What the HLTH 102 controversy says about university teaching

The tempest that is HLTH102 taught at Queen’s University raises many questions about university teaching but also larger questions about structural problems that are not being addressed in media that I have read.  These structural issues suggest that the problem is not isolated to this one professor but perhaps a product of the way we do university teaching.

“Syringe” by ad-vantage via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons licence.

HLTH is a course offered in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies which has degree programs in Kinesiology, Health Studies and Phys Ed.   The first notable thing about this course is that it cannot be counted as a required course by students who are enrolled in  BSc (Hons) Kinesiology or a BA (Hons) of Physical and Health Education but can be counted as part of the option of courses necessary for a BA (Hons) in Health.

Why is a large course offered by a School not even part of the suite of required courses for two of its degree programs?  The answer is that under the way money is allocated to departments or Schools at Queen’s, payment is given based on student enrolment (both ‘bums in seats’ and those majoring in that subject or subjects).  The system creates an incentive to have an optional, large course that serves students who are not in the program because they don’t make demands outside of the course they are taking. Think of it as a way of cross subsidizing the program by those outside of the program.   There’s no incentive to change the course because it serves the long term structural interests of the School by providing a regular and steady income stream of students paying part of their tuition for that course.

The fact that this course was taught by a continuing term adjunct and  not a tenured faculty member is also telling.  If the point of the course is to be a profit centre, it makes sense to have it taught by less expensive term adjuncts.  As universities rely more on contract employees who are underpaid, we can expect to see more of this and often times (but not always), it’s at a cost to our students.  Having an adjunct teach the course also allows the School to claim plausible deniability about the course’s material.

Adding to this perfect storm are inaccuracies in reporting.  A Whig Standard article said that this sessional instructor was teaching a whopping nine courses, when in fact she teaches five theory courses and two activity courses.   (In my department a full time load is four though sessional instructor might teach up to six).  Another article in the Whig suggested that the issue was raised three years ago and nothing was done when in fact steps apparently were taken to address course content concerns.  These inaccuracies further muddy the real story and provide further reasons why the provost’s report is warranted.

Much has been made about academic freedom but this is, of course, a double edged sword. University professors do not have the luxury to teach whatever they want without having the responsibility of providing evidence for the material. Academic freedom must be matched by the responsibility to teach knowledge that is grounded in a peer reviewed literature.   When we publish we must meet quality control through peer review, but when we teach we are largely left to our own devices.

Universities have a culture of  avoiding review of  teaching content by colleagues.  This is another structural flaw in this saga. It highlights the problem of course content generally being invisible to everyone but students.  While teaching evaluation is part of the faculty member’s annual report, the data are in the aggregate and thus the specific comments or themes of comments are hidden from department heads or Deans who might otherwise have an interest.   The USAT forms that Queen’s uses to assess teaching are full of potential problems, but it’s the only method of student feedback we have.  Why not make them public as University of Toronto does with its anti-calendar?   I think that this would make the teaching enterprise as transparent as our research — which is subject to peer review and is public.

The HLTH 102 controversy is bigger than the instructor who taught the course.  It has everything to do with the increasing use of adjuncts, the push for larger classes that can pay for a unit’s core program and the inherent secrecy around student evaluation.  All that needs to be changed.


edited February 6, 2015 to correct errors (errors in Whig stories were clarified).

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