May 26th, 2020 - Alex Usher
One of the things I am sure you have seen with respect to the transition to remote teaching for the fall is some kind of reassurance that institutions are doing all they can to ensure that the fall term will be the hunkiest-doriest term of all time.

For instance, McGill says: that “ students and their families can be assured we are planning for robust and high-quality teaching even if the modes of delivery will be modified for this term”.   Waterloo speaks of delivering “ the highest quality courses and experiences for our students, at a distance”. These are not outliers: pick any institution you want, they are all promising more or less the same thing:
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The problem is, they can’t actually guarantee anything of the sort. The fact of the matter is, they have no teaching quality standards for their courses, online or otherwise. This was outsourced to individual faculty members long ago. And so, whenever institutions promise something with respect to “quality of courses”, what they are actually doing is praying that their staff actually manage to work something out.

 Canadian academia is a bit of an outlier in the way it assumes that “academic freedom” is synonymous with “classroom sovereignty” – that is, that professors have a more or less unfettered right, within the guidelines set down by Senate/Academic Council and the course description approved by the relevant academic body, to teach a subject more or less however they like (this is quite different from, say, continental Europe, where academic freedom is conceptualized more in terms of institutional autonomy and the right of faculty to elect their own leaders, which is not at all an expectation in North America). 

The logic here isn’t outlandish: when a professor gets tenure, that’s an indication that their expertise is accepted by others. And what goes along with that is a belief that the professor must also be an authority in how to communicate knowledge related to their expertise. This is, quite frankly, nonsense: subject-matter expertise is a necessary but insufficient criterion to be a good teacher at the post-secondary level. Many profs happen to be naturally good at it, and many others work hard to develop their skills in it, but it’s quite possible to get a doctorate and even tenure without achieving much fluency in teaching. 

Now, that said, the system mostly works. It is not as good as it could be, obviously – we’ve all had bad teachers and know how agonizing that experience can be. A best practice in this respect is probably the UK, where a majority of academic staff take a “ Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education ”, which is about a term’s worth of work spread over two year, and which provides new academics with the basics of higher-level pedagogy (although, predictably, this credential  is almost never found among staff at the really research-intensive institutions  because, really, who can be bothered with undergraduates when there is MOAR RESEARCH to be done?). But on the whole, in the Before Times, we got by without it and life was not terrible.

But that was then and this is now. Before, professors – even those without extensive pedagogical training – had themselves gone through a couple of decades of informal training simply by sitting in classrooms themselves. Now, most professors are being asked to think about teaching in a new medium in which they have no or little experience either as a professor or as a student. Most of what passes for their expertise in pedagogy is now gone. And yet, in Canada, this is no reason to ignore what faculty have come to view as their natural right to teach as they please. If they want to do 3-hour zoom lectures all term, by God, they are going to do 3-hour zoom lectures all term, pedagogic consequences (in particular, elevated levels of student drop-outs) be damned.

Obviously, most professors are not going to do this. Most are going to work diligently over the summer, using the limited time and means at their disposal to try to make a better learning experience for their students (digression: one of the reasons American universities are so much more freaked about the possibility of fall term being online and – apparently – more prepared to risk re-opening is that they don’t pay their profs in the summer, which makes it a lot more difficult for them to ask profs to put in extra hours on teaching prep). It won’t be as good as it could be: there isn’t enough time and money for every professor to spend time on this and make it as good as a true online course, and God only knows what the quality will be of all those courses taught by sessionals, who certainly don’t get hired, paid, or supported in the summer months. 

The problem is, of course, that precisely because we have no quality controls on courses, there will be some professors who will not do the work. Indeed, I suspect there is a small fraction of professors, who are probably slightly overrepresented in the humanities, who are going to do nothing to make their courses online-friendly because they despise online education (MOOCs, neoliberalism, something something) and hope this experiment fails because otherwise they might be asked to do it again. It won’t be a huge group, or anything, but that faction certainly seems to exist. Some of them may try to hide behind an academic freedom argument. But they ought not to be able to.

Now university administrations don’t really have a tool to guarantee quality here. But Senates do. Senates are a form of shared governance, and as long as the decisions on quality are shared, they are enforceable (ok, I suppose it’s possible someone could use the Collective Agreement to grieve a Senate decision the way they grieve administrative ones, but they’d look like a complete muppet). So, what I would do, were I a university provost (yes, I know, God Forbid) would be to walk into the next Senate meeting and:

  1. Lay out a comprehensive plan that pays for every professor to take some kind of instruction in online pedagogy, help them with understanding the ins-and-out of online systems, and provide all kinds of money for putting courses online, allocating extra grad students to do TA and small group work. Anything the institution can do to make the transition a good one can and should be delivered (Western seems to be doing the best job of this right now, if y’all are looking for a model)
  2. Ask Senate to require every professor teaching this term to take such a course, require them to lay out a plan for a revised course delivery, optimized for the online environment, and empower department chairs to reject plans which do not obviously take account and advantage of the new medium.
  3. Ask Senate to empower Deans to revise faculty workload expectations for the summer, favouring course preparation over research, and adjusting tenure/promotion/merit assessments accordingly.

This is, I would argue, the solution that students need. That institutions need. And ultimately, that professors need as well, at least to ensure that workloads in the transition to remote delivery are not going to be vastly unbalanced (you know there’s going to be a gender element here, right?). Sure, it breaks with tradition in a number of ways. But nothing right now is business as usual. Regular notions of professorial sovereignty over courses shouldn’t be, either.