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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Arts
December 11, 2016
Canadian Excellence



Faculty of Arts

Re-Focusing on Undergraduate Education

By Mike Carroll, Dean of Arts

Oct 14/11

    As many of you will know, Robert Campbell is one of my predecessors as Dean of Arts here at Laurier and is now President of Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. Over the past six months, in a number of different venues, Robert has joined forces with Patrick Deane, newly installed President at McMaster University, to deliver a stern message to academic administrators across Canada. Very simply, that message is this:  over the past 15 years or so, Canadian universities have focused on research and on graduate education and have ignored their undergraduate programs - with the result that undergraduate education has deteriorated. In Robert's words:

"We all feel and know that the character of the undergraduate experience has deteriorated in our lifetimes, especially so in the last decades. And we know in our heart of hearts that this experience can and should be much better."

It's a message that seems to resonate with a great many people, and not just inside academia.  In an editorial this month (Oct 10, 2011), for instance, the Globe and Mail quoted Robert here and went on to say:

"There's hard evidence to support [Robert Campbell's] anecdotal concern.  The ratio of full-time students to full-time faculty in Ontario increased to 25 from 17 in the years between 1988 and 2008. More collective agreements establish a standard teaching load of two courses per semester, down from three a generation ago. Despite this, faculty incomes have outpaced both inflation and government grants per student. We are getting less for more. Teaching is getting short shrift."

Possibly the specifics of the argument here can be faulted for leaving out some additional things that need to be considered (e.g., Has a fair share of university resources been devoted to the hiring of additional full time instructors? Do all faculty do their fair share of teaching at the undergraduate level?). Still, the core point, that that undergraduate education has been given short shrift over the last while, seems well-appreciated.

And what to do about this? Patrick Deane and Pierre Zundel, President of the University of Sudbury, writing in University Affairs, are clear:

"It's time to transform undergraduate education . . . What is required is a radical re-conceptualizing of the teaching and learning process where the goal becomes helping students learn rather than teaching."

The concerns being raised by Robert Campbell and Patrick Deane (and others) are concerns that we need to take seriously, especially here at Laurier.

Laurier's reputation has always rested, and still rests, upon its undergraduate experience.  This is not to detract from the graduate programs that we have developed over the last decade, or from the research productivity of our faculty (which is considerable) - but it is to say that we must always make the undergraduate experience central to our thinking about our future.

With this in mind, we've had a number of discussions within the Faculty of Arts over the past year about what we should and should not be doing at the undergraduate level.  For example, it's clear that in the face of enrollment pressures (in particular,  the doubling of our undergraduate enrollment over the last 11 years), most departments in Arts have adopted a "pyramid model."  This model involves large survey classes in the first year; somewhat smaller classes in the second year; and then even smaller, and much more specialized, classes in the third and fourth year.  In some ways, it's a reasonable response to enrollment growth. But it's also become apparent that many first year students get "lost" and never acquire the foundational skills they need to be successful as they move on in the system. Last year, then, we set out to improve the first year experience.

One practical outcome was the development of First Year Seminars. These are small seminars (capped at 20 students) that are open only to first year students. Each seminar is taught by a full time faculty member and focuses on a specialized topic about which this faculty member is passionate. It wasn't difficult to recruit faculty to teach these seminars, and when they were made available to students during Summer Registration, the seminars filled up quickly. Topics for this year include Beliefs, Burials and Bones: Introduction to Bioarcheology; Humans, Monsters and Machines: Culture and Identity, Medieval to Modern; Panic Now: Cultural Imaginings of the Disaster and a range of others. (For a full list of this year's First Year Seminars, go to For this first year, we only had enough money to offer ten First Year Seminars; next year it seems likely that we will be able to double that number.

Another initiative involves "Residential Learning Communities"  (RLCs). Basically, a RLC is a group of 20-25 students all living on the same residence floor; all taking the same class; and all involved in some way with out-of-class activities (e.g., talks, discussion sessions, field trips, etc.) involving faculty from the department sponsoring that class. There is a large literature suggesting that such communities are of immense value in promoting academic success.    All departments in the Faculty of Arts have been asked to consider sponsoring a RLC, and we hope to have a number of these communities up and running by September 2012.

    There is of course more that might be done.  I've talked with many alumni in the K-W and Toronto area over the past year and in every instance asked for suggestions on how our undergraduate experience might be improved. More than one person has suggested that many departments seem to have designed their undergraduate programs mainly with a view to producing graduate students  - even though we all know that most of the students majoring in, say, Sociology, do not go on to graduate school in Sociology.  I have brought this issue up with different departments and asked them to look carefully at their program requirements to see if their programs need to be re-designed in order to better reflect the goals of a liberal arts education.

    Something else that must be confronted is the fact that traditional pedagogies are to some extent losing their effectiveness and that we need to promote new ways of engaging students in the classroom.  As a recent report from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) suggests, university administrators need to

"Re-imagine student learning ad focus on altering the system in which teaching occurs, not just improving on the quality of teaching in the current system. Canadian universities should rethink what constitutes a course of study and where it takes place." 

This doesn't mean that we need to abandon the classic lecture format, but possibly it does mean that straight lecturing might need to be merged more often with classroom activities that engage students on a peer to peer basis and with online learning of one sort or another. 

    Spurred on in large part by concerns of the sort I've mentioned here, Deb MacLatchy, Laurier's Vice-President Academic, has organized a "Re-Imagine" conference that will take place here on Laurier's Waterloo campus this month.  The conference will bring together educators from all across Canada to discuss a range of possibilities for, indeed, re-imagining undergraduate education.

    At the moment, there is a real push to refocus our attention undergraduate education. I think we've already made progress and believe that more will come. Unfortunately, we cannot be complacent about the future. Here again, Patrick Deane has expressed things well:

"We have a long history of moments like this where the consciousness briefly awakens and there is a discussion about undergraduate education, and then somehow it recedes again until the next time."

Stay tuned.

Mike Carroll, Dean
Faculty of Arts

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