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. Sincerely, Ryan Kavanagh BCOMPH 2014