Volume 12, Number 14 March 18, 2005

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Marken says university teaching headed in some wrong directions

By Michelle Boulton

The University’s priorities are in the wrong place, veteran English Prof. Ron Marken said in a March 2 speech on campus.

Prof. Ron Marken

Prof. Ron Marken

Marken, a popular and award-winning professor who is retiring from the U of S next year, shared his strong views about the University’s direction as he gave the third annual U of S Process Philosophy Research Unit lecture.

He used the topic “Teaching, Learning, Retiring” to criticize the University’s administration, saying it puts too much emphasis on research at the expense of teaching, and he encouraged faculty to keep a human focus on teaching in the emerging ‘e-learning’ environment. His message was enthusiastically received by the 40 people in attendance.

“I am retiring just in time.” Marken said. “I am becoming increasingly incompatible with recent directions of Canadian university education, especially as they relate to teaching, the humanities, and the fine and performing arts.”

He read from a personal letter to U of S President Peter MacKinnon in which he criticized the administration and the Integrated Plan for having “no regard, understanding, or respect for what liberal arts professors – either as teachers or researchers – do or why they do it.”

Marken challenged the president, saying, “Every public insistence that you do care for the liberal arts emerges as hollow rhetoric ... Whenever you speak spontaneously, you refer to little else but research, entrepreneurship, the synchrotron, and Maclean’s magazine.”

Lamenting that his own published research “is not held in much regard,” he questioned whether “that kind of scholarship is implicitly irrelevant to the lives of Saskatchewan citizens, to the entrepreneurial thrust, or to people for whom education is a utilitarian enterprise.”

Marken took aim at the hidden meaning of some familiar metaphors used these days. He noted the U of S Integrated Plan depicts students as “our most important resource, ... locating these youngsters in a category similar to that of softwood lumber, cod, and natural gas – commodities that are good for the economy. Things that can be used up, spent, to improve the quality of our lives”.

Teachers, he says, have their own metaphors. One of the most common is the teaching load – “a burden, an encumbrance, an odious imposition from which we regularly seek release. We use that metaphor habitually, of course, but we cannot escape its implications just because we haven’t thought about it. Because it’s unexamined, it’s more insidious.”

Preferring to think of teaching as an opportunity, Marken’s approach has earned him many honours, including the U of S Master Teacher Award in 1985, a national 3M Teaching Fellowship in 1987, and the Garth Ferguson Award for Excellence in Televised Teaching in 2004. In addition, he served as the first Director of the Gwenna Moss Teaching and Learning Centre from 2000-04.

Taking from W.B. Yeats that education is “the lighting of a fire”, Marken said teachers should be incendiary light sources.

And he noted Socrates’ method is spoken of to this day. Quoting Julius Boraas, he said Socrates “had no diploma, no degree. For him there was no schoolroom and no equipment, not even a desk. He gave no examinations and did not trouble himself with grades or promotions or grants. He just helped young people to think.”

Marken does not see much of Socrates in the University’s future. Instead, he fears “technology is likely to eclipse or even swallow the needs and energies of human teachers.” He warned, “The Technology Enhanced Learning initiative, if the provincial government is to be believed, assumes that millions of dollars spent on technology will purchase an improved education for our young people.”

While Marken sees nothing inherently wrong with technological devices, he says, “technology has a way of creeping up on our lives so that we become accomplices, serving technology more than it serves us. Without checks and balances, technology can also divide and separate us from our students and from one another.”

He quoted David Marshall, Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at USC-Berkeley: “At the beginning of the 21st century, what has been called the information age threatens to overwhelm us to the point that it eclipses knowledge ... It is more important than ever that students have skills of critical analysis and interpretation, as well as the historical perspective to make sense of change. As we come to terms with internationalism and globalization both at home and in the world at large, the stakes of learning about the traditions and beliefs of others ... are high. Our ability to understand both difference and identity will be crucial.”

At this juncture, Marken reminded the audience that “the liberal arts satisfy something distinctly human inside us, a craving to know that seems to be natural and innate; they are personally empowering – they give insight without experience ... We must see the liberal arts for what they are – a central way, however flawed, of making society smarter, more intelligent, more careful and thoughtful in areas that matter.”

Fearing that it is already too late to change the course of university teaching, Marken told the audience, “I was naive. I said too little and too late.”

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

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