What Queen’s will have lost

Financial set-backs will lead to a loss in quality education at our institution

As I prepare for my fall courses, including a “seminar” on Byron for about 30 students, I recall that my department had seminars with ten or 12 students when I began teaching in the 1980s.

Most students I greet this week won’t have been born then, so I plot my course with an opening reflection on the concept of seminars. Maybe that way we will all understand that a seminar for 30 students is pretend. Maybe then, I hope, we can all pretend a little better. For some reason, students in recent years have been too apt to walk into my “seminars” and expect lecture in the place of student discussion.

These thoughts set me thinking about the erosion of teaching conditions and about differences in institutional memory—of which professors have too little and students almost none. With institutional sojourns of just three to five years, what should they remember? Close to half of those walking around campus today can’t remember how it looked before it became a construction site.

I therefore wonder about students arriving the year after next: What will they know about what they have lost through the five per cent budget cut of 2007-08 and the three-year, 15 per cent cut announced in November 2008?

The gradualism with which these cuts are being administered—a few per cent each year; loss of 54 full-time faculty positions over three years by attrition—will only help muffle the blow. Yet after two years of cuts, the effects are already profound.

In my own department, the loss appears in several ways: in fewer courses being offered, higher student-teacher ratios, and compromises to curricular integrity. In the seven academic years from 2000 to 2007 the English Department offered, on average, 51 full-year course-sections every year. For 2009-10 it’s only offering 34.5—a loss of almost a third. For reasons too complex to analyze here, the percentage of courses lost over two years far exceeds the roughly 10 per cent by which the departmental budget has been reduced in the same period. Cutting such a budget by five per cent more will mean a more than five per cent further reduction in course offerings. The most obvious effects of teaching constant or rising numbers of students in fewer sections are higher teaching ratios. From 2000 to 2007, the average ratio for English courses was

47 to one. Assuming constant student numbers—a safe bet given that Queen’s admissions have increased—the ratio for this year will be roughly 70 to one. This means not only more crowded classrooms and fewer chances for each individual to raise a question, but also less time for each student in essay-marking and student advising.

This reduction (exacerbated by correlative pressures on TA budgets) will ultimately mean less writing by students. Given the centrality of essay-writing not just to evaluation but to the very discipline of literary study, that is an essential loss. Less immediately visible but equally troubling is the impact of reduced course offerings on curricula. For decades our department prided itself on a carefully constructed curriculum that introduced concentrators to a range of literary genres, periods and nations, as well as to various critical and theoretical approaches. Maintaining such a curriculum requires a critical mass of offerings, however, and reducing course offerings by almost a third can be fatal. Requiring courses you can’t offer every year is awkward at best.

Last spring we voted to decommission our longstanding first-year survey course (ENGL 110) and replace it with the new ENGL 100, which will have no historical survey and scarcely any other requirements. One rationale for doing so was that any instructor must be allowed to teach the introductory course as he or she wishes. That sounds like respect for individual instructors’ wills and judgments, but it also answers to budget cuts. A significant loss of class sections can so cramp a department’s ability to produce its own curriculum that it has to recoup flexibility wherever it can.

Whether this particular deregulation respects our students’ needs, wills and judgments is another question. In our own preparatory survey of English students conducted in April 2008, 89 per cent considered the department’s historical period courses “important” or “extremely important,” and 87 per cent judged the historical survey to be “important” or “extremely important” as part of our first-year course. In this light, it would seem rational to keep the historical requirements. But curricular reason bows before budget cuts and with further cuts, curricula will bow backwards.

English is not the only unit to suffer, of course, nor is it suffering worst. Whatever our Forrest Gumps say, rolling budget cuts are not always opportunities for doing more with less. In March 2009, when the Faculty of Arts and Science suspended the medial and minor in Italian and the major and medial in both Spanish and German, it meant real layoffs of highly qualified and popular instructors. Although Italian concentrators rose from six in 2004 to 26 in 2009, their budget has been cut another 23 per cent since last year. This year, first-year Italian-language classes will drop from 11 sections to three, and ITLN 101, for concentrators, will not be taught—preventing new students from initiating an Italian concentration. Film and Media Studies has had to eliminate its undergraduate tutorial system, which mutually benefited both upper-year tutors and first-year tutees for a quarter century. In some Kinesiology courses, TA hours are down by almost 30 per cent and writing assignments are being reduced. Even as the school of music is being featured in the Gazette and Alumni Review to encourage donors, its budget is being cut. In recent years it has lost three courses in conducting and one in music education methods—even though most music graduates go into teaching. In biology, the intensive molecular lab course (BIOL 404) is no longer being offered, so that molecular-oriented students now graduate with virtually no practical experience.

These few examples barely begin to suggest the consequentiality of the recent budget cuts, much less the costs of yet another round. It would help mightily to hear students’ perspectives. Together, maybe we can put in writing for the class of ’15 what it will have lost—write to the Journal. Better yet, maybe we can try to stop the bleeding—write your principal, your vice-principal (academic), your dean, your department head, and your parents.

Mark Jones is an English professor and has taught at Queen’s since 1986. He
specializes in British Romantic literature and served as Chair of Undergraduate Studies in English from 2004 to 2007.

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