I submitted my comments on the Queen's University Academic Plan 2011 to the Senate Academic Planning Task Force's chair yesterday. Here are my comments, with my address retracted from the top and correcting a silly grammatical mistake in the 4th paragraph from the end (replace "It would long have [...]" with "Any who did would long have [...]"). For those preferring to read the plain text version, see below.

 Peter Taylor
 Chair of Senate Academic Planning Task Force
 Queen's University
 Kingston ON

Dear Professor Taylor,

I am writing to express my concerns over the recommendations found in
the current draft of the Queen's University Academic Plan 2011. Most of
these concerns revolve around judging students, faculty and staff based
on some group trait rather than on individual merit, while other
objections revolve around recommendations on student assessment.

Recommendation 17 states in part that

  Queen's should create a task force to undertake a fundamental and
  creative review of its system of assessing student work, so
  that the marks we assign truly measure what we and society value
(emphasis mine). It is crucial to clearly specify what you
value when assessing student work.  What do I believe a student's marks
should measure? One thing, and one thing only: his ability to
demonstrate his understanding of the material taught in the courses he's
taken. No more, no less.  Being able to communicate and apply his
understanding of the material taught is what will matter upon obtaining
a job and is what employers and grad schools expect a degree from
Queen's to attest to.

Recommendation 17 further calls to consider ``making first-year courses
pass-fail'' and ``increasing the contribution of senior marks''.  A
student's final transcript should reflect his understanding of the
course material he was taught at Queen's. The second consideration is
the better means of achieving this reflection. Material learned in first
year is built upon in subsequent years and so if a student botched his
first year marks, yet managed to earn 80s and 90s in 300- and
400-level courses, he clearly has a solid understanding of first year
material, regardless of which marks he obtained in his first year
courses. If this is so, why not make first year courses pass-fail, you
may ask? As unfortunate as it may be, many students need the external
stimulus of marks in order to push themselves to work. Making first-year
courses pass-fail will remove this incentive.  Although senior marks
would still reflect students' understanding of first year material,
students who might otherwise have worked hard (and thus learned a good
work ethic) thanks to the external stimulus won't have and their senior
marks won't be as high as they could have been.

Recommendation 17 ends by stating that ``consideration should be given
to basing a component of the student's mark on group work''. My personal
experience throughout high school makes me wince at this recommendation.
In many groups, there are those who want to succeed and those who want
an easy ride. Those who want to succeed finish by taking on the brunt of
the work. Whom does this hurt most? Those who want the easy ride. They
know that someone else is carrying their weight and they will eventually
find themselves in over their head. However, it also hurts those who
want to succeed. Group projects are designed to be done by a specific
number of people; it is unfair for one or two people to have to take on
the weight of a whole group. The resulting work is often of lesser
quality than it would have been had everybody contributed, and
everybody's marks suffer because of it. This is an issue for those
applying to grad school, those on whom marks still have an enormous
impact. Instead of basing a component of student marks on group work,
give a challenging assignment and strongly encourage students to work in
groups (while still submitting their own work). This forces everybody to
carry their own weight, yet promotes collaboration.  Also give students
room to work together and discuss ideas.  For example, the Mathematics
and Statistics department has a ``math help centre'' where students can
work together, discuss homework problems and ask a TA questions.
Encourage professors and TAs to give out exercises and to encourage
students to work in groups during tutorials, rather than simply working
additional examples on the board.

Recommendation 27 recommends that ``Queen's should take the educational
and social value of service into account when planning degree
requirements and student workloads''. As unpopular a view as it may be,
I do not believe a university should broaden degree requirements beyond
academic concerns. If a student wishes to partake in community service,
he is free do to so through numerous campus clubs. Those who find
greater value in learning the technical skills required by their career
should be free to dedicate themselves to this. To compel students to do
community service, as Ontarian high schools do, will drive elsewhere
students who choose to put their every ounce of energy into academics
with nothing to spare.

Recommendation 35 states that ``Queen's should make a significant and
sustained increase in the number of Aboriginal students a priority''.
No, it should not. Recommendation 44 states that ``Queen's should make
the hiring of more diverse faculty, particularly the appointment of
Aboriginal faculty, a priority''. Again, no. Recommendation 72 states
that ``Queen's should continue in its efforts to address the
under-representation of women at the upper academic ranks and in
academic leadership positions''. Please don't. To do any of the above is
to claim that ability and character are not the determining factors in
admissions and hiring, or to claim that an individual's ability and
character are determined by his genes or by his upbringing rather than
by his own will, and that he should be judged according to the group he
belongs to. Every individual determines his own character and the extent
to which he wants to develop his ability---not his genes or his
upbringing. Instead of recommendations 35, 44 and 72, Queen's should
make the significant and sustained increase in smart and hard working
students, faculty and staff---regardless of their race, ethnicity or
gender---their priority.  A professor's ethnicity, race and gender are
irrelevant to students. We only care that our professors know what they
are teaching and that they are able to clearly communicate their
knowledge to us. Our classmates' ethnicity, race and gender are
irrelevant to us, we only care that they share our same interests and
our passion to learn. If Queen's wishes to combat racism and sexism, it
needs to be colourblind and genderblind.  Judge individuals as
individuals, not as members of groups with which they had no
choice in affiliating themselves.

Recommendation 40 states that

 Queen's should follow the SEEC's recommendation to define a clear set
 of ``core educational competencies'' for all undergraduate students
 around the theme of ``the interplay of race, ethnicity, religion,
 gender, ability, and class in a changing society and economy.''

Once again, maybe out of youthful naïveté, I don't think race,
ethnicity, religion, gender and ``class'' have any role (and thus no
interplay) in the real world. In today's world of constantly innovating
companies, nobody can afford to hire or promote on any criterion but
ability and hope to remain in business. Any who did would long have been
surpassed by others. Ability is the determining factor in today's world.

Recommendation 41 states that ``Queen's should include Indigenous
history, culture, and ways of knowing in all appropriate courses, and
use Indigenous methodologies where appropriate''. Why? Why should
Queen's incorporate ``Indigenous history, culture and ways of knowing''
and not, say, their Latvian counterparts? I'm not sure what is meant by
Indigenous ``ways of knowing'', but man, regardless of ethnicity, has
only one means of knowing the world around him: through reason, i.e. by
making logical inferences from the data provided to him by his senses.

I'm pleased to hear that recommendation 48, ``Queen's should investigate
gender-sensitive approaches in student assessment and performance
indicators,'' has been retracted.

Recommendation 70 states that ``Queen's should ensure that women faculty
and staff receive adequate mentoring at all stages of their career.'' I
agree. I also believe that ``Queen's should ensure that men faculty and
staff receive adequate mentoring at all stages of their career.'' To
avoid accusations of sexism, the committee should reword recommendation
70 to ``Queen's should ensure that all faculty and staff receive
adequate mentoring at all stages of their career.'' On similar grounds,
please reword recommendation 71 to ``Queen's should consider a
leadership development program for all interested employees''.

In closing, I urge the task force to address the above concerns.


Ryan Kavanagh BCOMPH 2014