Volume 12, Number 5 October 22, 2004

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Marken concerned, but sees hope for teaching & learning

By Lawrence McMahen

Universities aspiring to be great places of both discovering and imparting knowledge face the challenge of balancing their support for vigorous research and nurturing excellent teaching.

In Ron Marken’s opinion, the University of Saskatchewan is still searching for the right balance.

He says it’s not there yet. It’s too tilted towards boosting research activity and isn’t doing enough to improve teaching. He believes the many years of underfunding the improvement of teaching at the U of S must stop. And he’s concerned that the office supporting teaching and learning may lose its recently gained momentum.

Ron Marken
Ron Marken

But Marken sees hopeful signs that a turnaround is underway.

He is uniquely placed to judge. The popular 38-year veteran English professor is a U of S master teacher and one of only three campus holders of the prestigious national 3M Teaching Fellowship, given to distinguished university teachers. And for the past four years he served as director of the Gwenna Moss Teaching & Learning Centre (TLC), the University’s formal effort to help faculty improve their instruction. He left that in July, opting to teach English until he retires in 18 months.

Marken sees a solid and demonstrable record of achievement by the TLC that’s having an impact on campus and beyond – even playing a major role in a new national project to boost university teaching skills.

And he sees that the University’s Integrated Plan for 2003-07 talks about improving support for teaching and learning.

But he cautions that the proof will be in concrete actions and adequate funding.

“Since its inception (in 2000), the Teaching & Learning Centre has been underfunded,” Marken says. While these centres at most other Canadian universities receive, on average, about $180,000 per year in operating funding over and above their staff salaries, the TLC has received just under $150,000 per year in total, most of which goes for salaries.

Yet despite the low funding, Marken says, the Centre’s small but dedicated staff developed a varied program that makes him proud. “We were running full-steam ahead, on not very much coal.” Their programs included:

  • Peer consultation for faculty and graduate students on instructional improvement.
  • An open-door program where 15 professors welcome others to attend and observe their class lectures.
  • An annual Fall University Teaching & Learning Institute.
  • Regular workshops, guest speakers and conferences.
  • The Sylvia Wallace teaching award for sessional lecturers.
  • A certificate program for graduate students on the scholarship of teaching and learning.
  • A certificate course for graduate students, Introduction to University Teaching (GSR-989). It has taught some 135 at the U of S – and Marken says it’s been shown to help young academics get tenure-track positions.

The TLC “has raised the profile of teaching on campus”.

Beyond this, Marken and the TLC have been a major part of the development over the past two years of a national initiative to develop a website and resource materials to help faculty from coast-to-coast improve their instructional skills.

As part of the new national Institute for the Advancement of Teaching in Higher Education, a new faculty development website, “facdev” (www.facultydevelopment.ca) has been launched.

In what will be one of its key features, Tereigh Ewert-Bauer and Kim West of TLC are developing a version of the GSR-989 course as a 33-module online course that will be piloted on facdev in January.

But for all its success, Marken says getting support for the TLC initiative on campus has been tough. Yet it’s needed now more than ever.

“There seems to me to be an imbalance between the two primary aspects of the University – research and teaching undergraduates.

“The U of S, for reasons I understand but don’t agree with, is currently energized by a development and preoccupation with research intensiveness.”

Meanwhile, “classes are getting bigger, the number of faculty is at least static or is shrinking, and the dependence on sessional lecturers hasn’t gone down. I’ve had students reach the end of second-year and have yet to be taught by a tenured faculty member.”

But Marken applauds the section in the University’s Integrated Plan that calls for more support for teaching and learning.

He understands its call to bring a number of units together in a bigger effort to improve instruction – including the TLC, parts of Extension Division, the new Centre for Distributed Learning, the Technology-Enhanced Learning program, and parts of the Division of Media & Technology. He registers some disquiet, however, that technological pedagogy could outweigh face-to-face teaching in such a blending.

Marken is also anxious that these ideas are being floated before development of a foundational document on teaching and learning, which is planned for the near future. And he laments that the Gwenna Moss Teaching & Learning Centre is now operating “in a very uncertain environment”.

But, as diplomats say, Marken appears cautiously optimistic.

“I think we’re moving towards rectifying the imbalance (between research and instruction), and I look forward to the foundational document on the teaching and learning centre.

“I’m waiting to see movement on the Integrated Plan’s support for teaching and learning.”

But he knows it will take supporters from across campus.

“We have to keep standing up at (University) Council meetings and saying, ‘What about the teaching?’”

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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