thinkers and readers. When that’s recognized (and Srigley’s essay is completely lacking in a spirit of collegiality), a class can become more interesting than a time-killing conversation.

As for the administrative side of things, it’s worth noting Srigley wrote a similar essay (though much shorter, and he doesn’t call the whole operation a big, ugly joke) in 2012 for Education Canada, a quarterly magazine. And nothing changed, so his distaste grew, and he collected more examples to use against the state of the contemporary university.

Based on the reception of the LA Review of Books piece, other professors feel the same way. It isn’t a giant stretch to consider that some at UFV might feel similarly limited, that students are naive, intellectual life is slipping backward, everything has a price attached, and things are generally thin, hope-wise, when faculty are considered just one piece of an ever-growing pie chart.

Morris writes: “Even in the most encouraging conversations with the most enthusiastic teachers, dissatisfaction lies just one rhetorical turn away. I’m certain that my teachers complained about me, your teachers complained about you, and Ron Srigley’s teachers complained about him.” In the same way, it often comes down to something as simple as rhetoric, as openness to real communication that can improve a place of work and learning. Srigley’s example probably isn’t the step forward any university today would want to take. But it exists as an extreme point of reference for how things can get.

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1 Comment

  1. Sara Snow

    January 18, 2016 at 11:40 pm

    I gave up teaching at a BC university after being harassed for pointing out what we all know to be true: universities have become shoddy little degree mills serving the interests of bloated and otiose administrations. Most of my students were not what would once have been considered university material (and indeed could not reasonably be termed “students” because they rarely studied and had no interest in studying). They were there because their snobbish and ill-informed parents and high school counsellors had told them they’d never get anywhere without a university degree. They’re not going to get very far with a degree, either, given the inutility of so many fields of study and the sad fact that many graduate in almost as ignorant a state as when they left high school (and with a great deal more debt). Further, universities recruit triple-fee-paying foreign students whose English is so bad that they can pass only by cheating. Fortunately for these students, they can hire essay-writers who advertise their services on university bulletin-boards, and admin (not wishing to lose a major cash cow) turns a blind eye. Instructors who object are called “racist.” Given that the foxes are guarding the chicken coop, I’m not holding my breath waiting for change. Ten years ago I thought the situation couldn’t get any worse. Clearly, I lacked imagination. What a sodding farce.

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