By Victoria Chen
Brief summary of OUSA (2015) “Those who can, teach”
As a response to the rapidly changing demands of universities in Ontario, the OUSA (Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance) provides a 31 page document outlining the challenges universities are currently facing with recommendations on how to address these challenges and “improve quality and productivity in Ontario’s university system”. Although the document covers a vast number of challenges and certainly urges universities to prioritize teaching quality, I argue that there lacks focus on the real problem—how are universities providing opportunities for STUDENTS to become quality faculty members?
Response: Water the roots instead of the leaves
When a plant is dying, you can trim the brown leaves, reposition the plant so the leaves face the sun, and dust off the leaves so they absorb more sunlight, but the real problem lies in the roots and without tending to the roots the plant will die regardless of what you do to the leaves. Similarly, the recommendations from the OUSA document focus on the top portion of the system, rearranging faculty members’ teaching and research demands, putting more money into training faculty who are ALREADY hired, and using the “SET” feedback approach again for faculty who are already hired, but what are they doing to help create better educators before they become faculty members? The university system is deeply rooted in the students it produces, some of which will become faculty members one day, but the OUSA was very limited on this area. What will we do to give to students the opportunity to explore and develop their teaching skills?
Recommendation: Opportunities for future faculty members to develop general knowledge, attitudes and intentions towards teaching or learn about a discipline’s signature pedagogy should begin much earlier, such as in the undergraduate program. Not everyone wants to become a researcher or instructor, but everyone can benefit from gaining more knowledge on how to be an effective learner and teacher. Being an effective communicator in one’s discipline can transfers to any career.
Another problem the OUSA document seems to miss is the cultural differences in how disciplines value teaching and research. Spending time and effort in developing quality teaching can be seen as taking time away from researching, which can cause some faculty members to discourage their students to take opportunities in teaching (e.g., Anderson, 2007; Plenary speech by Dr. John P. Smol at STLHE 2014).
Recommendation: Interest in SoTL has been increasing over the years, and many individuals within a university are engaged in SoTL but perhaps are not widely known or linked to each other. Building a scholarly community among the individuals (including undergraduate and graduate students) within the university through Centres for Teaching and Learning could help with this, as could groups among universities on a more global scale. The authors of OUSA argued this doesn’t happen (p. 7), but through groups such as SoTL Canada using an online medium, these groups are happening and perhaps need to be even more prominent in order to dispel this information. Another aspect specifically for students is to encourage them to go to conferences on higher education in all disciplines. STLHE has a student bursary that is open to all students to apply, not just those who are presenting, which has been a big step forward on this front.
The OUSA recommends hiring faculty specifically for teaching, but what qualifies as quality teaching? I have been a TA for many years and although I was lucky to have instructors who allowed me to teach sessions and develop assessments, I still spend most of my time becoming a professional marker instead of professional teacher. Many TA positions only focus on marking or reading slides for an activity, so what can be done to give students opportunities to develop teaching skills?
Recommendation: Centres for Teaching and Learning in universities have become a greater resource for those interested in educational careers at all levels and increasingly emphasis has been placed on helping graduate students as well as faculty members. Courses that are offered specifically to help graduate students and post-docs develop teaching skills are an excellent way to help them learn and practice evidence-based teaching practices (e.g., Teaching and Learning in Higher Education course described by Leger & Fostaty Young, 2014). The opportunities to teach might not be under the control of Centres, but at least students are able to attain skills through a formal course. In the end, the university has the greatest power in putting emphasis on the initiative to produce better graduates, and developing graduates equipped to become quality instructors (whether in a university setting or not) will be an investment in a future that will benefit everyone.