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Editorial

Program reviews are now a private matter at UFV. What will be lost?

There’s always something a little unnerving about printing out a final essay — how many hours, how many tabs, how much stress and eye-strained reading and backspacing and this is what you get? Twelve pages of paper. We hope our professors understand. Well, there is an equivalent, in some sense: professors’ lives are pulled, one way and then another, by paperwork.

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By Michael Scoular (The Cascade) – Email

Illustration: Sultan Jum

Illustration: Sultan Jum

There’s always something a little unnerving about printing out a final essay — how many hours, how many tabs, how much stress and eye-strained reading and backspacing and this is what you get? Twelve pages of paper. We hope our professors understand. Well, there is an equivalent, in some sense: professors’ lives are pulled, one way and then another, by paperwork. Their jobs, their areas of research and teaching: all of these end up, at some point, summarized on a page. Perhaps none of these looms so large as the reviews professors encounter: of their status as professors, and the status of the programs that they teach in. It’s relevant to bring this up now, because how UFV shares the results of its program reviews is about to change — already has.

After updating Senate on the recent new degree proposal business that’s working its way through the provincial government’s paper-sorting systems (see page five for more on that), vice-president academic Eric Davis noted that UFV, apparently, was out-of-date when it comes to standardizing its own review process, and that the Province offered some notes. “The following information is normally considered confidential,” Davis said, beginning a list: “The names of reviewers, the names of all faculty and staff members consulted, and any, let’s say, difficult or challenging comments by reviewers are considered confidential or ought to be treated confidentially.”

As a result, program reviews will now be presented and discussed in camera, or in private, and the only publicized form of information will be an annual report. That report will not include the reviews as originally presented, but will, Davis said, “[Summarize] some common themes in the program reviews from that year. And if there are difficult recommendations or comments in the program reviews, they can be alluded to in a diplomatic fashion.”

A public university, trying to please both its provincial legislators and its public, is always considering two sides of what to say: the truth of how things are, and the parts of the truth that it is legally obligated to share. In this case, it turns out the university will not need to share as much as it was up to this point — the relevant departments will receive review findings internally, and changes will happen, if they do, in a way that is as undisruptive as possible. Davis concluded by saying this standard will begin this month — which means December’s review of the psychology program might be the last one released to the public in full. What are the difficult, challenging, in the future to-be confidential segments of its findings? Well, the kind of thing that could probably apply to almost any department of teaching at UFV, the kind of in-progress debate and disagreement that, in any university that teaches inquiry and “critical thinking,” would hopefully be assumed to be the norm. (Note: the external reviewers in this case were three professors, one from UVic, one from UBC, and one from another department at UFV.)

One of the review’s main debates, for example, is how to make a department grow, and how to do it without additional classrooms, offices, or faculty members. “The committee noted that the program and faculty workloads are heavily stacked on the first year, leaving less breadth and options at the upper year levels … They observed that the imbalance of resources devoted to lower levels in turn affected the length of time students were taking to graduate, on average seven years.” It probably has not escaped the notice of most students that first-year courses are always abundant on just about every department’s timetable listings, while upper-year courses, with a few exceptions, are limited to a smaller pool of rotating offerings.

What was the review’s recommendation to address this problem? They put it this way: “Simply put, it is not the best use of Ph.D. trained Psychologists to edit grammar on written assignments for multiple sections of 30 first-year students … the department should begin scheduling larger first-year classes by combining sections. Such strategies are already being employed by other departments at UFV.” Along with this shift comes the idea also shared by many other universities, though it is more common at the graduate level: “using undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs), in turn preparing them for post-graduate opportunities and communication skills beneficial in many of the work opportunities pursued by Psychology graduates.” This last point, of course, would open up a gigantic topic that is the centre of numerous controversies: TA unionization, fair compensation, the quality of teaching that results as universities offload more work to TAs, etc.

The response to this idea? “Department members are loathe to give up small class sizes where students are better able to initiate one-to-one interactions with their instructors than occurs at big research universities.” Which is followed by this contextual jab: “It is worth noting that no data is quoted to support the claim that student [sic] in these small classes are more successful than students in larger classes who go on to enjoy more research opportunities and course choice at upper levels.”

The review process is not a command, and the words printed in them are not final, but this is a record of a debate about the very nature of UFV: if we’re going to talk about data supporting or not supporting lower class sizes, then we’re talking about one of the most highly-supported features of UFV. The more discussions like this are public, the more departments, both faculty and students, can learn from one another, and be aware of the institution as a whole.

The rest of the document includes references to other changes and questions, some small, some with the potential to have broader impact: shell courses for research opportunities (seen in use in the theatre department), which directly fund departments; the question of how valuable a UFV degree is compared to other institutions; the decision-making process when it comes to filling vacant faculty positions, and how to introduce and welcome new faculty and staff members when they arrive in a new department; how to improve writing standards for non-writing intensive disciplines; the role played by online and hybrid courses, and the question of how effective they really are.

On that last note, a review, apparently, is a way to find honest perspectives; outside of a private conversation, or a professor briefly opinionating on a matter, depending on who you have courses with for a semester, that can be a rare thing at UFV. “The view held by members of the department [is] that Blackboard, as it is currently being used by UFV, is not the optimal vehicle for obtaining these benefits.”

Or this short sentence: “Since the review, the department head has moved into an office with a window.” Clarification follows: the reason many faculty aren’t on campus has more to do with where they live (outside Abbotsford), and low morale. But, well, if you’re already buried in paperwork, as any student knows: having a window helps.

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