Academic Freedom in Ontario’s Colleges (Part Two)

One of the curious details of this round of negotiations is the fact that it’s being carried on concurrently with the contract negotiations for Ontario’s high school teachers.  And in those negotiations, I think we can sum up the Ontario government’s current negotiating position as “Accept our offer, or we’ll criminalize your rejection of it”.

Certainly one detail that’s buoying the government’s position in its negotiations with OSSTF (and, presumably, college faculty) is the fact that the Catholic secondary school teachers’ union (OECTA) and the French secondary school teachers (AEFO) recently agreed to two-year deals that saw wages on the salary grid frozen, and a 1.5% salary cut in the form of three unpaid days off.

Worth noting, though (and almost completely unreported by the media, which focuses almost entirely on easily-digestible financial issues), is the fact that those two unions did manage to make some tangible non-monetary gains in the areas of Academic Freedom and Job Security — two areas that were ranked as very high priorities at the College Unions’ Contract demand-setting meeting back in April.

With job security, if I understand correctly, OECTA’s new contract specifies that new full-time hires must come from the pool of experienced contract teachers.  As for Academic Freedom, the new contract gives the teachers control over testing in their classrooms — a legal backgrounder describes the contract as granting “autonomy for teachers in applying diagnostic assessment“.

Are these significant gains?  Well, let’s note that the Catholic school boards seem to think so — two of the boards have refused to consent to the deals struck by the province, and are trying to overturn those deals, on the (seemingly valid, in my opinion) grounds that the school boards — not the province — are the teachers’ employers.  More specifically, they say that the province’s deal “strips the boards of important hiring and managerial rights”.

So, to recap, the province has currently offered the high school teachers a contract that includes salary grid freezes, offset with gains in academic freedom (in the from of testing), and job security (in the form of binding full-time hiring provisions).

And, to recap, the province has offered the College professors a contract that includes salary grid freezes, with no  gains in academic freedom (since faculty would continue to have no power over testing) and or in job security (since the security language proposed by the College management’s bargaining team would not concern the staffing of new full-time positions, and would also be easily circumvented by managers).

And so, amazingly enough, if the province got its way with its proposed contracts for both secondary school teachers and college faculty, we would end up with a situation where Elementary and High school teachers would actually have more academic freedom than College faculty, as specified in their Collective Agreements.

Which returns me to a theme that I had discussed before — how should we understand Academic Freedom in Ontario’s Colleges — and why faculty and students both need it.  I spoke on this issue at an OPSEU-sponsored symposium in June, and I’m posting Part Two of  my remarks below.  You can find Part One of my remarks (posted earlier) here, and I’ll also encourage you to check out Marcus Harvey’s keynote speech on Youtube.  I also note an 2009 FAQ backgrounder on Academic Freedom from OPSEU here: The proposed contract language is out of date (from the last round of bargaining), but the first two pages offer some useful context and explanations.

My thoughts below.  As ever, feel free to respond at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com

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Part Two: The Fallacies that Underpin Our Current Lack of Academic Freedom

Currently, without academic freedom for college faculty, the model of educational decision-making power at Ontario colleges rests upon a false dichotomy: The notion that the content of education is divorced from its modes of delivery. 

To clarify, one of the preconditions of colleges’ grant degrees was the stipulation that 50% of the students’ classes be taught by faculty with terminal degrees in the field.  Clearly, PEQAB believed that it was essential (or at least 50% essential) to have trained, experienced experts deliver the curriculum to the students. At the same time, however, PEQAB did not feel that it was essential to have such experts shape the curriculum of those classes, or the class’ learning outcomes, textbooks, mode of course delivery, length of classes, or modes of evaluation.

The content of education was understood – or misunderstood – as independent of and unaffected by its form. And as a consequence, the vast majority of college professors currently have no official power or shared power to shape any of those decisions, and we can only appeal those decisions according to workload standards, not academic ones. 

The logic here resembles that of the shop floor, by which professors are understood as the manual labourers conducting a narrowly-circumscribed set of tasks, with no say in how the machinery is designed, nor the purposes it serves.

The false distinction between the form and content of a class upholds a second contradiction that shapes management-faculty relations: the college management’s belief that the same professors who allegedly possess the expertise and qualification to determine how material is taught are also simultaneously understood to lack sufficient ability or judgement to have the power to decide what material is taught.

One particular example of this false distinction between a class’ structure and its content concerns the determination of how students are evaluated in their classes. Currently, managers hold the exclusive power to determine, for example, whether students are evaluated using essays or using multiple-choice tests. While professors are understood to have the necessary expertise to decide how to deliver content in the classroom, the current model understands them as unfit to decide how best to appropriately evaluate the quality of the students’ learning and performance, and their role in the decision-making process is therefore merely a consultative one.

I chose this particular example because it led to a specific moment in the last round of bargaining that was, for me, particularly enlightening about the college management’s view of faculty. One of the union’s proposals was to have modes of evaluation determined collectively by the faculty teaching each course, with managers invited to decide if 75% of the faculty weren’t able to agree upon how the students in the course should be evaluated.

On CBC’s MetroMorning I heard a representative of the college management claim that that particular proposal would prove wildly expensive to the colleges. His reasoning would be that all faculty in all courses, in an effort to work less, would choose to give written assignments to their students (and thereby teach fewer students), regardless of whether, say, essays were appropriate to the subject matter, or an effective way to evaluate students’ understanding of it.

I’m not sure which confused me more – the idea that the people who are described in the colleges’ marketing material as being uniquely qualified to responsibly teach college courses are somehow unable to be trusted to select the best method of evaluating those students, or the misguided notion that making students write essays instead of multiple-choice tests somehow leads to less work for the professor.

But again, denying professors the academic freedom to effectively impact decisions about how to evaluate students rests upon a hard and fast distinction between what is taught and how it is evaluated – a distinction that is false (and probably nowhere less so than in the field of writing) and one that in my opinion finds no support in any educational research that has been performed since the 1970s.

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Follow-up: Apparently my comments at the beginning of the post (on the secondary and elementary school negotiations) covered ground that was already clearly discussed last week on the Union’s negotiations website, www.collegefaculty.org.  That posting, moreover, has the additional benefit of discussing salary negotiations among University faculty and secondary school teachers.  I recommend that you check it out.

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